What to do if a person falls overboard

How to reduce the risk of a person falling overboard. Plus what to do if you – or another person – falls overboard. Steps to take to keep everyone safe.

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What to do

If someone falls overboard, try not to panic. Do not jump in after them – this puts you both at risk of drowning.

If you fall overboard

If you fall overboard, try to get as much of your body out of the water as possible, for example, by climbing back on to the vessel. If you cannot climb onto the vessel, try to grab hold of it or any other floating object. Try to stay with the vessel. Only swim to shore if it's very close. Distances on the water can be deceptive.

If you are driving a personal watercraft (PWC) or small powerboat and it has a kill switch lanyard, this will shut down the engine when you fall in the water. Some PWC have an automatic idle and self-circling capacity. When you fall off, it will circle slowly, giving you a chance to climb back on. Try to climb on at the stern.

If someone else falls overboard

If someone else falls overboard:

  • Slow down immediately.
  • Throw the person a lifejacket or marker immediately – if you lose sight of them this will help you find them.
  • Warn approaching vessels.
  • Move towards the person from downwind or against the current.
  • Keep the person in sight while you manoeuvre to pick them up, taking care not to collide with them. Tell any other passengers to keep a lookout.
  • Turn off the engine or place the engine in neutral while trying to pick the person up.
  • Establish your position using shore marks or your GPS position. An accurate position will help search and rescue.
  • Once the person is alongside, stop the engine. Balance the weight on the vessel before attempting to bring them on board. Consider bringing them over the stern if the vessel is unstable.

Reduce the risk

  • Have a person-overboard drill, and practise it regularly and in all conditions.
  • Wear a lifejacket. It can save your life if you fall overboard or end up in the water because of collision, capsizing or swamping.
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs – as the driver, you must stay under the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) legal limit.
  • It’s recommended that passengers also stay under the alcohol legal limit. They’re more at risk of falling overboard if they’ve been drinking alcohol. They may also need to take action in a collision, or if the vessel capsizes or is swamped.
  • Never ride on the bow of a powered vessel when it's underway. This significantly increases your risk of falling overboard.
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