What do I do if I fall overboard?

Man Overboard Treatment

Sometimes a rescue can be as simple as tossing one of these into the water.
Sometimes a rescue can be as simple as tossing one of these into the water.
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At this point, your boat has returned to the victim's side. The captain should be careful to approach slowly and cautiously.

Step six: Toss a lifeline with a loop tied into the end to the victim and have him or her hook the loop around their body under the armpits. Tow the person in slowly. If the boat is small, get two people to carefully lift the victim up into the boat by both arms with the victim's back facing them. You can also pull the victim by the life vest if he or she is wearing one. If the victim is strong enough, he or she may be able to climb aboard themselves with the help of a swim ladder.

Unless the accident occurs in the warm waters of the Caribbean, there's a good chance the water is cold. Water has a drastic effect on the body and can cool a person down 25 times faster than cold air [source: boatingbasicsonline.com]. Once aboard, you may find that the victim is suffering from one of the following cold-related illnesses:

Cold shock - Dropping into cold water can cause a quick gasp that lets water into your lungs. If this happens you could drown immediately.

Swimming failure - In cold water, you'll lose dexterity in your limbs quickly and may not able to swim well. When you lose coordination, it's tough to keep your head above water, increasing your risk of drowning.

Hypothermia - Hypothermia happens when your body loses more heat than it produces, and your core body temperature drops below 95 degrees. Some of the symptoms of hypothermia are:

  • slurred speech
  • stiff joints
  • loss of coordination
  • slow pulse
  • uncontrollable shivering
  • loss of bladder control
  • puffy face
  • mental confusion

To combat hypothermia, get the victim into a warmer environment immediately. Cover him or her with blankets or sleeping bags. Most heat is lost through the head, so cover it immediately. Remove wet clothing and replace it with some dry duds. Always handle hypothermia victims carefully, since they can easily go into cardiac arrest. Keep him horizontal and calm -- reassure him that he's going to be fine. Huddle around and hug the victim to create warmth and then seek professional medical attention as soon as possible.

Here are some more man overboard tips:

  • Never jump into the water to rescue a victim unless you're wearing a life vest and are tethered to the boat. Rescue swimming is difficult in the ocean and should only be used as a last resort.
  • If the rescue is at night, light a white flare to illuminate the area. The flare will light up the reflective tape on the life vest.
  • Never back a boat up to a man overboard -- the propeller can be deadly.

If you haven't succumbed to cold shock, move ahead to the next page to learn what you can do if you're the person overboard.