4. Crew Overboard Rescue Maneuvers

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Heave-To and Downwind Methods

Below are diagrams that I have been using for years to help sailors get a visual image of the Heave-To method, as well as the most effective ways to return to your person in the water (PIW) from a downwind point of sail.

The Heave-To method is by far the most effective method when sailing on a beat to a beam reach.  We have practiced this in up to 30 kts of wind on OCC's Catalina 42, Betty, and the beauty of the maneuver is that it's fast, and minimizes separation from the PIW when out in the open ocean.  Plus, you avoid the wildly slapping jib sheets when using methods that have you luff up to slow and stop the boat at the PIW.

Downwind, the Heave-To method does not work reliably.  The best downwind rescue maneuver is the Deep Beam Reach, aka the Broad Reach-Close Reach, and this and its variants are shown on the Crew-Overboard Recovery Methods from Downwind page below.  

Note:  this is not a comprehensive treatment of the subject, and different maneuvers may work better on other types of boats.  The maneuvers detailed here do work exceptionally well on a modern sailboat with a masthead rig, fin-keel, and spade-rudder, such as the Catalina 42.

For a larger view, right-click and select open in new tab, or, copy image and paste into a Word document.

A discussion on the subject of Crew Overboard Rescue maneuvers would be great.  Please leave your comments using the "Comment" link below!

A Real MOB Rescue in Newport Harbor

My First Real MOB Recovery – “This is NOT a drill!”    By Chrissie Oppedisano

Planning for a leisurely late afternoon sail in a Harbor 20, Marc and I had just left the OCC docks in Newport Harbor.  I was at the helm on a broad reach, Marc at the jib.  Not far from the dock, in the middle of the channel, we saw a capsized RS dinghy and a man having a rather difficult time trying to get the boat upright.  The wind was blowing from the west at about 12 kts.  The boat was on its side with full main and jib, and the spinnaker was wrapped around the forestay.  We decided to see if we could give him a hand and started upwind to reach him. 

Marc called out to him, but he didn’t answer.  At that moment, as the late afternoon sun’s rays were hitting the water, I saw an arm flailing in the bright reflection on the water about 100-150 feet upwind. Uh-oh!  Looks like someone got dumped when the RS capsized.  And because of the wind, the dinghy had drifted quite far away from the person in the water (PIW).  Wow, all those practice drills sent my brain into automatic response as I called out “man overboard” and started spotting.  Marc took over the helm (thank God!) and as our PIW was right smack into the wind, Marc fell off and came back up to approach her.  She was starting to panic and was crying out that she couldn’t hold out much longer.  Maybe she wasn’t a swimmer, I don’t know, but the shore was only 150 yards in either direction. 

We approached and got the flotation PFD to her.   Now we had to get her out of the water.  I grabbed her by the seat of her foulies, Marc pulled her up and over into the boat, and I helped her out of her wet foulies. Phew!  Good thing she was a petite little thing!    Happy Ending!

Lessons learned

What I noticed immediately is that the woman had not been wearing a PFD so she was left to try and tread water in about 65 degrees, probably colder.   ALWAYS wear that PFD, even if you are “just” in the harbor.  While she may have been cold, at least with flotation she would not have felt like she was going under and probably would have felt more visible.

Second, she was panicking!  Her brain apparently could not comprehend that she was quite close to shore and probably could have gotten there by swimming.  When fear takes over, logic goes out the window.  She may have been afraid of getting hit by one of the big luxury yachts that are frequently navigating the Lido Channel, or she may have been afraid of drowning, being weighed down by her clothes, who knows?  I realized though, it doesn’t matter – when you get dumped in the water, you may go into panic mode.

In a way it felt like a “mini” man overboard rescue – but it was for real and for MY first MOB recovery, honestly, I was thankful it was just in the harbor.   It was a gentle training ground and a rescue that I felt calm and in control of carrying out, thanks to the great training I have received (and having Marc right there!!).  It gave me a chance to reflect on the reality of the situation – what I needed to do, what I would have done had I been by myself, and seeing first-hand what happens to a person who is in the water!

So, how did the story end?  As we were getting this woman out of the water, the RS skipper had gotten the boat upright and our boats met up.  The woman jumped right back into the RS and off they went sailing downwind!  Guess it’s kind of like falling off a horse and getting right back on it!  Wow!

Cruising Santa Cruz Island

Here's a little taste of Cruising Santa Cruz Island, the largest of CA's Northern Channel Islands.  Chrissie, a veteran of numerous offshore trips via sailing schools, as well as private trips I have put together, created this video to share the magic of the Northern Channel Islands, and Santa Cruz Island in particular.  

Click here to learn more about sailing adventure trips in the Northern Channel Islands.

It's gonna be good!

5. Why, When, and How to Reef

OCC's Catalina 42 Betty, with the first reef tucked in, in the windy lane off Santa Cruz Island during one of the Northern Channel Islands trips

OCC's Catalina 42 Betty, with the first reef tucked in, in the windy lane off Santa Cruz Island during one of the Northern Channel Islands trips

Why to Reef

When the boat is heeling over with a rail in the water and you are fighting the helm to steer a straight line, it’s tempting to believe that something good is happening.  This is actually what it feels like to be overpowered, and this is an inefficient and less safe way to sail. 

Here is what is really happening:  as the boat heels over, the keel inclines at such an angle that it no longer effectively prevents leeway, and the boat slips sideways – that’s inefficient.  The overpowered sail plan and angle of heel cause the boat to continually want to round up in to the wind (excessive weatherhelm), and that forces you to turn the rudder and drag it sideways in an effort to keep the boat straight – that’s inefficient.

Why reef?  Control, safety, and speed - you’ll be a lot faster and safer when the boat is more upright with a balanced helm.

When to Reef

When the wind picks up to around 12-14 knots true with whitecaps all around and you are sailing upwind, for most boats, it’s time to reef.  Some boats are more “tender” and may need to reefed earlier, while others are more “stiff” and reefing might be delayed.  The two main indicators are 1) excessive weatherhelm, and 2) excessive heeling.  

The basic rule of thumb is that if you are wondering if you should reef, it's time.  Increasing weather helm and heeling over 15 degrees are the early indicators, and if you are fighting the helm for control and the leeward rail is buried, you have waited too long.  If the weather forecast and your observations tell you conditions are sure to build, reef early before it gets rough. 

Downwind, it’s a little more deceptive.  Helm control is the key indicator here – if you are having trouble keeping the boat on course because of excessive weather helm, reef the main.

How to Reef the Main

The 4 primary steps to reefing the main are below.  While each boat will differ in the way it is rigged and while you will have to ease the main sheet and vang to accomplish steps 3 and 4, these primary steps are transferable to any modern sloop rigged cruiser/racer.

1.  Lower the halyard

2.  Secure the tack

3.  Tension the luff

4.  Secure the clew

With practice, you will be able to reef in less than 60 seconds, and that’s important because then, you will never hesitate to reef when you need to.

6. When In Doubt...Let It Out

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You've heard this before, right?   “When in doubt, let it out.”  You’ve no doubt even said the same thing to your crew.  But, have you wondered exactly why it’s so important?  The questions I get in my Basic Cruising classes remind me that knowing how and why things work is an important part of the foundation one needs.
So, why let the sail out until it luffs, and bring it back in until it stops luffing?  Why ease the genoa sheet two inches so the leeward telltales lay back in line with the windward telltales?  It's because that’s where the power is.  As the old saying goes, “Any time two sailboats are in sight of one another, it’s a race.”  That may not be true for everyone, but it’s fun to go fast!  And, better sail trim just
might make the difference in getting to Catalina before sundown.  Take a look at the image below. This sail is over-trimmed, and needs to be eased out.  

The Over-trimmed Sail
Wind comes from the right hand side

Source:  "The Art and Science of Sails" by Tom Whidden

Source:  "The Art and Science of Sails" by Tom Whidden

The sail trimmer’s goal is attached, laminar airflow.  The most common sail trim error made is to over-trim, meaning, to have the sails in too tight.  The photo above shows what airflow over the sail looks like when it is over-trimmed.  Note the turbulence of the separated flow on the leeward side of the sail - lift is reduced, and drag is increased.  That’s slow!  When you see your leeward telltales lifting and fluttering, this is what’s happening. 

There is much more to race-winning sail trim than this, but use the following procedure to get your basic trim in the right ball park: 

  1. When in doubt, let it out.
  2. Let it out until it luffs. 
  3. Bring it back in to where the luffing just stops.

Epic Northern Channel Islands Trip Video

In October of 2015, Cam Sanford and friends took the Northern Channel Islands cruise through the OCC School of Sailing and Seamanship, where they got their Bareboat Cruising Certification.  I have been leading these trips for OCC since 2004, and a few things made this one special.  First, these guys all had GoPros and other cameras, and were always taking pictures.  Second, they just really wanted to be there on this trip, doing what we were doing.  The shared enthusiasm made for great days on the water, and good conversation in the evenings.  Plus, there's that whole thing about our first 22 hours being underway continuously, overnight, and the bond that such an activity creates.

Cam created an epic video that captures the best moments of the trip, and gives you a feel for what it's like to be in the Northern Channel Islands.  I really love the GoPro videos of the dolphins on our bow, starting on the video at about position 9:30, and I've never seen Risso's Dolphins swim at such speed (you'll notice the Risso's as the dolphins with the blunt noses, and scars all over their bodies).  The video is about 20 minutes, and I hope you'll stay for the whole thing.  Well done, Cam!


"Knowing little of what was to come, we were four apprentice-explorers on a Wednesday morning with our new friend Moose, instructor Marc, and first-mate Stolle, eager for escape and ready to set sail on The Betty - a beautiful forty-two foot sloop rigged Catalina."

Anchoring at Catalina

This is one of my favorite trips.  The Anchoring at Catalina trip originated in 2007 with a comment from my friend Gabi, who told me she was going to Catalina in July.  When I asked her what she was going to do if there weren’t any moorings available, she said she might have to head back to Newport!  Ooooh noooo!  I realized that there are many weekend cruisers who have just never gotten comfortable with anchoring bow and stern, or even with just a single anchor off the bow, and haven’t had the time to figure it out on their own.

We’ve gotten Anchoring at Catalina figured out, and on this 3-day cruise you’ll learn how to enjoy Catalina without having to depend on the availability of moorings.  You’ll learn how to size up the cove and pick your spot, use the appropriate scope, and deploy and set bow and stern anchors without having to get in the dinghy.  Along the way we usually stop for a swim in one the coves when the weather is suitable.  The goal, at the end of the second day, is to have you be able to anchor bow and stern in a new cove, and lead the process yourself.  And on the passages to and from Catalina, we teach navigation, aspects of passage making, and sail trim.

We run this trip multiple times a year so click here to see upcoming dates.  And of course you can buy the cruising guide, Anchoring at Catalina, to find detailed diagrams and directions for every possible scenario when you’re out on your own.

Enjoy the video, and I hope to see you on the water!

Marc Hughston