My Memorial day post on the loss of an airman reminded me of the procedures when a man went overboard. Navy ships drill for man overboard at least once a week while they are at sea. The drill goes like this:

An officer throws a mannequin dressed as a sailor into the sea. That mannequin is named “Oscar,” after the flag that is flown from a ship’s mast when they have a man overboard.

There is a watch on the rear end of the ship, called the fantail watch. On aircraft carriers, there are two sailors assigned to this watch 24/7, one one each side of the ship’s rearmost point. They are wearing headsets attached to the lookout circuit. The fantail watch sees what appears to be a sailor in the water, and tosses a smoke float into the water to mark the position of the man in the water. He also calls “man in the water, (starboard/port) fantail” over the lookout circuit. The phone watch on the bridge hears this and notifies the Officer of the Deck (OOD). The OOD immediately orders three long blasts from the ship’s horn, orders the bosun of the watch to sound “man overboard” over the ship’s announcing system (1MC) and stops the ship by reversing the engines. Once it is below a certain speed, the ship will turn around and return to the location of the smoke float (if operations and conditions permit). The navigation crew uses as position tracker called a DRT (dead reckoning tracker) to coordinate the search. (This system uses inputs from the ship’s gyro to track its location. The advantage of the DRT over GPS is that the DRT can’t be jammed.)

The announcing of “man overboard” on the 1MC causes a few automatic actions. The signal bridge will hoist the above-mentioned oscar flag. The rest of the crew begins a face to face muster. There is a phone tree setup, where each crew member reports his location to a superior, who then calls their respective Division office. The division office calls the department office, who calls the bridge with a list of missing sailors. All 6,000 members of the crew must be accounted for in less than 20 minutes. Ten minutes after the initial “man overboard” call, the names of any sailors who remain unaccounted for are called over the announcing system until everyone is accounted for, or until the names of missing sailors are known. In a drill, the training team will randomly grab a couple of sailors just before the drill starts and hold them incommunicado, to make sure that they are reported as missing as a check to make sure divisions aren’t fudging the muster.

Another thing that happens is the ship launches a helicopter if possible, or a small boat if flight operations aren’t possible. The boat or helo has a rescue swimmer in it whose job is to grab the sailor.

Once the rescuers arrive near the man in the water, another smoke float is tossed in the water near him. This is in case they lose sight of him for some reason (waves, weather, darkness). They then deploy the swimmer to pull him from the water.

We used to lose 3 to 5 guys over the side in any given year. Most of the time we would find them, sometimes we wouldn’t. During the six years I was in, I remember two or three that we never found. The one referred to on Memorial day was one of them. I remember one time, we had a helicopter crash where an entire CH-46 Sea Knight went into the water, complete with aircrew. I saw that one happen. Luckily, we rescued the entire crew. That’s a story for another time.

Categories: Military


dc · June 3, 2023 at 11:22 am

Well remembered. AW1 (AW/SW/SAR)

Paulb · June 3, 2023 at 12:51 pm

On the merchant shipping side, we do lifeboat drills (which includes Man Overboard drills) once a week. On the ship where I was bosun, in the autumn we’d muster the crew on the stern, glue a mop head to a large pumpkin and the chief mate (who runs the drills) would have me throw the pumpkin in the water. A pumpkin sits at about the same height out of the water as a person’s head. $25 to whoever spots the pumpkin first.
About half the time we’d spot the pumpkin.

On the bridge we’d drill on doing Williamson Turns or Round Turns depending on the speed and location, to get us on a reciprocal course to the man overboard, but wouldn’t actually change course- being on charter, we could slow but not deviate from our course for drills.
Unlike a navy ship, American merchant ships do not allow crew to be outboard of the rails (painting over the side) while underway. We do occasionally hang in a harness to paint the house, which has resulted in men going over the side, but generally it’s the navy and cruise ships that lose men in the water, and for cruise ships, that’ s usually intentional attempts at suicide.
Perhaps the dumbest MOB story I know is on the Massachusetts Maritime Academy’s training ship in the 80’s, when a skinny and very drunk cadet hung a line out a porthole and attempted to water ski. At night. Without skis. At 12 knots. Amazingly enough they found the idiot the next day.

Aesop · June 3, 2023 at 3:40 pm

How dare you assume their gender!
End The Patriarchy!

Fast Eddie · June 3, 2023 at 5:15 pm

We didn’t do weekly man overboard drills on submarines. We had a turtleback not a fantail.

dave in pa · June 3, 2023 at 8:29 pm

my dad was in the navy during WW2 and got called back in for Korea. he never talked about man overboard. but he did talk about wearing a life line (?) a few times.
he told me and my brother about the storms of 44 and about the ships that where never seen again after it. he even had a old black and white picture of some ship on top of a wave.
you can see the front and back of it out of the water.
he used to laugh at the climate clowns as he called them.
he used to say, “we only wish we could control the weather !”
we didn’t go in the navy.

unknownsailor · June 4, 2023 at 3:49 am

Carriers do a man overboard drill every time they get underway. Divisions muster on station, face to face. The rules about mustering east coast vs west coast vary slightly. West coast they want you in some sort of clothes, but priority is mustering first, clothing barely optional Gym clothes and flip flops is fine, just be careful watch your feet. East coast ship’s company wants you in some sort of uniform, because of course they do. I did deployments from both coasts, and the first time I mustered for man overboard while TAD to Supply, they wanted me in coveralls and boots.

They were not amused when I asked, “Is the priority to muster as fast as possible, or getting into a uniform?

I think par time for man overboard was supposed to be 12 minutes, just like GQ zebra set time, but I never saw a carrier make that. I saw several thirty plus minute man overboard drills, which by that much elapsed time had missing people mustering with the XO with their ID cards.

My first ship had several actual man overboards, people jumping off to kill themselves. More often, though, were some ass hole throwing a lit light stick overboard, or a floating bag of trash at night, usually at some ungodly hour in the morning. Carriers did not do weekly man overboard drills, IME

JNorth · June 5, 2023 at 12:36 pm

While I’m sure it makes sense to do things a bit different on a carrier, when I was on a sprucan in 7th fleet back in mid 90s we just went to general quarters for man overboard. Unknownsailor – sure carriers are huge but 12 minutes? We generally set GQ in under 4 and the fastest I remember was a bit over 2, that was actually during a REFTRA but was after the drills for the day when they reported a major fuel oil leak in MER2 at 2150. Turns out a valve blew but the watch had it handled about the same time it was reported.

    Divemedic · June 5, 2023 at 2:15 pm

    He’s right on GQ setting Zebra. They don’t even begin closing doors and hatches until 6 minutes in. Standard for Zebra is 12 minutes.
    We tried for 20 minutes in MOB but we regularly hit 30. We used to do MOB every week and GQ twice a week while underway. Once a month, they would have us suck rubber for an NBC drill.
    In port, there was a fire drill once a week for IET.
    We weren’t picky about uniforms. We mustered face to face in berthing or your work center.

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