Techniques & Tactics

SAFETY-HARNESS DYNAMICS: Are You Really Safer Tethered to Your Boat?

PBO test

This is a question I have asked myself ever since I first started sailing offshore. The received conservative wisdom, of course, is that you should always be wearing a harness, preferably one that incorporates an inflatable lifevest, and should be clipped to the boat at all times. But in my mind I’ve always imagined that being dragged behind or alongside a boat in a harness at the end of a tether would in itself be very life-threatening. The British magazine Practical Boat Owner, to its credit, conducted extensive tests last year with a weighted dummy (see photo up top) and has published the results, which absolutely confirm the awful scenarios conjured up by my imagination.

And you needn’t even use your imagination. Practical Boat Owner in its story cites the real-world example of Christopher Reddish, age 47, who drowned in 2011 off Selsey Bill in the U.K. after being dragged in a harness alongside his boat. He had fallen overboard from the bow while handling sails, and though he had a full crew aboard to help him they were unable to recover him before he died.

I remember a similar incident from 2002, when I sailed in the ARC as crew aboard a large catamaran. There was a terrible casualty, the very first in the long history of the ARC, aboard another boat, a Formosa 51, that occurred after Phillip Hitchcock, also age 47, fell overboard while clipped on in a harness. The only other crewmember aboard, his brother David, was unable to recover him.

The two men reportedly discussed the problem together as Phillip was dragged through the water alongside the boat. One attempt to use a sling recovery system failed, whereafter David put a longer line on Phillip to keep him away from the hull while the boat was hove to and sails dropped. But by the time David had stopped the boat and had his brother alongside again, Phillip was dead. After consulting with family and authorities in the U.K., David tethered the body to a liferaft with an active EPIRB onboard and set it adrift.

I was thoroughly haunted by this terrible accident, and it only confirmed my long-held belief that a harness and tether is not the panacea most sailors think it is.

I urge you to read the Practical Boat Owner article in detail, but the Cliff Notes version is simply this: a crewmember being dragged through the water at speed in a harness may drown in as a little as a minute. To safely recover a victim, you need to stop the boat ASAP and preferably get the sails down, as this will greatly aid recovery.

One thing the PBO article does not address is whether a harness with an inflatable vest is more or less dangerous in this situation. My personal gut feeling is that having two huge lobes of inflated plastic being pressed against your chest and face while you’re being dragged through the water would be much more of a hindrance than a help, and the photos in the PBO story do nothing to convince me otherwise.

The fact that I have yet to find any harness/lifevest combo that is actually comfortable to wear on a routine basis has also kept me from embracing these. Indeed, to my mind the two functions are somewhat contradictory. That is, you only really need a lifevest if you are not clipped to the boat when you fall overboard. If you are clipped to the boat and are in the water being dragged alongside it, staying afloat is the least of your worries.

My normal practice when sailing offshore is to wear an old Lirakis harness with a tether that has clips at both ends, so that I have some chance of being able to free myself if necessary. I normally put this on only when conditions start getting rough and then clip on once I get nervous about moving around the boat.

Lirakis harness

Here I am as a svelte youth wearing my Lirakis harness (not clipped in) aboard my old yawl Crazy Horse. I really miss these harnesses and wish someone would start producing something similar again. You can don them quickly and easily and they are very comfortable to wear

The simplistic bottom line to all this, not surprisingly, is that it is always safest to stay on the boat in the first place. As the PBO article points out, a short tether will help you do this better than a long tether, but is still no guarantee.

Personally, I’ve always believed that one very important feature when it comes to staying on a deck is the nature of the deck itself. Quite simply, there should be lots of stuff to grab hold of! Handrails, granny bars, dorade vents, lines, shrouds, nice high lifelines with super-strong stanchion posts--these are all things that can save you and keep you aboard in an emergency. Yet for some strange reason the trend in modern sailboat design is to keep decks as sleek and featureless as possible, with absolutely nothing to hold on to. Even working lines, headsail furlers, and travelers are being buried belowdecks these days, and modern sailboat decks often now look as slick as ice rinks.

Slick deck

Example of a modern deck. This is a very clean, but dangerous aesthetic, IMHO

These may seem all super-stylish and sexy when a boat is in a harbor, or in a magazine photo spread, but offshore they are nothing but a tragedy waiting to happen.

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