PS Repeats Tether Release Warning in Wake of Chicago-Mackinac Race Fatalities

Posted by at 02:56PM - Comments: (5)

While there is no evidence yet that the fatal sailing accident in the Chicago-Mackinac Race this week is linked to a safety tether problem, it is not unreasonable to suspect that the difficulty involved in releasing safety tethers may have been a factor.

Practical Sailor cautioned about the use of split rings in tether releases in 2009.

Sadly, the accident happened just as Practical Sailor was wrapping up another test of tether release mechanisms. An investigation into the tragedy is ongoing, but according to reports in the Detroit Free Press, the 35-foot sloop WingNuts capsized during in a fierce storm that struck during the race. WingNuts captain, Mark Morley, 51, and his girlfriend, Suzanne Bickel, 41, were found drowned while still tethered to their boat. Six other crew members were pulled from the water.

PS readers will recall that we repeated our warnings about problems with the existing release mechanisms back in 2009, and one of these reports ultimately led to the recall and redesign of one safety tether.

These are now the fourth and fifth fatalities in recent years in which safety tethers have been raised as a possible contributing cause of death. In some cases, such as sailor Sally Gordon’s death in the Flinders Islet tragedy in Australia, the link has been speculative. Others, such as the death of Harvey Schlasky in the 1999 Double-handed Farallones Race, are more obviously linked to tether design and use. These are just the most highly publicized deaths. There may be others that were not so widely reported.

Although it has become evident that the existing release mechanisms are problematic, safety sailing experts have instead been concentrating on other design issues. Racing sailors are now recommended to switch to ISAF-compliant tethers with load indicators in the tethers, such as those used by tree-climbing arborists. These “flags” indicate that a tether has been overloaded and should be replaced—an expensive solution looking for a problem, in our view. Crotch straps are now recommended, and tethers with the unreliable carabiner-style gate-hooks that ISAF warns against are still available on store shelves. (See also the "View PDF" link below.)

There is a lot to be said on this topic, so please stay tuned for our full report in the September issue. In the meantime, when you're on board, carry a sharp knife and know how to use it . . . blindfolded and hanging upside down. Do not expect any of the existing safety tethers to release safely and easily under load. For a quick and dirty test of your tether's release, put your full body weight (or as much as possible) on your harness-tether while wearing it, and see if you can release yourself from the tether. If you sail in cold areas where you sometimes wear gloves, try it that way, too.


Comments (5)

I have rebuilt my teachers with Tylaska snap shackles. They are much more expensive, but do not use the type of piston and ring that were recalled, and are easy to open both under load, and with one hand.

Posted by: Greg R | May 7, 2012 1:17 PM    Report this comment

I find that a lot of sailors confuse the ends of their tethers, hooking onto the jackline using the end that they deem to be the easiest to work.

Posted by: KEVIN F | July 28, 2011 2:25 PM    Report this comment

I bought PS's recommended West Marine tether for the 2009 Marion-Bermuda race and everyone on board like it for how easy it is to use. I was surprised to get the recall notice last year and disappointed that West did not have a like replacement so elected to keep mine. As I prepared for this years Marion-Bermuda I looked at my tether again not knowing exactly why it was recalled. I now know it was the small split ring in the quick-release snap shackle at the harness-end. When I saw the same model was on sale at West I went and exchanged it. What I found was that the manufacturer had welded the split ring closed thus fixing the problem of split ring failures.

Posted by: | July 20, 2011 12:32 PM    Report this comment

As far as I know Larry, only West Marine recently recalled its tether, although there are others like it on the market, both online and at various retailers. West recently announced a redesigned tether, which we are now testing. The details of the recall are on the link above under "recall" and "redesign." West Marine has made an effort to ease the release function on its snap-hook. This has made releasing easier, but we would still like to see some progress toward an improved clip/hook at the harness end that is more reliable under load and in extreme situations such as that encountered by the crew of WingNut. Some tethers, like the Spinlock race series have no clip at the harness-end at all, relying entirely on their patented S-cutter cutting tool (or a knife) for a quick release. This, in my view, is a less than desirable approach to the problem: Because you might need a knife to cut yourself free, now you MUST use a knife. What if you're working on deck and just want to get quickly untangled? (Spinlock also offers a tether with double-action gate hook on it.) Some racers apparently like the light weight of no clip at all. Note that there is no indication, so far, that the inability to release a tether contributed to the fatalities aboard WingNut. Nor has the type of tether Morley and Bickel were wearing been made public.
A full report on our tether testing will appear in the September issue.

Posted by: Darrell | July 20, 2011 11:41 AM    Report this comment

Which sources have recalled this type of tethers?

Posted by: San Juan Sailor | July 20, 2011 10:18 AM    Report this comment

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