Sailing Safety Tethers Are No Guarantee, Say Pro Sailors

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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.

lifejacket/harness

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 didn't 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 cant 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, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. 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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