Rethinking Jacklines, Tethers, and Safety at Sea

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I don’t know if you've seen some of the recent sailboat racing news but it involves safety at sea and identifies a potential issue you might want to think about when preparing for your own passages.

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During the Clipper Race Around the World, two sailors aboard the Great Britain were among crew on the foredeck attempting a sail change when they were washed overboard in heavy weather in the Southern Indian Ocean. One sailor was clipped on with his short tether, and came back aboard immediately without difficulty. The second sailor, 60-year-old Simon Speirs, was clipped on with his longer tether. Unfortunately, while the crew was busy readying a halyard to bring him back aboard, there was a loud bang, and Simon was gone, his tether no longer attached to the boat. The crew sprang into man overboard recovery mode, but it took 36 minutes to retrieve Speirs, and despite their best efforts, they were unable to revive him. He was lost on November 17, 2018.

Anyone who considers an offshore passage on a sailboat should think about this. It also applies to ocean passages by motorboats as well. In fact, when in the ocean, Linda Dashew insists Steve clip onto a jackline whenever he goes forward on their 78-foot FPB, Cochise. While I can't recall using jacklines on the motorboat ocean passages I've made, it is certainly not a bad idea.

Initial investigation by U.K.'s Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) sheds some new perspective that you might want to consider on your boat. It also has me wondering how many others have been lost overboard in this same way, especially among the single handed community.

 A top end safety tether secures to a person's life vest, ideally using bulletproof trigger shackles. The 1-meter short tether is good for work at the mast or other close-in location, allowing both hands to work on the matter at hand, while the longer, 2-meter tether is good for moving around the deck.

A top end safety tether secures to a person's life vest, ideally using bulletproof trigger shackles. The 1-meter short tether is good for work at the mast or other close-in location, allowing both hands to work on the matter at hand, while the longer, 2-meter tether is good for moving around the deck.

What appears to have happened is that the rugged and widely accepted snap link on the end of Simon's safety tether got caught in a deck cleat as he fell overboard. Rather than the force of a person overboard pulling straight back as the system is designed to handle, the tremendous pull from Speirs being pulled alongside at boat speed came from an unexpected sideways angle to the snap link as it was held captive in the deck cleat. Normally able to withstand a straight line pull of 4,500lbs, the unusual lateral loading put a strain on the snap link that it was not designed for, and it distorted to the point of failure at one tenth its normal breaking strength.

 The obvious distortion can be seen as the lateral loading was recreated in a testing lab by the MAIB. The snap links are well designed, however, and still the right choice for offshore sailing.

The obvious distortion can be seen as the lateral loading was recreated in a testing lab by the MAIB. The snap links are well designed, however, and still the right choice for offshore sailing.

The MAIB investigation did not fault either the chest tethers or snap links, which are well engineered and sufficiently strong in offshore situations. But to avoid any recurrence of this perhaps unusual (but now understood) situation, the immediate remedy for the men and women still out racing on these boat was to wrap 10mm line around all deck cleats to completely cover them, allowing all life saving gear, such as safety tethers clipped onto jacklines, to slip easily over the deck hardware.

While this sad accident occurred in a professional offshore racing situation, it seems clear we can all learn from this and apply similar thinking to our own boats. As I have written in the past about prepping a cruising sailboat to participate in races for the Annapolis Yacht Club, such as the Annapolis to Newport Race, it is common practice to terminate a jackline at a boat’s stern cleat. Now I believe it is far better for a separate pad eye (with backing plate) to be the termination point for this safety line, eliminating any possible entanglement with deck hardware, as it is impossible for the tether's snap link to get caught sideways on a properly installed pad eye.

(Conversely, knowing what we now know, it is easy to imagine the snap link getting caught on a deck cleat horn, right where a jackline ends. Standing in the cockpit, with the snap link lying on the cockpit side of the cleat, imagine if a wave swept across the cockpit with full force, washing a crew member sideways out of the cockpit, and the tether is suddenly yanked across the cleat, the lateral pull sideways over the top of the stern deck cleat…)

Definitely something to think about on your own boat next time you prepare for an offshore passage to Antiqua or one of the Puget Sound races in the Pacific.