Sailing Safety Tethers Are No Guarantee, Say Pro Sailors


Recent fatal accidents in the Clipper Around the World Race inspired a closer look at sailing safety tethers this month. The most recent one involved Simon Speirs, a 60-year-old British sailor. According to early reports of the accident, Mr. Speirs safety tether might have failed. An investigation is ongoing.

Seeking a racer’s view of gear that racing rules engendered, we spoke with Sailing Hall of Fame navigator Stan Honey (a past PS contributor) and Casey Smith, skipper of Comanche, the 100-foot racing yacht that crushed the trans-Atlantic record in 2016. We were not surprised to hear that these racers made their own tethers, although their low-stretch Dyneema tethers are very different from the climbing ropes we describe in the accompanying article on making your own safety tether.


Casey Smith

“The lightweight [mountaineering] style of harness from Metolius (see photo) was most Volvo racers choice since most of the lifejackets on the market were not comfortable or practical to wear for four hours at time for weeks of a month on end. . . . This was not a certified harness and all risk was known and taken by the individual. In very extreme conditions we would wear a proper [inflatable lifejacket] lifejacket/harness combination like a Spinlock or Kru.

“We had a very high failure rate of lifejackets splitting open or inflating when we didnt want them to due to the amount of water over the deck at times. Next thing you know they are lying in the bilge and are junk. So the lightweight style of harness was adopted with the idea is at least we have something on and attaching us to the boat that we are happy to wear. Tethers were self-made from Dynex with climbing carabineers for clipping on with.”

Nowadays with racing a boat like Comanche, we abide by the safety rules of the race we are competing in and wear proper life jacket/harnesses as per the sailing instructions. Life jackets continue to evolve and get better and more comfortable to wear. . . “

“For sure, the tethers are still an issue on a boat with grinding pedestals. The big metal clips do a number on your knuckles when you are opposite some one. For deliveries, I usually wear my [Metolius] harness. Spinlock also makes a good one [Deck Pro Harness].”

Stan Honey

“The professional sailor-made tethers avoid the shackle at the body end to minimize weight, to minimize metal that will tear the knuckles of the guy opposite you on a grinding pedestal, and finally because professional sailors can’t see the utility of a shackle on the body-end given that they will never hook up if they might be dragged or might fall over.

“Of course the logic for these decisions are different than for racers or especially for cruisers on slower boats.

“On our Cal40, e.g. a slow boat, [my wife] Sally and I do wear tethers with a snap shackle at both ends. Mostly we find that to be a convenience because we can move around by swapping tethers, and we sometimes leave tethers draping down the companionway or around the dodger.

“If Im carrying an AIS MOB beacon I think I still might have better odds of Sally coming back to retrieve me as opposed to being dragged in the water at six knots, but it is a tougher call.”

Darrell Nicholson
Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 50 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. 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 by email at