Nearly half die when falling overboard

Published on July 4th, 2023

Analysis conducted by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) has revealed that crew have, on average, under 11 minutes to recover a crewmate who has fallen overboard into cold water before the victim becomes unresponsive.

MAIB is a UK government organization, authorized to investigate all maritime accidents in UK waters and accidents involving UK registered ships worldwide.

The analysis of 20 accidents that occurred between 2017 and 2021 shows that the time decreases as the water becomes colder or the sea state rougher. In some cases, crew had just four or five minutes to coordinate a complex recovery under extreme pressure.

Separate MAIB data sheds further light on the scale of the challenge of getting a victim back on board. When examining the rate of successful recovery, MAIB found that of the 308 man overboard occurrences reported to MAIB between 2015 and 2023, tragically 40% led to a fatality.

In the recreational sector the picture was more concerning with the data indicating that almost half (47%) of man overboard occurrences that were reported to the MAIB from pleasure craft resulted in a fatality. In the fishing industry, this rose further still with just over half of man overboard incidents (56%) ending in tragedy.

Whilst overall rates of man overboard were lower for other parts of the industry the same hazard still exists. Of the 20 man overboard incidents from cargo vessels, six resulted in the loss of a crew member. Inland waterways saw six fatalities from 24 incidents and passenger ships eight incidents resulting in one fatality. For service ships, the rate of recovery was the best in the industry with only 15% unsuccessful.

“Man overboard recovery can be exceptionally challenging at the best of times, but the recovery becomes much harder if the casualty is unconscious or unresponsive,” said Andrew Moll, the Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents.

“Our data paints a truly shocking picture of just how little time a crew can have before cold water incapacitation renders a casualty unable to assist in their own rescue. It is essential that boat users – regardless of the sector – think carefully about how they would recover a crew member on their vessel.”

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