A man overboard at sea.

There are few things during the life of an officer that require more coolness and seaman-like promptitude, than when the alarm is given of a man overboard. If this should happen 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 loweing the quarter-boat or boats, while 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 the lee-quarter, after the ship was well round on the other tack; of course the position of the pieces of wood thrown overboard, would depend much upon the rate the ship was going at the time, the place thrown from, the strength of the wind, and the height of the sea. If under the same circumstances, a man should fall overboard at night, the life-buoy should be fired and let go, this will give a good direction for the man overboard, and the boat pull for; as many boats should be sent, as the nature of the weather will admit, as a few minutes generally decide the fate of teh poor fellow, more particularly in cold weather. Lights should be hoisted to show the boats the position of the ship, and in foggy weather the bell should be rung, horn or trumpet sounded, as the lights may not be seen from the ship. Muskets would be much better heard, but as they are so often used to recall boats, it might be deemed a recall, if not previously told that a great gun would be fired for that purpose. In thick foggy weather, if a man fall overboard, everything will depend on the number of boats and the quickness with which they are sent to his assistance. In this weather, the relative position of the ship with the boats cannot be known, excepting through the medium of sound. If a man should fall overboard when the ship is before the wind, round her to immediately, with the headyards aback; at the same time lower the lee quarter-boat, station men aloft to keep pointing to the man overboard, have No. six and No. eight pendants (or any easily distinguished flags or pendants) where best seen by the boat or boats, one to signify, pull more to port, the other, more to starboard. The two pendants when hoisted together, might signify give way right ahead. To prevent mistakes, these pendants could be painted on the inside of the boat's stern, one on each side, and the two, one over the other, with their significations. If the ship is by the wind, and it blows too hard, or the ship not under commanding sail for tacking, heave-to and lower the lee quarter-boat. In vessels that have only one outside boat, and that over the stern (like many of our brigs of war), it becomes a matter of the greatest consequence to bring the vessel to the wind, so as to have the stern-boat's head to the wind, if possible, as you are very likely to swamp a square-stern boat when exposed stern foremost to a heavy sea. I have seen this take place. All vessels having but one outside boat, and that over the stern, should have her head and stern built alike. This would help to decrease the danger of lowering stern-boats. It appears to me that when an officer takes charge of the deck, his whole mind ought to be occupied with what he would do with the ship in any case of emergency that might take place with the sail that the ship is then under. If a man fall overboard when the ship is before the wind, and carrying more sail than she can haul to the wind under, much of his safety will depend on bringing the wind abeam as soon as possible. In this position the lee quarter-boat can be lowered, while the square sails are shaking and taking in, previous to heaving-to with the head-yards aback. Unfortunately, there are circumstances, under which no human aid can be given to any poor fellow falling overboard, such as heavy gales of wind, when a boat will not live on the water; scudding when it is too dangerous to bring the ship to the wind, &c. Whatever the danger, or whatever the risk, there will be no want of volunteers for the boat to endeavour to save their drowing shipmate: however, praiseworthy these feelings are, and ever must be, still, when you see no chance of saving the man overboard, and death staring the whole boat's crew in the face, if lowered down, there cannot be a doubt that this additional risk ought not to be run. In a case of this distressing nature, the life-buoy or spars, may be thrown overboard, in the hope of supporting the man, while the utmost endeavours should be made, by making sail and wearing, if there be any chance of placing the ship to windward and dropping down upon the man. In gales of wind, and the ship lying by the wind, and barely forging ahead, men have often been saved by ropes and bights of ropes well disposed along the chains and quarters, and even by ropes well astern. While there is the slightest, or the most distant chance of picking the man up, the life-buoy, spars, and oars may be of the greatest use to him. We have seen several men saved by spars, or oars. While on this subject, we think it a good thing to have a Jacob's-ladder fitted from each mizen-chains, sufficiently long to let the lower step go well into the water. This plan will be found to facilitate the manning and unmanning of the quarter-boats, at sea, or in harbour, and tend to prevent accidents from too many men getting into the boats while lowering down.

Francis Liardet: Professional Recollections on Points of Seamanship, Discipline, &c.
William Woodward, Portsea, 1849. p 144-146.

Transcribed by Lars Bruzelius

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