Man Overboard While Boarding the Boat is Not Uncommon
Date Posted: January 9, 2023
Source: Vincent Pica Commodore, 1st District, Southern Region (D1SR) USC

Recently, a friend of mine fell overboard – while boarding a boat at the dock! Sound crazy? Not really – when the "victim" isn't wearing proper shoes – when he stepped on the gunwales and not into the boat – and when the wake of a passing boat (who shouldn't have been making a wake!) rocked the vessel strongly. In other words, things just go wrong at all the wrong times. Are you ready to deal with it?

As a case in point, when I take young boaters out for seamanship exercises, I start the man-over-board drills with an example. I bring the boat up to 20 knots and ask one of the youngsters to throw a fender overboard – and then count to 10 before yelling "Man Overboard!" During those ten seconds, two things happen. The fender disappears behind the boat, well over a full football field behind, and the faces of the youngsters turn white, and their jaws drop.

Don't Fall Overboard!

Clearly, the best defense is not falling overboard. That means:


  1. No "bow riding", i.e., sitting up on the bow with your feet dangling over the side (btw, violation of Federal regulations – no limbs outside the boat while underway). Assuming the prop misses you as the boat whizzes over you, you could very likely be rendered unconscious by the boat passing over you. That is assuming the propeller misses you.
  2. No sitting on the gunwales – the edge of the boat – even if you are holding on tight. The skipper takes a wake too hard, and you are airborne. If you land in the boat, it is a small miracle.  If you were sitting on the transom, unless the boat is in reverse, physics demands that you end up in the water.  That is if you are lucky enough that the boat is going fast enough for you to land behind the propeller.  You could be unlucky enough to land on the prop instead of in the water.  A variation of sitting on the gunwales is holding the taffrail (railing around the stern of the boat) and jumping up and down with the swells as the boat passes over them.  This is swell fun until the boat gets sluiced to one side or the other by those same swells pushing the bow around.  Instead of coming down inside the stern of the boat, which a moment ago was just below you, you come down in the water.
  3. The failure to use the "3 point system" while working the boat can get even the most seasoned mariner. Always have 3 parts of your body in contact with the boat at all times, i.e., 2 hands, 1 foot; 2 feet, 1 hand. Try toppling over a 3-legged stool and you can see how much more stable this is than a 2-point system.

You Have Fallen Overboard!

You need to do two things.  First, attract as much attention as possible as fast as you can.  I never go on a boat without a knife, flashlight and whistle on my person.  The light and the whistle are to attract attention.  The knife is to cut me away from the line I am tangled in that is dragging me below the water.  Secondly, if the boat continues to steam way, start saving yourself – and that starts with conserving energy and heat.  Eventually, someone will start to look for you.  Don't panic and waste life-sustaining energy.  Assume the HELP position or at least float with your arms across your chest and your legs crossed.  If you slip below the water, don't thrash and waste energy.  Lie there for a few seconds and then dog paddle up.  Get back in the prone position and start over.  If the water isn't too cold, you can do this for hours.

Someone Has Falled Off The Boat!

Train your crew in the following:

  1. The first person who sees someone fall overboard does two things simultaneously. First, shouts at the top of his lungs "MAN OVERBOARD" and, second, NEVER takes his eyes off the person in the water and points at him constantly. I tell my crew, "Even if you have to watch him drown in front of you, never take your eyes off him."  Why?  If you lose sight of him, we may never see him again.  It is unbelievably difficult to find a head sticking up out of the water.  This is why the USCG often sends helicopters first to look for people in the water.
  2. Someone else throws a cushion, fender, life-jacket – anything and everything – towards the victim to give them something to swim towards and hold onto.
  3. The boat driver brings the boat to neutral. The skipper then determines what side the victim is on and turns the boat to the same side as the victim is on. It keeps the victim inside the turning radius of the boat – and keeps the propeller moving away from the person in the water.
  4. Call the USCG and tell the watch stander you have a "man overboard!" Your crewmate may be injured, have swallowed a lungful of water, or having a medical emergency (how about a heart attack?) Get the "rescue starts now clock" started ASAP!
  5. Once you get alongside the victim, turn off the engine. Those props are potentially dangerous. Stop the engine entirely – especially if you are getting him back aboard via a swim platform.

Try the 10-second exercise one day with your crew.  And watch their faces as the fender disappears astern…

If you have questions about this column or are interested in being part of USCG Forces, email me at [email protected] or go directly to the US Coast Guard Auxiliary "Flotilla Finder" at and we will help you "get in this thing . . ."


Comment Submitted by Gary Haring - January 12, 2023

Personally I have been involved in 2 man overboard situations and 1 where the person did not survive. Each circumstance could have been avoided with only minimal common sense applied. Below are brief descriptions of these events. 1) Fourth of July, St. johns River. Received MOB notice over VHF. A small group left downtown Jacksonville docks to do a S&R. Within half an hour located and recovered exhausted victim clinging to a marker pole miles from where he was reported to have fallen overboard. His hands were terribly cut by barnacles and he was so exhausted he couldn't stand once we dragged him aboard . He had jumped overboard from a small sail boat without a line or lifejacket to recover a "boombox" that had fallen overboard. 2) October Kent Narrows, Oktoberfest Chesapeake Bay. While returning to anchored boat on tender in the pitch dark night an intoxicated guest fell overboard while boarding the mother ship. In her inebriated state she belligerently lunged for the swim platform before the tender was securely tie off. In the swift current it took us 12 minutes to locate her and another 5 to recover her. Perhaps it was shock from the cold water but no explanation was given why she never called out or used her whistle? What I did right, while I endured resistance I insisted everyone aboard wear a life jacket for this impossibly short dingy ride. What I did wrong, I should have either insisted she stop drinking or returned her to the mother ship long before she had reached this state. 3) St. Thomas, just your average night. My good friend and my first Captain coming home late one night missed his step or slipped while stepping aboard his Chris Craft Commander. He hit his head on the way down knocking himself unconscious and drowned. He had stepped aboard thousands of times, this was second nature to him, something not even given any thought, but this was the last step he ever took. Tragedy is never conveniently. Man Over Board happens and if you don't think it will never happen to you then you are guarantying you will not be ready when it becomes your reality. Editor's Note: Gary, with regard to the drowning of the person who didn't even cry out, it is not uncommon nor impossible. Specifically, it could be this: He Fell Off The Dock And Never Came Back Up How many stories have you heard of over a lifetime where a seemingly minor event, like falling off a dock due to stumbling and landing in cold water, results in an almost incomprehensible death by drowning? It happens and it shouldn’t. How come the victim couldn’t help themselves? Cold Shock/Gasp Reflex/Dry Drowning As part of USCG training to be part of a Cold Water team, we all receive a workshop on a developing understanding of something called “Cold Shock” or the “Gasp Reflex.” Scientists and doctors were just becoming aware of why someone could drown “instantly” upon hitting the water. Basically, in water below 70-degrees F, which we are certainly boating in during the early months of the Spring and late months of the Fall, a number of nearly instant and deadly things can go wrong, even if you fall just a few inches from the dock to the water: 1. Even with your head above water, a splash of cold water in your face from a boat’s wake as it cruises by you can cause you to involuntarily inhale water, which is a killer. Not swallowing in down your throat into your stomach but inhaling it into your lungs. This is the “gasp reflex.” 2. In some people, the reaction doesn’t get that far into their bodies. They hit the cold water and, as soon as it touches the back of their throat, it closes up. The spasm stops the water from getting into the body, which is the biological intent, but it also stops air from getting to the lungs. The person bobs back to the surface (their lungs are full of air) and they suffocate in the open water, unable to breathe due to a blocked air passageway. This is what is now called “dry drowning.” There is no water in the lungs. 3. When the difference between your body temperature and the water temperature is greater than 30-degrees, the chance of a heart attack from the sudden immersion goes up dramatically. 4. Even something as simple as a racing heart from shock and fear can create hyperventilating on the part of the victim. Dizziness followed by unconsciousness results as the ratio of oxygen/carbon dioxide changes in the victim’s blood system. RIP... ………….. Vincent T. Pica, II President & CEO AuxAtm Coast Guard Auxiliary Association, Inc

Comment Submitted by Vincent Pica - January 12, 2023

Scott, great feedback. thxs! s/p, Vin Doc, good catch for a medical view. I do get 'prone' when I look for synonyms for 'supine', which the layman may be more accustomed to. I'm not sure anyone would think that 'prone' meant face-down as a way to keep from drowning. ;-) thxs, Tom. will do!

Comment Submitted by Scott Szczepaniak - January 12, 2023

Great article! I would add a strategy to the "not fall overboard" section: Save It for the Shore! We all know the hazards of intoxicated operators. Intoxicated passengers are bad news, too. Prone to falling overboard, and more likely to suffer slips, trips, and falls. Start the New Year out right with a commitment to waiting until the boat is safely tied up at the end of the trip before drinking alcohol. If the operator does falls overboard, the outcome may be much better if they are wearing the link to the engine cut-off switch. Red curly lanyard, or check out the relatively new electronic cut-off switch options. The use of the cut-off switch and link to operator has been a federal law since April 2021 for most vessels less than 26 feet in length while operating on plane. Its use can save lives and just makes sense! Have fun, be prepared and boat responsibly in 2023! Commodore Pica - thank you for all that you do to promote boating safety! Scott Szczepaniak Recreational Boating Safety Specialist U.S. Coast Guard District 7

Comment Submitted by Dr Michael Pankow - January 11, 2023

In the section, "You have fallen overboard" it appears you have used the incorrect anatomical to assume the HELP position. It should be supine not prone as that would put the person face down.

Comment Submitted by Tom - January 11, 2023

Great article. Everyone should take heed. I would do something similar when I was working on a high speed cat going out to whale watch. Especially if there was a bit of a sea running, I'd take a new crewman and as we flew past a lobster buoy at 25+ knots have them look away, count and then try to locate the buoy. As the buoys are approximately the size of your head it was a good demonstration. Keep up the good work.

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