Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

A recent MOB incident which happened during one of the recent Victory monthly races prompts me to comment on the recovery technique based on my own experience (well over a dozen recoveries, including three involving myself ) as well as recommendations of the US Coast Guard and USCG Auxiliary and US Sailing.


Some basic rules:

  • Deploy floatable devices like the square cushions, horseshoes or rings which are required equipment on most vessels. This provides visibility and time to prepare for rescue and approach the victim
  • Talk to the victim – tell them how you plan to help them and that you are not going to leave them
  • Prepare and deploy a line attached to the boat which the victim can hold on to and be pulled close to the boat
  • You and your crew should not enter the water except in extenuating circumstances – e.g. baby in the water. Recovery efforts are much more effective from aboard a boat, and “helpful” swimmers, in addition to being inefficient, end up needing to be recovered themselves.
  • If the task exceeds your capabilities call for help and remain on scene to provide such assistance as you can


Most of my experience is with relatively stable platforms such as Boston Whalers. Following deployment of flotation devices and cautious approach the focus here is in helping the victim(s) into the boat. In my experience boarding ladders were not available so the recoveries involved assisting the victim get their chest onto the gunwale, then swinging their legs into the cockpit. A few victims were able to heave themselves onto the rescue boat but most needed assistance:

  • Grab the victim by the belt or waistband and instruct them to kick and heave as you pull them up on the count of three
  • Grip the shoulder straps of the victim’s life jacket (all of my victims were wearing PFDs) and heave onboard with assistance from the victim as above.
  • In one case the victim was so heavy that they could not be brought into the boat and needed to be towed a short distance to shore. In such cases in rough waters or further offshore the appropriate action would have been to make a mayday call for assistance


Recovery from a Victory sailboat is more difficult: If under sail constant attention is needed to keep the boat under control, making it imperative that crew stay on board. Our gunwales and transom areas are broad and don’t provide good handholds to assist in scaling the sides. Each of our Victories (and Ensigns) is equipped with a boarding ladder which is meant to be hooked onto the winch. Trouble is, when deployed as intended the ladder extends more or less horizontally from the boat and the lowest rung does not touch the water. This is intended as the weight of a person on the ladder heels the boat to make the ladder vertical if all goes well… However, many victims cannot put enough weight on the ladder to achieve the required heel. What to do:

  • Have all on board hike out on the ladder side to increase heel. This may help the victim get in a position to climb the ladder. Assist them by grabbing their belt or waistband or otherwise giving them a hand.
  • If the victim cannot climb the (vertical) ladder, try moving crew to the other side to bring the ladder with victim horizontal and assist them to crawl into the boat
  • If the victim cannot be brought aboard in this manner it may be possible to simply assist them to heave themselves into to boat as in the examples above.
  • Another approach is to use a line with a bowline loop, asking the victim to put their foot into the loop and then winching then in using a winch handle. The victim’s foot and leg will tend to swing under the hull so the leg must be held straight and the victim must be steadied by giving them a hand (safety grip! – hands grip each other’s wrists). Be careful fingers do not get pinched between line and boat!
  • A further approach is to span the stern line to a winch, forming a loop which the victim can step on to assist in boarding. As above, victim’s legs will swing under the boat so victim must be helped to stay upright. Depth of loop can be adjusted by using the winch.

In all of these methods physical assistance is required. If possible, consider transferring crew from nearby boats to get more help on the scene. Again, additional manpower on your boat is much preferable to having additional, less effective, manpower in the water trying to assist. For illustration of the use of a ladder on a Victory you might want to view a video ( made in 2010 by club mate Wes Bachman, assisted by Kris Valentino and Al Martin and starring Bob Coburn as the victim. For you newbies Bob was up for anything foolish, in the best tradition of USAF fighter pilots. He was the one who named his boat (611) “Sabre” in memory of his first fighter, an F-86 Sabre. You will observe that even under controlled conditions recovery is not straightforward. The film also shows the use of a commercial boarding ladder, which appears to be more useful.


Ensigns present different challenges. They are more stable – stiffer – and will not heel like a Victory. Thus hanging the ladders on a winch will not make them available to a victim in the water. I do not have personal experience of this, but assume that hooking them on to a cleat will allow the ladder to hang vertically. Ensign skippers should experiment to see what works best.


A final caution regarding our ladders: there are reports of ladders breaking. I have not personally experienced this problem but considering that our ladders are over 20 years old breaking would not be a surprise. It may be time to investigate and replace if necessary.


Harry Smith