Safety Harness Tests
Rigorously tested to ORC specs, 25 harnesses were subjected to severe loads, simulating a falling body. The Jim Buoy failed. Some were tested by ‘overboard’ crew towed through the water. All were checked for materials and workmanship.
Practical Sailor is pleased to present the results of destructrive and practical testing of safety harnesses and tethers by the Sailing Foundation of Seattle, Washington. The author is foundation member Matt Pedersen. The section on tethers will appear next month.
The Safety at Sea Committee of the Sailing Foundation in Seattle, Washington, undertook in 1998 a study of sailing harnesses and tethers. Major funding for the study was provided by the Bonnell Cove Foundation.
The study was comprised of an in-the-water test to determine towing characteristics; a static test to determine comfort and ease of use, and a dynamic load test to ascertain compliance with ORC regulations. Harnesses were also evaluated for desirable features such as reflective tape, stitching, quick release capability, and general quality. For comparison, several rock climbing and industrial harnesses were also examined.
When used while being towed through the water, most of the harnesses were fairly comfortable. The exception occurred when a Type III PFD was worn underneath a harness. The PFD kept the support straps from riding up under the armpits, which placed the load heavily on the lower back and causing quite a bit of discomfort. The sailing harnesses did a good job of keeping the wearer’s head above water, while the rock climbing and industrial harnesses did not.
The test results indicated the harnesses had varying levels of comfort while worn without any load. When under a heavy load they varied from mildly uncomfortable to painful, depending on where the straps wrapped around the ribs. Testing by the Tacoma Women’s Sailing Association showed that even those harnesses marketed toward women could be extremely uncomfortable under load, depending on the wearer’s physique.
The dynamic testing yielded the most noteworthy results. Of 22 tested, two failed, one a prototype. Among the tethers, 47% failed the test.
None of the harnesses met the committee’s criteria of an “ideal” harness, although several came close. Likewise we did not find the “ideal” tether, although there are several on the market which come close.
There are no standards in the US for recreational yacht harnesses. There is a UL/US Coast Guard standard for inflatable life vests but it does not include a provision for testing the efficacy of a built-in harness (other than a statement that the harness must be adequate for its intended use).
The Offshore Racing Council (ORC) has specifications for yachting harnesses, tethers, and jacklines. These are substantially derived from the old British Standard 4224. US Sailing, the governing body for racing sailors in the US (401/683-0800), subscribes to these rules and prescriptions. While these rules are aimed at racing sailors, they are equally relevant for cruising sailors. Recently, US Sailing issued separate recommendations for cruising sailors;the requirements for harnesses and tethers are identical to the ORC regulations. The cost of a copy for non-members is $7.50. Most of our testing was based on these regs.
Our testing consisted of both subjective and objective criteria. The subjective criteria was mostly an evaluation of comfort and ease of use and adjustment, and how well the harnesses worked while the wearer was being dragged through the water. The objective criteria consisted of weight, magnetic properties, and a dynamic load test where the harness or tether is attached to a 220-lb. dummy and dropped 6.6'.
The harnesses were divided into two different groups. First are the inflatable life vests with built-in harnesses. These could be either the manual inflation type (which are approved by UL and the US Coast Guard), or those with automatic inflation. We tested only the manual versions, as there is little difference between the two types. Second are the “standard” harnesses, which are simply nylon webbing with a D-ring attachment point on the front for a tether, and commercial OSHA safety harnesses and rock climbing harnesses, which some foredeck crew use while racing.
The complete list is shown in the Value Guide on page 14.
The in-the-water test was conducted to determine the characteristics of safety harnesses in actual use in a man-overboard situation. We evaluated the attitude of the crew overboard (COB) as they were towed through the water, the relative comfort for the wearer, whether the harness slipped under load, ease of breathing under load, and ease of reboarding the vessel. We also tested a quick release tether shackle under load to see if it would release. While being towed, each harness was evaluated using both a 3' and 6' tether.
The harnesses were examined for workmanship, as well as comfort and ease of adjustment. The widths of the load bearing straps were measured. The metal components were tested for magnetic properties.
Each harness was donned both with and without foul weather gear to simulate both cold and warm weather sailing conditions. The time to don was noted, as well as any comments about the ease or difficulty of doing so. The harnesses were subjectively evaluated for things such as whether they felt heavy, how easy they were to adjust, whether the harnesses had pinch points or features that might cause discomfort (such as a shoulder strap rubbing against the neck), and whether it interfered with the use of a life jacket.
We then went to a dinghy hoist and hauled ourselves off the ground wearing each harness. The harnesses were evaluated for comfort, ease of breathing, and pinch points. We also tested whether there was any tendency to fall out of the harness particularly with arms raised, as a COB might do when trying to climb back aboard.
The dinghy hoist test was repeated by members of the Tacoma Women’s Sailing Association, to evaluate both unisex harnesses and harnesses marketed specifically toward women.
For the last phase, we rented a test facility to do a dynamic load test. Each harness was attached with a tether to a 220-lb. dummy and dropped at least one time from 6.6'. For each harness, a brand new tether was used, to eliminate the tether as a variable. Each harness and tether was soaked in water before the test, per the ORC regulation. It should be noted that this improves the shock absorbing qualities of nylon webbing. Failure criteria include “flaws, defects, or deterioration after testing that would jeopardize the safety of the wearer.”
While more failures were observed among the tethers, one harness, the Jim Buoy, failed, and the West Marine Basic and Securité suffered deformation of the D-rings.
We did not test the climbing harnesses. It was felt that the dummy could have damaged the test fixture, because the harness positioned the dummy in a more reclined position.
Our ideal harness would be easy to adjust and lightweight. It would be easy to don, and not be too hot. It should have reflective tape on the shoulders and a place for extra gear, such as a whistle, strobe light, and a flare. We prefer two attachment rings for redundancy. The stitching would be a contrasting color from the webbing for easy inspection, and the material would be supple for comfort on bare skin. None of the harnesses we tested fit all these wishes, although a couple came close, notably the Raudaschl, Survival Technologies Deck Pro and Pelican 2, and the West Marine Ultimate.
We favor crotch straps as they can relieve load on the chest, but there is risk of becoming incapacitated when coming to the end of the tether. Therefore, we think it’s a personal decision.
We also are very much in favor of harnesses with built-in inflation. All the inflatables tested are good products, although the Stearns seemed to have trouble (in one version) with not having enough hook and loop to hold it closed, and the Survival Technologies seemed stiff compared to the others. We tested the Stormy Seas jacket, but not the vest, because they are essentially identical (except one has sleeves). Both appear to have some nice features for cool weather sailors with flotation, harness, and warmth and protection from the elements.
There are advantages and disadvantages to having automatic inflation. Obviously, automatic inflation gives you a better chance if you get knocked unconscious while going overboard, but the manual unit is Coast Guard approved and it won’t inflate from getting doused on the foredeck (although the current generation of auto-inflating products is improved over the previous).
As one might expect, nearly all were uncomfortable under load, but to varying degrees. Exceptions to this—the best and worst—are noted in the individual descriptions below.
Stearns Model 1143
This harness was rated high for ease of donning and comfort while worn. It was easy to adjust. The bladder has reflective tape on only the left chest area. It has an attached whistle. The Velcro used to hold the bladders in the closed position wasn’t sufficient to keep the bladder from unrolling after donning the harness only twice.
It has a well-written manual. The rearming instructions are conveniently attached to the inflation mechanism in a water-resistant ink, as well as being in the manual.
It has a clear red/green indicator telling you whether the cartridge has been fired or not, and is CG approved.
Recommendation: This is a well-constructed harness, with the exception of a shortage of Velcro to keep it closed. More reflective tape would also improve the product.
Captain Al’s Model 1143
This harness appears identical to the Stearns unit, with the exception of having enough Velcro on the bladder to keep it from coming unraveled. In fact, Captain Al’s uses the same model number as the Stearns and sends it in a Stearns box with Stearns labeling.
Recommendation: This is a better model than the Stearns 1143 due to the additional Velcro. Otherwise the same comments apply.
Mustang Air Force MD 3012
This harness was rated high for ease of donning and comfort. It was easy to adjust. It rated terrible for comfort under load, mostly due to the rib strap being too low on the back. The bladder had strips of reflective tape on both sides of the chest area as well as the area behind the head. It has toggles for attaching to a foul weather jacket, an attached whistle and a lifting strap. The lifting strap appears to be a good idea, but its use could cause problems. When the strap is used it looks like it might tear open the bladder, and also the most convenient position for lifting will pull the COB over the rail face first, where the inflation mechanism might get hung up and tear the bladder. The handle loop is also too small for a normal man’s hand. It comes with a well-written owner’s manual, which warns you not to wear the automatic inflation unit inflated because it may cause over-pressurization when the CO2 cartridge fires.
Recommendation: This harness appears to be well made and includes some unique safety features. The lifting strap idea could be improved.
This Coast Guard-approved harness was rated high for ease of donning and comfort while not under load. It was easy to adjust. The bladder has reflective tape only near the ears. It has an attached whistle. The rearming instructions are conveniently attached to the inflator -in water-resistant ink. The manual is well written.
Recommendation: This is a well-constructed harness, easy to wear and comfortable.
Stormy Seas Inflatable Vest, Offshore Vest 40
This harness was rated high for ease of donning and comfort. It is more difficult to adjust, because the adjustment hasps end up inside the vest. It rated as more comfortable under load than most others due to the rib strap running under the armpits and not around the ribs. The vest has reflective tape on both shoulders, and a lifting strap attached at the left shoulder for helping overboard crew back into the boat. It has an attached whistle. The vest has some insulation value, and a couple of handwarming pockets. It also has a couple of clever Velcro pockets for holding the harness portion out of the way when you aren’t using it. This vest was not dynamic load tested. It has a clear red/green indicator telling whether the cartridge has been fired.
Recommendation: This is a well-constructed harness/vest.
Stormy Seas Inflatable Jacket, Model Offshore 39
This is an interesting product in that it is a jacket and harness as well as having a manually triggered inflatable bladder with 35 pounds of buoyancy. It is easy to don, and has only a single strap around the ribs (no shoulder straps). This harness can’t be used as a stand-alone item.
In normal use, the harness is comfortable because it is inside the jacket and out of the way. It has a clear red/green indicator telling whether the cartridge has been fired. It also includes a whistle.
Recommendation: This is a well-built coat/life vest/harness combination. Combining all these functions into one unit makes good sense, although you may still need an additional harness to wear in warm weather as it is heavy.
Survival Technologies Model B01330
This harness was rated high for ease of donning, but some testers thought it was uncomfortable on the back of the neck. The material used on the outside of the bladder was very stiff, which seems to be the cause of the problem. It was not easy to adjust because it uses a Velcro strip as the adjustment and keeper. While this allows for a large range of adjustment, it means you must reach well around your back to secure the webbing, and it is not self-aligning. The bladder has reflective tape only near the ears. There is a red/green indicator telling whether the CO2 cartridge has been fired. It had an attached whistle. There are no rearming instructions on the harness, nor detailed instructions on how to do this in the manual. The manual is well illustrated but is not nearly as technical as the others. This model is not Coast Guard approved.
Recommendation: This harness is well built, but it is really too stiff to wear for long periods of time.
West Marine Model 38MHAR-P
This harness was rated high for ease of donning and comfort while worn. It was easy to adjust. The bladder has reflective tape only near the ears. It has an attached whistle. The rearming instructions are conveniently attached to the inflation mechanism in water-resistant ink. This model is Coast Guard approved.
Recommendation: This is a well-constructed harness, easy to wear and comfortable. It differs from the SOSpenders slightly in the way the bladder folds, and we were told it is no longer manufactured this way.
Holland Yacht Equipment Model 1278T
The HYE harness was rated for moderate comfort, mostly due to its weight of 25 oz. It was one of the more difficult to don, with straps getting twisted either while wearing foul weather gear or not. In one instance it took 37 seconds to put on. The shoulder straps are red (left) and green (right), which is helpful. It has adjustments both for the rib strap as well as the shoulder straps, so it should allow a good range of sizes. Comfort rated as fair under load. There is reflective tape on each shoulder strap. It did not have an attached whistle.
Recommendation: This is a well-constructed, moderately comfortable basic harness.
Captain Al’s Harness
This harness is identical to the Holland Yacht Equipment harness. See comments for that product.
Gill (Crewsaver) 594 Harness
This harness was bought through Gill for one of their foul weather jackets, but it had a Crewsaver label on it. It was one of two that had a crotch strap. It rated easy to don while in the jacket, but needs some sort of keeper for the shoulder straps as they had a tendency to slide down into the armholes. This harness could be used as a stand alone item, however it takes about 20 minutes to get it installed in the jacket correctly, pretty much precluding a single harness being used both with the coat and without. It is easy to adjust, although once in the jacket the adjustments are hidden, making that difficult. There is no whistle or reflective tape. While the crotch strap should take some of the load off the ribs, in practice the jacket somewhat prevents the harness from riding up under the armpits, and puts more of a strain on the back. Without the crotch strap it is just as uncomfortable as the rest.
Recommendation: This is a well-constructed harness, and the jacket is one of the few remaining on the market that can be used integrally with a harness.
This harness was rated moderate for comfort, and fair for ease of donning. Of special note is the metal plate that under load routes all the harness straps in front at about tooth level. There was no reflective tape or whistle. The shoulder did have an adjustment.
Recommendation: This is a well-constructed, moderately comfortable basic harness. When under load, the metal plate in front is cause to worry about your teeth. The tether that came with the harness failed the load test.
Jim Buoy Model 922
This is an economy harness that includes a tether. The rib webbing is wide, but is somewhat stiff. It is fairly easy to don, but the stiff webbing could become uncomfortable after a time. It is quite lightweight at 7 ounces. There is no reflective tape or a whistle. This was the only harness to fail the magnetic test (if close to a compass it may cause deviation). We noted before the dynamic test that there were burrs on some of the metal components that might cause premature failure of the straps. This proved true during the dynamic testing, as this was the only harness to fail completely.
We noted also that the D-ring weld joint had started to open. The D-ring most likely would have failed had not the webbing given way first.
Recommendation: We cannot recommend this harness.
Lirakis Newport Harness
This harness comes packaged with a tether. It has no rib strap, instead relying on straps that cross like an X across the back. The D-rings are held together by a loop in the tether. There is no shackle at the inboard end. It was rated moderately easy to don, taking 15-20 seconds when you include having to weave the tether through the D-rings with each use. There is no adjustment (it comes in sizes), nor is there a whistle or reflective tape.
Recommendation: This is a well-constructed harness, which would be improved with the inclusion of some reflective tape. When wearing a tether without a quick release, the crew should always have a knife within easy reach in case they get trapped and need to release themselves.
Musto Model 6652 Harness
One of two with a crotch strap, the Musto was rated not easy to don, taking about 20-40 seconds when you include the crotch strap. Some wearers thought it might be easier to don if there was some contrasting color in some of the webbing. As it is, the unit is a high visibility yellow, which made it confusing to figure out which straps were for the ribs or shoulders. It is easy to adjust. There is no whistle or reflective tape. It is among the most comfortable under load when the crotch strap is in place. Without the crotch strap it is just as uncomfortable as the rest. The crotch strap came undone during the dynamic test, but this may have been because the strap was too tight (they’re supposed to be worn somewhat loose).
Recommendation: This is a well-constructed harness, which would be improved with the inclusion of some reflective tape.
Manufactured by a sailmaker in Canada, the Raudaschl is an interesting design. The harness is sewn inside a canvas vest making it much easier to put on than a more normal harness without a vest. The harness does not include a clasp for closing the harness. Instead it relies on the tether shackle to hold the D-rings together. There is a large chest pocket for holding extra gear like a strobe light, and a small loop that would work nicely to hold a whistle. This harness is also among the most comfortable under load because there is more surface area to the vest to distribute the load. Most of the women who tested this harness found it to be the most comfortable, especially under load. It is a little heavier than the other standard harnesses at 24 ounces. The canvas is an orange material, which should help make the crew more visible. Its main drawback is the canvas, which may make it too hot for tropical cruising.
Recommendation: This is a well-built, easy-to-wear harness. The only improvement would be to add some reflective tape to the shoulders.
Survival Technologies Deck Pro
This harness, primarily marketed to women, is similar to the Raudaschl harness in that it incorporates a vest. Unlike the Raudaschl it was uncomfortable under load when worn by women. The vest is a padded dark blue material, which would not help locate a crew that has fallen overboard. The harness is easy to put on and take off, and includes a zippered front to keep the vest closed.
Recommendation: This is a well-built, easy-to-wear harness. Despite being marketed toward women, it was uncomfortable for them under load. Adding some reflective SOLAS tape to the shoulders would improve it.
Survival Technologies Pelican 2 Harness
This harness was rated low to moderate for comfort. The stiffer material makes it somewhat easier to don, but the price is chafing of the skin. It did rate relatively well for donning, and does have SOLAS reflective tape.
Recommendation: This is a well-built harness that is a little stiff for long-term wear.
West Marine Basic Harness
The Basic was rated high for comfort. This was a fairly easy harness to don due to its simplicity, which took approximately 20 seconds. It was easy to adjust. There is reflective tape on each shoulder strap. The single metal D-ring deformed during the dynamic load test, although it did not break.
Recommendation: This is a well-constructed harness, easy to wear and comfortable. While this harness passed the dynamic load test, we feel the D-rings should be strengthened.
West Marine Securité Harness
The Securité is marketed toward women, though one male tester found it to be the most comfortable harness while being towed through the water. The design is somewhat different in that the shoulder straps, instead of coming down vertically from the shoulder, come together near the solar plexus in a kind of an Y configuration. This may be an advantage for people with narrow shoulders. This harness was rated high for comfort. Like most standard harnesses it can be difficult to don once the webbing gets tangled; it took approximately 30 seconds to don. It was easy to adjust. Overall, it rated as not very comfortable under load, even for women. There is no reflective tape. The single metal D-ring was deformed during the dynamic load test, though it did not break. We noted that the rib webbing had a tendency to come loose from the keeper, and indeed when doing our static load test the rib strap came loose and slipped. This was due to the lazy end of the webbing coming out of the keeper.
Recommendation: This is a well-constructed harness, easy to wear and comfortable. It could use some reflective SOLAS tape on the shoulders, and it is advisable to get the newer design with the improved keeper. While this harness passed the dynamic load test, we feel the D-rings should be strengthened.
Ed note: Since these tests, West Marine informed us it has dropped the Securité model, because “we didn’t think it really helped women much.” Their tether line-up also will change.
West Marine Ultimate Harness
This harness was rated high for comfort. This was not a terribly easy harness to don, taking about 30-40 seconds. It was easy to adjust. There is reflective tape on each shoulder strap. It had an attached whistle. The Ultimate was subjected to nine drops without failure during the tether dynamic testing.
Recommendation: This is a well-constructed harness, easy to wear and comfortable. This was one of the harnesses that came closest to our ideal.
Contacts- Cal-June (Jim Buoy), 5238 Vineland Ave., North Hollywood, CA 91601; 818/761-3516. Captain Al’s, PO Box 370153, West Hartford, CT 06137-0153; 860/232-9065. Crewsaver, Seahaven, 2630 First Ave., San Diego, CA 92103; 619/239-9700. Forespar Products (Passagemaker), 22322 Gilberto, Rancho Santa Margarita, CA 92688; 949/858-8820. Helly-Hansen (US) (K-947 Tether), 17275 N.E. 67th. Ct., Redmond WA 98073, 425/883-8823. Henri-Lloyd, 1160 Alpharetta Hwy., Ste. 530, Roswell, GA 30076; 770/753-9887. Holland Yacht Equipment, PO Box 452, San Carlos, CA 94070; 650/595-2009. Lirakis Safety Harness, 18 Sheffield Ave., RI 02840; 401/846-5356, 800/USA-SFTY. Mustang Survival, 3870 Mustang Way, Bellingham, WA 98226; 800/526-0532. Musto, 1401 Capital Blvd., Raleigh, NC 27603; 800/553-0497. Navtec Norseman Gibb, 351 New Whitfield St., Guilford, CT 06437-0388; 203/458-3163. Raudaschl Sails, 3140 Lakeshore Blvd. W, Toronto, ON, Canada M8V 1L4; 416/255-3431. The Sailing Foundation, PO Box 4213, Tumwater, WA 98501. E-mail: email@example.com. Sporting Lives (SOSpenders), 1510 N.W. 17th St., Fruitland, ID 83619; 208/452-5780. Stormy Seas, PO Box 1570, Poulsbo, WA 98370; 800/323-7327. Survival Technologies, 1803 Madrid Ave., Lake Worth, FL 33461; 800/525-2747. West Marine, 500 Westridge Dr., Watsonville, CA 95077-5050; 800/262-8464. Wichard, 507 Hopmeadow St., Simsbury, CT 06070; 860/658-2201.