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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27 Responses
  1. Jim Simons

    I have often asked the same question. I too was in that infamous ARC in 2002, Swan 46, Aphridite, Seattle based but Canadian crew. I remember the call by ARC officials for assistance. Often wondered if more crew might have made the rescue
    easier. After dragging the dead weight of an overboard sailer in Lake ontario, there were 9 of us, I cannot imagine one crewman doing the job. Our rescue had a happier ending.

  2. JT

    Have you thought about using a swiftwater rescue pfd? They are designed with harness attachment in back so you are dragged without drowning and they have a quick release in case you need to untether fast. After doing my own research and looking at a lot of designs this is what my crew and I wear.

  3. JT

    My crew uses the Swiftwater Fury ( and I am using the Stohlquist Descent ( which I find more comfortable.

    We sail in the PNW (pics here:, and here: so the extra insulation is nice and its good to know we have a lifejacket that has plenty of buoyancy and can’t fail to inflate. The rear tether connection and quick release make a lot of sense to me. We run our jacklines along the middle of the cabin-top and combined with a 6′ tether I feel it reduces the chance of falling overboard substantially.

    My wife and I are both climbers and whitewater kayakers who came to sailing later in our active lives so we may look at sailing problems with a different perspective than most.

    What do you think about this as a solution?

  4. Damon Gannon

    Bottom line…if you go overboard and you’re not tethered to the boat, you are probably going to die. It’s as simple as that. If you are sailing solo or with an inexperienced crew, a tether/harness may not improve your chances significantly.

    Crew training is crucial. Everyone aboard the boat should take part in crew overboard drills. Ideally, these drills should include recovering an actual person from the water (do this in the harbor while at anchor).

    Lifting a victim out of the water with a standard harness can injure them. The harness should have leg straps. It should also have a quick release on the tether (and a good knife attached to it).

    A boarding ladder is an essential piece of safety equipment. It is way easier to have an (uninjured) victim climb a ladder than it is to hoist them aboard using their harness.

    If you have an inflatable PFD and you’ve never deployed it before, you should put it on and jump overboard at the dock (or jump into a pool) to find out how difficult it is to swim and to climb out of the water with one of these things on.

  5. John Stone

    I just completed a doublehanded 18 day upwind bash from Cape Lookout to Tortola, BVI. This very topic was discussed between me and my crew. I agree with Charlie–you need to stay on the boat and boats today do a poor job of helping you do that. I spent a lot of time and effort building and installing 7″ tall bulwarks on my boat. What a huge help it has been to making the boat safer. We had nothing tied tonthe side deck. No fuel or water cans to trip over. I also installed some grab lines along along the cabin top for offshore work and a very stout bronze boom gallows mounted to the cabin sides and crossing over the companionway. You seldom see these items on modern designs. We chose to approach harnesses as a rough weather safety item. We had them with the short 6′ lanyard. We wore them when it was rough and usually at night. Even going forward I did not always clip mine in untill I got to where I needed to be to complete the task. It was too slow and difficult to keep clipping in and unclioping. That damn kong hook on the West Marine teather often took two hands to operate which is just asking for trouble. Working on deck reefing and hauling hank on headsails up and down I got jerked off my feet more than once by the harness teather getting tangled around deck hardware. I often thought the harness was likely more a liability than a saftey device. I hated the harness and the teather. I hated the thought of falling off the boat too. We worked carefully and methodically remeberering that old sailor motto, “one hand for the ship and one for yourself. I don’t know how many lives are actually saved by being clipped in. Every situation is different. I think you have to make your own choice but you should do it with your eyes wide open about the risk with and without the harness. Ultimately I came to the conclusion that on a double handed boat, if I fell off the boat, clipped in or not, I was a gonner. So I didn’t fall off the boat. I dont think harnesses are the answer. They are just a tool. The answer is boat design, deck layout, training, and judgement.

    John Stone
    S/V Far Reach

  6. Charlie

    @JT: I think those are great solutions for a combo PFD/harness. I like the looks of the quick-release mechanisms, and I like the idea of having the attachment point in the back, though I might feel differently about that after trying it out. The one thing about proper vests like those, however, is that the extra insulation is not appreciated when sailing in the tropics. Running your jacklines down the middle of the boat makes sense in terms of the tether keeping you aboard, but on some boats you would need to clip on and off a lot, due to intervening gear and rigging, which can be annoying.

  7. Charlie

    @Damon: Yes, a harness with an inflatable vest needs leg straps, but leg straps are a pain to put on. And, as you say, crew training is very important. Most MOB drills focus solely on getting back to a victim–a cushion thrown overboard and recovered. Getting someone back aboard is just as important.

  8. Charlie

    @John Stone: I agree. Clipping on and off can be a huge pain and often seems counter-productive. I also often just go to where I need to work, then clip on, at least on my boat, which has tons of deck features and deep bulwarks. On boats with empty decks I clip on and move up the windward side, so I am more likely to fall into the deck rather than off it. And, again, only when conditions are rough and I am nervous. As you suggest, mental focus is extremely important, whatever you are doing with a harness. You need to focus on keeping your body low and on every move you make as you make it. You can’t be thinking ahead. Properly done, moving around a deck is almost like a meditation.

  9. Priscilla

    So it is called a Lirakis harness!!! I purchased mine used and have never seen anything nearly as perfect; IMO the Lirakis scores a 10 and the least worst I’ve seen gets a 3. All the BS to make harnesses fashionable and adjustable to fit every body resulted in complicated products that twist.

    Tethers haven’t improved either – you *must* have double clips: one pin-release snap shackle (with a GOOD pull-handle) to connect the harness D-rings and can be released under load, and one snap/carbine hook clipped to one D-ring, never both. If you go overboard and need to escape the harness, the harness is still tethered to the boat by the carbine hook and then can be used as a step (good luck with that).

    Double clips also allow you to move around the boat and clip to the next point before unclipping from the last. Quickly looking online, the only “dual tether” has two 6′ tethers on one hook for the jackline – bad! That increases tripping and snagging probability. Mine is about 24″ sewn near the snap shackle – long enough to be useful without being a hindrance.

    WHY is the reality of reboarding so ignored?! If you are obese and/or out of shape and go overboard you are doomed. Eat healthy, stretch, exercise, row, and do pull-ups, lots of pull-ups. Climb trees! How many of you who clip on have tried to pull yourself back on your boat with a harness and tether? Or even tried to “walk” up a wall with a rope? Try it on your mast with a halyard … on a stormy day.

    My way (I singlehand) whether I am offshore or Bay sailing:
    ALWAYS clip on before leaving the cockpit, no exceptions. Inshore I often mess around near the boom and if I get hit even though I could swim to shore I want to stay with my boat, whether I am conscious or not. Offshore I clip on even when the boat is not underway (you will too if you ever see how bloody big a whale is!) Nice wind and weather doesn’t mean you won’t stumble if your boat hits a log or container.
    My two jacklines have a little slack and run inside the shrouds from U-bolts I mounted near the inner forestay to dedicated cleats I mounted outside the cockpit, far enough aft for me to reach the windvane. I mounted a big @ss U-bolt forward of the inner forestay (emergency stay attachment for hank-on sail) so I can clip onto that also with an additional short tether if I ever have to mess with my roller fouling or anchors (you know that will only happen during a storm with the bow going under. :-P) Another U-bolt just fwd of the mast if I ever get stuck working there for a while. And two U-bolts inside the cockpit, port and stbd, I always clip on those when I am napping, and during storms. All U-bolts have backing plates.
    I do not wear a life-jacket – it would be a hindrance to re-boarding, and I prefer dying quickly over suffering.
    Salt crystals have sharp edges! I rinse my harness, tether and jacklines after every use.

    Electronics and motorized equipment have enabled people without adequate fitness or skills to go offshore using boats that were not designed, built or equipped for heavy seas. Money is all they need to go cruising. Unfortunately their success rate is high enough that the trend will continue. *sigh*
    Chances are most people who fall overboard will die so discuss it: If I fall off (puking, taking a pee…) during night watch, do you want to find me drowned dragging alongside the boat or completely disappeared? If someone is dead attached to the boat people KNOW and resources are not wasted looking for the person/body.

    The issue is not: Is it safe/better to use a tether?
    It is: If you can’t easily do 10+ pull-ups when you are seasick/tired/injured and fall overboard you will probably die; would you prefer to die quickly or slowly, attached to the boat or adrift at sea?

  10. Priscilla

    There is more to clipping on that is rarely discussed: the metal parts that keep you on the boat! A separate comment about stainless steel since SS is prone to crevice and pitting corrosion, wasting and weld decay.

    As an ABYC certified Corrosion Technician, for liability exposure I am comfortable saying SS has a 15 year life in the tropics and 20-30 in fresh water and northern latitudes.
    My welder tells me my training and certification mean nothing, he sees SS on his bench five days a week and insists SS has a 10 year lifespan in the tropics and 15-20 in fresh water and northern latitudes. (He only does work for boats and is also a sailor.)
    Every time I give my professional opinion I also include what my welder says, the responses?: But it has worked fine for 30 years! My neighbor says … The guys at the yard say …
    No one, ever, not once, has said, “Ohmigosh, I’m going to check all those welds and renew all those fasteners before I go offshore again!”

    I know of two instances on aged cruising boats when someone was leaning over the lifelines to adjust a fender/retrieve something and the stanchion bases gave way, one person went overboard and the other just got a good scare. Both were at the dock.

    Additionally, I have spent more time in more yards, both hauled out for weeks/months on end working on my own boat and as a surveyor, than most people reading this combined. A substantial number of yard workers are really great guys but can’t even spell B O A T, much less sail one. If you are going offshore do the work yourself. If you don’t have the skills may I remind you that many yard workers don’t either.

    I use a colored dye system to check for crevice corrosion and weld decay (two of my chainplates had crevice corrosion and three of my stanchion bases and a dorade guard had weld decay), here are the part numbers:
    Cleaner: 1383T7
    Visible red dye: 1383T4
    Developer for red dye: 1383T5

    There are other brands and sources.
    (I also purchase SS and bronze fasteners from McMaster-Carr.)

    Remember to check the sockets for your granny bars and cleats/jackline attachment points and renew those fasteners too – anything and everything you might lean/fall against or clip onto.

    For a good (bad??) story and more information about crevice corrosion read Paul Calder’s timely article, “Dangers of Crevice Corrosion”.

  11. Charlie

    @Priscilla: Wow! Thanks for all this great commentary. Glad to have tipped you off on where your harness came from. Also, I really appreciate the reminder on the mortality of stainless steel. Bronze is clearly the best marine metal, yet we rarely see it on modern boats. Why is that?

  12. Robert Bartlett

    In defence of a clean deck profile .. As a single hander I can attest to the fact that when the weather gets dirty and a situation arises necessitating leaving the cockpit. Your “safety” line will snarl in just about everything !!

  13. Priscilla

    @ Charlie: “Bronze is clearly the best marine metal, yet we rarely see it on modern boats. Why is that?”

    Good question! So I asked my boat builder friend, whose father and grandfather were also boat builders – in the Netherlands, the birthplace of the word “yacht”, and all boat builders used bronze. And his reply was, “Good question!”

    He said it is the “glitter factor” of SS that made it popular (some of us call it “shiny sh!t” :), which was my conclusion after thinking about the various properties and costs of bronze, SS and aluminum before I asked him.

  14. John Stone

    I agree about the troubles associated with SS. During our rebuild we exclusively used bronze for deck hardware. Much of it we had to have cast or we welded it from silicon bronze (pad eyes and the support brackets for our bulwarks and stanchion bases). At the end of our passage to the BVI the bronze has assumed a beautiful patina while the SS either had a horrible corrosive powder build-up or was spotted and in some cases streaked with rust. I am loath to add any SS to the boat whenever it can be avoided. The downside to bronze is cost. I have a small fortune invested in bronze fasteners. And that is why I think we don’t see it much anymore. I suspect builders are happy to convince us we need sleek shiny hardware as it keeps the boat building costs down. Hard to fault them for that when the price of a new boat requires one to sell their home or be fairly wealthy.

  15. Charlie

    @Priscilla: What John said. Marine-grade bronze is both more expensive and doesn’t look at all shiny unless you polish it constantly. But those are both poor reasons for not using it. At a minimum rudder stocks and propeller shafts should always be bronze, and they used to be, but no more. I did note recently there is one modern builder using bronze plates embedded in laminate to secure deck hardware, rather than the usual aluminum, which was a little encouraging.

  16. Priscilla

    Well well well, look at the men not listening to women, as usual, WHY can’t men read instructions* or follow directions??
    Women know why – men only have one thing on their mind. 😀

    SS has a short lifespan! Depending on your latitude and safety factor comfort level, it needs to be renewed every 10 to 25 years, most people cruise in the tropics so let’s use 15 years. I can’t even get it through people’s heads how important it is to pull your chain plates to inspect them, much less renew them, so I’ll use fasteners for an example.

    One of the 6″ SS mounting bolts for my windlass (yes, it’s really 6″ :D) had wasted to nothing – it disintegrated my first ounce of force on the head to remove it. Looking at that 3/8″ bolt, hmmm, click click click and I am at McMaster-Carr (remember I gave y’all the link?)

    One 6″ silicon bronze bolt is $5.84
    One 6″ SS bolt, use 316 for exposed locations, is $3.80

    (I just checked my order history and I paid $4.01 for those bolts a year ago. And the 18-8 is $7.71 for the same bolt – WTF?)

    In this case, and renewing fasteners every 15 years, the break-even point for bronze looks about 10 years, so SS is quickly more expensive because you need to $pend that again and again, every 15 years, for as long as you own your boat. For me, 15 years is too long for such important heavily stressed bolts, I’ll renew those four bolts every 10 years.
    Bronze is forever – old shipwrecks that are recovered – the wood rots but the bronze is just fine.

    Anybody notice want wasn’t in the above calculations?
    Time! And materials – sealant, rubber gloves, acetone, paper towels …
    Initially both SS and bronze take the same amount of everything to install, but the second time for the SS bolt, even if you use minimum wage to calculate the cost of your time, add in materials and the SS bolt quite a bit more expensive than the one-time cost for the bronze bolt. (John Stone is smiling now!)

    Sometimes bronze is not an option though, like my windlass – the housing is aluminum – bronze (copper) will destroy aluminum.
    Charlie – you mentioned bronze prop and rudder shafts – the prop shaft I can see, but what about the rudder shaft? Can you do that on an aluminum boat?

    And WHY do people care about shiny??? Seriously?! Ask me this: I had the time and money to polish anything, would I spend it on polishing, or spend it hanging out with you drinking beer and telling lies? See ya at the nearest pub. Additionally, when sunlight reflects off shiny sh!t it blows your eyes out. Varnishing is another weird one. Good grief, spend the money on beer and use the time sailing.

    *[Confession: I don’t read instructions either. My RADAR is a good example, I bought one eight years ago and couldn’t figure out how to make it work. Someone told me to read the manual, so I tried that for a few minutes and bought the RADAR for Dummies book, it’s way thicker than the manual – how stupid is that?! but it didn’t help either, I even read some picture captions. Anyway, for something so expensive you should be able to turn it on and it works. On/off button and a dial to zoom in and out, that’s more complicated than a man but I can do a dial. Anyway, I’m not ever going to read those instructions, and it is a lot more fun to watch real world than a little screen, so I took the RADAR to the resale shop last month. The guy tested it and said it works fine. :roll:]

  17. John Stone

    Priscilla, concur. But, the source of the fasteners is key. Where were the bronze bolts made that you purchased from McMaster Carr? I talked to them too and asked them where they were made. They said the USA. I asked if they would certify that in writing. “No” was the answer. While I agree with you on almost every point, not all bronze is equal (especially when it originates in Asia). I installed bronze hex cap shouldered bolts for my windlass as I did for all the deck hardware. As you suggested, I don’t have to worry about them for a long long time.

    You’d think in a country like the US with the incredible legacy of steel/aluminum/bronze/copper production we could have easy access to bronze fasteners. Sadly, that no longer seems to be the case. Sounds like you have a firm grip on what you are doing.

  18. Charlie

    @Priscilla: Nope. Definitely wouldn’t want a bronze rudder stock on an aluminum boat. I was talking fiberglass (or wood, for that matter). Many glass boats have very silly rudders: stainless steel armatures wrapped in foam skinned with glass. Moisture always gets in, so you have the worst possible scenario: wet stainless deprived of oxygen.

  19. Charlie

    @Don: Hokey smokes! You have a good memory. I’d forgotten about those, but checking their website I see they are still (supposedly) waiting for ISO approval. I wonder what that’s about?

  20. Robert N

    It is why a knife is so important to carry. Either brother could have cut the tether if they had knives. Also, don’t let the tethers be long enough to reach the water.

  21. Richard

    This past weekend, November 18, 2017 the concerned wife of her solo sailor husband phoned the previous owners of their newly purchased 36′ sailing vessel. Her husband was late returning from a crossing of Georgia Strait, from Nanaimo B.C. to the home marina in Gibsons BC. The wife didn’t know what to do. The previous owners contacted the Canadian Coast Guard.
    The vessel was found in Georgia Strait, with the new owner attached to his safety harness off the the bow. He drowned.
    The weather was pretty crappy at the time, as I was out doing some solo sailing myself that weekend, without a harness as always.
    Maybe it’s time to set some priorities for a convenient and thoughtful system of restraints on board, that will not allow enough slack in the restraint system to allow a person over the rail. Certainly a grieving spouse would agree.

  22. Steve

    People usually end up in this position if they clip the end of their harness to a jackstay running the length of the deck and then walk along the leeward side. On my safety briefings I advise people not to clip directly to the jackstay, but instead to take the end of their harness around the jackstay and then back onto their lifejacket. I also tell them to always stick to the windward side of the boat when moving on deck. The result is that you have to walk with a slight crouch, but on the positive side there is no longer enough harness between you and the boat to allow you to go over the side and be dragged along with your head in the water.

  23. I single-hand our Swan 46, ARTEMIS, more often than not, and am grateful I still have my trusty blue and red Lirakis I purchased when I was 19. Everythime I put it on I remind myself I can’t expand anymore, or I’ll have to get all tangled up in some modern safety gear.

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