Yachtsman Bob Wright* explains how a small crew member with very little upper body strength can rescue the heaviest of sailors using his Sea Scoopa which won last month’s New Inventors Award shown on ABC Television.
Without doubt Man Overboard (MOB) is the worst of marine catastrophes as it accounts for 80% of all deaths at sea.
In sailing schools much time is spent in practising the MOB procedure, quick stopping the boat and coming alongside the ‘victim’ – usually a small buoy with a weight attached which is lifted aboard with a ‘flick’ of a boathook.
This flick of the boathook is totally divorced from reality. The real life emergency of trying to lift a person, in heavy water-sodden clothing, coughing and spluttering from salt-water in the lungs and possibly unconscious from hypothermia or boom-inflicted injuries is truly enormous.
Consider the difficulty of raising such a person weighing say 100kg, immersed to the neck in water, a distance of between 1 to 1.5 metres onto the deck of the average boat.
To physically lift such a victim requires several crew with arms that reach to the ankles and possessed of Herculean strength – a combination only found in the gorilla cage at the local zoo and clearly beyond the capabilities of most mortals.
Stern boarding-platforms and ladders, provided they reach well below water level, are useful in calm conditions but can inflict lethal injury if the boat is pitching or rolling violently.
In 2005 two Crew Overboard rescue exercises in San Francisco evaluated numerous methods including the Elevator, various parbuckles, proprietary lifters and the Lifesling. All had significant problems and of these the well-credentialed Lifesling was considered the best.
However, the Lifesling is not devoid of problems as it relies on victim cooperation and manual dexterity to grab, enter and clip onto the sling – both of these diminish very rapidly with increasing hypothermia or injury.
When this occurs it usually requires one of the crew in a lifejacket, tethered by a rope to enter the water – a most unsatisfactory situation as the only thing worse than one MOB is two! In addition it is well known with helicopter rescue slings that if the sling rotates around to the victim’s back there is a major risk of falling out. Another worrying medical problem is that the lift is vertical – more about this later!
The Sea Scoopa
The Sea Scoopa (International Patent Pending) has been designed to achieve two objectives.
Scoop the MOB whether conscious or unconscious into a net while the boat is moving usually under power and steerable at a speed of 1 to 2 knots. All other methods depend on the boat being almost stationary and this creates enormous difficulties in manoeuvring alongside the MOB due to the action of wind and waves. There is compelling evidence that a vessel must have ‘way on’ to ensure a successful rescue.
Parbuckle the MOB onto the deck. This is an ancient technique used to lift a barrel onto the deck of a ship by passing two ropes around the barrel and heaving it up the side of the vessel. This method was later adapted for MOB by attempting to use a small headsail to parbuckle the victim aboard – however, this and other more modern parbuckles, proved to be less than satisfactory in the recent San Francisco trials. They reached the conclusion that “had we been rescuing real victims we would have lost three-quarters of them”.
In contrast, when the Sea Scoopa is deployed, the MOB is securely netted and lifted horizontally while gently rolling over and over like a ‘chicken on a spit’.
Horizontal lifting is preferable for several good reasons.
(a) A semi-drowned victim who has swallowed seawater and is vomiting should never be placed flat on their back as the fluid will run into the lungs. The rolling motion ensures that for most of the lift fluid drains from the mouth by gravity.
(b) The ‘log rolling’ movement is advantageous if there is any suspicion of spinal injury e.g. hit by the boom.
(c) If a MOB has spent time in the water and is developing hypothermia the blood volume becomes depleted by excessive urination and on vertical lifting the hydrostatic effect of the water pressure pressing on the blood vessels of the immersed portions of the body is lost and causes the already reduced blood volume to pool in the lower body leading to shock and sudden death – this is called “circumrescue collapse” and is a major hazard of vertical lifting.
Details of the Sea Scoopa
The Sea Scoopa can be mounted on either side of the boat but it should be placed on the side where the engine controls are mounted so the helmsman can continually visualise the MOB, steer with one hand and operate the engine with the other.
While the crew is continuously pointing, throwing buoyant markers, pressing the MOB button and stopping the boat we have demonstrated a single person who is securely harnessed to the vessel can deploy the Sea Scoopa within three minutes.
In short-handed situations the bag can be left permanently mounted on the gunwale for even more rapid deployment.
The device in its compact self-contained bag (pic 1) is unfolded and fixed at the tack and clew to two strong points on the gunwale of the boat adjacent to the shrouds and midway between two stanchions (pics 2 & 3) so the victim can roll though onto the deck– a quick release mechanism is required for the lower lifeline especially if the lifejacket is inflated.
The foot is tensioned using a simple block and tackle so it is held taut against the hull and the victim cannot slip through the gap.
A halyard or topping lift is attached to the head ring and the fore-guy is led to a cleat on the bow.
The special ‘burst zippers’ on the bag are then fired to expose the three-piece interlocking carbon fibre jockey pole, held together by a strong shock cord. The far end is permanently fixed to the head ring and the near end is then connected to a D-ring on the tack. As a result the device is held out at right angles to the vessel (pic 4). The halyard is then lowered until the red head batten is skimming the surface of the water. To deepen the scoop it can be lowered a little further (pic 5).
The luff of the device is differentially weighted by a combination of lead cored rope and additional lead weights, so that it sinks much deeper than the leech and the net then forms a scoop.
The boat is then manoeuvred usually under power at a speed of 1-2 knots aiming to windward of the MOB for the scooping operation. As with all boating procedures under power with swimmers nearby, the engine must be put out of gear during the final stages so as to prevent propeller injury. The importance of this cannot be overemphasised!
Once scooped and netted the halyard is then raised and the victim parbuckled on board (pics 6, 7 & 8). A cooperative MOB should be instructed to keep his arms folded across his chest to aid a smooth recovery.
As aforementioned, the load can be enormous and some sort of mechanical advantage is mandatory. Usually this is a large self-tailing two-speed winch with a long winch handle located on the mast but the halyard can also be led aft to a cockpit winch or forward to the anchor winch. In some circumstances a 2-1 block and tackle arrangement may be necessary to give additional mechanical advantage especially if the crew is not strong.
The Sea Scoopa must be regarded exactly as you would a spinnaker. It must be painstakingly packed and deployed in accordance with the manufacturers Operating Instructions.
Repeated practice is necessary to attain and maintain the required degree of proficiency. This is NOT a device for a first-timer to use in an emergency, as without practice success cannot be guaranteed.
Several factors increase the risk of death on falling overboard. These include:
• night-time and poor visibility due to fog
• time taken to locate victim
• not wearing a lifejacket with strobe , MOB alarm system etc.
• low water temperature
• low numbers and skill mix of crew
• increased height of deck above water
• lack of specialised MOB retrieval equipment
• injury related to the fall
• adverse weather conditions
It is obvious that in severe weather conditions such as the 1998 Sydney-Hobart Race the degree of difficulty may be overwhelming. In these circumstances even with expert crew and equipment a mortality rate of close to 100% could be anticipated. At the other extreme, even in the most benign of circumstances the mortality rate is never zero. The very clear message is to take every precaution and NEVER FALL OVERBOARD.
To date the Sea Scoopa has not been tested in heavy weather, as the risk to a volunteer MOB would be completely unacceptable. However, it is planned to simulate this in the future using a variety of MOB manikins.
Violent rolling and pitching of a vessel will certainly increase the difficulty of scooping but should not affect parbuckling once the victim has been securely netted. In theory pitching should pose less problem than rolling as the Sea Scoopa is positioned amidships at the pivot point. In a heavy roll a small steadying sail can be used, however, it is critical to control the boom to avoid crew injury. More than one attempt at scooping from a direction that minimises roll may be necessary.
In these circumstances a lifesling, throw-ring or the Sea Scoopa specialised boathook can also be used to help manoeuvre a victim into the net.
Paradoxically MOB should be less likely in severe weather when the crew are justifiably fearful for their lives and the skipper who is mindful of his legal responsibilities has the commonsense to instruct even the most macho of the crew to wear life jackets and clip on their safety harnesses.
We should remember the fate of the renowned French Yachtsman Eric Tabarly of Pen Duick fame who was well-known for refusing to wear a lifejacket or safety harness. In 1998 he fell overboard in moderate weather conditions and drowned.
MOB is therefore more likely to occur in moderate weather where such precautions may be considered unnecessary and alcohol may be a contributing factor.
Be aware that deaths from MOB have even occurred in quiet anchorages where bystanders have been unable to lift a drowning victim aboard a high-sided vessel at anchor.
Another major challenge is the victim who is not wearing a life jacket and is just moments from death. Experienced helicopter paramedics, who are often the first on scene, find these unfortunates (often rock fishermen) exhibiting the signs of so-called ‘swim failure’ making ineffectual arm movements, with water lapping in their mouths and vertical in the water.
This vertical position will make scooping more difficult as the scoop has to reach deeper in the water.
Powerboats whether pleasure or commercial present a different challenge. For the Sea Scoopa to be usable in this application there are three requirements – an area along the gunwale where the freeboard is not too high, a high point such as a mast or davit to attach the lifting mechanism and a powered winch. It is intended to investigate this important usage in the near future.
The difficulty of capturing and hoisting a MOB onto a vessel is greatly underestimated.
*Bob Wright is the Director of Intensive Care at St Vincent’s Public and Private Hospitals Sydney and pioneered the development of the NSW Ambulance Paramedic System.
All of the current methods have serious limitations and it is likely that the perfect solution to cope with all circumstances will prove elusive. The Sea Scoopa offers a different and hopefully more effective approach to this difficult problem. Its development has been a continuing process of evolution and refinement, and constructive comments are welcomed. _
He is a RYA Accredited Yachtmaster with a major interest in Marine Medical Emergencies and Marine Safety.
He has logged over 40,000 miles cruising the East Coast of Australia from Thursday Island in the North to King Island in the South and further east to Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Lord Howe. He has crossed Bass Strait 34 times and each year enjoys spending time in the Bass Strait Islands and circumnavigating Tasmania on his yacht Miriama. Website – www.seascoopa.net