Don't Forget Wednesday Racing Starts at 6 PM Now
Looking for a great Sailing Gift - Give the Gift of Sailing


Crew Overboard Recovery

This article relies heavily on research and testing done by the August 9-12, 2005 Crew Overboard Retrieval Symposium on San Francisco Bay - but adapted to the boats we sail on Lake Lansing. During the Symposium, 120 volunteers took part in some 400 day-and-night tests of rescue skills and equipment. Forty items of safety gear and many maneuvers were tested in conditions ranging from 36 knots and a three-foot choppy sea, down to a moderate wind and smooth water. Almost 200 hours of trials were held on 15 boats ranging from 21 to 53 feet in length – seven keel cruisers, a keel racer, a catamaran, three trimarans, and three powerboats. Information published in the "Sail" December 2005 issue and in the "Sailing" December 2005 issue is utilized extensively. Anyone with suggestions for additions or modifications should email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Research shows that there are several different methods of crew recovery - but that learning and practicing one until it can be done well is the most important factor in successful rescues. Each time you go sailing, make it a point to practice Crew Overboard Recovery at least once. Take advantage of opportunities to pick up caps and other debris in the water using COB Recovery. In this way your crew will build their COB Recovery skills and help keep our lake clean. If you are sailing with individuals for the first time, practicing will help assure they know what to do in an emergency and give them confidence in their ability to give proper assistance.

If someone falls overboard, there are 5 critical things to do.

  1. Announce "Crew Overboard" and get the recovery plan started.
  2. Keep track of where the person is.
  3. Get Floatation to the person in the water.
  4. Return to the person.
  5. Get the person back aboard.

On Lake Lansing, we don't have some of the challenges that sailers would face in open water, but that does not change the basics of recovering a crew member that has gone overboard.

"Crew Overboard"

As soon as anyone realizes a crew member is in the water, it is critical to let everyone on board know. The skipper (or other person with proper expertise) should take command, act decisively and give clear directions.

Keep the COB in Sight

At least one person must immediately assume responsibility for watching the crew member in the water, pointing at the crew member. If there is a GPS unit on board, press the "COB" button (may be marked "MOB") as soon as possible. If necessary, the GPS unit can help the boat return to the spot near where the crew member went overboard.

Throw Floatation

Throw floatation to the Crew Member. Throw anything and everything available that floats. Having more floatation in the water is always better than not enough.


Sailing upwind or on a reach:
turm to a broad reach, sail about four boat
lengths and return on a close reach

Sailing Downwind:
(If the spinnaker is flying, douse it first) sail a reach until you can tack and return to the COB
on a close reach

If sailing upwind or on a reach, immediately turn to a broad reach.Go about three or four boat lengths, tack and head back to the COB on a tight reach. (Note: with practice, the distance sailed on a broad reach can be as little as two boat lengths.)

If sailing downwind, Initiate a return to the COB right away by sailing away from the COB on a reach. Note: If a spinnaker is flying, it must be doused before turning to a reach. Initiate a takedown as soon as possible (this may mean bringing the spinnaker down on a side of the boat that isn't usually utilized for this purpose). By using a leeward takedown, the spinnaker pole can be left in place - one less thing to worry about. As this process is underway, turn the boat to a reach. When the boat is in a position to tack and get back to the COB on a tight reach, immediately do so.

Luff the sails as necessary to keep the boat moving slowly and come along the COB with the COB to leeward of the boat. Once the COB has hold of a line or crew members have ahold of the COB, bring the boat to a stop by luffing the sails.

Recover the COB

Bring the crew member back on board. On smaller boats that easily tip, it is often easiest to bring the person back on board over the stern. Sometimes a line can be deployed in a loop arrangement that the COB can step on to make it easier to climb back aboard. On a Lightning for example, tie one end of a line to a hiking strap and loop the line over the side, bringing the other end of the line around a second hiking strap and then through one of the side control cleats - using the cleat to adjust the length of the loop.

Special Problems

Unconscious or Disabled COB

Getting an unconscious or disabled crew member back on board is extremely difficult. Instead, we suggest securing the COB alongside, keeping the head above water, and making for shore as quickly as possible. Here are some general guidelines:

  1. Signal for medical emergency assistance as soon as possible when the COB is unconscious, hypothermia conditions exist or any time the health of the individual is endangered. Use a cell phone, or ask a nearby boat to go to the nearest shore and call. Estimate where you will be taking the COB based on the nearest shore that can be easily reached given existing wind and wave conditions as well as assistance that can be obtained from other nearby boats - and ask that emergency asssitance be directed to that point.
  2. If the COB does not have a PFD on, get one on as soon as possible.
  3. Fashion a means of securing the COB alongside the boat. Use a line tied with a bowline to make a sling. Slip around the back just under the armpits of the COB. Secure the line to the boat so that the COB is held alongside with head out of the water. If necessary have a crew member hold the individual's head.
  4. Keep the individual horizontal if possible and use standard CPR techniques.
  5. Make for the point on shore where emergency asssitance is being directed.

Keep the Boat Moving Approaching the COB

Many are taught that the boat should be stopped when making contact with the COB. Recent testing shows that failure rates were significantly higher when the boats were stopped compared to when they were going slowly (two to three knots). After each failure, the boat had to sail away and make a new approach, which increased the potential danger to the COB. By keeping the boat moving slowly, the skipper has more control because the boat can't be easily turned unless it is moving. As soon as the COB grabs a line, or crew members grab ahold of the COB, let the sails luff completely and bring the boat to a stop.

Use a Leeward Pickup

Approach the COB so that the boat is to windward of the individual in the water. Research shows that there is a significantly higher rate of failure returning to the COB using windward pickups. The boat drifts to leeward faster than the COB will drift to leeward making it harder to reach the COB. In addition, a boat to windward of the COB creates a zone of protection on the leeward side.


Multihull sailboats are not as maneuverable as single hull boats. This makes it even more important for the crew to practice. Knowing the limits and capabilities of the boat is critical.

Spinnaker Douse

Leaving the pole up and doing a leeward douse will not cause a problem either with tacking or with trimming the jib (if it is up) on the new tack - although it may not be possible to trim the jib properly, this will not prove to be a problem in effecting the recovery.