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Scuttlebutt News:

Safety, safety harnesses, and tethers
By Tim Kent

Although this is in response to a letter in Scuttlebutt, it hits to the core of a subject that I have spoken about at safety seminars and other meetings over the last three years. I am a trifle passionate about this, due not only to the loss of my friend, and not only to the long conversations I had with my children before starting the Around Alone race about staying clipped to the boat as a promise to them. I am most passionate about this because of all of the suppositions and misinformation about being tethered to the boat that goes around during bar talk presented as fact. Tethers, properly used, are hardly “death straps.” I hope you will consider the opinions below. - Tim Kent, Around Alone Race 2002-2003, 2nd place, Open 50 class

(May 14, 2007) I know the man mentioned in Scuttlebutt 2340 (in the story "Safety Harness of Death Strap?") that lost his life at the end of a tether in Lake Michigan. He was both a fine sailor and a good friend. That he should have come to such an end while confident that he was being prudent about safety makes his loss even harder to bear.

I have raced around the world solo, almost every moment of it clipped onto my boat with a safety harness and tether. I was cautious about being on deck, but you can only be so cautious on the foredeck of a boat alone that is traveling at 20+ knots, is awash in heavy water while careening down (marvelous) Southern Ocean waves – staying on board in such situations is mandatory. My friend lost his life less than a week after I started my around the world race, and it caused me to re-think my own safety precautions. Here are the conclusions I came to:

  • Be attached to the boat all the time. For crewed racers this is less of an issue, but if there is water over the deck in riotous waves, especially at night, there is no shame in being decisive about being clipped on no matter how many people are on board. It is your life we are talking about here. If you are alone on your boat or alone on deck, be clipped to the boat.

  • The foredeck needs to be escape-proofed. My friend went under the lifelines of his boat. There must be some sort of lashing from the deck, around the middle lifeline to the top and back again that will slow you down if you should slip. Obviously this helps keep sails on board as well.

  • You must make certain that when you are clipped on, if you were to fall over the side, the attachment point of your harness is not below the toe-rail. This is THE key. If you are over the lifelines with your arms out of the water, you can probably get yourself back on board. It might hurt like hell and be hard as hell, but if your arms are free, you can pull yourself up to the point where you can get a leg out, then the rest of your body out of the water. If you go over the side with your arms under water, even if the boat is moving three or four knots, you can not get back on board. Period. Unless the boat is somehow stopped or a big crew is available to pull you back on board, you will drown. The jacklines required by most rules that allow you to move from the bow to the stern without unclipping are one of those “safety” measures that make you feel secure while they mask their weak points. If you use standard rope or web jacklines, walk to the middle of your boat, reach down and pull up on the jackline. It will deflect upwards, sometimes almost to the top of the lifeline. Then add the length of your tether – usually six feet – to that topmost point, over the top of the lifelines, down to the toerail. I guarantee you that that point will be well below the toerail. That is the point where your chest will be – under water if the boat is heeled over and you are on the low side (probable). Result? You drown.

  • You must have a quick-release shackle on the harness end of your tether. I still see some tethers without this feature. I tell my crew for distance races that if they show up with a tether without a quick-release shackle on one end, I will cut it in half and send them off to the boat store for a new one with a clean conscience. When I found myself clipped on, trapped under the cockpit of a 50 foot boat that capsized after losing its keel, I just pulled my quick-release shackle with one hand and swam free. I was holding the ditch kit in my other hand…and I did not want to let it go. One way or another, that quick-release shackle saved my life.

  • None of this has to be scary. Clip on. Use spectra webbing or line for jacklines and lash them in place with spectra lashing. These will not deflect nearly as much as “standard” jacklines and any good rigger or companies like APS or Layline can hook you up with spectra jacklines easily. Try to rig jacklines or attachment points close to the middle of the boat. Don’t be afraid to unclip and reclip to keep yourself in the safety zone where you will still be hooked up above the attachment point if you go over the lifelines. Double your tether around the jackline back to your harness to shorten it up if you are at the pointy end in rough weather. Set up jacklines so they stop you before the tether could leave you streaming off the stern. Don’t be macho – clip on when you are on the boat alone or on deck alone ALL THE TIME.

    This is an emotional subject and there are other viewpoints. These worked for me for a solo trip across the Atlantic and a solo circumnavigation. There are other opinions and other approaches. The most important thing is to think safety all the time.

    Stay on your boat. Please. If not for yourself, then for all the other sailors who love your sport and would hate to lose you. For your friends. For your family.

    Tim Kent
    US Sales Manager
    Harken, Inc.

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