Crew Overboard (COB)

Falling overboard and drowning is a major cause of fatalities involving small boats. On a small boat this can happen more easily due to the instability of the craft.
Falling overboard can happen on any size boat.

Preventing an overboard situation is relatively easy when you use a little common sense. Sadly, one of the most common causes of COB and subsequently drowning is a crew member relieving himself over the side of the boat in a standing position. Avoid this disaster; go below and use the head.

A crew member is pulled aboard a search and rescue boat by law enforcement personel.

Prevention Tips

On small boats

  • Board one person at a time
  • Step into the middle of the boat
  • Keep weight low and centered
  • Add non-skid or grip tape in strategic areas
  • Keep pets like large dogs from moving about

On large boats

  • Assure solid footing and keep decks uncluttered
  • Always sit in areas designated by the operator; never on the gunnels, bow or swim platform
  • Check life lines and railing devices that keep passengers aboard for wear or weakness
  • Boats over 16’ in length must have a Type IV throw-able safety device like a horseshoe buoy

Three Points of Contact – Good Advice for all Boaters

While on board you should always strive to have three points of contact with the boat. This means, you should have both feet planted and holding on with at least one hand. Or, if you are moving about, hold on with both hands to something firm like a grab rail or stanchion and take one step at a time. If seated, have your feet touching the floor, or holding on with both hands. Having three points of contact assures that your body is positioned in such a way that the majority of your body is in contact with the boat, and you won't be set off-balance easily.

Additionally, avoid standing and sudden movements whenever operating your boat and plan ahead to avoid unsafe operating and environmental conditions like bad weather or rough water. This goes for your passengers too. If your boat is operated while standing, such as a center console, assure solid footing and brace yourself if it has a leaning post or bolster chair. Always wear your engine cut-off lanyard so that the engine stops if you go overboard. Crew-overboard (COB) victims face a number of dangers, including panic, injury during the fall, and hypothermia. For those aboard the boat, quick thinking and coordinated action are essential to an effective rescue.

Some Crew Overboard (COB) Rescue Tips

A crew member maintains watch on the person overboard by pointing to them and not losing eye contact.

  • Stop the boat's forward progress! Every second that you move away from the COB will make it harder for you to get back to them.
  • Get floatation to the person. Items such as a Lifesling will help keep the swimmer afloat and help you get them into the boat.
  • Take a head count to see who fell overboard. Knowing who (or how many) fell overboard will help you plan the rescue. For instance, if the largest person on the boat fell overboard, it might take more equipment or people to bring that person back aboard. Knowing who you are going after will help you decide who needs to do what in the rescue.
  • Assign roles to crew members. Such as having a lookout to keep the victim in sight, to keep people involved in the rescue.
  • Get the boat next to the COB. Placing your boat between the swimmer and the wind (upwind) will give a lee to the person and will give them flatter seas, but you run the risk of floating over them, which will take away your ability to steer due to the danger of the propeller.
  • The better way is to have the swimmer between the boat and the wind by approaching the swimmer from downwind. This will increase your ability to maneuver, and will take less time to get the person to the boat.
  • Get the person on the boat. This can be very difficult, especially if the person is hurt, weak, or unconscious. Lifeslings, swim platforms, ladders, and brute strength are all methods of bringing someone on board. Practice all and pick the best one for your boat and crew. For further reading on COB rescue equipment, check out Foundation Findings  articles.
  • Avoid sending a rescuer into the water. This will just be another person that could potentially need rescue. If someone needs to go over to help a week or injured person, make sure they have a life jacket on and a lifeline secured to them.

The Importance of COB Drills


Unfortunately, despite all preventive efforts, accidents can still occur. The need for crew-overboard drills cannot be emphasized enough. Your entire crew should practice the maneuver until recovery is second nature. Before you depart, show everyone where the life saving gear is located and how to use it. Practice first with a floating cushion, then with a swimmer and another boat standing by. These drills can often make the difference between a tragedy and a mishap on the water. It’s always a good idea to practice throwing a life ring or cushion – they are quite a bit harder to throw than you might think. With practice and the right equipment, you can safely and quickly recover someone who has fallen overboard. Crew over board procedures should be practiced at the beginning of every boating season and from time to time over the course of the boating season. Doing so may save someone's life - even your own! For specific maneuvers including diagrams for boat sail boats and power boats, see the “Man Overboard Rescue” article in BoatUS Magazine