With huge waves and strong winds ever present, ship personnel do sometimes get swept overboard. What are the steps to be taken during those times?

It should be considered an emergency, because any person falling into icy winter waters is likely to suffer from hypothermia. His body heat will very quickly be taken up by the water that will soak through his clothing.

Hopefully, somebody from the ship knows that there is a man overboard, otherwise the chances of survival in the wide ocean is almost nil.

The first thing to do is to throw a lifebuoy to the man in the water. This will at least keep him afloat until the rescue operation can take place.  Drowning can be avoided if the person can keep afloat.

Because the ship is so huge and heavy, it is not possible to stop it immediately. The momentum of the ship will cause it to travel quite a far distance before it can be brought to a complete stop. The rotating propeller blades also can become very dangerous to any floating object on the water due to its churning and cutting actions, so reversing is out of the question.

The turning circle of a ship is also very large. The turning of a ship depends on the water flow through the rudder plate at the stern of a ship. This effect depends a lot on the speed of the ship. If a ship were to stop, its rudder becomes almost useless for turning. (That’s why we need tugboats when maneuvering in port)

The ship’s officers are trained to immediately initiate rescue operations. They will not stop immediately because this will not help.

There are 2 common methods for bringing the ship back to the location of the man overboard:

  • The Elliptical Turn
  • The Williamson Turn

The Elliptical Turn

The rudder is put hard over towards the side on which the man fell and held hard over until the vessel has turned through 180 degrees. The ship is then steadied until full speed is regained and then the rudder put hard over once more.

In calm conditions, the vessel should regain her original track, but this may be affected by wind and sea conditions.

The video below shows the Elliptical Turn and the Williamson Turn when applied to small boats. The maneuvers would be the same for large ships but on a larger scale.

The Williamson Turn

Williamson Turn was developed to return to a certain starting position more quickly. The ship is put hard over towards the man and held hard over. When the ship is heading about 60 degrees from her original course, the wheel is put hard over in the opposite direction until the ship is on a course reciprocal to the first course.

Steadying up on this course should bring the vessel back to the man in the water. This maneuver depends on the value of the angle through which the ship’s head swings before the helm is reversed.

This value is dependent on the ship, direction of turn, loading condition and depth of water. This need to be determined by trial maneuvers. The skill of the navigating officer doing this maneuver will determine how accurately the ship is brought towards the man overboard.

Down in the engine room, the engineer officers will be standing by to maneuver for speed and astern braking operations, especially when approaching the man overboard.

When the ship approaches the man floating on the water it is very important not to cause unnecessary wave movement, and not to let the propeller rotation cause him injury.

Deckhands will be standing by on lowered gangways with ropes to assist in the rescue operations.

The rescue operations will be made more difficult in rough weather, poor visibility and low light conditions.

Depending on how cold the water, most probably the victim will have to be treated for hypothermia.

More about Rough SeasHurricanes and Typhoons.