How would you get an MOB casualty back aboard? Rachael Sprot and Bruce Jacobs test two of the latest MOB retrieval devices
Jonbuoy Recovery Module
The Jonbuoy is a well-respected piece of equipment. Many boat owners would have one on board, were it not for the upfront cost and annual servicing requirements. Nevertheless if it can solve the age-old problem of MOB retrieval, many people might consider it worth the expense. We wanted to test one out before potentially equipping both Rubicon 3 expedition yachts with self-inflating Jonbuoys.
The unit is simple to mount on the pushpit, and its compact case makes it much less cumbersome than stowing a danbuoy or horseshoe lifebuoy. We tested it with a real person in the water, in benign conditions and sheltered waters in the Azores.
It was a lot easier to deploy than a standard danbuoy – you simply pull a tag and the whole thing releases straight over the side. There is no separate light to throw in, no drogue in a pocket to remove or bundle of floating line to worry about. Perfect.
No sooner had we had deployed it, than the first question was raised: is this a marking device or an MOB retrieval device? We deployed it as soon as we could, in order to use it as a starting point for a search if we lost visual contact with the casualty. If we were sailing downwind at speed on a dark night, how quickly would we have managed that? We would do well to get it within 200m of the casualty.
In our test scenario, our fit, young guinea pig Graham had the wherewithal to lie on his back and scull himself 20m to reach it. Is that realistic in any kind of wind or sea state? If not, perhaps it would be wiser to keep the Jonbuoy on board and deploy it nearer the casualty on your return but, in the meantime, what do you mark them with? The danbuoy that you thought you were replacing? Hmm.
The next snag was getting into the Jonbuoy. Wearing a 290N offshore lifejacket, our test casualty struggled with this, although he did manage after a few attempts. Could he have done it in more of a sea state or if he’d been less agile?
A standard 150N lifejacket would make it much easier of course. Perhaps a three-sided design with an internal grab handle would help, so that you could slide onto the floor rather than have to heave yourself over the edge. Other minor snags were that the flagpole was wedged into the raft and the casualty had to free it. Part of the casing, which acts as a drogue, fell off.
Once inside, it was secure and safer than being in the water. MOB retrieval was easy. We came alongside, grabbed the lifting strop with a boat hook, which is conveniently Velcroed to the flagpole, and clipped it on to a halyard to winch on board. Also included in the Jonbuoy module is a 5m throwing line for a conscious casualty to use.
This is so nearly a brilliant piece of kit. For inshore or coastal sailing it will be a valuable tool in your armoury, but we have a nagging suspicion that in anything over a Force 5 a casualty won’t be able to reach it, or get into it.
YW rating: 3.5/5
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Catch and Lift MOB retrieval system
The Catch and Lift system is a brand new and entirely different idea. It is designed to lift a conscious casualty from the water by using a drogue, the boat’s forward motion and a pulley on the shrouds. Before testing it I was convinced that it was either ingenious or utterly bonkers.
To set up the MOB retrieval system, you must first install the correct sized clamp on your shrouds to act as a permanently rigged strong point. The rest of the system lives in a hard yellow case, with an optional deck-mounting bracket.
When the casualty falls in, you open the box and attach the swivel block to the strong point on the shrouds. The block has a long floating line running through it. One end of the line has a floating sling and carabiner and the other has a drogue. Deploy the sling and circle the casualty until they can reach it.
Once the casualty has clipped the carabiner on or donned the sling, the drogue is deployed and the vessel driven away from the casualty. The force of water in the drogue will pull the casualty towards the boat, before a final nudge of the throttle will pick them up and bring them on board.
No winching, no jabbing with a boathook, and, if you’re really slick, you don’t even have to leave the cockpit. What’s more, no close-quarters boat handling is required: the casualty comes to you rather than the other way around.
It sounds like an incredible solution to that age-old problem of how a smaller person might retrieve their larger partner. But there are some considerable downsides to this system. Firstly, doing circles around a casualty in a big swell and strong winds is dangerous.
You could always make a normal upwind approach to the casualty and throw the sling to them once they’re close enough to reach it, but the floating line needs to be shorter to use it in this way.
Secondly, in its current configuration, there is no way to release the casualty. Although you can pause the manoeuvre by stopping the boat, it is not one that can be reversed. During the test our casualty accidentally put on both the carabiner and the sling, which made it very uncomfortable to be lifted on board, but we couldn’t lower him back down.
Thirdly, if you are not careful, the casualty is drawn in alongside the boat from the stern where there is the potential for them to slip under the transom. Careful boat handling and turning towards the casualty in the final stages of approach will bring them in on the beam, but this means adopting a different point of sail, and risks the boat speeding up too much.
There is a training model to help demonstrate the process, however, and you can deploy the Catch and Lift system and repack it yourself.
Some aspects of the system are brilliant. I particularly liked having the strong point permanently rigged to the shrouds. This was simple, unobtrusive and could form the basis of a very effective MOB retrieval system.
With a clamp on each shroud and a ready-to-use purchase system in a cockpit locker, you could rapidly rig up a pulley system to bring a casualty on board from the shrouds, avoiding the need to go back to the cockpit and man a winch.
The drogue part of the system is less convincing. In our test scenario it worked surprisingly well, but I have serious doubts as to how safe it would be in any kind of sea or weather, especially if sailing with the mainsail hoisted, as it nearly always would be.
Price: From €495
YW rating: 2.5/5
There is a very real problem in the marine industry in that it is difficult to test equipment on real people in real situations. No matter how simple the plan or how clever your rescue equipment, you still need to train with it. The Jonbuoy is more intuitive than the Catch and Lift, but more or less impossible to train with. The Catch and Lift seems much more complicated, but with regualar practice it might become a useful tool.
Boat owners need to identify the right kit for their particular needs, and practise with it. The cry of ‘man overboard’ will always send shivers down the spines of those who hear it, but with the right equipment and the right training, you’ll be able to implement a plan to get them back.
About the authors
Rachael Sprot (pictured right) and Bruce Jacobs are the co-founders of Rubicon 3, an adventure sailing company that specialises in expeditions and voyages to some of the world’s more remote and exciting locations – ideal proving ground for testing sailing equipment.
First published in the December 2017 edition of Yachting World.