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What to Do When Someone Goes Overboard

Published: August 2019

Boating can give you a chance to relax with the wind in your hair and the sun shining down. But even with safety precautions, sometimes the unexpected still happens — like someone accidentally falling into the water. Whether you're on the boat or the person who fell, consider these tips on what to do if someone goes overboard.

Father, son and daughter sailing on lake wearing life jackets.

Rescuing Someone Who Fell Overboard

According to the United States Sailing Association (US Sailing), the three stages of rescuing someone who has fallen into the water are:

  • Reacting
  • Returning to the victim
  • Recovery
If you need help at any point during this process, call 911 or make a distress call on Channel 16 of your marine VHF radio, says the National Park Service (NPS).


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React Immediately

  1. Yell, "Man overboard!" so that everyone on board the boat is aware of the situation, and stop the boat as soon as you realize someone has fallen off the boat.
  2. At least one person should maintain visual contact with the victim (also called the swimmer), says the U.S. Coast Guard's Boating Safety. Turn the boat 180 degrees while having the person focused on the swimmer call out the victim's proximity to the boat.
  3. "Litter the water" around the victim with flotation devices, says US Sailing. This will help increase the visibility of the swimmer's position as well as provide them with safety gear.
  4. Press the "man overboard" button on the GPS chart plotter, if it's available, says Boating Safety. (If your GPS does not have this feature, you should still be able to save the location on your GPS, according to US Sailing.)
The NPS says you should not jump in after a person who's fallen overboard, as this puts another person at risk. In some cases, however, it may be necessary for someone else to go into the water. (For example, if the victim is a child or appears to be injured.) If someone needs to jump in to help, they should be wearing a life jacket. US Sailing also recommends that a rescue swimmer be tethered to the boat.

Return to the Victim

As you return to the swimmer, Boating Safety recommends the following steps:

  1. Approach from downwind or downcurrent from the swimmer. This should help with maneuverability and will help prevent the boat from drifting too close to the victim. Keep the boat at a slow, controllable speed, says US Sailing.
  2. Once you are close enough to the victim, throw a flotation device, such as a life ring or throw cushion, with about 50 feet of line attached to it. Keep in mind that overthrowing is better than not having the device within reach, as the swimmer can still grab the line.
Note: Anyone assisting the victim should be wearing a life jacket, says the NPS.

Recovering the Swimmer

  1. Once the victim has a hold of the line or flotation device, shift the boat out of gear and start pulling him in, says Boating Safety.
  2. Attach the boarding device, such as a hook-style or rope ladder, says Boating Safety. This may not be necessary if your boat has a swim deck or another boarding device.
  3. Grab the victim under the arms as soon as possible, says Boating Safety. You will likely need to help them out of the water and up the ladder. Again, make sure you are wearing a life jacket in case you also fall overboard while assisting or need to go in the water to help.
Get the victim dry and warm, says the NPS, and call for help immediately if they need medical assistance. You can cancel the distress call if you are able to safely recover the victim and no medical help is required.

What to Do If You Fall Off a Boat

If you are the one to go overboard, the NPS provides a few tips for staying safe:

  • Stay calm: Don't splash about, as this can waste energy. If you have a life jacket on, it will keep you afloat. (You may need to tread water if you do not have a life jacket on, but conserve as much energy as you can.)
  • Leave clothing on: Air trapped inside your clothes may help increase buoyancy, so leave them on.
  • Stay warm: If the water is cold, try to maintain your body heat. If you're wearing a life jacket, cross your arms over your chest and bring your knees up to your chest — keeping your knees together and your ankles crossed.
  • Consider swimming: If you can't get back to the boat, consider whether you can safely swim to shore. It may be best to wait for help if:
    • the current is strong,
    • you're not visible to other boaters, or
    • you're unsure whether you can get to shore safely.
Hopefully your day on the boat is smooth sailing, but it's important to know what to do when there is an emergency. With a little knowledge and quick action, you can safely get someone back on the boat if they fall overboard.

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