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Safety: Wearing a Harness is Never a Guarantee

Staying Aboard Is Best
There’s a lot more to safety offshore than simply being clipped in

There’s a lot more to safety offshore than simply being clipped in

Are you really safer tethered to your boat? It’s something I’ve wondered about ever since I first started sailing offshore. The received wisdom is you should always wear a harness, preferably one with an inflatable life vest, and always be clipped in while underway. I’ve always imagined, however, that being dragged through the water beside a boat at the end of a tether must in itself be life-threatening.

In at least two instances this has proved to be the case. Christopher Reddish, age 47, was clipped in with a harness when he fell overboard while sailing his boat off the British coast in 2011. He’d been working at the bow handling sails. He was dragged in his harness alongside the boat and unfortunately died before his crew could stop and recover him.

There was a similar incident during the 2002 ARC. Phillip Hitchcock, also age 47, fell overboard with a harness on and was dragged beside his boat, a high-sided Formosa 51. The sole crewmember aboard, Phillip’s brother David, put Phillip on a longer lead to keep him clear of the boat while he rounded up and dropped sails. But by the time David stopped the boat and had Phillip alongside again, he was dead. David never succeeded in getting the body aboard and was forced to set it adrift.

Inspired by the death of Reddish, the British magazine Practical Boat Owner afterward conducted a series of in-water tests with a weighted dummy wearing an inflatable life vest/harness, and the results were not encouraging. They concluded that anyone dragged through the water at speed in a harness can easily drown in as little as a minute. To safely recover a victim, they urged that a boat must be stopped, preferably with its sails down, ASAP.

One thing Practical Boat Owner did not examine is whether a harness with an inflatable vest is more or less dangerous in these situations. My personal feeling is that having huge lobes of inflated plastic pressed against your chest and face while being dragged through the water must be more a hindrance than a help. If you think about it, the two functions are contradictory. You really only need a life vest to help you stay afloat 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 beside it, staying afloat is the least of your worries. This is why I often favored the old Lirakis harnesses, made of heavy nylon webbing with no flotation. They were easy to put on and perfectly unobtrusive once you got them on. It is a shame they are no longer available.

Meanwhile, the bottom line is simple: the safest practice is to stay on the boat in the first place. A harness with a short tether may help, as will a centerline jackline, but they are not necessarily guaranteed.

Another important factor when it comes to staying aboard is the nature of the deck itself. It should have lots of stuff to hang on to. Good handrails, granny bars around the mast and over dorade vents, multiple shrouds, high lifelines with super-strong stanchion posts, deep bulwarks. These are all things that can help keep you aboard in an emergency, yet sadly are less and less common on modern sailboats. The current aesthetic of clean uncluttered decks may look cool at the dock, but it won’t look very cool when you’re scrabbling to keep from slipping over the side.

Just as important is how you work on deck. You should always focus on what you’re doing as you are doing it. As a Buddhist would put it, you must live in the moment. Say for example you need to attend to something up at the bow. As you are going forward you should not be thinking about whatever it is that needs doing. You should, instead be thinking only about the process of getting there. Carefully plot out every step and every handhold you grab for. Consider the movement of the boat and when it is best to make each move. Perhaps most importantly: do not move too quickly.

Never forget that when all is said and done, safety isn’t just gear, it’s also a state of mind. 

Photo by James Austrums

April 2019

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