Man Overboard Under Sail, Figure-Eight Maneuver

, Man Overboard Under Sail, Figure-Eight Maneuver

Basic overview: the steps for this maneuver are to move to a beam reach, tack, another beam reach, luff, go to close reach, pick up item.

Sounds easy! It actually is, and you can retrieve a person – or more likely – a hat overboard – faster than dropping sail and cranking up the engine.

, Man Overboard Under Sail, Figure-Eight Maneuver
Boat is sailing along, close-hauled, small coil of line is the “swimmer.”

Theory – Running Is Similar to Downhill Skiing

In downhill skiing, if you drop your, say, hat, and continue to ski down hill, your hat is up-hill from you. Then you would have to traverse back and forth and climb uphill to retrieve it.

On a boat, that would be like sailing downwind, then continuing to sail downwind, then having to beat back and forth to weather to get back to the person / item.

Just like in skiing, it is easier to maneuver to put yourself on the same “plane” as the item you wish to retrieve.

Theory – Close-Hauled Is Like Hiking Uphill

If you were hiking uphill, and you dropped your water bottle, and if you continued to hike uphill, your water bottle would be downhill from you. If you tried to go straight back downhill, you might slide right past your water bottle and not be able to stop exactly there.

On a sailboat, sailing to weather – or – close hauled working your way upwind, if you continued sailing upwind, you would be further and further upwind from your man overboard.

If you turned to retrieve them, they would be directly downwind and no luffing on Earth would luff your sails to slow you down. Your sails would be pinned against your shrouds. You would shoot right past the person. If you tried to round up at just the right moment; it would be nearly impossible to time it exactly.

, Man Overboard Under Sail, Figure-Eight Maneuver
Boat moves to a beam reach. Note wind adjustment.

Better Technique – Move to Beam Reach

The solution is to, upon hearing the cry, “man overboard!” is turning the sailboat immediately to a beam reach.

At this point, press the MOB button on the GPS, assign a spotter to not take their eyes off the person, and throw the Type IV throwable cushion. Also, prepare lines, boat hook, flares, and call “Mayday” or “Pan Pan” on the radio depending on the situation. If necessary, toss all the cushions overboard to make a large “scatter zone” or whatever is your agreed-upon procedure.

Don’t bother with the sails. They will be trimmed improperly, which will slow the boat. But that’s not a problem, since sailing away from your victim faster is not the goal. Unless your sails are huge, then you might have to over-luff them just to decelerate.

So, immediately assume a beam reach, and beam reach away from the person three or four or five boat lengths. This will vary depending on the acceleration of your boat, or lack of. Your goal is to make it back to the victim, nearly at a stop.

Some methods suggest seven to eight lengths. Our boats are fairly slow, so, we can tack fairly early and still struggle to return to the “swimmer.” Other boats may need a lot more distance in order to decelerate. I’m not a fan of getting too far away from our victim.

, Man Overboard Under Sail, Figure-Eight Maneuver
Boat tacks into the wind. Apparent wind will appear differently now.

Controlled Tack

Then make a controlled, planned, anticipated, announced tack. Nice and safe, sails fluttering from one side to the other.

Don’t accidentally gybe. This is not the time to knock your spotter right off the deck, five boat lengths from the original person overboard.

Depending on the boat, you may or may not need to sheet in the jib sheet. The main should be set fairly well, but might need to be cast off if you accelerate too much.

As long as someone releases the jib, then the helmsman can decide whether they need to sheet in or out on the main sheet.

This is why practice on the boat you will be operating is a good idea; because each boat reacts differently under different sail combinations and different wind speeds.

, Man Overboard Under Sail, Figure-Eight Maneuver
Due to apparent wind, beam reach is different from opposite beam reach.

Beam Reach Back to the Victim

If you draw a figure eight, and look at the wind from where the boat begins, you will see that the beam reach back to the victim actually looks like it would be a run.

This is due to the difference between true and apparent wind. Whichever way you are sailing, as long as you are moving forward, the apparent wind will appear to be forward of the true wind.

You must remember that on the initial path, when the person fell overboard, say with the vessel close-hauled, the wind was not actually as far forward as it appeared. When you drop to a beam reach, the apparent wind makes the wind appear to be at 30° apparent, but is actually at 45° true.

You dropped to what was a beam reach, what you perceived put the wind at 90° from the bow. Actually, it was more of a broad run, but your forward motion made everything read beam reach.

So, after the tack, the apparent wind now moves further toward your bow. You must quite purposely sail downwind of your victim on the next-to-final approach. You must sail about 120° to the true wind, which puts you at 90° to the apparent wind. Think of the final “leg” of the eight – it dips away, then back toward your victim to close the eight.

, Man Overboard Under Sail, Figure-Eight Maneuver
Final approach on close reach allows powering and de-powering of sails.

Final Approach

On the final approach, now is the time to estimate how fast your boat is moving, and how much sheeting out or in you need to do – by hand – very gently – to move right up to the person.

The preferred approach is with the person to leeward, where possibly the jib sheets will hang down and give them something to grasp. I always thought that the jib sheets would whack the person in the head, knocking off their eyeglasses. The idea is to give them something on which to hold.

That final approach on a close reach allows you to easily sheet in to accelerate. Or, you can sheet out to decelerate, or fully luff, or fully accelerate.

A close hauled point of sail could possibly result in an accidental tack – and subsequent fast acceleration away from your person, so avoid that.

Victim Alongside

Once alongside, simply hold all – change nothing – let the boat rock and slide, focus instead on getting the person back on board. Hopefully you already have a plan for how to handle this.

At all points, the helmsperson also has to be aware of traffic around the boat, positions of everyone on the boat, safety of everyone on the boat, and a zillion other considerations.

, Man Overboard Under Sail, Figure-Eight Maneuver

Simple Steps

Beam reach, tack, beam reach, luff, close reach. Pick ‘em up.

It’s no good if you don’t practice it, though. Practice – practice on a piece of floating trash, an orange peel, whatever! Some fun items to practice on are anything floating freely – palm fronds, watermelon rind, abandoned hats.

I would not recommend practicing on something attached to the bottom, like a marker or a crab pot. Getting blown against it a navigational beacon could damage your boat. Having the tide carry you over a crab pot could result in pot warp wrapped around your prop.

The ASA – American Sailing Association has some wonderful reference books. Their Sailing Made Easy has great diagrams for all safety maneuvers, so it’s worth reading. When you sign up for a 101 Basic Keelboat Sailing Certification class, you will receive Sailing Made Easy. If you prefer to read well in advance of taking a class, many ASA schools will deduct the cost of the book from your class registration if you already have it.

Some further reading would serve you well. Here’s a good example from the Royal Yachtmaster: Man overboard. Sailing magazines’ Crew-overboard recovery is worth reading as well and presents four methods. US Sailing’s Man Overboard Recovery Procedure article brings up great points about calling for help.

, Man Overboard Under Sail, Figure-Eight Maneuver

Have I Had to Perform This?

Yes and no. Several hundred times on a throw-able cushion, several times on hats, and once for a cat.

While teaching sailing school, we run through this maneuver as many times as we have students, and sometimes a couple extra times.

Every time I learn a bit more about the boat I am on that day. I learn how the boat will react, and I learn exactly how much momentum it will carry for every combination of sail and wind speed.

I have learned how many techniques did not work for us or our boats. After a couple hundred times, I can tell when we make our final approach if we will overshoot or fall short. I can feel if we will drift closer or further away. I know if we will come to a stop next to the victim, or have too much speed on the final approach.

Whether it was successful or not, each practice allows the students to learn and gain experience.

The cat – Spencer accidentally jumped overboard, and we did rescue him. We performed a classic figure-eight method, except, with an additional stall in the middle of the tack in order to lower our rowing boat and reach him.

While You’re Out There…

Stay on the boat. And, speaking of staying safe; wear your sunscreen. I’m loving this tinted variety from Stream2Sea. Their mineral, reef-safe sunscreens come in tinted or non-tinted, and 20 or 30 spf. Use my code “KimW” to save 10% off your coral-safe sunscreen. Now, go sailing!

Here’s a great read: How to Get the Most out of Class as a Sailing School Student

If you already lost your hat, then read: In Search of the Best Sailing Hat Ever

Or: Fueling a Sailboat Safely and Efficiently

Maybe even: Don’t Make These Beginning Sailing School Student Mistakes


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