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Common Mistakes While Performing The Figure Eight Man Over Board Procedure

Oct 11, 2007
This article describes common boat handling mistakes made when performing the figure eight man over board drill while sailing. The information in this article originates from the experiences teaching the figure eight man over board drill at Fair Wind Sailing School where the drill is performed close to a thousand times per year.

Figure 8 Man Over Board Procedure -- Overview
The Figure 8 Man Over Board (MOB) Drill is often the first man over board drill taught to new sailors since it can be accomplished without performing a potentially dangerous gybe. To properly perform the drill, the helmsman quickly positions the sailing craft onto a beam reach and progresses across the wind and away from the man over board far enough to allow maneuverability of the vessel. The distance required to gain maneuverability varies by type of boat, but is typically 4-6 boat lengths.

Next, the boat is tacked back toward the MOB and then steered onto a broad reach. The objective of the broad reach is to get downwind of the man in the water, a critical prerequisite to returning the man over board. Once the vessel has progressed a sufficient distance to allow the victim to be approached on a close reach, the vessel is turned to that point of sail and the man over board is approached. Finally, the vessel is coasted to a stop next to and to windward of the man in the water. Note that a sailing vessel can typically only be stopped while heading upwind, hence the importance of first positioning the vessel downwind of the man over board prior to making the final approach.

Common Error One -- Sailing Too Far Upwind
Our experience demonstratyes that three fundamental mistakes are made during the drill. The first mistake is that most helmsmen do not get the boat to a beam reach and continue sailing upwind of the victim. Reasons for this include the confusion and anxiety of first learning about the man over board, lack of focus on point of sail and, on occasion, panic. The mistake comes in two common forms. First, not turning on to a beam reach immediately, but waiting until the boat has traveled several lengths upwind before turning. Second, turning the boat, but not turning far enough away from the wind to get all the wind to a beam reach. Rather, continuing to sail on a close reach.

The impact of this error is threefold. First, since the victim can only be picked up with the vessel downwind of the victim and moving upwind, the further the boat goes upwind of the victim the more distance it must travel to get downwind. This makes the maneuver longer and keeps the victim in the water longer. The second issue is that the further the boat moves away from the man in the water, the more difficult it is to judge the points of sail and necessary boat maneuvers to effectively get back to the victim. This is especially true for new sailors. Finally, the further the vessel moves away from the victim, the more difficult it can be to see the victim in the water.

Common Error Two -- Failing To Get Downwind of The Victim
The next common error occurs after the tack procedure. After completing the tack and turning back toward the victim in the water, there is a strong desire to sail directly to the person in the water -- after all you can't get someone back on board until you get to them. This, however, is not the best course of action. Sailing directly to the person from this position means the boat will approach the victim on a beam reach -- the fastest point of sail for most boats. Since it is nearly impossible to stop the boat on a beam reach and the boat will be moving far to fast to make contact with the man over board and pull him or her on board, this technique will not be of much help.

After completing the tack, the goal is to get the vessel downwind of the man over board. This means heading on a broad reach below (i.e. downwind) the man over board and not directly at the MOB. The purpose of this technique is to maneuver the boat downwind so it can eventually make an upwind approach to the victim. To review, while there is a strong desire to head directly toward the man over board after completing the tack, heading to the MOB at this point have the boat arriving too fast to stop and too fast to recover the man over board. The proper course of action is to avoid that instinct and head the boat down wind of the man over board.

Common Error Three -- Approaching on a Close Hauled Course
A third common error is to return to the victim upwind, but on a close hauled course rather than a close reach. The issue with returning on a close hauled course is one of flexibility and safety. If the wind is steady, victim stationary and the course perfectly called, it is possible to complete the maneuver successfully close hauled. However, with a small shift in the wind, drift of the man over board or error in calling the course line, returning close hauled runs the risk of stalling the boat since it is impossible to turn the boat closer to the wind without stalling flow over the sails. Thus, your options are limited maneuverability diminished. The preferred point of sail to approach is to return on a close reach that allows the helmsman steering ability in either direction while still moving upwind to slow the boat speed.

The Figure Eight MOB is a safe and effective means of recovering a man over board under sail. Common errors occur with executing beam reach, broad reach and close reach procedures, however these can be avoided with concentration and focus.
About the Author
Capt Dave Bello is President of Fair Wind Sailing School, an ASA affiliate sailing school offering monohull and catamaran sailing charters and sailing lessons, in the Virgin Islands Chesapeake Bay and on Lake Erie.
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