Falling over the side is the nightmare of every sailor. There are procedures to recover a man overboard. (I’m using the word “man” in the generic sense. If you don’t like that, sue me.)
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the primary job of the After Lookout is to watch for a man overboard. If the After Lookout sees the man go over the side, the After Lookout immediately throws a lifering at the man. If the After Lookout hears a cry of “man overboard,” he throws a lifering over the side to mark the spot. Either way, the After Lookout calls the Bridge in the 1JV phone circuit and reports: “Man Overboard, Port/Starboard Side!”
The Bosun’s Mate of the Watch announces on the 1MC (the public address circuit): “Man Overboard, Man Overboard. Man the motor whaleboat. All hands not on watch to Quarters for muster.” Anyone who can see the man in the water points at him and continues to point at him as long as they have visual contact, to aid in conning the ship back to the man in the water.
In CIC, the OSs mark the ship’s position on the Dead Reckoning Tracer. Every thirty seconds, they pass the range and bearing to the position where Seaman Schmuckatellli fell over the side and the time he has been in the water up on the 1JA sound-powered phone circuit to the Bridge Status Board Talker.
All over the ship, all hell breaks loose. Sailors are running to their divisional muster station so they can be accounted for. Senior petty officers from every division are going to all of their watch stations to lay eyes on every sailor on watch. The goal is to get all of the muster reports to the XO within six minutes so it can be determined who is missing. On the Boat Deck, a Coxswain (a BM rated to drive small boats), an EN, and a junior BM are manning the motor whaleboat. Other BMs are on the forecastle, readying the Man Overboard Davit (a simple crane to lower a line to the man in the water).
While an aircraft carrier will probably just send up a helicopter with a rescue swimmer to find the man, most other ships still have to get back to the man in the water. Large ships will circle back. Smaller ships will perform a Williamson Turn. A Williamson Turn is performed by throwing the rudder over full in the same direction as the side of the ship the man fell from, this serves to help kick the stern of the ship away from the man in the water, at the same time ringing up a full bell to increase speed. When the bow of the ship is 45 to 60 degrees off its initial course, the rudder is thrown back in the other direction. If done properly, the ship will steady up on the reciprocal course to the one she was on when the man fell in the water. The Conning Officer will attempt to maneuver the ship so that when she comes to a stop, the ship is upwind of the man in the water and the man is opposite the forecastle. The wind will blow the ship down to the man; the BMs on the forecastle will lower a horse collar from the Man Overboard Davit. The man will put his head and arms through the horsecollar and the BMs will hoist his soggy ass on board.
If the man is injured or as desired, the motor whaleboat is lowered into the water. The whaleboat just goes over, hauls the man into the boat, and returns to the ship, where the boat is hoisted back on board.
In winter weather, there will be only a handful of minutes to get a man back on board before he dies of hypothermia. In heavy seas, if the man wasn’t lucky enough to grab the life ring thrown to him, spotting a man in the water is very difficult. On a dark night, it is almost impossible to find a man in the water who is not conscious enough to yell at the top of his lungs when the ship gets close (if he didn’t grab the ring, which has a strobe light in it).
In very heavy weather, due to the risk to the ship and those sailors who would have to go topside to rescue anyone, the Captain may issue an order that anyone who falls over the side will not be recovered. Then the mustering drill only serves to identify the man who will be written off as being lost at sea.