Man Overboard Recovery

Life Sling is considered to be the best Man-Over-Board recovery system on the market, and for good reason. The old standard is a Type IV throw-able device, typically a cushion, horseshoe, or life ring. These devices were thrown in the direction of the victim so that they can stay afloat as the boat came back to pick them up. Keeping the victim afloat longer is wonderful, but how do you get them back to the boat?

Life Sling solves this problem by way of a tether. Inside the Life Sling pouch is a floating horseshoe attached to a very long polypropylene line that ends in a webbing strap which is tied to a secure point on the boat (make sure you always keep the webbing tied to a secure point, because in the heat of the moment you might forget to tie the line and defeat the benefits of a Life Sling). Polypropylene floats, which helps you identify where the line is as well as minimizing the risk of any prop fouling issues during the recovery.

The instructions on Life Sling are very simple:

  1. Throw the Life Sling into the water
  2. Circle around the victim
  3. Pull the victim back into the boat
  • If the victim is unconscious, use a lifting system to raise them into the boat

These instructions are very good, but not very specific. This works in the marine market where each and every boat is different, and no set of instructions would work on every boat. Maddie and I decided to test out how we would recover a helpless victim on our sailboat, where winches, lines, and spars are available at our disposal. We certainly learned some valuable lessons during the recovery process!

We tried out the system in a quiet creek, where the water was still and there was no wind present; very different from the chaotic environment of a storm where a crew member got washed overboard and needs to be recovered, but the principles are the same. What is important to note is that we were anchored, had no sails up, and everyone was happy and healthy. It still took us 10 to 15 minutes to recover one person, so we feel that this process might take closer to an hour if we were in very poor weather conditions. Due to the trouble and difficulty of the recovery method, we both feel that the most important part of MOB recovery is to avoid the MOB situation in the first place! Always wear a tether and clip in when on deck in rough conditions and keep it clipped in at all times. Also, keep good footing and always use handholds as needed. If you can stay on the deck, you will be much better off. If I were to fall off the deck, I would be dragged along next to the boat by my tether connected to the jackline. There would be no need to locate my floating body in the distance as I would still be attached to the boat!

In our test, we were anchored and simply took the Life Sling far from the boat via stand-up paddle board. The victim swam out to the Life Sling and got inside the horseshoe. We did not practice the boat maneuvers to get the Life Sling to the person as both Maddie and I feel we are capable of steering the boat towards the victim. Our plan is to circle around the victim to get the Life Sling to them, then heave to for the recovery. We both agree that we can manage the boat alone to get in position to recover the floating person, but we wanted to practice the actual hoisting and recovering of the person. This is how it proceeded.

Our plan to hoist the person out of the water is to use the boom and winches to raise them above the lifelines, swing them over the cockpit, and lower them to safety.

  • The canopy needs to be collapsed forward
  • A snatchblock attached to the end of the boom with lifesling line run through it
  • A preventer line tied to the end of the boom and run forward
  • Mainsheet eased to allow the boom to swing over the water while preventer is tightened.
  • Topping lift adjusted to raise end of boom high up

This setup will hold the boom securely over the side of the boat without risk of the boom swinging back to the other side (which would smack the person into the side of the hull). The topping lift is adjusted to get the end of the boom very high into the air so that the hanging person will clear the lifelines with their feet as they hang fully raised.

The cockpit awning needs to be removed or tipped forward to allow the person to fall into the cockpit easily. If the canopy were in place, you risk bending the frame and injuring the person when they smash into it. By collapsing it, the risk of injury and damage is greatly reduced. 

The mainsheet pulls the boom over the cockpit while the preventer keeps it out over the water. The yellow polypropylene line is led from the Life Sling, to the snatch block at the end of the boom, to a turning block on the toe rail, to the winch. This setup allows us to use the winch as a lifting mechanism to raise the person into the boat with proper fair leads, minimizing harm to the equipment on board while keeping the recovery process very controlled and dependable. 

Maddie got herself into position, waiting in the water inside the Life Sling as I began to haul her closer to the boat.

Once under the boom, I was no longer able to pull her in by hand. I needed to put the yellow line on a large winch. In our setup, we used the primary winch to raise her up into the air.

The Life Sling horseshoe does work well to hold the person in its sling. Maddie hung completely limp and felt very secure inside the sling. The only problem is the sling crushes down on your ribs making it very difficult to breathe. I would hate to be in duress while hanging in this position for a long time during a recovery!

I got Maddie raised high above the lifelines, now we are ready to swing her into the cockpit.

To swing her over the cockpit, the preventer needs to be eased while the mainsheet brought in. Once she is over the cockpit, I slowly lower her into the cockpit in a controlled manner. 

Once Maddie was back on board, I hopped into the water to let Maddie recover me. She was able to winch my heavy body into the air and bring me into the boat in a very controlled manner. I weigh almost 200 pounds and there is no way she could bodily pull me into the boat. With use of the winch, she was able to raise me out of the water and get me into the cockpit without exerting herself too much. I had to take some of the weight off my chest by putting my feet on the rubrail as the sling was crushing my ribs making it very hard to breathe. 

We both agreed that this is a very tedious and lengthy process to recover a person. It would be much quicker to have them climb into the dinghy or climb up the rope boarding ladder instead of rigging this system to winch them out of the water. 

We also wondered how we would get the unconscious person into the sling! We couldn't come up with any smart ideas. If you have any tricks to get an unconscious person out of the water, let me know in the comments section down below! Our best idea is to jump in and put them in the sling, then climb back on board and raise them out. This is a moronic idea because you risk being lost as well since no one is on the boat.

In the end, we feel that the best protocol is to not fall overboard in the first place. If someone did fall in and we simply were not able to get them back on board, the Life Sling does work, and will always be a last option to recover a man over board.

After this exercise, our plan is to deploy the Life Sling to get them back to the boat, and then have them either climb into the dinghy or climb up the rope ladder. We will only use the Life Sling as a hoisting method as a very last resort option due to the complexity in rigging it and time required to raise the person out of the seas.

I still feel that a Life Sling is much better than a regular Type IV throwable, but I don't think it's the easy magic bullet to get someone out of the water. It is still necessary to have other, easier to use, equipment on hand to get a conscious person out of the water and back into the safety of the boat; such as boarding ladders.