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
Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 50 years. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him at darrellnicholson.com.