The homo sapien is not an aquatic species. We cannot dwell un-aided under water, in water, or even on the water. But just the same as flying, high-speed travel, and going into space, we’re going to do it anyway. It’s exciting and challenging. There are inherent risks to defying our biological capabilities and we are willing to accept them. We accept the risk in exchange for the positive sensory and psychological reinforcement we get from exceeding our “purpose-built” limitations.
For many of us, this means boating. As long as you are in an enclosed vessel of some sort that is a physical barrier between you and the open water, life is good. However, the moment a person is separated from the vessel; “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” And a very serious problem indeed.
The illustration above is a general timeline of the levels of danger, and their sources, associated with a person going into the water.
For the purposes of this article, we will not address the most obvious safety measures: don’t fall in the water & do wear a life-jacket. We all know these; they are well publicized. But here is the on-the-water reality: 2017 USCG research reports that, across all adult boaters, 11.9% are wearing life-jackets. We are obliged to recognize the sailors’ influence on that number, as the proportion of adult life-jacket wear on all powerboats is all of 7%. With regard to the somewhat tongue-in-cheek advice “Don’t fall in the water” ….well it happens.
Here is the good news; the last ten years have brought us devices that address every aspect of threat to life that a Person in the Water (PIW) encounters.
The one single, overarching, most determinant factor in PIW survival is TIME. Period.
The first threat to a PIW is the knowledge, or lack thereof, that someone has gone overboard. The Centers for Disease Control report 53% of Man Overboard Fatalities on commercial fishing vessels were not witnessed. No one knew they went into the water. This is always a factor on board. An operator should be usually looking forward. There is a great deal of ambient noise. Their attention is divided in myriad directions. The structure of most vessels is such that the passengers are located behind the operator – if there is a line of sight at all. If no one knows a person went over, you have lost all ability to mitigate the time factor.
In the last 10 years, several products have been developed that address this issue. Technology to the rescue! There are several versions of electronic proximity sensors that will alert, in various forms, if a person has gone over. Some will alarm (a stand-alone device or a cell phone), some cut the propulsion ignition (and provide an immediate manual override), and some also provide you instant re-location data in the form of GPS coordinates at the time of the alarm.
If you look at the “Threats to a PIW” curve, you see that the danger spike is split into two parts; ‘Time in the Water’ and ‘The Boat Itself’. We have historically talked a lot about time in the water. What we have not talked much about is the danger that the vessel itself represents when it is returning to a person in the water. Why? Well probably because there simply was no way to truly mitigate that necessary evil. When a person got separated from the vessel, the goal was to reunite them with the vessel. And the only fast way to do that was to bring the vessel directly to the person or to get the vessel close enough to the person to affect a manual rescue. And in most circumstances, both of these things are, put candidly, as much or more of a threat to safety as ‘time in the water’. But we didn’t have any other choice. So we haven’t talked much about it.
Well, now even that has changed. A newly developed device claims to solve this long-swept-under-the-rug problem. It’s called the “Rescu Swim’r” (www.rescuswimr.com). It performs the most common function of a Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer: it delivers a retrieval system/flotation to a PIW, without the aiding-vessel coming in too close in proximity to the PIW. In this case, it is 1st Century technology to the rescue. It’s simply a rudder that mounts to a throwable PFD that causes the PFD, when towed, to vector away from the boat and toward the PIW.
There were already devices (slings or horseshoes) that advise you to tow them to the PIW. The problem with that, though is, again, time. The advised method was to pull the device past the PIW, then turn around them in a tightening corkscrew pattern until the device finally defeats the aquadynamic problem that the PFD is trying to follow the boat - the same boat that shouldn’t be getting near the PIW.
In many trials, inexperienced operators are never able to successfully pull the device to a target at all. The efficacy of the maneuver depends on three things: turning as near around the PIW as possible, making numerous complete 360-degree circles (passes) around the PIW, and having 120-160 feet of retrieval line in order to create enough arc. All of these things are problematic. They are risky, they take a lot of precious time (1 in 5 drownings are fatal in the first 120 seconds) and then hand-pulling an exhausted person 120-160 feet through water after contact is made exhausts all the energy that should be reserved for helping re-board them.
This said, the slings that are available are an invaluable rescue tool. The last element of saving a PIW is making them NOT a PIW; re-boarding them. Larger power boats and sailing vessels have a lot of freeboard. Never underestimate the difficulty of pulling a person onto a boat. If you knew immediately that they went over, and you were equipped with a Rescu Swim’r vectoring PFD, you will have gotten them back to the boat within a minute or two. If you retrieve them within the first couple minutes, they will not have any cold-water paralysis, and they will be able to help board. If you are using some other means to affect retrieval, or they were injured somehow, a sling/hoisting device will be crucial.
The take-away from this tale is a significant one. For the thousands of years that boats been on the water, a MOB situation has ranged somewhere from a death sentence, to an extreme threat to life. But all of the sudden, we have tools for every single element that made it such a monster. Go on, get out on the water. Because now if you go IN the water, and these recent tools are on hand, you’re most likely going to get out.
Unites States Navy Veteran, USCG 100-Ton Master Operator