Man overboard mid-ocean: what really happens during a MOB rescue in the Volvo Ocean Race?
Alex Gough, who was swept overboard from Scallywag during Leg 4 of the Volvo Ocean Race, describes his man overboard recovery, while Jack Bouttell of Dongfeng Race Team explains the MOB routines on a Volvo 65
On 14 January, some 2,000 miles from Hong Kong, 25-year-old Alex Gough was swept overboard from the Volvo 65 Sun Hung Kai Scallywag as they prepared for a sail change.
Gough, who admitted after his rescue that it had been a ‘pretty stupid’ error, was not wearing a lifejacket, harness line, or personal locator device, yet his crew was able to return and retrieve him onboard within seven minutes. We spoke to Gough in Hong Kong about the man overboard:
Volvo Ocean Race crews are equipped with a Spinlock Deckvest lifejacket that has been specifically re-designed for the event with extensive input from sailors. It has been modified for wearing for extended periods, such as when grinding on the pedestals.
The crews also each have a Spinlock ‘bum bag’ or waist harness, known as the personal equipment pack, which carries a second MOB 1, PLB1 and emergency strobe light. But the safety equipment is not compulsory during daylight and moderate conditions, with crews applying their own judgement on when to don lifejackets or waist packs. Like any safety equipment, it is basically useless unless worn – although the waist harness is also designed so that it may be thrown to an MOB, with the safety devices placed in Neoprene pockets for extra buoyancy.
Fortunately Gough went overboard in daylight, and the Scallywag crew was able to locate him quickly. Many race followers debated whether the Scallywag team kit – in predominately black and dark grey – might have exacerbated the difficulty in finding him in the water, although Gough doesn’t feel that a different colour top would have made a difference – pointing out that only his head was visible above the water. “I was wearing a hat,” he commented, “but it got ripped straight off.”
Many of the race teams do have high visibility outer layers, but in ‘t-shirt’ conditions would typically be wearing base layers in black, grey or white.
The processes for recovering an MOB from a Volvo 65 are markedly different to those on a normal cruising yacht or cruiser-racer. Before the start of the race Dongfeng Race Team shared footage of the team performing an MOB drill. Some viewers questioned why the team didn’t follow the same procedures that many sailors have been taught, such as pointing at the casualty, and why they instead deployed a swimmer.
In Alicante, Dongfeng bowman Jack Bouttell explained why some of their procedures are unique to the race:
There are several key reasons for not dedicating one crew member to point at the casualty. When sailing at the typical 20-knot speeds of the Volvo 65 any MOB is likely to be out of sight within a matter of seconds, especially when the boats are sailing in high spray conditions. In typical race mode there may also only be three or four crew members on deck, so all hands would be required to begin slowing the boat down.
If conditions allow, there is instead potential for the onboard reporter to launch the drone to provide an aerial view and help find or monitor the casualty.
In the dark, the crews would be reliant on the AIS device, although as Bouttell explains, the boats will normally make a dramatic bear away or similar course change which gives a good indication of the MOB’s position on the navigation software – assuming they are spotted going overboard immediately.
In Gough’s case, the Scallywag crew were preparing for a sail change so there was nearly a full team on deck. Gough was able to raise the alarm by shouting as he was washed overboard, and crew mate Annemieke Bes deployed high visibility safety gear such as the danbuoy from the back of the Volvo 65, which helped locate him.
The Scallywag team sailed back to Gough, then used the engine to slow the yacht down as they approached him. Gough was able to swim to the boat and climb back aboard.
There is a different MOB drill to recover a crew who might be incapacitated. As Bouttell explained, on Dongfeng they have a dedicated swimmer on each watch who will get into the water to reach the casualty, and a lifting strop to retrieve them back on deck.
Despite Gough’s smooth recovery, a mid-ocean MOB remains every skipper’s worst nightmare. There have been five fatalities in the race’s history resulting from sailors washed overboard – most recently Dutch sailor Hans Horrevoets lost his life falling overboard from ABN Amro Two in 2006.
Successful mid-ocean rescues are also exceptionally rare. Joan Vila, navigator on Mapfre in this edition, recovered team mate Jordi Doménech from the ocean during the 1989 Whitbread Round the World Race, after Doménech had spent more than a quarter of an hour in the water in freezing temperatures. In the same race Bart van den Dwey and Tony Phillips were swept overboard from Creightons Naturally, Van Den Dwey was recovered unconscious but alive, Philips found 15 minutes later, having died from cold.
As Scallywag skipper David Witt told his crew after Gough’s rescue: “In a few more knots wind, and black [night], you’re dead, ok? The only reason we found you is you put your arm in the air.”
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