What do I do if I fall overboard?

Man Overboard Rescue Procedures, Steps 1-5

Sailing rule #1: Don't be dinghy -- wear a life vest!
Sailing rule #1: Don't be dinghy -- wear a life vest!
Michael Blann/Getty Images

When a person suddenly slips overboard, it's frightening, to say the least. The good news is, if someone spots the accident and everyone works together, there's a good chance you can get your companion back into the boat alive and well. The captain should be in charge of leading the rescue effort and assigning jobs as soon as he's aware of the accident.

Step one: The first thing to do if you see someone go overboard is shout "MAN OVERBOARD" as loud as you can along with a port (left) or starboard (right) location. You need to keep your eyes on the victim at all times, so channel your inner drill sergeant and scream. Keep yelling until you get a response that someone else has heard you. As soon as the shout is relayed to the captain, he should shut down the engines or drop sail immediately.

Step two: The spotter should point -- and keep pointing -- at the victim. Spotting and keeping an eye on someone in the middle of the ocean is extremely difficult. Your boat is most likely speeding away in theĀ opposite direction, so if you divert your eyes for even a split second, you could lose him or her. Pointing will give everyone else on board immediate direction. Ideally, the person that spotted the accident should remain the spotter throughout the entire rescue. If you need to reassign the duty, make sure the new spotter has locked eyes on the victim.

Step three: Have someone throw a flotation device into the water for the victim to swim to. Hopefully the person is wearing a personal flotation device (PFD), but many recreational boaters fail to do so. If your boat is traveling at a high rate of speed, start throwing in anything that floats to leave a trail to the scene. Seat cushions, magazines, even your hat -- anything visible that floats can work.

Step four: If you have a smaller or slow-moving boat, you may be able to coast to a stop and throw a lifeline to the victim, and the crisis is averted.

Step five: If the boat has gone too far past the victim, then step four isn't possible. In this case, you'll need to make a turn back to the victim to pick him or her up. Generally, two types of turns are used to quickly return to a point of origin -- the elliptical and the Williamson. The elliptical is an oval (racetrack-shaped) turn and results in an approach to the rear of the victim. After the vessel has some space from the victim, it turns hard on same the side that the incident occurred 180 degrees, straightens out and then performs a second 180 turn to circle around toward the victim. The Williamson turn -- named for United States Navy officer John Williamson -- may be a little quicker. For this one, make a hard turn immediately toward the same side the person went overboard and hold a straight line at 60 degrees from the victim. Then turn hard back the opposite way and circle around until you're on a course heading straight toward the victim from the front. The Williamson takes the shape of a sideways teardrop, with the point of origin being the duct.

Once you've boated back to the victim, how do you pull him or her from the water? Find out on the next page.