Can Sailors Learn Something from Mil-spec Tethers?

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 01:08PM - Comments: (6)

Practical Sailor warned of split ring failures in 2009.

I am floored by the amount of great feedback we’ve been getting from readers regarding our tether-harness/PFD design project, which is still very much in the embryonic stage. At this point, we are still soliciting ideas from the public regarding what sort of criteria to set for the ideal tether and ideal harness/PFD. From the looks of the great ideas we’ve been getting, we’ll likely have two, possibly three different designs. Please, if you have any suggestions on this project—problems or solutions you’ve found in your own experiences on the water—send them my way via e-mail. If you have attachments or illustrations you’d like to send, just mention that in a brief note and I’ll provide an alternative way to contact me directly.

While a harness and tether arrangement might seem fairly straightforward, there are at least a dozen different key elements in the design. And just to illustrate the complexity of the PFD/harness project we’re undertaking, I’m going to narrow the focus to just one element on the tether: the release lanyard.

The release lanyard on a modern tether is typically a short length of webbing attached to the snap shackle that connects to the harness. Pull on the lanyard, and the snap shackle releases. While we’ve written a lot about how being able to release from a tether is important in a dire emergency—when someone needs to get free of a sinking vessel, for example—the lanyard is also important to have for more common situations on deck. One of the most harrowing moments in one of our staff’s sailing careers was when he was literally lifted off the deck by a spinnaker guy that ran under his tether. Only by releasing his tether was he able to escape injury.

Assuming our ideal design will still have a snap-shackle—which at this stage is not at all a given—let’s look at the things we'll need in the lanyard.

  • Distinct appearance and feeling. The lanyard must be easy to find in the dark, in the water, when the sailor is on the verge of panic.
  • Easy to grip, even with gloves. Our tests indicate that the amount of pull required to open existing snap shackles while under load is about 35 pounds or more.
  • Difficult to snag. The last thing we want is something that will get snagged on a shroud or piece of hardware as we’re moving forward on deck.
  • A secure means of attaching the lanyard to the snap shackle. Past designs have relied on split rings that have proven to be prone to failure.
  • Accessible. As we’ve mentioned before, the lanyard must be accessible when the harness is inflated or deflated.

Looking back at past tether designs, it's easy to see how manufacturers have wrestled with the snap-shackle lanyard problem. For a while, the most popular solution was a 3- to 4-inch flat webbing lanyard with three or four round plastic beads strung on the end. The beads gave you something to grip, were not prone to snagging, and had a very distinct feel in the dark. However, when you tried to apply the required force to these balls, they tended to slip out of your hands, particularly wet or gloved hands.

A couple years ago, West Marine and other makers introduced a lanyard with a rubberized, triangle-shaped finger pull at the end. This offered somewhat better grip, but was more prone to snagging than the beads. Designs with this type of pull were voluntarily recalled by West Marine in 2010 due to reported problems with the split-rings.

Some more recent tethers have neither beads nor a finger pull, but a simple flat loop of webbing that is much less prone to snagging, but more difficult to locate by feel. This design is also difficult to grab until you open the loop up so you can insert a finger or two inside for pulling. This, in my view, is a step backward from the bead lanyards.

One arrangement I’ve contemplated is a toggle of sorts, something you can grab with your middle and forefinger with the lanyard between, but this, too, seems prone to snagging. Which made me wonder whether there wasn’t a cheap, convenient way to stow these easier-to-grab, but easier-to-snag lanyards so that they wouldn’t get caught on something.

While I was noodling the range of imperfect options for this seemingly simple component, contributor Drew Frye, an avid rock climber, pointed me to Yates Gear, one of the world’s most important suppliers of safety tethers for commercial, rescue, and military markets, as well as for recreational climbers.

The lanyard pull on the Yates Heavy Duty QR Personal Retention Lanyard features a Velcro retainer.

According to John Yates of Yates Gear, many of the problems we’ve encountered with lanyards, such as the split-ring failure, have already been encountered in some military situations, and have been solved. If you look at the Ronstan snap shackle used on its Heavy Duty Personal Retention Lanyard (item #563B-6300), you’ll see that they actually use a small shackle instead of a split ring. I also noticed that the tethers used as personal retention lanyards (the aviator's word for tether) in military helicopters—where you want no chance of opening—use the Kong Tango double-locking hook on the harness end, not a quick release. The drawback of this Kong is that it cannot be released under load, but that is the sort of compromise you learn to live with when you are hovering well above sea level.

Finally, I noticed that most of the snap shackle release lanyards are made of thicker, easier-to-grab webbing; some have a loop, others have a small ring on the end where one might attach a ball or toggle. All of them attach to the tether itself using a bit of Velcro fastener. That way they don’t flop around where they might get snagged. According to Yates, the Velcro helps prevent the accidental-pull scenario. Now, my experience with Velcro in the real world is that it doesn’t last forever, but this nevertheless seems like a possible solution.

Another thing I noticed was the use of the Ronstan 6200 (with a TIG welded split-ring, used in the QR Personal Retention Lanyard) and Ronstan 6300 swivel snap shackles, which we have not seen in the recent marine tether designs we’ve looked at. According to Yates, the Ronstan 6300, used in the Yates Heavy Duty QR Personal Retention Lanyard, has been tested as capable of opening at loads up to 500 pounds.

I don’t want to appear that we’re endorsing the Yates tethers, which we haven’t tested and aren’t explicitly designed for the marine market—although most of the components seem to meet or exceed the essential standards set for existing marine halyards. One key component missing is the tether overload indicator, a stitched-in “flag” that indicates that a tether has been loaded beyond a safe point and needs to be replaced. This only really matters if you are going to race, since the overload indicator is required in most major racing events.

However, if you, like me, are mulling over ideas on how to improve the gear your life may one day depend upon, hop on over to the Yates Gear website and see what sort of equipment tower climbers, the military, and rescue workers are relying on.

Comments (5)

While sailing across the Atlantic delivering a 45 ft Frers for a singlehanded race on May 8 1996. I was washed overboard by a 30 ft wave. I was just coming off watch and before heading down below I snapped my harness onto the traveller and a large wave swepted through the cockpit and tossed me overboard. I was being dragged underwater by the boat that was doing 6- 7knots. The harness held and my mustang survivor suit and self inflating life vest brought me back to the surface. When the boat was healing I managed to climb back onboard. Would not be here today if I had not snapped my harness on again while crossing over the traveller to go down below.

Posted by: Hans Andersen | December 20, 2017 8:34 AM    Report this comment

Release scenario. .1) Your Vessel especially possibly a cat capsizes turtles you are going to drown finding a lanyard to release is not such a bad thing. Could it accidental you release yes especially with a large handle that would get caught on something but I seatbelt that doesn't release in a burning car presents a problem also. So there is a reason to strive for a better solution in any safety device.

Posted by: Yachtski | December 17, 2017 6:22 PM    Report this comment

I am always puzzled by the discussions concerning tethers.... Forget about what kind of shackle or quick release is most appropriate. The question and discussion that is never really addressed goes like this:

- how many real life documented cases do we have in which a sailor on an single handed or short handed crew sailboat has gone over the side, at night or in bad weather and has not either drowned and was safely recovered. If you have to cut yourself lose (knife or quick release) then waht is the purpose of the tether. Also I cannot imagine being dragged through the water at 5-7 knots while swallowing gallons of sea water and gasping for air that I would be able to find the tether pull or worse, the knife in my pocket, open it and cut the tether without puncturing my PFD.

All the tethers and person overboard recovery system sound great on paper or during the usually benign weather conditions of official testing, but I am not aware of any real life situation.

I am not advocating not using tethers or not having POB recovery stuff on board, but I think that it gives many cruisers a very false sense of safety and that is even more dangerous!

Safety belts in cars have a strong track record of saving lives. Tethers and POB recovery device do not, except for fully crewed racing boats or during afternoon cruises with sunshine and calm sea state.

Would love to hear of real life situations that contradict my comments.

Posted by: DANIEL W | August 28, 2013 4:50 PM    Report this comment

As I readied to cross the Pacific single handed, I listened to the daily SSB net from Foxy 2 in Honolulu. Ron Dubois was cooperating in a USCG search for a missing single handed sailor north of the islands. The boat was found but the only sign of the missing single hander was his tether still attached to the boat and trailing over the side. As a result, when sailing alone, I use a tether with a Witchard clip attachment on both ends. I fear the accidental release of a snap shackle on the harness end. I have found the Witchard relatively easy to use. But what is important, I never set foot on the boat without my trusty sharp boat knife attached to my belt with a lanyard.

Posted by: Unknown | May 29, 2012 2:14 PM    Report this comment

I looked at the Yates Gear website and indeed the lanyard you discuss is there at a very attractive price, definitely way cheaper than any good quality lanyards that are sold for "marine" applications. Are we being ripped off because we are sailors ? This is webbing and SS snap shackles from Ronstan, so I don't see why it would not be appropriate on a boat. What's the catch ?


Posted by: Jacques Andre L | March 21, 2012 8:58 PM    Report this comment

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