How quickly you react in a man overboard situation can be critical. Pro navigator Mike Broughton gives his top tips and explains how technology can help


Turning a yacht around after a person goes overboard (MOB) and heading back in the right direction to retrieve them isn’t always easy when you’re taken by surprise, particularly at night. As navigators we need to employ all the help available to us, and be able to use any electronic tools instantly.

Sadly, there have been MOB occurrences when the technology has been available and not deployed, or not deployed correctly. The obvious solution is to practice MOB drills.

Coming from a military aviation background I’m used to placing a great emphasis on practising emergencies. To survive military flying training you need to be able to maintain a cool head when things are falling apart. The focus is on developing ‘automotive actions’ to a crisis. Learning the correct initial actions to an emergency is essential for a pilot as these first actions are carried out in seconds.

‘Subsequent actions’ are carried out in a longer timescale, and often with the help of flight reference cards. These can also help confirm those vital ‘initial actions’. I can still remember how to shut down both engines of a Sea King in mid-air in the event of a fire, some 25 years since I last flew that type of helicopter! Sailors can also learn from this method of training.

Different MOB drills are needed for different yachts, depending on wind strength, sea state, number and experience of crew, point of sail, boat speed and time of day. There is good reason why the RYA doesn’t specify a single way to execute a MOB recovery. However, whatever type of yacht you sail, there are still some ‘initial actions’ for MOB that can be standardised.

The subsequent actions will vary depending on the conditions mentioned above. Practice helps a great deal, but even talking through these actions when alongside will help. Not many people go out and practise MOB drills at night.

Searching for a MOB in the dark is never easy. Apart from AIS PLBs, one of the best new ways of showing your position is to utilise ultra-bright LED flares. They are mesmerisingly bright. They last five to six hours and can easily be switched on and off like a torch. I’ve also trialled using an infrared camera.

Using technology

Modern technology can now help in an MOB situation more than ever before, from wearable transmitters that activate an alarm when a crewmember is out of range, to personal locator beacons (PLBs). Crew can now activate the MOB button not just on the chartplotter but also on a smart watch.

Clever boat instrument systems can also translate that information onto other displays that is easy to interpret. If you have AIS transposed onto your chartplotter or navigation software then it can pick up an AIS PLB. Some activate an audio alarm but it helps to know what to expect.

In last year’s RORC Caribbean 600 race, when the 53ft catamaran Fujin capsized at night, I was navigating on a Ker 56 reaching at 20 knots. I’d gone below to download weather data and could hardly hear myself think as the noisy carbon boat crashed through waves. But I heard a beeping sound coming out of the back of the laptop so I checked my power leads and struggled to find reason for it.

About to give up, I scrolled through several weather programmes and discovered it coming from the Adrena navigation software and found my only clue to Fujin’s plight – an AIS PLB and a round red circle on the chart about three miles ahead.

Unable to transmit a Mayday or recover their grab bag in the windy conditions, a Fujin crewmember had initiated his AIS PLB. This was their initial alert. With an AIS PLB there is no boat name showing, so my initial suspicion was that we were looking for a single person in the water – but instead found a capsized catamaran with the whole crew waving torches hoping we’d see them. From this PLB activation a full recovery operation was launched and Fujin was eventually saved.

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If you are overboard in the water, understanding how to activate your PLB or automatic identification system (AIS) transmitter is imperative. Some are set up to activate with your lifejacket and some people (me included) like to have my AIS PLB in my pocket should I happen to ‘sin’ and not wear a lifejacket when sailing in warm waters.

Knowing how to summon help on your VHF radio should also be part of your pre-sailing safety brief. Showing your crew how to push the distress button to utilise the digital selective calling (DSC) is a rapid way to send details of your identity and position.

Due to the annoying number of false alarms, if you press the red button in anger then you need to be ready to authenticate the message with voice or repeat the signal to give the coastguard the confidence to act on a genuine alarm.

Immediate man overboard actions

  • Call out ‘Man Overboard’ to alert the rest of the crew
  • Drop a lifebuoy/danbuoy/jonbuoy
  • Get a crew member to point at the person in the water (where the helmsman can easily see them)
  • Press the MOB button on chart plotter/smart watch
  • By day, throw an orange smoke cannister (have one in easy reach of the helm), at night throw a floating torch
  • Start your recovery manoeuvre


About the author

Mike Broughton is a pro race navigator who has won many titles including World and European championships. He is a qualified MCA Master to captain superyachts and previously had a successful career in the Fleet Air Arm flying Sea King and Lynx helicopters.

First published in the October 2019 edition of Yachting World.