A Second Look at Safety Tethers

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Sailing harnesses and safety tethers were put to the ultimate test in July when a storm packing winds of more than 50 knots swept through the fleet of sailboats racing in the annual Chicago-to-Mackinac Race. One of the boats, the Kiwi 35 WingNuts, capsized in a powerful gust. It stayed inverted, forcing the crew of eight into the water. At the time of capsize, the crew were wearing safety harnesses and tethers, and most were clipped in to jacklines on the boat. All but two of the sailors, skipper Mark Morley and his girlfriend, Suzanne Bickel, were able to unclip themselves and survived.

Crew member Stan Dent, 51, used his knife to cut his tether, and then he turned to cut free crewmate Peter Morley. Both were wearing tethers that were tied to their harnesses with a cow-hitch, giving the wearer two options to release himself-cut the tether or unclip from the boat. With the boat inverted, unclipping was not an option.

Peters son, 15-year-old Stewart Morley, had a tether with a carabiner-style gate hook at the harness end. He unhooked himself, and then helped open the snap shackle connecting the tether and harness of his friend, C.J. Cummings, 16. According to Peter Morley, the inflated bladders of the auto-inflating PFD-harness interfered with Cummings attempts to free himself.

PS has not confirmed the type of tethers that Mark Morley and Bickel were wearing. According to Peter Morley, they wore Spinlock harnesses. Spinlock sells two types of tethers for its harnesses, one with a loop that is cow-hitched to the harness and one with a Gibb-style, double-action hook. Unlike a snap-shackle, neither can be released under load without being cut, a fault in many tethers on the market today. The type of release may not have mattered. Coast Guard divers found their bodies eight hours after the accident, still tethered to the overturned hull. A preliminary autopsy indicated that both died from head trauma.

Practical Sailor Technical Editor Ralph Naranjo has been named to a team of experts that will be investigating the accident. Part of the investigation will be looking at the boat itself and the conditions surrounding the capsize. When a ballasted boat does not right itself, questions arise about the suitability of the design for offshore racing. The investigation also will look at safety gear and procedures. Of particular interest to Practical Sailor is whether it would have made any difference if Mark Morley and Bickel could have easily released themselves from the boat.

Sailing involves risk, and sadly, tragedies happen. Sometimes, it seems, they happen for a reason. At the time of the WingNuts accident, PS was in the middle of its own study of snap shackles used on tethers. As details of the accident emerged, they offered a clearer picture of the importance of the tether-harness connection and how things can go terribly wrong in a hurry.

It is our hope that our report, beginning on page 25, will prompt makers to re-examine the design of safety tethers and harnesses and the recommendations for their use. We also think theres a need for closer control over the quality of materials and fabrication.

More importantly, we hope our report encourages sailors to inspect their own tethers, particularly where it joins to the harness. If you have a snap shackle at this union, test the release under the load of your own body weight. Do this with your harness on (and inflated if it is self inflating). If you have any other means of attachment, particularly a cow-hitch, be aware that your life may depend on your ability to cut yourself free with a knife-or the actions of a quick-thinking crewmate.

Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on marine products for serious sailors for more than 45 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising or any form of compensation from manufacturers whose products we test. Testing is carried out by a team of experts from a wide range of fields including marine electronics, marine safety, marine surveying, sailboat rigging, sailmaking, engineering, ocean sailing, sailboat racing, and sailboat construction and design. This diversity of expertise allows us to carry out in-depth, objective evaluation of virtually every product available to serious sailors. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser with more than three decades of experience as a marine writer, photographer, boat captain, and product tester. 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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