Man falls overboard when taking a leak

Lookout! Issue 31, August 2014

An experienced sailor had to swim to shore after falling from the stern of a 30 foot yacht with twilight approaching.
Maritime New Zealand ©2020
The sailor fell off the stern of this 30 foot yacht and had to swim to shore.

Departing in the morning in convoy with another yacht, the crew of three enjoyed a reasonable day’s sailing as they tacked into moderate headwinds.

During a squall, all hands were on deck to deal with an overriding turn on a winch. They then started up the engine and motor-sailed so they would reach their destination before nightfall. The skipper and one of the crew went below deck to warm up and rest, leaving the third crew member on watch with the motor running and steering on auto-pilot.

As the lone sailor relieved himself off the stern, a sudden movement of the yacht upset his footing and he fell overboard. With the noise of the engine drowning out his cries for help, he watched the yacht sail away into the distance in the late afternoon. The crew were still resting below decks, unaware of his plight, and the winter twilight was rapidly descending.

Once in the water, the man had to quickly decide whether to conserve energy by staying where he was and hope for rescue, or swim to the shore some kilometres away. Although a strong swimmer, he was lightly dressed and aware of the light fading. He knew his chances of being seen were diminishing and it could be some time before his mates noticed he was missing. He made the choice to head for land.

He struck out through the choppy sea (aware of the risks of hypothermia and drowning) and, after swimming several miles, landed ashore on an island. He then walked the length of the island around the rocks before plunging into the sea again, making for the mainland. When he came ashore, he marked out an ‘SOS’ signal in the sand.

Meanwhile, on board the yacht, the skipper emerged from the cabin after a short rest and noticed a fish on a lure they were towing. As he went about hauling it in, he wondered where his crew mate was, thinking he might be on the fore deck or in the head.

Before long, the skipper shouted out to the other crew below decks to find out whether the third crew member was in the head. Finding that he wasn’t there, the skipper immediately turned the yacht around, called the Police and alerted the yacht they were motoring in convoy with.

Coastguard launched three rescue boats from different locations to begin searching for the man, and a fishing launch was also diverted to assist. A rescue helicopter was also deployed by the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand and its crew searched the sea in the area where the man had gone overboard.

At the same time as the helicopter crew decided to return to base for night vision equipment, they noticed a man on the beach with SOS scrawled in the sand beside him.

The exhausted but grateful man was airlifted to hospital and treated for mild hypothermia before being reunited with his crew mates the next day.


  • The wearing of a well-fitting lifejacket or personal flotation device (PFD), preferably with a crotch strap, allows freedom of movement when sailing or fishing, but also provides potentially life saving flotation in the event of falling or being thrown overboard by a sudden movement of the yacht.
    • MNZ recommends wearing a lifejacket at all times when above decks, especially in situations of heightened risk, such as in poor weather or when sailing short-handed.
  • When short-handed on a vessel, the lifejacket should be fitted with an attachment for a safety lanyard or a harness worn under the lifejacket with jack-lines and/or other attachment points at suitable locations around the yacht, such as at the mast.
  • While this incident had a successful outcome, it could easily have become a tragedy. Many resources were deployed to respond to the search and rescue of the man overboard. The rescue could have been effected more quickly and using fewer resources if the sailor had some way of calling for help.
    • MNZ recommends having two ways to call for emergency help on board your boat, with at least one carried on your person. Having a distress beacon (an EPIRB or a PLB) on board is a reliable way to signal for help.
    • Other methods of maintaining contact should be considered, such as a fixed VHF radio or fully charged waterproof handheld VHF, with contact frequencies kept handy. A mobile phone loaded with emergency contact numbers and sealed inside a waterproof bag or container is a useful back-up – if there is reception.
  • It’s also advisable for boaties to have a waterproof way of a calling for help on their person – a PLB in the pocket of wet weather gear or fastened to a belt will greatly increase chances of rescue should someone go overboard without being seen.
  • Experienced boaties can succumb to momentary lapses in judgment and land themselves in a predicament just as easily as the inexperienced. As an experienced sailor, the man had relieved himself off the stern of a boat many times before. A momentary loss of balance caused by a wave or unexpected vessel movement can easily result in a person falling overboard.
    • There have been a number of cases in recent years in which experienced mariners urinating off the side of a vessel have fallen overboard and drowned, especially at night. Be careful where and how you go.
  • Appropriate protection, such as rails or wires fitted across the open transom, would allow a sailor to lean through the rails when the need arose without risk of falling overboard. Using the toilet or a bucket are other options.
  • Although in this case the skipper called for help as soon as he realised something was amiss, all people on board every boat need to be prepared and know what to do in the event of an emergency.
    • A crew briefing should be conducted before any passage to ensure that someone else can handle the vessel in the case of the skipper becoming incapacitated or falling overboard. Instructions should be given on how to use the radio, start the engine, find the safety equipment and general procedures should the unexpected happen. Man overboard drills can help prepare people for real emergencies.
  • When leaving sheltered New Zealand harbours, the coast should be treated as ‘offshore’ with respect to preparation, as the areas are usually remote and exposed. Trip reporting to a coastal radio station or at least advising someone ashore of intentions is essential.
    • Protective clothing appropriate to the weather conditions and water temperature should be worn, as this makes for more comfortable sailing and offers protection from the cold if you unexpectedly end up in the water.
  • Navigation should be recorded and positions plotted on charts, so that if someone goes overboard, the last position can be provided for search and rescue purposes. A basic GPS chart-plotter can be an invaluable addition to your boat’s safety equipment, as it can be set to record the yacht’s track continuously.

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