Rhumb Lines September 2011 Issue

A Second Look at Safety Tethers

Sailing harnesses and safety tethers were put to the ultimate test in July when a storm packing winds of more than 50 knots swept through the fleet of sailboats racing in the annual Chicago-to-Mackinac Race. One of the boats, the Kiwi 35 WingNuts, capsized in a powerful gust. It stayed inverted, forcing the crew of eight into the water. At the time of capsize, the crew were wearing safety harnesses and tethers, and most were clipped in to jacklines on the boat. All but two of the sailors, skipper Mark Morley and his girlfriend, Suzanne Bickel, were able to unclip themselves and survived.

Crew member Stan Dent, 51, used his knife to cut his tether, and then he turned to cut free crewmate Peter Morley. Both were wearing tethers that were tied to their harnesses with a cow-hitch, giving the wearer two options to release himself—cut the tether or unclip from the boat. With the boat inverted, unclipping was not an option.

Peter’s son, 15-year-old Stewart Morley, had a tether with a carabiner-style gate hook at the harness end. He unhooked himself, and then helped open the snap shackle connecting the tether and harness of his friend, C.J. Cummings, 16. According to Peter Morley, the inflated bladders of the auto-inflating PFD-harness interfered with Cummings’ attempts to free himself.

PS has not confirmed the type of tethers that Mark Morley and Bickel were wearing. According to Peter Morley, they wore Spinlock harnesses. Spinlock sells two types of tethers for its harnesses, one with a loop that is cow-hitched to the harness and one with a Gibb-style, double-action hook. Unlike a snap-shackle, neither can be released under load without being cut, a fault in many tethers on the market today. The type of release may not have mattered. Coast Guard divers found their bodies eight hours after the accident, still tethered to the overturned hull. A preliminary autopsy indicated that both died from head trauma.

Practical Sailor Technical Editor Ralph Naranjo has been named to a team of experts that will be investigating the accident. Part of the investigation will be looking at the boat itself and the conditions surrounding the capsize. When a ballasted boat does not right itself, questions arise about the suitability of the design for offshore racing. The investigation also will look at safety gear and procedures. Of particular interest to Practical Sailor is whether it would have made any difference if Mark Morley and Bickel could have easily released themselves from the boat.

Sailing involves risk, and sadly, tragedies happen. Sometimes, it seems, they happen for a reason. At the time of the WingNuts accident, PS was in the middle of its own study of snap shackles used on tethers. As details of the accident emerged, they offered a clearer picture of the importance of the tether-harness connection and how things can go terribly wrong in a hurry.

It is our hope that our report, beginning on page 25, will prompt makers to re-examine the design of safety tethers and harnesses and the recommendations for their use. We also think there’s a need for closer control over the quality of materials and fabrication.

More importantly, we hope our report encourages sailors to inspect their own tethers, particularly where it joins to the harness. If you have a snap shackle at this union, test the release under the load of your own body weight. Do this with your harness on (and inflated if it is self inflating). If you have any other means of attachment, particularly a cow-hitch, be aware that your life may depend on your ability to cut yourself free with a knife—or the actions of a quick-thinking crewmate.

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