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Man on ship uses the man overboard device to pull a victim closer to the vessel for rescue Captain Bob Alix demonstrates an early prototype of the man overboard recovery device from the R/V Victor Loosanoff at the Milford Lab in Milford, CT. Microbiologist Barry Smith, who is also the NEFSC's diving safety officer, served as the unresponsive victim. Photo Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Mark Dixon, NEFSC
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close-up view of early MOB prototype A closer view of an early prototype of the man overboard device (patent pending). Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Mark Dixon, NEFSC
A later prototype of the man overboard device (patent pending). Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/Mark Dixon, NEFSC

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April 13, 2017
Contact: Shelley Dawicki

Man Overboard Rescue Device Developed by Milford Lab Staff

U.S. Patent Pending on device

Recovering an unresponsive person in the water and bringing them aboard a vessel has been a longstanding problem in marine safety and training. Until now. A new invention from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center's Milford Laboratory looks like a practical and effective tool for saving lives at sea.

Robert Alix, captain of the Lab’s 49-foot research vessel Victor Loosanoff, and Werner Schreiner, a former deck hand on the boat, developed the Man Overboard Recovery device, or MOB, and a U.S. patent is pending. The rights belong to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the parent organization of NOAA Fisheries.

“We thought it would be useful and could save lives, especially on small boats that usually have a small crew,” said Alix, who came up with the idea with Werner about five years ago during safety training in local waters.  “It is hard enough to get a person who is conscious and cooperative into a boat with high freeboard, but much harder if the person is unconscious and cannot help in their own rescue.”

The device allows a single rescuer to attach a lifting sling to a person in the water without the need for a second rescuer to enter the water and without help from the victim, who may be unresponsive. A lifting sling, constructed of nylon webbing similar to automotive seat belt material, and a section of rope are attached to a wishbone-shaped ‘Y” at the end of a long handle.

During a rescue, the sling is attached to the victim and detached from the ‘Y’ and handle. The rope is then attached to a lifting device on the rescue vessel, such as a block and tackle, to hoist the victim onto the vessel. The wishbone shape of the ‘Y’ allows the rescuer to attach the lifting sling to a victim who is floating horizontally or vertically.

Alix and Werner approached NOAA’s Technology Partnership Office for help after doing some research on their own. “The patent process is a lengthy one, even with legal help,” Alix said. “We’ve spent between $5,000 and $6,000 on the prototypes and legal fees so far, but we have a patent pending so we are making progress. We are looking for a manufacturer who may be able to further test and refine the design, and hope to hear something about the patent application in the next six months or so.”   

The original prototype, a fiberglass pole and a bent stainless tubing ‘Y’, led to a second version constructed entirely of fiberglass tubing. It more closely resembles the drawings in the patent application, which allows for some modification of the device, including the ability of the handle to be telescoping and the ‘Y’ to fold. The device could be stored in a bag or case, with lifting sling and rope fully rigged, ready for use. The rescuer would simply remove the device from the case, unfold and telescope the unit, and proceed to perform a rescue.

"Bob Alix approached me when I was conducting training at the Millford Lab.  He showed me the MOB device and how useful it could be in a limited crew situation,” said Derek Parks, technology transfer program manager for NOAA.  “I thought the idea sounded very interesting, so I did some research and found there could be an opportunity for a U.S. patent on the device. Regardless of the outcome of the patent application, we would love to see this device manufactured and used as broadly as possible in the future. It would be a great legacy for Bob and another contribution from NOAA towards saving lives."

Alix believes the market for this device would be vessels from about 25 feet to 75 feet long with relatively high freeboard (the distance from the waterline to the upper edge of the side of the boat) and no dedicated rescue craft such as a rigid hull inflatable boat. These vessels typically have freeboard that is too high to grab and pull a victim up and out of the water by hand. The device might also appeal to search and rescue teams, to vessels that carry passengers for hire, commercial fishing vessels, and to some larger recreational vessels.

“We feel that this device works in situations where currently available devices do not," Alix said. "A vessel equipped with one of our MOB devices, along with an existing rescue device such as a buoyant horse collar, would be able to safely recover both an active victim and a completely unresponsive or deceased victim without the need for a rescuer to enter the water.”

Alix, who plans to retire at the end of May after nearly 40 years at NOAA, and Werner, a contractor who no longer works for NOAA, would share any royalties earned with NOAA and with the Milford Laboratory if the device is manufactured and sold.  But it’s not about the money.

“If it saves even one life, all the time and effort to get it out there will be well worth it,” Alix said. Lt. Erick Estela Gomez of the NOAA Corps will be taking over for Alix as captain of the Loosanoff in June.

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