Going Aloft Safely


For those of you who plan to go aloft to do some work this spring, please make sure you are well aware of all the safety measures that pertain to this kind of work.

One of the most important tips that we failed to mention in recent article on bosun chairs was to never use a self-tailing winch when hauling someone aloft. In light of a 2011 safety warning from Lewmar, the importance of this advice is clear.

Lewmar issued the warning regarding safe winch use after a two cruising sailors in Antigua were seriously injured in an accident involving a Lewmar winch. The accident occurred while a woman was using a mechanically operated Lewmar winch to hoist her husband up the mast.

The warning, which was posted on the Lewmar website, repeats some important advice from Lewmar’s manual for electric and hydraulic winches:

Under no circumstances should any self -tailing winch be used in self tailing mode for any lifting operation; rather suitable and adequate manual tailing should be arranged with proper means of manually cleating or stopping the hoist.

  • Isolate the winch using circuit breaker/isolator when not in use.
  • Only persons who are completely familiar with the controls and those who have been fully made aware of the correct use of the winch should be allowed to use it.
  • It is the unavoidable responsibility of the owner or master or other responsible party to assess the risk of any operation on the vessel.

According to news reports in the Antigua Daily Observer, Lola Khon was hoisting her husband up the mast of a 2006 Amel 54 in Jolly Harbor when she realized something was mechanically wrong. Fearing he was in danger, she tried to stop the equipment when her left hand got caught in the winch. She tried to free her left hand with her right hand, but this also got caught.

Her rescuer, John Algrehn, who came from another boat, lost seven fingers trying to free Khon from the winch. Khon’s injuries were more serious. Her left hand was completely severed beneath the elbow and her right hand was crushed.

In April, the newspaper reported that Khon was in Miami being fitted with prosthetics and undergoing surgery and rehabilitation of her right hand. Algrehn was being treated in his home country of Norway. He had the use of his thumbs and the little finger on his left hand, according to the Observer.

This type of accident is rare, but winches deserve the greatest respect, particular on today’s super-sized cruisers with their heavily loaded lines. I remember quite clearly the ambulance rolling into the Typhoon Refuge in Guam after Typhoon Paka blasted through in 1997. Amazingly only one person of the few who’d elected to weather the storm in the refuge was seriously injured. Again it was the result of a winch accident. The woman injured in that accident was much luckier than Khon. Her broken arm soon healed.

For professional guidance on going aloft, Brion Toss’s DVD on mast climbing safety is as good as it gets without taking a course. Toss is a well-known professional rigger and has spent countless days high above the spreaders. The DVD offers essential tips that not only make working aloft safer, not just for the person in the air, but also the people below on deck.

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.


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