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The LifeSling Overboard Rescue System

The Best Way to Rescue and Get a Person Overboard Back on the Boat

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LifeSling on Rail
Developed by The Sailing Foundation, a nonprofit organization, the LifeSling has become the most widely used person-overboard retrieval system used on cruising and racing sailboats. Mounted on a rail or lifeline near the helm station for easy use in an emergency, the LifeSling combines a flotation collar with a length of floating line for quick retrieval of someone in the water.

LifeSling Components

Shown here is the LifeSling 2 model mounted on a sailboat’s stern rail with sturdy Velcro straps. Pulling the red tab on the top cover opens the case to reach the flotation collar beneath. The flexible flotation collar, shaped like an open U with a strap across its mouth, is thrown in the water directly to the person or to a position to be towed back to the person.

A long floating line connects the flotation collar back to the LifeSling case where it is tied securely to the boat’s rail or other structure with a bowline.

Four different LifeSling models are presently available. All are US Coast Guard approved. Models 1, 2, and 3 have a similar flotation collar with 21 lbs of buoyancy and either 125 or 150 feet of multi-filament polypropylene floating line. Model 3 adds reflective tape and stainless steel D-rings for hoisting the person aboard, has a fiberglass case, and is approved for commercial vessels. The fourth model is the LifeSling Inflatable, with a more compact, self-inflating collar that can be thrown like a softball to a person in the water.

The LifeSling 2 model is appropriate for most cruising and racing sailboats.

For offshore use, a water-actuated light or strobe is recommended to be attached to the flotation collar.

How to Use the LifeSling

LifeSling Instructions
The directions for using the LifeSling are conveniently printed on the outside of the rail storage case, making use easy in an emergency. Here are the basic steps:
  1. Stop the boat if near the person in the water, or circle at slow speed.
  2. Open the case and pull out the flotation collar. Throw it beyond or as close to the person as possible.
  3. If the person cannot reach the flotation collar, slowly circle the person with the boat, towing the collar so that the floating line is moved to the person. Stop the boat and engine (to ensure the prop is not turning).
  4. The person slips the flotation collar over the head and shoulders and around the chest at armpit level.
  5. Crew on the boat pull the person to the boat. (Use a winch if necessary.)
  6. The method used to get the person onboard depends on the boat and its gear—the boat owner or captain should plan ahead for this in case of emergency. The person may be able to climb a swim ladder or assist with being pulled in over the side.
  7. If the person is too weak to assist, and if crew cannot manually pull the person aboard, you may need to hoist the person with a winch, using the flotation collar as a sling (as described below).

Hoisting the Person Aboard

Getting the rescued person to the boat is only half the process—getting the person back on board may be the most difficult part. Even in ideal circumstances with light wind and calm seas, most people are too heavy to be lifted straight up the side of the boat and over the rail by one or two crew. Someone who has been in the water for a while may be too exhausted to climb a ladder or help the rescuing crew. When the wind is up and waves are making the boat roll and pitch, it can be difficult even for a strong person to climb back aboard. Therefore it’s critical to have a plan for hoisting the person.

The best equipment is a 4-to-1 block-and-tackle you can clip between the end of an available halyard and the flotation collar. Hoist the top block at least 10 feet above the deck. Then winch in the block-and-tackle fall line to raise the person up over the rail.

(You may be tempted to hook the block-and-tackle to the end of the boom swung out over the water, but this method does not work well. Typically the boom is not high enough over the deck to raise the person completely over the side, and motion of the boat due to wind and waves typically makes the boom difficult to control.)

LifeSling Detail

Ideally, an emergency block-and-tackle should be kept near the cockpit for this use. Some sailboats have a boom vang composed of a block-and-tackle (or other similar gear such as a preventer)—in this case the owner or captain can use quick-release pins in the mounting hardware so that the vang can be quickly removed and used with the LifeSling. Or the boat may have a block-and-tackle used for hoisting a dinghy or outboard motor to a rail mount—this hardware too can easily be adapted to hoist a person overboard.

The key thing is to have a plan before the emergency strikes.

The Right Gear for the Right Need

You hope you’ll never need it, but a LifeSling is the best tool for rescuing and retrieving a person who falls off a midsize or larger sailboat. The shape of the flexible flotation collar, unlike an old-fashioned round life ring, can be easily slipped around the person’s chest. The floating line is neatly coiled in the rail case, ready to snake out when the collar is thrown. The case is strong and weather-resistant. You can mount the case on your stern rail and ignore it for years, knowing that if this emergency ever strikes, you’re ready.

The LifeSling 2 model is appropriate for most cruising and racing sailboats. It is widely available online and in chandleries, with a discounted price of $89.95.

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