Posted by: towmasters | January 10, 2010

Man Overboard: What Do You Really Do?

A semi-overlapping combination of federal regulations, company operations and safety policies, and customer/charterer requirements mandates that many of us in the towing industry conduct an array of safety/response/regulatory-compliance drills and inspections with, and provide instruction of same to, our crews every month. This generally, but not always, includes the big three: Man Overboard (MOB), Abandon Ship (AS) and Firefighting (FF), among others.

Of those three, by my estimation, the MOB drill offers the least benefit to my crew as things stand today. Why? Because it’s largely a waste of time to drill for an evolution (specifically, recovering a Person in the Water, or PIW) that our vessel, along with the majority of towing vessels, is not physically equipped to perform. Just as important, it can also fool people into thinking that certain standard or assumed (but untested) strategies and techniques will work when they really have little chance of success and will only endanger the rest of the crew. Hoping, wishful or delusional thinking, or praying to your favorite deity is no substitute for a real plan, so for MOB I normally tend to focus mostly on prevention, rather than response, because our response capabilities are so limited. This is a problem throughout the industry and can be attributed directly to a long-standing lack of adequate safety regulations. Some individual companies have, either of their own accord or possibly because of pressure from their insurance underwriters, been more proactive on this issue lately but there is still a long way to go.

Yes, sad but true: as of right now there is not and has never been a requirement of any kind, or even a reasonably strong official recommendation from any of the regulatory or industry playahs, that a towing vessel be properly equipped to successfully conduct a direct physical recovery of a PIW. This fact is at stark odds with another fact: that the vast majority of fatalities involving towing vessels are as a result of falling into the water and subsequently drowning. According to the Uninspected Towing Vessel Industry Analysis Project Final Report (Section 4 – Towing Vessel Accident History & Risk Evaluation) there were 90 reported fatalities, of which  80 were “contact fatalities”, between 1994 and 2004. Of that number (80), 73% (or a total of 58) died after going into the water. There were also 2,534 reported injuries, of which 1,935 were “contact injuries”, over the same period. Of the contact injuries only 2% (a total of 39) were as a result of a fall into the water. Translation: if you get killed working aboard a towing vessel the odds are overwhelming that it will be because of a fall into the water (from your boat, a barge, the dock or whatever), but if you get injured it’s highly unlikely that this was the cause. Valuable Lesson: always wear a life jacket whenever you’re working on deck (or crossing between boat, barge or dock) and your odds of surviving a fall into the water go way up, especially if you’re injured prior to or during the fall.

I’ll also take this opportunity to point out that AWO’s Responsible Carrier Program, which is held up as the industry’s self-regulation standard for the safe operation of towing vessels, and recently updated in January 2009, still has a glaring omission in that it contains no specific requirement, or even a vague recommendation, for mandatory MOB drills or recovery equipment. Given all that is known, how responsible is that? “Fall overboard prevention” is listed in Section II. Management & Administration / Sub-section B. Safety Policy & Procedures, but that’s all you’ll find on the subject. Sub-section F., Emergency Response Procedures, makes no mention of it. This despite the fact that Sub-section G. Internal Audit & Review Procedures requires that companies have performance measurement procedures in place (item #8) which track the number and rate of man-hours, fatalities, recordable injuries, lost-time injuries and falls overboard. Sub-section C., Firefighting & Lifesaving Equipment, in Sections III & IV, Equipment & Inspection for inland and coastal towing vessels, respectively, is also silent on this. In Section V. Human Factors / Sub-section C. Training it is specified that as of May 2009 all hands, including tankermen and entry-level personnel, receive initial and refresher training (at intervals of not more than 5 years) in fall overboard prevention. This recent change is definitely for the better, but prevention is not a substitute for having both the ability and means to respond when prevention alone has failed, which it surely does. The Coast Guard, for its part,  has never made any noise about the issue of MOB recovery either.

Thinking about last month’s MOB drill while anchored in the Hudson River, I became weary at the thought of going through the motions yet again to meet some bureaucratic requirement that doesn’t make us any safer. So I decided to demonstrate to my crew, once and for all, that the idea of leaning over the bulwarks on the back deck of our 100-foot tug to simply grab someone by the collar and hoist them aboard like a 10-pound fish is just a pipe dream.

When I explained that my experiences had taught me, except in rare circumstances, that it isn’t feasible to do it that way they fidgeted uncomfortably. No one likes having their one and only security blanket taken away and they weren’t prepared to accept my argument at face value, no matter how powerful the logic. It was all they had. But I have a duty to train them as best I can to be ready to effectively respond to emergencies, with or without me around to provide direction, and allowing them to believe a longstanding but dangerous myth helps no one. It was time to show, not just tell.

It was flat calm where we were locked into push gear behind our anchored barge in the Hudson River, just above the George Washington Bridge, and 3 knots of ebbing current boiled past the hull. My crew assembled on the back deck and I donned a work vest. I then leaned over the 33-inch rail at the starboard quarter as far as I could. At full extension with my waist on the rail and feet flat on the deck, about double shoulder-width apart, I could just barely touch the deck on the outside. Between my outstretched hand and the surface of the water was another 2 to 2 1/2 feet. In between was fendering which sticks out 6 inches horizontally like a ledge. That distance might as well have been a mile: no way are you simply reaching out, grabbing an outstretched hand, and dragging them aboard. This is real life, not some ridiculous scene in one of the Die Hard movies. Keep in mind that at 6’3″ in height I’ve got far more reach than anyone else on my crew. If I couldn’t even come close to reaching the water, how would they ever do it?

At that point there were frowns all around. Happy, happy, joy, joy! Then I climbed over the rail and stood outside of the bulwarks on the narrow ledge (not every boat has this, either) facing forward. Hooking my left hand over the top and under the rail, I crouched and leaned down and away. This increased my reach by, at best, 2 to 3 inches compared to my first attempt, while being far less secure: the full weight of the PIW, as well as most of the rescuer’s weight, would be born by just that one hand, so just one slip and you’re gone too. Then you’ve got two PIW’s. Given how some companies man their vessels there might be only one person, or even none, left aboard the tug! “Does this look like it would work?” I asked. More frowns, plus shaking of heads. “Would you feel remotely comfortable doing this, even here in flat calm conditions?” Still more frowns, and more shaking of heads. The fact was that, with all that current, you’d be unlikely to even hold onto a person’s hand for more than a few moments if you weren’t drifting along with them, let alone do more. Their bubble had been burst and it was time to move on. Now we could get down to the serious business of thinking about and training for what we actually could do, which, as it happens, is very little if you aren’t properly equipped and prepared ahead of time.

This problem must be worked through sequentially to solve. To start with, if someone falls overboard but fails to remain on the surface they’re done for, so always wearing some form of PFD while on deck is essential. Secondly, you must be found. If you can’t be seen and/or heard that’s unlikely to happen unless you’re just incredibly lucky. To further both of those requirements the following items are highly recommended. First with the flotation…..

Again, to be seen is to be safer. Mustang Survival’s ANSI High Visibility Inflatable PFD (USA model #MD3183-T3) is light-weight, compact, comfortable, won’t interfere with you while you work and is, as claimed, highly visible, so you can be better seen when you’re out on the decks…..

…..or choose the Inflatable PFD with SOLAS Reflective Tape (USA model #MD3183-T2)…..

…..or the newly CG-approved Inflatable Work Vest (USA model #MD3188). All three cost $245.00 and use the Hammar hydrostatic inflators, the most reliable type there is, with a 5-year service life and requiring full submersion (4″ or more) to activate. It won’t be set off unintentionally by rain, spray, or even high humidity, as has happened with some other types. Click here for FAQ’s.

For colder weather many mariners prefer float coats, which come in numerous styles and color choices. Few will be more visible than this one, Mustang’s ANSI High-Visibility Flotation Jacket (USA model #MJ6214-T3)…..

…..also available in the longer ANSI High-Visibility Flotation Coat (model #MC1504-T3) style. They cost $239.95 each.

If you work in Canada there is also the CSA High Visibility Flotation Coat (model #MC1505-T3), approved by Transport Canada.

All can use this detachable weatherproof hood (model #MA7-112) at $24.95…..

Most of Mustang Survival’s Professional products are not off-the-shelf from the average marine supply store. Depending on what you decide to buy you may have to place a special order with a dealer, then wait for them to be made and shipped. It can take as long as 46 weeks, depending on the demand. Here are their USA and Canadian professional-dealer locators. I’ve used Landfall Navigation in Stamford, CT numerous times over the years and have always received very good and knowledgeable service from them. in Seattle is another trustworthy dealer.

Moving on, from Stearns comes the ANSI Powerboat bomber ($266.95)…..

…..and the ANSI Windward coat ($271.95)

They’re both available from Public Safety Specialties, Inc. Another source is Sandwich Ship Supply on Cape Cod, but you’ll have to call ’em.

You have to see all four of these float coats in person to really appreciate just how attention-getting they are. Both the yellow and orange colors are a bright fluorescent and literally appear to glow, and the retro-reflective tape is of the highest quality. They’re all highly recommended.

If you’re still hesitant just ask yourself this question: if you were in the water, with only your head, shoulders, upper chest and arms visible above the surface (the way that you would actually float in real life), and hoping like hell to be spotted before being either run over or abandoned by the search vessel(s), which would you rather be wearing: this classy navy-colored one…..

…..or one of those shown above? You’re not starring in a fashion show. Don’t worry about dirt and grime, or the cost. Get something that is likely to be seen. And if you demand proof that these coats aren’t for sissies, that real tugboaters actually wear them, click here.

Full flotation work suits will give you the most protection from cold shock and hypothermia of anything short of a dry suit or survival/immersion suit. They’re also effective at keeping you warm while working out on deck in extreme cold. Mustang Survival makes the Deluxe Anti-Exposure Coverall & Flotation Work Suit, amongst others, and costs $409.95 at Landfall Navigation. It’s especially worthy of consideration for use by deckhands and tankermen…..

… is  Stearn’s Challenger Anti-Exposure Work Suit, at $409.58 from

A very important additional piece of gear to go with any PFD is a bright light. Many of you are no doubt familiar with ACR’s classic C-Light , a steady incandescent ($8.95), as it’s the standard light found on the Type I life jackets and survival/immersion suits used in an abandon ship situation. While it is SOLAS-approved, and far better than nothing, a strobe will literally blow it out of the water in terms of visibility at a distance. You should apply the same line of reasoning to your selection of a light to attach to your PFD as you would to the selection of the PFD itself: maximum visibility rules.

Also remember that, with very few exceptions, no one ever works in the Type I life jackets like this…..

…..even though they will almost always give you your best chance of survival, because they’re just too cumbersome. And when you look at the typical work vests…..

…..and float coats that most people use you’re very unlikely to find a light of any kind. Not so smart when that’s what most people wear almost all of the time. So, put a good light on whatever you routinely do wear.

ACR Electronics’ compact RapidFire Automatic Strobe Light, $29.95 at Landfall Navigation, is designed specifically for use with inflatable vests…..

…..but for conventional work vests or life jackets, float coats, work suits, or survival/immersion suits there are several other good choices available. The manually-activated C-Strobe is light-weight, has several attachment options, and is turned on by twisting the top, but you must use lithium AA batteries for it’s USCG-approval to be in effect. $19.95 at Landfall.

The manually-activated Firefly3 Rescue Strobe Light ($69.99) and the automatically-activated Firefly3 Waterbug Rescue Strobe Light ($89.99) are the best available and are SOLAS-approved when used with lithium batteries. The Firefly2 Doublefly Rescue Combo Light ($79.95) features both a strobe and an incandescent light. All three are turned on and off with a large, easy-to-operate sliding switch. This can be a critical feature if you’re hands are very cold or are badly injured. All are available from Landfall.

All except the RapidFire offer the flexibility of using commonly available AA batteries, either alkaline or lithium. This ability is especially useful if you’re working overseas or in an isolated area, at the far end of a possibly-unreliable supply line. Never forget that the primary goal is to be seen so that you can be found quickly. Anything that doesn’t contribute measurably to this goal is just weighing you down or wasting space. All of these lights are compact enough to be used with any life jacket you might be wearing. Make sure that they’re securely attached with a lanyard. Mil-Spec parachute / 550 chord is the best product for this use…..

…..along with Cord Locks of one sort…..

…..or another.

Don’t forget about whistles. ACR’s Survival Res-Q  Whistle, $2.75 at Landfall, is one possibility…..

…..but the Storm Whistle, $5.95 from Industrial Safety Gear, is my personal favorite.

So, you’ve found your MOB / PIW, congratulations… you’ve got to get them alongside before you can get them back aboard. There’s simply no better tool than the Personal Retriever throwable disk from Life Safer Inc. in San Diego, CA.

Check out these television news reports from SD…..

…..and Cocoa Beach, FL.

I keep one aboard at all times, and so should you. At least one. My preferred Plan-A strategy is to maneuver the tug and then either I or one of my crew will throw from either of the wings outside of the pilothouse doors, or from the back of the boat deck near the doghouse. From those locations we can take advantage of the extra height to gain even greater throwing distance and accuracy, then pass the line down to the crew on the main deck for the pull back and recovery. Regardless of where the throw is made from, all hands, including the engineer, must practice with it until true proficiency is learned. With a crew of just five we can’t afford to compartmentalize knowledge, so everyone has to be able to do it. They go for $139.99 at Landfall.

The classic life ring…..

…..with an attached floating strobe light…..

…..that we’re all used to having around should, in general, be relegated to use as a datum marker in the highly unlikely event that someone goes overboard while towing offshore or in wide-open inland waters. In a river or bay it can also be tossed over the side for someone drifting away from you in swift currents, as they may be able to swim to it if they haven’t gotten too far away yet. This may buy precious time while you’re getting disconnected from your tow, if that’s what you need to do, or to launch your skiff, which many towboats on the inland rivers are equipped with. Sometimes getting close is close enough…..but you don’t ever want to fling a large piece of hard plastic at someone ‘s head unless you really don’t like them very much. Not that you’re likely to throw it terribly far, or accurately, anyway…..but a direct hit in the face could finish off someone who’s already at the edge of giving up. Stick with the Personal Retriever.

So you’ve got them alongside. Great! But the hardest part of all is usually getting them back aboard. It’s a shameful fact that even today many towing vessels, probably even most, have absolutely no specific, dedicated means of recovering anyone, placing a huge burden on the crew to “come up with something” on the spot in a very stressful situation. It shouldn’t, and doesn’t, have to be this way because there are viable tools available.

Lifesaving Systems Corp. of Apollo Beach, FL. has the Personnel Retrieval Strap (model #215) for $58.45. A padded main loop and sewn-in hand loops allow the users to put more effort into pulling up rather than just trying to maintain a grip, as with pulling on a line. If your freeboard is relatively low and there are no obstructions to clear this might do the trick. Inland towboats, which normally have little freeboard and no bulwarks, could probably benefit most from this.

Another option, if you’ve got a boom, davit, crane, block & tackle, or some other hoisting device, is the Quick Strop (model #214), which costs $220.00. It’s got a slide buckle to choke down on the opening once the person is in it, plus a crotch strap, to keep them from falling out.

To snap in quickly for a hoist use the 4″ Wichard Snap Hook (model#366), made of forged stainless steel and costing $22.45 each.

If the PIW is injured or suffering from severe hypothermia they may not be able to help themselves at all, and neither of these devices are really meant to be used by injured personnel. If that is the case you may have to consider putting a person in the water with them (possibly in a survival suit) to get them strapped in for a hoist. This is not a decision to be made lightly, but it may have to be made quickly. Every situation is different and you’ll have to make that call when the moment arrives, assuming you’ve got at least a semi-competent and physically-able volunteer available.

None of the above items is so expensive that they’re not easily affordable by even the smallest of companies, so there’s no good excuse for not having them. But the Jason’s Cradle MOB System, from Land & Marine Products Ltd. in England, is by far the best solution of all. It should be a standard throughout the industry but, unfortunately, that’s not the case.

This SOLAS-approved device comes in several configurations. Below is the Standard Cradle, available in three widths (2.3, 2.9 & 3.5 feet) and five lengths (7.5, 9.4, 11.3, 13.1 & 15 feet) combined any way you want. It’s “suitable for most vessels with up to 3m freeboard.” That’s 9.8 feet to those who are metric system-challenged, and is all that most of us would ever possibly need.

Those equipped with a fast rescue craft or other RHIB (some ATB’s) might want to consider the FRC Kit.

There are also Stretcher…..

…..and Scramble Net versions.

One or more of these devices may be just what you need on your vessel to give you a fighting chance of successfully recovering someone from the water without risking loss or injury of the rest of your crew in the process. This is not some exotic, new or unproven device, either. Sadly, despite having been brought to market many years ago, the towing sector of the American merchant marine has generally been very slow to adopt it. Prohibitive cost is usually the main factor cited for not having them. The auto industry made a similar claim, twice, when seat belts, and then airbags, were mandated as standard factory equipment for new cars. They claimed that sales would be hurt because consumers wouldn’t buy them when those costs was added to the sticker price. Right! As we all know that proved to be an absurdly false assumption. Likewise, mandating MOB-recovery capabilities isn’t going to bankrupt a  true “responsible carrier” who has any business operating on our waterways. Here’s a list of distributors in North America if you care to think outside the box just a little.

Want to see it in action during an actual emergency? Watch this video about the use it got after US Airways Flight 1549 ditched in the 36°F Hudson River on a 20°F afternoon last January. Sully and his crew perfectly executed a nearly impossible landing and passenger cabin evacuation, but it could have all been for naught had it not been for the first responders. The civilian merchant mariners aboard the New York Waterway (and other) commuter ferries were the first on scene, swarming on the slowly sinking aircraft and rescuing the majority of the passengers before the first police, fire and Coast Guard vessels arrived on the scene. Even after their arrival, the ferries were  critical for continuing to serve as the primary rescue platforms and for accommodating the large number of survivors.

No other harbor in this country has that level of merchant mariner  emergency-response capability and capacity. If they weren’t both trained and, just as importantly, equipped to properly respond it could have been been very ugly. Because they were, we got the Miracle on the Hudson instead of a tragedy: there were a total of 155 passengers and crew aboard the aircraft, and every last one of them survived.

So here’s an MTVA “helpful suggestion” for the Coast Guard: since it’s well established that drownings as a result of going over the side are the #1 source of casualties in the towing industry, and it’s equally well-established that there have never been any mandatory practical provisions for MOB recovery, don’t waste everyone’s time by publishing the upcoming Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) for the new towing vessel inspection regulations without having properly addressed this very important safety issue. In failing to do so you’ll only be undermining the more forward-thinking, and safety-minded companies who’ve already voluntarily implemented some or all of these measures, or are contemplating doing so, because it is the right thing to do, especially in the currently-brutal economic climate.

And you can rest assured that if it isn’t addressed, especially given the more-than-adequate time span in which to get this NPRM right the first time around, there will be blistering criticism coming from us during the public comment period. Any answer to those particular comments that starts with the often-heard “The Coast Guard disagrees, blah, blah, blah…..” will be flat-out unacceptable to us. The time to fix this is long overdue, so just do it.

In the simplest of terms, requiring mariners to drill for an MOB emergency response without also ensuring that the vessels they work on be properly equipped to facilitate said response is extremely shortsighted or just plain hypocritical. The long-term silence from the regulatory agencies is also unsatisfactory and much better should be expected. A solid set of performance standards, as opposed to just technical standards, is needed to provide good guidance for achieving the desired objective (MOB recovery). Then stand back and let the more inventive minds figure out the best ways (as in plural) to get the job done.

It is positively disgraceful for this to have been allowed to slide for so long. The handy and lame old excuse of “sorry, but they’re uninspected vessels and there’s nothing we can do” has been history since 2004. Come on, Coast Guard, we know you can do it if you really want to. It’s time to show everyone what you’re made of as our nation’s primary maritime safety agency and lead for a change.


  1. While your article has good points, I’d like to report I successfully recovered a living man-overboard in 2006 while towing a 400′ x100′ barge down in the Old Bahama Banks Channel. We threw all sorts of things overboard which floated, executed a Williamson turn at dead slow and recovered the man in about 18 minutes. We did have to go a mile before we started the turn but I think we recovered him because of the drills.

  2. That’s outstanding. Obviously, despite all of the usual minor/moderate/major shortcomings, mariners do manage from time to time to recover people anyway, just as they always have, just like the Justine Foss recovered some of the crew of the Valour in very bad conditions when it sank off Cape Fear, NC. It would be most valuable, when you have the time, if you could share with everyone all of the details that matter the most: the full sequence of events including the length of the tow (throughout the evolution), the design and layout of the tug, age & physical characteristics of the MOB (was he wearing a PFD?), time of year & water temp., sea/wx/visibility conditions, time of day, what worked well, what didn’t, the size of your crew, what you would do the same or differently if faced with the same situation again, what elements of the tug’s design helped/hindered/made no difference during the recovery, what you would change about it to make it work better, what equipment was lacking that would or might have helped, did any piece of equipment turn out to be useless?, did the objects thrown overboard help at all and, if so, how exactly?, etc. Pictures of the boat would certainly be a big plus, particularly of the area from which the MOB was recovered. I’ll give you a full post on this if you choose to write it up.

    In fact, anyone out there with a MOB story to share, big or small, is hereby invited to do so. The more detailed the better, and pictures are strongly encouraged. This is about improving vessel and equipment design, as well as procedural aspects of MOB recovery, as much as possible. Not many people have ever had to do it for real, so anyone who has done it has valuable experience that deserves to be shared widely…..

    Anyone from the Justine Foss out there who would like to tell us all how it was done?

  3. I got dragged off of the back of a lobster boat when I was a teen and drowned- Even with low bulwarks and a deck only 2′ off the water, I only got retrieved because I was tangled in a mess of line and could be hauled up with a davit.
    There are half a hundred simple things can can and should be mandated to be available to assist a conscious person out of the water- in my opinion, having a standardized means of retrieving an unconscious or immobile (or very heavy, for that matter) person is the only issue that requires more careful thinking.

    Personally, I’d be comforted seeing concrete, lightweight and idiotproof simple gear like a davit and hand crank that could be dropped into a receiving socket welded to the inside of a bulwark… something along those lines. Jacob’s ladders and mostother cumbersome devices of that sort don’t weather well, take a deal of time to set up for use when stowed, and most importantly don’t work well with a single operator.

  4. The Jason’s Cradle as well as the Lifesaver Disc are a welcome part of our emergency equipment for MOB response. It’s a nice addition to our safety gear, but will still require a victim that can participate in his rescue. Failing that, the victim will require an assist which we have incorporated into the drill evolution. Considering that the victim could very well be hypothermic and unable to assist in his rescue, we have a planned response (should circumstances permit) that a crew member suit up in a tethered immersion suit as we close the distance to the victim and then swim out to guide the MOB to, and into, the cradle when we are close enough to safely send the swimmer to his aid.
    The very idea of putting another crew member into the water is not the solution we’d like to fall back on, but without a FRC we’d have few options.

    Great article, thanks Joel.

  5. […] Jan. 10, 2010 / TOWMASTERS – A semi-overlapping combination of federal regulations, company operations and safety policies, and customer/charterer requirements mandates that many of us in the towing industry conduct an array of safety/response/regulatory-compliance drills and inspections with, and provide instruction of same to, our crews every month. This generally, but not always, includes the big three: Man Overboard (MOB), Abandon Ship (AS) and Firefighting (FF), among others.  keep reading » […]

  6. While predominately used by recreational mariners the Lifesling is a product that would be useful off the shelf solution for many smaller vessels. It it is a floating lifting strop on a long trail line intended to be towed to the MOB. If a lifting point is preplanned it can be a very effective tool. Be sure to order the version with the hard plastic case.

  7. […] I’m aware that some people are so cheap that they would never spend the money on something like this, and that is just plain stupid. If you fall and get hurt what would these be worth to you or your family then? Although Maintenance and Cure should take care of the medical bills there are still the potential lost days of work, loss of safety bonuses, and possible long-term medical issues depending on the nature of the injury or injuries sustained.  Disability insurance, if you have it, sometimes doesn’t work the way that you hope it would. Beyond that, a fall over the side could easily be fatal, especially in cold water when survival time is short. Until we evolve enough that man overboard-recovery systems, like the Jason’s Cradle, are mandated on all towing vessels it’s very questionable whether or not not your shipmates would ever be able to get you back on board at all. For more information on this, read the post from a year ago – Man Overboard: What Do You Really Do?. […]

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