Man Over Board (MOB): a step-by-step guide

What is the rescue procedure if someone falls overboard? What do you need to know and what should you do?

Man Over Board (MOB) is something no sailor wants to experience. But when it happens, you need to know how to react quickly and correctly, because lives are at stake. Both the skipper and crew are under enormous stress the moment someone falls into the sea, so it is crucial to know the different steps to take and understand your role during a rescue operation.

Step-by-step MOB procedure 

First, we will be discussing the basic elements of rescue, signals and distress calls according to maritime customs, then the division of roles on board during the rescue and the most effective boat manoeuvres. Plus, we’ll be giving advice on the most challenging aspect — actually hauling the person back on board.

Rescue equipment on board. Do you know where to find it?

The following equipment is crucial for rescuing a person overboard and it is absolutely essential that everyone on the crew knows where it is and how to use it.

LIFEBUOY – FLOTATION DEVICE

  • Where is it located? It’s usually attached to the railings at the stern of the boat. 
  • When do I use it? Throw it into the water to assist the casualty stay afloat.  

MOB BUTTON – RECORDS THE EXACT POSITION OF THE BOAT

  • Where is it located? Usually on the dashboard at the captain's table or as more modern plotters already have one, it could also be in the cockpit. When taking over a boat, always ask where the MOB button is located on that particular boat.
  • When do I use it? Press this button immediately after someone falls overboard. The navigation system will remember the coordinates of the place where they fell in, making it easier for you to return there. 

EMERGENCY BLANKET – TO PREVENT HYPOTHERMIA

  • Where is it located? It should be part of the boat's first aid kit. The first aid kit is most often found in one of the cabinets in the salon. 
  • When do I use it? When you want to warm someone up. It could be a person who’s been pulled out of the water or someone who's feeling cold as they are underdressed. 

LIFERAFT – FOR EMERGENCIES

  • Where is it located? The location of the liferaft varies. It can be directly on the deck under the boom or hidden in the storage lockers. Catamarans may have it stowed in the stern compartment where there is also a rubber dinghy. Ask the charter company where the liferaft is on your boat.
  • When do I use it? When sailing offshore in really big waves that make a rescue by other means impossible or when the going gets really tough - the boat is sinking or the person in the water can't be fished out for a long time and there is a risk of death. A liferaft is a very expensive item, so under no circumstances use it for fun. 

RADIO TRANSMITTER

  • Where is it located? Usually at the captain's table in the salon. Some boats also have a hand-held battery-operated radio that you can take with you into the cockpit. 
  • When do I use it? Use the radio when you want to communicate with the harbour, other maritime authorities, or other ships. It is forbidden to use it to broadcast for fun as this will block channels for serious use. As a reminder, the channels reserved for ship-to-ship communications are, for example, 72, 74. Channels for communication with ports vary by country. For example, in Croatia it is channel 17 and in England it is often channel 80 and 12. Always check the pilot for that particular sailing area. For emergency calls, it is channel 16.

Signals and calls: when to use the MAYDAY distress call

Although you may not have time to fly the flag during the MOB procedure, if you have enough crew members, the flag can be flown to let others know you are dealing with a man overboard. The signal flag O “Oscar” means “man overboard” and consists of two triangles; red on top and yellow on the bottom.


International signal flag for the MOB situation. It stands for the letter O or Oscar.

International signal flag for the MOB situation – code flag O or “Oscar”

If the situation is serious and you are unable to locate or pull the person out of the water, proceed to using the MAYDAY distress signal and request immediate assistance. 

 

The image below shows the DISTRESS button. Use this button when you cannot locate the person overboard and need help from others at sea. Pressing this button automatically sends a message to the Coast Guard with your boat's location and signals everyone that you are in a life-threatening situation. However, its misuse is a criminal offence, so only use it in serious situations.

The Distress button is used when you can't find a man overboard and need help from other entities at sea.


Let's go over the format in which MAYDAY broadcasts should be. This format is known worldwide and will ensure that everyone understands your broadcast, knows what you need and can take action immediately. 

 

  1. Mayday, Mayday, Mayday
  2. This is… (name of the boat said 3 times in a row) 
  3. Mayday… (name of the boat)
  4. My position is…
  5. My vessel is… (what's happening to the ship, for example, it's sinking, you have a person overboard, it's on fire, etc.) 
  6. I require… (what you require from others, for example, help in finding the MOB, a lifeboat to be sent out, etc.) 
  7. I have… (additional information, for example, how many people are on board) 
  8. Over.

YACHTING.COM TIP: You can buy a Mayday card online, which provides a brief guide to making a distress call. Skippers should place this card near the captain's table and refer to it in case of an emergency.

It is a good idea to allocate MOB roles before departure

The MOB rescue procedure is easier to do if there are more crew members on board. If there are only two people and one of them falls in, then all roles would have to be filled by the remaining person. But in general, we can define 5 roles that should be allocated before setting sail: 

SHOUTER

It seems like an obvious thing to do, but it is imperative that whoever observes a person falling overboard lets everyone know loudly that someone has fallen in. Shouting "man overboard" is therefore essential and should be repeated until all crew members know what has happened.

SPOTTER

One person should be assigned the task of pointing at the person in the water and keeping eyes on them throughout. This is especially important in waves or at night when you only have to look away for a moment for you to lose sight of them. Under no circumstances and for no reason should the spotter take their eyes off the person. All they should do is stand, point and look over the side of the boat at the person.

MOB BUTTON OPERATOR

There should be a crew member whose job it is to press the MOB button as quickly as possible. This ensures that the navigation system will remember the exact position of the boat when the incident occurred so the captain can then return to the spot or circle around it. The MOB button on sailboats is located either in the cockpit or down by the captain's table. Before setting sail, the captain should brief the crew members on exactly where this button is located on that specific boat. 

LIFEBUOY THROWER

Before the boat gets too far away from the person in the water or when hauling them up, one of the crew should rush to the lifebuoy and throw it to the person overboard. The lifebuoy is usually hung on the stern rail. After the lifebuoy is removed and thrown into the water, the long line on which it is attached will unwind. Beware, however, that if you are travelling under engine power, the rope from the lifebuoy can get wrapped around the propeller or the rudder and make the whole process significantly more difficult.

Drowning woman.

HELMSMAN

Finally, of course, there is the individual who will be performing the whole MOB manoeuvre. It may or may not be the captain himself. Often, it is simply the person who is able to steer precisely.

More sailing tips:

Boat manoeuvres: how best to return for the MOB

In the world of yachting, there are multiple theories on how to properly reach the person overboard. Here, we will be reviewing the two basic methods of rescue, from which other types of manoeuvres are then derived. Don't be afraid to try out the manoeuvre for real when you have some time with your crew. It's worth it because in a crisis situation there won't be time to practice.

Man overboard rescue using engine power

The simpler case is undertaking a MOB rescue with the vessel running on its motor. If you can, start the engine as soon as possible and become a powered vessel. The person in the waves can be reached by any of the manoeuvres mentioned below. However, extra caution is needed to ensure that you do not run over the person or injure them with the propeller. You also need to watch out for any ropes hanging off the boat and check that nothing can get wrapped around the propeller or rudder. When actually hauling the person on board, it is best for the motor to already be switched off to avoid injury, to perform resuscitation in peace and to prevent the casualty from breathing in engine fumes unnecessarily. 

MOB recovery under sail: 2 methods

There are several ways to approach an MOB rescue under sail. However, most of them are based on these two basic ones: Quick Stop and Figure Eight. Each skipper has their own preference and will decide according to the current sea conditions, the number of crew members on board and their level of sailing experience or strength.  

1. MOB manoeuvre: Quick Stop or Crash Stop

This method is the most direct and easiest way to return for a person who has fallen overboard. Immediately tack the bow of the boat through the wind without handling the jib sheets, so that the boat is effectively hove to. In most cases, this should be enough for the boat to naturally drift back to the MOB.

However, it may be that the boat is too far from the person and you will need to complete a full upwind gybe and return. When doing so, only interfere with the mainsail sheets, leaving the genoa as it is. Don't try to trim the sails to go as fast as possible - you need to stop at the MOB, and it is not good to be at high speed or heeling. Once the sailboat is heading near the person, it's a good idea to drift back slowly towards them. This method is best suited for short-handed crews (i.e. crews consisting of a small number of people, for example just two) as it is simple and requires virtually no sail work.

MOB maneuver: Quick stop, Crash stop.

2. MOB manoeuvre: Figure Eight

This method is also called Reach-turn-reach and is a bit more complicated. It requires more sailing skill but is more likely to succeed, giving the helmsman more time to make minor corrections.


Immediately after the incident, put the boat onto a beam reach away from the casualty. Once there is room to manoeuvre, tack and head back towards them on a crosswind again. Let the wind carry you to them and towards the end of the approach put the boat upwind to slow it down. Steady the boat before safely hauling the person back aboard. See below for a visual guide. Generally, this type of manoeuvre is recommended in rougher conditions such as in storms with high waves.

MOB maneuver: Reach and reach, Figure 8.

Recovering the MOB: 9 ways to do it

Manoeuvring the boat to the MOD is challenging, but hauling them out of the water is even more demanding. Especially when they are unconscious, uncooperative, weigh over 100 kilos and there are powerful waves. There are several techniques and there is no single correct procedure. The height of the deck, the equipment (steps, swim platform...), the behaviour of the waves, the number of crew members on board and the casualty’s level of consciousness play a major role. So what are our tips for getting a person back on board?

1. Recovery using the gangway

Place the casualty on the gangway, which is then put in an approximately horizontal position, and lifted on board using the halyards. Some advise putting the person on the gangway and then hoisting it using the winches or with the help of rope on the davits. But the principle is similar. Instead of the gangway, a door or mattress can be used in the same way, just whatever is at hand. 

2. Haul up the MOB on the sail

Many skippers advocate using a lowered sail. The mainsail hoist lowers the sail down to the deck and then into the sea where the casualty slides onto it. The sail is then hoisted again and with it, the person back on deck. 

3. Set the boom over the water to hoist

If sailing conditions permit, another method is to SET the boom out to the side (as if out of the boat) and use a halyard (such as a mainsail halyard or gennaker halyard) to pull the person out of the water. The system is on pulleys and winches, so it requires similar strength to pulling someone up the mast, meaning almost anyone should be able to do it. To make pulling easier, two winches can be placed in a row on the line. A bosun’s chair can also be used. The disadvantage of this method is the need for a counterweight on the boom, otherwise, the flying boom could injure or throw someone into the water and we’d be dealing with 2 people overboard. 

4. Over the back of another crew member

Some skippers recommend grabbing and pulling the casualty over the back of another crew member leaning down from the boat. The back serves as a sort of ramp to lift the body out of the water. But it requires good physical condition and strength. It certainly doesn't work if the MOB is double the size of the person whose back is being used. 

5. Use the liferaft

Considering the cost of this rescue (a liferaft is very expensive), we only recommend this if there is really no other option — you are in the open sea, far from land, there are very big waves or the person overboard is really struggling. In any case, getting a person to the liferaft is easy and getting them on board afterwards is easier than out of the sea. Moreover, the person can be treated and taken care of on the liferaft itself. A small boat or paddleboard can also be used in a similar way.

Empty lifeboat on the beach.

6. Grab the MOB with crossed arms

This method requires strength and is not suitable for all types of boats. The person overboard is pulled up with crossed arms over the stern of the boat. If you have a boat with too high a transom, this process will be very difficult to do. 

7. Lift the MOB using the genoa sheets

If the MOB is on the side of the boat, they can be hauled up using loose genoa sheets by, for example, threading their legs through the rope. Then pull the sheets on the cockpit winch until they are at the board line, and get them aboard with the help of the crew. 

8. Send another crew member – only in calm seas

The question arises whether it is not easiest to send a second person out to rescue the casualty, to slide under them and then pull them both up. If the situation permits, this is obviously a great way to do it, but it requires the cooperation of more than one crew member and is, after all, quite risky: the other person could get into trouble or even drown. 

9. Improvise

The whole MOB procedure is often one big improvisation. This applies especially to pulling the person out of the water. Keep in mind that the main thing is to pull them out as quickly and safely as possible, whether you use a halyard, a gangway, a lifebuoy, paddleboard or some other improvised device.

YACHTING.COM TIP: BEWARE! If the person you are rescuing is hypothermic, it is necessary to place them in a horizontal position during or just after bringing them aboard. A hypothermic individual has slowed circulation and in a vertical position, the heart cannot oxygenate the blood as well as it should.

Want to learn to sail? Take a look our skipper courses:

Administering first aid 

So we've hauled the person back on board and we feel like everything is sorted. But this is not strictly true as post-accident conditions and shock continue to be life-threatening. What and what not to do to avoid endangering the life of a person who was just overboard? 

Check the casualty for injuries

The first step is to find out what condition the person is in. We are primarily interested in:

 

  • Are they conscious? 
  • Are they breathing? 
  • Are they bleeding? 
  • Are they drowning? 
  • Are they hypothermic? 
  • Are they in shock?

YACHTING.COM TIP: First aid courses are very useful, and there are many of them to choose from. It will teach you the basic skills and techniques to be able to save someone's life, which is not just useful on a yacht.

Rescue maneuver drowning in water.

Warmth – warm the person up immediately with the emergency blanket and a warm drink

In the sultry Adriatic summer, hypothermia isn't much of a risk, but if someone falls overboard in Scotland or Croatia in autumn, hypothermia is a serious life-threatening risk even after being rescued from the water. You need to warm the person up as quickly as possible. The best way is to use an emergency blanket which can be found in the boat’s first aid kit. This is a blanket with thermal insulation properties that looks like kitchen foil. Of course, a normal blanket, sleeping bag or anything warm can be used. After being rescued, the person must first be stripped of their wet clothes and then wrapped in a blanket. The next step is to give them warm drinks, preferably tea (not too hot if shock is suspected). Sweetening the tea with some sugar will help. The person should be warmed up gradually, not suddenly.

A first aid kit is a mandatory feature of every yacht.

Resuscitation of drowning casualty

If the rescued person has drowned, damage to the structures of the lung chambers have occurred. Drowning can occur even when a small amount of fluid is inhaled, even a large amount of water splash. 


First aid for drowning is a simple procedure: remove them from the water, assess their condition, perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and transport them to hospital. 

 

Resuscitation is an extensive topic, but it is enough to know how many chest compressions to do and at what rate. In a near-drowning you should start with 2 breaths and the following pattern: for an adult 30 compressions then 2 breaths, in small children 15 compressions then 2 breaths. The compressions should be at the rate of 100–120 per minute which is approximately the same pace as the song Jingle Bells.

What never to do when performing first aid on a MOB? 

  • Don't rub their skin
    Under no circumstances try to warm the rescued person by rubbing! Massaging could cause cold blood to be absorbed from peripheral areas (e.g. extremities) into the core (heart, lungs), which should be as warm as possible to avoid heart failure. 
  • Don’t give them alcohol
    Although it might seem like a good idea to give the person a little "something to warm them up", due to possible medical complications and their detection or possible hospitalisation, we need the person to be 100% sober.  
  • Don't give them food right away
    Even if they seem hungry or are asking for food, consider whether to give it to them. If they are in shock, they may still fall unconscious and start choking. If they have to be hospitalised and are put under anaesthesia, a full stomach complicates the situation. 
  • Don't let them fall asleep
    The person you rescued will be tired, exhausted and will probably want to go to sleep. But keep them under observation for some time. They may go into shock, or you may discover they have a head injury or are bleeding and need to be taken to hospital. If they fall asleep, you won't know any of this.

Man Over Board (MOB) prevention and safety precautions 

Prevention is always the best technique. Utilise all safety features that are on the boat and don't take anything lightly. If you are the captain, you are responsible for the lives of your crew members. 

Reflectors or distinctive clothing 

Most proper sailing apparel has reflectors or bright colours to ensure the sailor is highly visible. However, often you can find yourself with amateur holidaymakers on board wearing their normal waterproof outdoor jackets, which won’t be very visible. Therefore we recommend doing everything to make sure everyone can be seen. Use reflective tape, a yellow hat or put a glow stick or flashlight in their pocket to draw attention to themselves if they fall into the water. 

Lifejacket 

Whether you have a foam or self-inflating lifejacket, wearing one should be a given when sailing at night and in poor conditions. There are several options for which lifejacket to choose. As the author of the article and sailor Katerina Kubova recommends: "The ideal is to have as many vests as there are crew members, plus an extra one in case of loss". For ocean voyages or more challenging sailing on the open sea, it's a good idea to have a personal locator beacon on the lifejacket to help locate the person overboard. These systems are usually triggered automatically when you fall off the boat.

YACHTING.COM TIP: If you own a self-inflating vest, don't forget to change the gas canister regularly. Each canister has an expiration date, after which the manufacturer no longer guarantees inflation.

Children sitting on the bow of a ship in life jackets.

Harness 

If you expect worse weather conditions, are sailing in more challenging or colder waters (Scotland, Sweden, etc.), plan to sail further offshore or are taking part in a race, clip in with a harness when moving around the deck. Harnesses are included on most charter boats, but we recommend checking them when you take over the boat and maybe requesting more. The number of harnesses does not always match the capacity of the boat. 

Safety line 

Charter companies usually do not have a safety line installed on board. Either the safety line is hidden somewhere in a locker or you can ask the charter company to rent it to you. More experienced skippers bring their own safety line and install it on the boat themselves. 

Lifeline netting for kids 

If you have young children on board, the use of safety nettings should be a matter of course. These nets are either already on board or, more commonly, can be requested from the charter company, as can kid’s lifejackets.

YACHTING.COM TIP: Learn more about appropriate safety features on a boat in our article — Sailing with kids: how to keep all of you safe and happy

MOB preparation and training   

Although the MOB procedure is drilled during the captain's course, few people can keep a cool head in a real-life situation and follow manoeuvring procedures so as to rescue the person as quickly as possible. In general, you can never have enough MOB training, especially if you are with an inexperienced crew. For example, the MOB procedure can be practised using a fender that one of the crew throws into the water, with the captain performing a manoeuvre to sail to it and fish it out. If sea conditions are favourable, MOB can also be performed with people: at a random moment, one of the crew members jumps off the boat (in consultation with the captain). But this is of course risky. You'd be amazed how fast the boat disappears and how long it takes to come back to you.

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FAQ Do you know how to save a man overboard?