In response to a Practical Sailor query regarding the design of a popular offshore safety tether, West Marine issued a voluntary recall of its tether (Model 9553512).
The recall, announced today, was prompted by a letter from Practical Sailor reader Mike Cunningham, who contacted the magazine regarding his concerns regarding his tether. Cunningham did not specify where he purchased his tether, or who manufactured it. His complaint echoes a similar one that Practical Sailor raised in the September 2009 issue regarding the use of a small split ring in the quick-release snap shackle at the harness-end of a safety tether previously sold by West Marine.
I found a serious problem with my Kong tether, which is an otherwise excellent tether, wrote Cunningham, who sails a Freedom 30 out of Stockton, Calif. The release grip is the triangular rubber type on a webbing lanyard. What is hard to see is that the lanyard is attached to the snap shackle pin with a split ring. While testing one of my tethers the other day, I found the snap shackle to be a bit sticky-as would certainly be the case after a few days at sea. When I pulled hard on the lanyard, the split ring elongated, deformed, and then simply opened up, leaving me with the lanyard in my hand and a snap shackle pin that had not moved even a little.
This would have been an utter disaster had I needed to get out of the tether in an emergency and did not have a knife to it cut it away. In my opinion, the split rings should be replaced with something far more substantial such as a fixed stainless ring or some such.
Allowing a sailor to release himself from the tether quickly in the event of an emergency, a quick-release snap shackle is commonly used in a variety of harnesses. As pointed out in the September 2009 issue of Practical Sailor, the snap shackle complies with International Sailing Federation Special Regulations for Offshore Racing, which recommends that the wearer have a means to release himself in an emergency. The recommendation-not a requirement-was prompted by incidents in which sailors drowned while they were still attached to their boats.
This is one of the biggest challenges for tether designers: How do you design a tether hook that is both secure and easy to release?
Other tether manufacturers, including Plastimo and Spinlock, take different approaches to safety-tether design. The Plastimo 40153 uses a Gibb hook, which can be opened but not unhooked under load, while Spinlock offers the option of a Gibb-style hook or a fixed loop. To sever the fixed-loop tethers, Spinlock offers a compact cutting tool that can slice through a loaded tether, but PS found it to be small and hard to manipulate during simulated emergencies.
The quick-release snap shackle is one of the few devices on the market that allow a wearer to quickly release himself from his tether while it is under moderate load. However, when it is under high loads-in the case of a person wearing a tether being dragged behind a boat, for example-the amount of force required to open a snap-shackle is significant. Engineers at Spinlock contend that the finger-pull-lanyards that open the snap shackle are too short, making it almost impossible for a person to grip tightly enough to release the shackle when it is highly loaded. Cunninghams experience with the West Marine tether shows that even if you are able to give the lanyard a good yank, the split ring might give way before the shackle opens.
Given the safety implications of a lanyard attachment that deforms, we forwarded Cunninghams letter to West Marines corporate offices. The company responded by issuing an immediate and total recall of the West Marine single and double safety tethers June 30.
West Marine Executive Vice President Ron Japinga replied to our letter with the following note:
We take these matters very seriously and want to assure you that your e-mail has drawn our urgent attention. We agree that the split ring should be constructed so there is no chance it can become elongated under load. Fortunately, to date, we are currently unaware of any known reports of injury or mishap relating to the tether. However, based on the report, we fully intend to initiate a voluntary recall of this product.
Japinga also outlined the companys plan for the recall, which included removing the tethers from store shelves, posting notices in stores and on the West Marine website, and sending notices to customers who had bought the tethers. He said the company had alerted the appropriate regulatory agencies of the potential safety issue and that West Marine is trying to devise a solution for customers who want a replacement tether.
The safety of our customers is, and will always remain, our primary concern, and we will work with our supplier to ensure that the necessary modifications are made to improve the quality of this product.
West Marines tethers have been PSs top picks in several past tests (January 2007, May 2009, September 2009, and December 1999). While we prefer the quick-release snap shackle at the harness end of a tether, its obvious that some improvements need to be made to the design. Well be sure to report on any developments as West Marine takes the tethers back to the drawing board.
Plastimo and other companies offer tethers without the snap shackle (and split ring). Plastimos elastic tether (model 40153) uses Gibb snap hooks at both ends. The Gibb hooks are harder to operate than a properly functioning quick-release snap shackle and can’t be opened under load; however, they do not have the weak connection points of the snap shackle. The 40153 tether earned PSs recommendation in the 2007 test.
If you already have a safety tether that incorporates a split ring, we recommend that you return it to West Marine. If this is impossible or impractical, another option would be to replace the split ring with a more rugged connection that won't deform under load. Some of the people weve consulted have suggested a heavier-duty split ring or high-modulus lanyard. We plan to look at these and other options. If you have suggested remedies, your comments are welcome.
Mikes experience highlights the need for sailors to regularly inspect their safety gear. With tethers, checkups should include close scrutiny of the hardware and stitching. In our 1999 test of 17 marine safety tethers, 47 percent of them suffered stitching or hardware failures during our tests, and most of those failures would have caused the wearer to lose contact with the boat.
His story is also a reminder than no matter the type of tether used, crew should always have a knife within easy reach to cut themselves free.