You and your fishing buddy have been anchored over the Kidd wreck for hours, endlessly pulling in 19, 1/2-inch red grouper and throwing them back. Your arms are tired and it is getting close to the time you need to leave for home. Suddenly, your friend’s line starts screaming. He has something really big on the line. Maybe it’s that big tiger shark that was eating half of your catch earlier, but, no, it is the biggest cobia you have ever seen. The fight is on and even with tired arms and back, your friend deftly reels in a 54” monster. High fives between the two of you and you can’t wait to bring the fish back and take some pictures. They will look so good in the Coastal Breeze.
You stow the gear and start entering the waypoints on your GPS to get you home. With a huge smile on your face you slam the throttle forward and head for home. A few minutes later you turn to your buddy to congratulate him one more time…but he is nowhere to be found. Your boat is a center console with nowhere to hide. Where is he? You come off plane and realize he has fallen in the water, someplace.
Now what? He was tired and wasn’t wearing a lifejacket, and there’s that tiger shark. What do you do?
We will come back to what you do in a moment. Are you ready to handle a man overboard situation on your boat? Do you know what to do when someone leaves the boat unintentionally? Statistics from BoatUS show that man overboard fatalities account for almost a quarter of all boating deaths.
First things, first. In the case where someone on the boat sees someone go overboard he should yell, “MAN OVERBOARD,” as loud as he can. He should also say which side of the boat he went over. He should point at the person and keep pointing until the person is retrieved. Never lose sight of the person in the water. If possible, begin to throw floatable items overboard to leave a trail back to the person. The skipper should activate his Man Overboard button on the GPS and begin a turn in the direction where the person went overboard. That will move the props away from the victim. If you don’t see the person in the water the skipper should call a PAN-PAN (pronounced pahn-pahn) emergency over the VHF radio on Channel 16. State the nature of the emergency (Man Overboard), give your location, boat description, the description of the victim and
their estimated position. You can escalate the PAN-PAN to Mayday, should you fail to find the person in the water quickly. You can always cancel the emergency when you get the person back onboard, but getting help quickly may save that person.
The skipper should maneuver the boat and attempt to come close to the person in the water. Always slow down. Don’t try to do this at high speed. You could run over the person or endanger him with the props. Put the engine in neutral and coast close to the person. When you are within heaving distance, turn off your engines. Throw the victim a life ring or float cushion–even a spare lifejacket will work. Make sure the ring or cushion is secured to a line so you can pull the person toward the boat. Don’t worry if you over throw the item, the victim can grab the line and pull the floating item towards him. Pull him to your boarding ladder or swim platform. Getting the person back onboard is often difficult. Plan how you would do this on your boat.
If the person in the water appears to need medical assistance you will need to approach more closely and grab him by hand or with a boat hook. Overboard drowning happens quickly if the person is not a strong swimmer and not wearing a lifejacket. A lifejacket will keep you floating even if injured. Wear it!
In our scenario above, the person in the water will have been struggling and watching the boat disappear. He too will be worrying about that big tiger shark. The skipper will need to turn his boat around and retrace his path, trying to see his buddy. Remain calm. The skipper knows the person is between his current location and where they were fishing. Once the person is found and brought back onboard you can head for home.
For more information about safe boating courses, contact Joe Riccio at 239- 384-7416 or email email@example.com. To schedule a free Vessel Safety Check contact John Moyer at 239-248-7078 or firstname.lastname@example.org or call the Coast Guard Auxiliary Station – Flotilla 95 at 239-394-5911. Interested in joining Flotilla 95, USCG Auxiliary? Call Bob Shmihluk at 215-694-3305.
Keith Wohltman retired to Marco Island from New Jersey, where he spent decades on the water. He joined the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary to help make boating safer around Marco and the 10,000 Islands. He has served as the Flotilla Commander and a Coxswain and is currently the Public Affairs Staff Officer for Marco Island’s Flotilla 95.