A passenger on a small boat falls overboard. how should this person be pulled back onto the boat? (2023)

Unless the day’s intention is watersports, staying on the dry side of the water is the goal of any safe boating trip. Whether it’s a short jaunt around a familiar lake, exploring a new, uncharted fishing spot, or towing a wakeboarder, intended entry should be the only way someone gets into thewater.


  • Immediately yell “manoverboard!”
  • Throw a flotationdevice
  • Stop thevessel
  • Press the MOBbutton
  • Carefully navigate back to theperson
  • Get themaboard
  • Gethelp
  • 1stMate MOB alertsystem
  • The Dangers of Falling Overboard
  • Cold shock response
  • Risk of being too close to the ship
  • Hypothermia
  • Aquatic creatures
  • What can be done to save the victim?
  • What can the victim do?
  • Suggested Reading

But boating can have unexpected moments from another boat’s wake, for example, and if the captain or a passenger isn’t prepared, falling off-balance could mean falling over the rail. Do you know what to do if someone fallsoverboard?

In this harrowing situation, it’s easy to lose your bearings. Here are seven things you should do if someone fallsoverboard.

Immediately yell “manoverboard!”

Alert everyone on the vessel that there’s a person in the water. Seconds matter in this situation, and bellowing as loud as possible, “MAN OVERBOARD!” immediately is necessary. Instantly, everyone’s focus will shift to doing what’s necessary to locating and helping the person in thewater.

Subsequently, at least one person should maintain visual contact with the person who fell overboard at all times. That will be their role until the person has been retrieved from thewater.

Throw a flotationdevice

If there’s a horse buoy or PFD close at hand when the person goes overboard, throw it as near to them as you can, even before the boat throttles down. If the man overboard isn’t wearing a PFD, swimming to a buoyant object nearby could save their life while the boat circles back tohelp.

Stop thevessel

As quickly as safely possible, stop the boat and cut the engine. Spinning propellers can cause immense injuries if the person in the water is nearby. Besides, it’s possible that you can retrieve the passenger without restarting the engine if you shut down soonenough.

Press the MOBbutton

If your vessel has a MOB button, push it when the person enters the water. This marks the coordinates via GPS to help you locate the passenger. It’s especially important if there’s only one or two people aboard or there’s poor visibility, so you can retrieve them quickly andaccurately.

Carefully navigate back to theperson

The boat’s momentum can carry you far from the overboard person, or the current could do the same. If necessary, restart the engine and carefully return to their location. This is where maintaining a visual is so important – if you can’t see the person overboard, it’s possible you could cause further injuries if you hit them with the boat. Go slow, and when you are near enough, toss them a line to pull them close rather bringing the boat inclose.

Get themaboard

Swiftly but safely, bring the passenger aboard. They may be able to climb onto a swim platform or you may need to provide assistance pulling them over the rail. Be careful as they may be injured. If they’re unconscious, support their neck and back as well as you can to prevent aggravating itfurther.


If someone hasn’t done so yet, call emergency services. The faster your reaction time, the better the chances are to get the help necessary. It’s always possible to have them stand down if the overboard person is alright, but minutes could be the difference between a positive outcome and one that’s much lessdesirable.

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A passenger on a small boat falls overboard. how should this person be pulled back onto the boat? (1)

1stMate MOB alertsystem

Wearing a 1st Mate fob makes the “typical” MOB response so much easier and safer, allowing for precise tracking and better response time. If it’s the captain that’s gone over and they’re wearing a 1st Mate fob, the MOB function will immediately shut down the engine once the fob senses the water, and 1st Mate can be set up to notify a trusted person or emergency services with the boater’s location. If it’s the captain or a passenger wearing a 1st Mate fob that goes overboard, an MOB marker will automatically be set and their locationtracked.

Want to know more about 1st Mate and its benefits? Go to 1stmate.com for more information or contact your local Mercury Marine dealer to hear what 1st Mate can do foryou.










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If someone falls overboard from a ship, the best thing to do is to raise a ‘Man overboard!’ alarm and keep track of the victim’s location. The ship can then turn back to get the fallen passenger by using a ‘man overboard rescue turn.’ The victim can try to stay calm and relaxed, and hope for the best.

Falling overboard from a ship in the open sea is one of the worst things that could happen to someone traveling onboard. Why, you ask? Well, mainly because there are a number of dangers involved and the odds of rescue are severely stacked against the victim. It sounds pessimistic, but it’s true. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you’ll understand why.

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The Dangers of Falling Overboard

The Fall

To start with, there’s the fall itself. You might already know that large vessels, such as cruise and naval ships, have their decks well above the surface of the water. This means that the height of the fall will be atleast a few dozen meters, if not more.

Cruise ships are huge(Photo Credit: Pixabay)

The risk of bodily harm also depends on how you fall, i.e., your body posture while falling. Unless you are purposely jumping overboard (which you shouldn’t!), it’s highly likely that you will be in a pretty bad position, as far as breaking the surface is concerned.

To be more specific, water is essentially an incompressible liquid, which means that falling on water from a reasonable height is not that much different from falling on solid ground. That’s why people (like divers) who purposely jump in water do so… (a) from as low a height as possible and (b) assume a pencil-like posture to efficiently break the surface without injuring themselves.


Divers often assume this position while taking the plunge (Image Source: Wikipedia.org)

Someonewho falls in the water from a great by an accident is, therefore, likely to sustain not-so-minor injuries (broken bones and fractures are a definite possibility).

Cold shock response

When the human body suddenly becomesimmersed in chilling water (like in the case of falling overboard in the sea), it involuntarily lets out all the air inside it and involuntarily tries to gasp and take in as much air as possible.

Cold shock response is a reflex thatis triggered when the human body comes in contact with something extremely cold.

The result of this could cause the victim to involuntarily swallow the surrounding cold saltwater, which could further aggravate the situation if the victim is underwater. In fact, cold shock response is probably the most common cause of death from sudden immersion in very cold water (Source).

Risk of being too close to the ship

One of the other risks of falling too close to the ship is being tossed around by the strong currents. If it’s a big ship, you wouldn’t be sucked under or shredded by the propellers, but wouldprobably be thrown away by the turbulent water around the ship’s hull, which could make it more difficult for someone onboard to locate the victim.


The chances (and also duration) of your survival rely hugely on the temperature of the water into which you fall. Caribbean waters are not that cold, so you’d be okay for a while, but falling into the frigid, icy waters of the Arctic ocean would result in the loss of brain function and death in a matter of minutes due to hypothermia – a condition where the body loses more heat than it absorbs.

A still from the movie Titanic. Hypothermia was the primary reason behind the death of most passengers after the RMS Titanic sank in the Atlantic in 1912.

Although you’ll have more time if the water temperature is comparatively higher, that doesn’t mean you can stay afloat in the water forever, because even if the water isn’t that cold, it’s still colder than the core temperature of your body. This is why your bodywill dissipate heat to the surrounding water (which is at a higher temperature than your body).

Aquatic creatures

This factor is totally dependent on the fauna biodiversity of the water. The profile of marine creatures in the Arctic, where the water is extremely cold, is quite different from the marine beastsfound in the Caribbean.

Sharks – one of the most dangerous aquatic creatures living in the world’s oceans (Photo Credit: TsuneoMP / Shutterstock)

Although sharks, one of the scariest aquatic creatures known to attack humans, are found in all major oceans of the world, they usually live in regions where the water isn’t too cold. They are also pretty good at locating their prey (through electroreception), and will attack if they sense even small traces of blood in the environment.

The good thing, though, is that most species of sharks (and even other aquatic species) are not aggressive towards humans, and don’t usually attack without provocation. After all, feeding is not the reason sharks typically attack humans.

A blacktip reef shark. In rare circumstances, such as bad visibility, blacktips may bite humans, mistaking them for prey. Under normal conditions, however, they are harmless and even quite shy. (Photo Credit : Wikipedia)

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What can be done to save the victim?

The survival of an overboard passenger depends entirely on how quickly someone realizesthat they’ve fallen overboard. The best case scenario is when someone on the ship actually sees the victim fall overboard, immediately raises a ‘Man overboard!’ alarm, and thenkeeps their own eyes fixed on the victim to track them in the water.

The odds of one’s survival increase manifold if they’re seen falling overboard by someone on the deck.

Keeping track of the exact location of the victim is of the utmost importance. The watersurface in open seas is rarely calm, so the victim might easily be obscured by rising waves and the uneven surface. Things become even worse at night, as all one can see at that pointis nothing but pitch-black water, unless the victim is wearing something fluorescent.

Signal flag Oscar indicates “man overboard”. The flag is often attached to the man overboard pole on boats. (Photo Credit : Wikipedia)

Upon locating the exact position of the toppled victim, people on the ship are supposed to throw a life ring or anything at all that floats near the personso that the victim has something to hold on to until they’re fished out. Also, all of this “stuff” in the water helps mark their exact location.

After the confirmation of a man overboard alarm, the ship can turn back to get the fallen passenger by using a ‘man overboard rescue turn’ – a sailing maneuver usually implemented instantly following a MOB confirmation.

Some of the most popular MOB turns. (Photo Credit : ScienceABC)

Large ships, such as aircraft carriers, cannot instantly maneuver a U-turn and fish out the floating victim. Therefore, instead of turning around a gigantic metallic object, a smaller manned boat (known as the MOB boat) can be launched to rescue the victim.

MOB boat for the M/S Romantika during practice exercises. (Photo Credit : Smurrayinchester / Wikipedia)

What can the victim do?

The best and probably only thing you can do to avoid fallingoverboard is to stay away from the edges and railings on the upper decks of a ship, particularlywhen no one’s around. Because once you land in the water, you can’t do much, apart from waving your arms and calling for help.

Waving arms and calling for help can help those onboard the ship locate you quicker. (Photo Credit: ScienceABC.com)

What you can do is stay calm and relaxed, which can make all the difference between life and death in such situations.

Most importantly, try and stay positive. Be hopeful. Remember that people have fallen overboard in the past and have been rescued successfully.

In fact, there are quite a few survival stories of people who have fallen overboard a ship. Of those I know about, my personal favorite is of a man who fell off a tour boat in the Indian Ocean and stayed in the water for 29 hours straight, surviving through dehydration, storms, sharks and hallucinations of the Virgin Mary!

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