Man Overboard.

Every ship has a particular station bill for this occurrence, but as it happens under so many different circumstances, it is impossible to prescribe. The best preconcerted arrangements are often inapplicable, and success depends mainly on the presence of mind of the officer of the watch and the man at the life buoy.

A cool hand will drop the life buoy sometimes within reach of a man; a "bothered" one will either not let go at all, or do so before the man has got near the stern.

If on a wind, there can be no question about "going about;" leaving the main yard square on the other tack, and lowering the boats when ready. If sailing off the wind, everything light must be let fly, the weather clue garnets run up, after yard braced up, and the ship rounded to. Or, if well manned, wear; shorten sail, and stand towards the man on the other tack.* Hands with their wits about them must endeavour from aloft to keep the man in sight. The boat's pendants and the "pull to port," "pull to starboard," and "you go well" signals must be bent on instantly, so as to be ready to hoist and correct each other. If at night, have blue lights and rockets ready for showing the ship's position to the boat. If in the fleet, the ship's position lights should be shown as quickly as possible. As the boats are supposed always to have the means of flashing or firing, you will know their whereabouts.

Netfulls of cork shaving or old corks kept at different parts of the upper deck, are most useful whilst bathing; the men are encouraged to "take the water," knowing that one of these will be pitched right into his hands when he is fatigued; and in the case of a man overboard it will most probably be in the power of the person who gives the alarm thus to afford immediate relief; they can also be sent in boats when you must risk a capsize.

It is recommended by some in such a contingency to square the main yard and heave to at once, but such a recommendation overlooks the possibility of ships sailing in line and being disconcerted if not imperilled by the obstruction. The officer of the watch who followed such advice would certainly be roused out of his "quiet" theory into activity by the bowsprit end of his next ship astern.

The opinion of officers of high reputation and general experience who have written on this subject may be profitably reproduced.

The most important considerations, when a man falls overboard, are: First, the quickest and most effectual method of arresting the ship's progress, and how to keep her as near the spot where the man fell as possible.

Secondly, to preserve entire, during these evolutions, the general discipline of the ship, to maintain silence, and to enforce the most prompt obedience, without permitting foolhardy volunteering of any kind.

Thirdly, to see that the boat appointed to be employed on these occasions is secured in such a manner that she may be cast loose in a moment, and when ready for lowering down that she is properly manned and fitted, so as to be efficient in all respects when she reaches the water.

Fourthly, to take care in lowering the boat neither to stave or swamp her, nor to pitch the men out.

And, lastly, to have a sufficient number of the sharpest sighted men in the ship stationed aloft in such a manner as to give them the best of chance, not only of discovering the person who is overboard, but of pointing him out to the people in the boat, who may not otherwise know in what direction to pull.

It is conceived, that all these objects may be accomplished with very little, if any, additional trouble, in all tolerably well-disciplined ships.

Various opinions prevail among officers as to the first point; but, I think, the best authorities recommend that, if possible, the ship should not merely be hove aback when a man falls overboard, but that she ought to be brought completely round on the other tack. Of course, sail should be shortened in stays, and the main yard left square. This plan implies that the ship being on a wind, or from that position to having the wind not above two points abaft the beam. But, on one tack or the other, this will include a large portion of the sailing of every ship.

The great merit of such a method of proceeding is, that if the evolution succeeds, the ship, when round, will drift right down towards the man. And, although there may be some small risk in lowering the boat in stays, from the ship having at one period sternway, there will, in fact, be little time lost if the boat be not lowered till the ship be well round, and the sternway at an end.

There is more mischief done generally by lowering the boat too soon, than by waiting till the fittest moment arrives for doing it coolly. And it cannot be too often repeated, that almost the whole depends upon the self-possession of the officer of the watch. This important quality is best taught (like every thing else of the kind), by experience; that is to say, by a thorough and familiar practical knowledge of what is right to be done under all circumstances.

It may be permitted for every other person in the ship to feel alarmed and shocked when the sounds reach his ears indicative that a man is overboard; but the officer in command of the deck ought to let it be seen and felt by his tone of voice, and by the judicious promptitude of his orders, that he at least, is perfectly master of himself, and knows distinctly what course it is best to adopt.

"If the ship be running before the wind, or be sailing large and under a press of sail, the officer must exercise his judgment in rounding to, and take care, in his anxiety to save the man, not to let the masts go over the side, which will not advance but defeat his object. If the top-gallant sheets, the topsail and top-gallant halyards, be let fly, and the head yards braced quickly up, the ship, when brought to the wind, will be nearly in the position of reefing topsails. Under these circumstances, it will hardly be possible to bring her about, for, long before she can have come head to wind, her way will be so much deadened that the rudder may have ceased to act. Still, however, I am so strong an advocate for the principle of tacking, instead of merely lying to, when a man is overboard, that, even under the circumstances above described, as soon as the boat was lowered down and sent off, and the extra sail gathered in, I would fill, stand on till the ship had gained head way enough to render the evolution certain, and then go about, so as to bring her head towards the boat. It must be recollected that when a ship is going well off the wind in the manner here supposed, it is impossible to round her to so quickly as to replace her on the spot where the man fell, to reach which a great sweep must be made. But there seems to me no doubt, that in every possible case, even when going right before it, the ship will always drift nearer and nearer to that spot, if eventually brought to the wind on the opposite tack from that on which she was luffed up."*

"If the occurrence should take place when the ship is close hauled, and no doubt about tacking, the best officers are of opinion that the ship should be tacked immediately, squaring the main yard, and lowering the quarter boat or boats in stays. I have seen this tried several times by throwing pieces of wood overboard from different parts of the ship; these pieces of wood generally came between the lee bow and lee quarter, after the ship was well round on the other tack. If a man should fall overboard when the ship is before the wind, round her to immediately with the head yards aback."

"It matters little what manœuvre a ship goes through provided she gets her boat away in safety, and avoids stern way; … to lower the boat with any degree of safety, the vessel's way must either be stopt, or her way at all events deadened; the better way of producing the effect admits of more than one opinion. The manœuvre which subjects a vessel to control under head and not stern way is in all cases the one to adopt; the latter motion more especially in small vessels which are only provided with a stern boat, cannot but tend to increase the danger and difficulty, and often lead to fatal results. If the officer of the watch allow the main yard to fly square before he has taken the main sail off the ship, or at all events one of its clews, it will defy the efforts not only of his watch but of the hands themselves as they run on deck to haul it up.

"The manœuvre of tacking and heaving to are open to certain objections which seem hardly to be counterbalanced by the advantages which it offers. The 'lee boat' is always specified in the order as the one to be lowered; and as this order would, in all probability be carried literally into effect, the officer of the watch would find himself after having gone smartly about, dealing with a boat on his weather quarter; by going round, the absent boat is at night deprived of the benefit of the ship's stern lights, which, were the ship hove to on the same tack, would point out the direction in which to search for the man.

"The advantages consist in this, that the ship, owing to the change of tack, naturally drifts towards the man, giving the boat a less distance to pull."*

When it is borne in mind that in the line there would be no alternative, — that a mistake about a lee boat could be guarded against by using the term starboard or port, — that in the event of the boats being scarce able to live, or having shipt water, lost oars, or of their crews being exhausted, the ship would by tacking be in the immediate position for affording succour: the subject is left to the reader as one deserving the greatest consideration.

* In all cases of letting fly gear suddenly, never forget to warn the look-out men who are on the yards.

* Captain Basil Hall's Fragments.

† Captain Liardet's Professional Recollections.

* Captain Kynaston on Casualties at Sea.

John MacNeill Boyd: A Manual for Naval Cadets.
Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, London, 1860 (2nd). pp 430-434. First edition 1857.

Transcribed by Lars Bruzelius

Sjöhistoriska Samfundet | The Maritime History Virtual Archives | Seamanship | Search.

Copyright © 2002 Lars Bruzelius.