The most important man overboard and dinghy rescue guide for couples or 2 crew on a boat.

Most sailors and boaters will probably have practised their MOB procedure, even if only in theory.

We had a near disaster recently with our dinghy (and me) shooting off towards the horizon in a nasty wind which led us to analyze how to deal with a probable chain of events that can (and do) occur at sea.

Although the captain was on board and I was the one drifting away, the thought has now occurred to me: would I have been able to commandeer the vessel and rescue the Captain if the situation was reversed? So while this article may seem pretty basic to those experienced sailors out there, this is written from my personal, very traumatic, experience! Let’s talk about the dinghy first (there is a link to an excellent article regarding couples experiencing MOB further on in this article).

Here is my Facebook post regarding the chain of events:

“If a cat has 9 lives then I am some sort of super-cat with at least 13.

I have a history of boat accidents, broken bones, near drownings…

Here’s the latest……..Got washed out to sea, alone in the dinghy in a roaring 30 plus knots (for the sailors) and 55 plus km (for the non sailors).

Scary as shit and happened SO fast.

Woke up to a lovely morning 2 days ago, forecast showed wind around 2 pm, Captain Mike suggested we dinghy over to one of our favourite restaurants (Alegria) as we had not left the boat in around 4 weeks due to the hectic “Cape Doctor” wind that blows relentlessly through Cape Town and surrounds from December to mid February every year.

Captain Mike at Alegria, boat in the background – literally the calm before the (mini) storm!

Off we went around 11 in the dinghy, tied her up safely, had the best peri peri chicken livers, calamari tubes and tentacles and beef espetada for mains with veg. Out of this world food, please visit them if you are ever close to St Helena Bay/Paternoster.

Wind was starting to blow so off we trotted back to the dinghy, launched her with no mishap. Mike’s course was along the shore at first, a direct approach would have got us soaked and there is always the risk that the wind will tip you over .

As we turned towards the boat, nicely positioned upwind and headed out through the small white capped waves, the bloody engine cut off. We are now barreling towards the boat, wind picking up by the second and the engine is NOT starting.

Luckily we were aiming pretty much in the direction of the boat so as we got close Michael stood up and tried to grab the toe rail. He fell in behind me, I heard a splash, realised I was on my own as I whizzed past the boat (too far to reach out and grab the ladder or a rope) and out to sea. Tried to grab oars and row but it was useless, would have had to have been an Olympic medalist to fight that wind and row. Did not see Michael clamber onto the boat but saw him standing on the deck shouting at me to “get low, stay down.”

I had absolutely NO doubt he would come and get me! In my mind I was going through exactly what he had to do :

Start the engine and put autopilot on to help keep her in right direction for anchor retrieval which is tricky in the wind….

Get the bastard anchor up which has been giving us a lot of grief lately and……turn this 16-tonne vessel around and find me, by now I was literally (in his words) ” a dot on the horizon” ……

I wedged myself in the bottom of the dinghy, knew he would find me, had my jacket on, had a cellphone in a dry bag, honestly did not panic at that time, kept my wits about me and waited. Must admit when I saw our beautiful white wide-bellied, majestic boat barreling towards me I did sob a bit. Quite a bit. Then I panicked in case he ran right over me !

I do not remember much of the actual rescue when I saw Michael I know I cried and cried hysterically. Up until then, I kept telling myself to stay calm and breathe!

He says:

“First I tried to go upwind of you to shelter you from the waves, but you were drifting away faster than I could manoeuvre the boat. Abandoned that idea, went downwind of you and turned in at the last minute to get you alongside on the upwind side. Couldn’t see you under the bow for a moment but saw you along the side and threw you a rope. You (yes, me) pulled the dinghy to the back of the boat, I climbed down the stern ladder and secured the dinghy to the stern. It was really rough there, big waves, you were wedged into the dinghy and I didn’t want you to climb up the ladder. I took off with a lot of throttle, 3500 rpm for half an hour to get back into the bay, that’s how far you had drifted.”

You know that expression “held on for dear life?’ Well, I did. Spluttering under the engine exhaust water bursting over me constantly in a solid wall of water, Mike tried to reduce throttle to help me but the boat slowed right down and would not move . Waves chopping all around me, heavy winds by now, I truly thought that ride would never end, it felt FAR longer than half an hour. We stopped eventually, obviously I was beyond thankful but shock was also setting in.

When Mike eventually came to a sloooooow stop to drop the anchor I crawled my way out the dinghy where I had been wedged in on the floor, and kinda rolled up and over the dinghy towards the ladder which I grabbed and hauled myself up. Cold, wet , bruised like hell, 2 sprained fingers from gripping that rope but so fucking happy! Wailing at the top of my voice like a 2 year old who has just dropped her ice cream.

Recovering and assessment time right now….learnt a lot of lessons……..

Never a fucking dull moment.”

Some people have asked me why didn’t I swim back to the boat? I am a strong swimmer but honestly felt I would be safer in the dinghy, this is a small unstable dinghy and I doubt I would have been able to get back into it if I needed to.

A more peaceful outing on our dinghy.

What can, and probably will, go wrong with your dinghy:

Some of these sound obvious and stupid but trust me, they happen!

1. Run out of fuel – believe me it happens.

2. Incorrect fuel mixture on a 2 stroke – wrong oil, too much oil, not enough oil.

3. Breather cap on tank not opened.

4. Water in the fuel.

5. Contaminated fuel, even one grain of sand or small particle can cause the engine to shut down at the worst possible moment. (Murphy rules).

What does the lesser experienced person on board need to know (and practise) to execute a rescue?

This is in relation to our dinghy experience and the sequence of events that Michael instinctively did but can also be applied in a man overboard scenario.

1. He ran below to put the instruments on, needed for autopilot. Grab VHF radio and binoculars. Spend as short a time down below as possible, it is imperative you get back up there and eyeball the person in trouble. Then start the engine and whatever that entails, open a seacock if needed. Put her in neutral and leave her idling.

2. Drop any sails up, we had a mizzen up for keeping the nose in the wind.

3. Retrieve your anchor. Normally I helm and control the power on the engine and Michael gives hand signals from the bow as to which direction I need to go to retrieve the anchor. If you are alone you can’t do that but you can engage the autopilot to keep the nose in the wind, give enough engine power to sloooooowly move towards the anchor. The wind was so strong that winch alone could not retrieve the anchor so he needed engine power. You can (if you are prepared and have practised) just let your anchor go completely with a buoy on it and fetch it later. This is a really important point! Reduce the time it takes to free up the boat.

4. At the same time, amidst the panic, do NOT forget to keep checking where the dinghy is! It is hard to believe how fast you lose sight of the person in distress, a point reiterated in the yachting article below.

5. Head in a downwind direction towards dinghy or if you can’t see it, in the direction where you last saw dinghy. Use autopilot if necessary.

6. So now, you are on your way, how to avoid running them over? Trust me, after first-hand experience, this is a serious concern for both parties! As you approach, remove power, slow the boat right down. Assess. You need to get downwind of the dinghy/person so that they can drift onto the boat. Michael tried to go upwind at first to try and shield me from the wind and waves then had to do a turn and approach from downwind. Turn the boat at right angles to the wind so that the dinghy will drift to the side of the hull. This is not easy but it doesn’t matter, keep doing it until you get to that position. You will.

7. Throw a rope down to dinghy and hopefully, the person in the dinghy can attach themselves to the boat, I pulled myself around and attached to the stern ladder.

8. Ideally you should be able to get the person back on board at this stage, however, in our situation, the wind and waves were really rough so Michael suggested I stay in the dinghy while he towed me to safety at our original anchorage in the bay. Not great with the exhaust water gushing over me every few seconds but what’s a bit (more) water in a situation like this?

What did we learn and will implement ?

1. Hang a rope or even 2, over the side of the boat if both are leaving in the dinghy. If we had been able to grab a rope we could have prevented all the drama.

2. We need a small anchor and line in the dinghy, funny, we had talked about doing just that about a week ago but had not yet implemented yet.

3. In a climate like ours, 4 seasons in one day, have a personal locator beacon with you in your small dry bag when getting on your dinghy.

4. Warm, waterproof jacket even if it is a scorching hot day, I have one that folds up into next to nothing and it was with me.

5. Life jacket obviously if you are in a climate where the weather changes abruptly as is the case in summer in South Africa. With a whistle that really shrieks!

6.Waterproof torch in your bag on the dinghy, I had a cellphone with a torch and knew if it got dark I could send out light, Michael now wants a waterproof, flashing strobe light on the dinghy too!! We will get one.

7. Anchor retrieval must be as fast as possible. Practise! This is something we have a problem with, in fact, Michael hurt his left hand badly a week prior to this incident when the chain hopped off the gipsy during retrieval. My biggest worry while waiting to be rescued was that he would not be able to get the damn thing up.

8. In future we will always attach a buoy to the anchor chain that locates the actual position of the anchor on the ground (trip line) something I am sure a lot of yachties use worldwide but we do not as we are always in deserted anchorages in SA. The benefit in this situation of course would have been knowing in which direction to steer to retrieve the anchor.

What we did wrong and should do according to all the theory out there and our own experience:

1 . Did not call for help on the radio, who was going to help us? If Mike could not have retrieved the anchor he would have called for help. Mike should have grabbed the mobile VHF radio when he went back on deck so he could call for help if necessary. Plus binoculars, grab these too.

2 . Have a spare safety cutoff chord in the dinghy. When he went overboard it was attached to his leg so I had no way of starting the engine (which wasn’t working but you get my drift).

3 . This sounds so ridiculous but does everyone on board your boat know how to start your dinghy and manoeuvre it? I am at fault here, we have a new dinghy on the davits and I don’t even know how to lower it. I will be having lessons this week when the wind stops howling…..

4. We need to give our small dry bag a lot of attention and it must go with us each and every time one or both of us are in the dinghy. Michael often goes to shore alone for provisioning, he will, in future, always carry the extra, waterproof VHS radio. If I am down below and he has engine failure and it’s windy, chances pretty slim that I would hear him shouting for me if he was in trouble.

Again, I must mention that we are close to Cape Town, South Africa at the moment where the wind in summer averages over 30-knot gusts daily during December and January. We definitely need extra precautions which we would possibly not need in a sheltered anchorage off a gorgeous tropical island.

Strangely enough, I saved an article last week that was posted to one of the Facebook groups, all about MOB procedures for couples. I have added the link here, it makes for really interesting and very informative reading.

We will be ordering some new safety gear for the boat and I have added the Amazon links below for the items not highlighted above in case you need to jack up your system too.

Boat hook (keep it handy, not tucked in the lazarette) – to be honest, ours went overboard a while ago and we had not yet bothered to replace it!

Lights for your dinghy, not entirely necessary but a really cool safety feature to think about.

Life jackets with a whistle and possibly sprayhoods – there are many options but when you invest then choose the nifty ones that flip you around in the water if you are unconscious.

Waterproof strobe light (see above) or headlamp

Personal locator beacon – top of the list for me. Luckily I was drifting around in the daylight, I cannot imagine what it would be like in the dark.

Harness to attach to the person in distress. This harness looks complicated and would need some practice to get it on in the water but ideally, you want one that straps around your legs too.

We live to sail another day!

Fair winds from a relieved Captain Mike and rescued damsel in distress, Nikki.

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