You are suddenly startled by the cry of "a man overboard!"
There is nothing on board of a vessel that creates for the moment a greater excitement, or spreads a more general panic over the whole crew. Their best feelings and energies are suddenly excited, and forgetful of every other consideration than that of extending an arm to save a fellow being, they rush aft in a body, without a thought, or settled purpose of action. Here the influence of the officer must be exerted promptly, and on the instant, to turn their feelings and energies in the proper direction, to the only mode of rescue.
The moment the cry is heard, you should order, Hard down! Let go the life buoys! Whether sailing free or on the wind, bring her up and shake the sails, which will deaden her headway, until you can reduce sail and heave her to; for a while headway continues, though diminishing, you can, by the helm keep her lifting, and prevent her being taken aback. In the meantime, issue the following orders distinctly, and in a manner that will command instant obedience:— Keep silence fore and aft! Every man to his station! Cutter's crew clear away their boat!
The best authorities recommend, that if possible the ship should not only be hove aback when a man falls overboard, but that she ought to be brought completely round on the other tack, if the vessel was on the wind, and with a stiff breeze; for she will then, having her main yard aback, drift down directly towards the man. Therefore, if on the wind, the officer should order, Ready about! hauling up the mainsail in stays.
If on the wind, and there are reasons for not going about, Main clewgarnets and buntlines! Weather main and lee cross-jack braces! Let go the bowlines and lee braces! Up mainsail! brace aback! The moment the lee braces and bowlines are let go, the yards (from being already in the wind) will fly around themselves; then keep the head yards full to steady her, while the after ones stop her headway.
If you are sailing free, with studding-sails set, man the lee head braces, clew up the lower studding-sail, brace up the head yards, haul forward the fore tack, and keep the head yards full, while you luff up to back the after ones; and you may, if the after yards are not square, brace them in; while doing which, haul down the top-gallant and royal studding-sails, or if you have not time, and the wind is fresh, let go the studding-sail tacks, and haul them down after the vessel is hove to.
While this is being done, the boat is ready for lowering, with the crew and an officer in her; Lower away! and direct them which way to pull.
Great care must be taken to lower the boat at the proper moment, as soon as the vessel's headway has sufficiently ceased, to ensure the safety of the boat. An attempt to lower the boat too soon may prevent your saving the man, and endanger the boat's crew.
If the manœuvre is performed readily, and in the shortest time possible, the officer of the deck, though he may lose the man, can only feel, in common with all on board, a regret at the melancholy accident, without having upon his conscience the bitter feeling that he might have saved him.
It may be proper here to remark, that, in many cases, the lives of some of the crew, particularly those stationed on the yards, are frequently endangered by the negligence of those who are attending the braces. The officer should be particular, when the men are on the yards, to keep the braces fast; and, if necessary to brace them, have the braces well attended, and give them timely notice of his intention, warning them to "look out for themselves."
There are cases in which an officer may have reason to hesitate as to the propriety of lowering a boat to rescue a man, such as in a gale of wind with a heavy sea, or in a dark, squally night. The struggle, in such a case, will be great between his better feelings and his judgment. The former might induce him to risk his own life to save a fellow being, but he has no right to risk the lives of a whole boat's crew in a hopeless attempt to save one man; his responsibility will be great, but his judgment must direct him.
In these, as in most cases, a sailor will rush blindly into any danger, under the orders of an officer he respects; and an officer cannot be too careful, in subjecting these most willing instruments to unnecessary or too perilous situations.
Almost 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, the man at the life buoy and the normal condition of the boats.
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 clew-garnets run up, after yards 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 endeavor from aloft to keep the man in sight. The boat's pennants 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.
Netfuls of cork shavings 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 opinion of officers of high reputation and general experience, who have written on this subjects, may be profitable 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, 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 in 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 practiced 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 judgement 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 halliards, 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 headway 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 sternway; … to lower the boat with any degree of safety, the vessel's way must either be stopped, or her way at all events deadened; the better way of producing the effects admits of more than one opinion. The manœuvre which subjects a vessel to control under head and not sternway 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 mainsail 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 shipped water, lost oars, or of their crews being exhausted, the ship would, by tacking, be in the immediate position for affording succor; the subject is left to the reader as one deserving of 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 Boyd, R.N.
* Captain Basil Hall's Fragments.
* Captain Liardet's Professional Recollections.
† Captain Kynaston, on Casualties at Sea.
Stephen Bleecker Luce: Seamanship: Compiled from Various Authorities and Illustrated with numerous Original and Selected Designs: for the Use of the United States Naval Academy.
D. Van Nostrand, New York, 1863 (2nd). pp 503-506.
First edition 1862.
Transcribed by Lars Bruzelius
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