This article was originally published on SailNet in September, 2000.I heard from a cruising friend of ours recently who called to say that she and her family had decided to give up their life afloat and return to life on land. When she told me that they were "back for good," I was really surprised. Her family had spent almost two years cruising in the Caribbean, and by all accounts they loved the free-footed, tropical lifestyle.
"It was great until we started doing the longer passages," my friend recounted. "I just couldn’t cope being awaken at night by my husband stomping on the foredeck over my berth, and finding the boat out of control because he hadn’t reefed for the line squalls. I became paranoid that he would be lost overboard since he refused to wear a safety harness, and that I would wake up with the boat hitting a reef and be unable to get the kids to safety."
It was an unhappy account, particularly since I knew she was a very competent sailor. But sadly this is not an unusual story. In my first article about our recent one-year sabbatical sailing around North and Central America, I mentioned a safety briefing we gave our crew before we headed out of the Straits of Juan de Fuca into the Pacific Ocean. We frequently have guests aboard our Beneteau 38 Bagheera. In the past we ran charter yachts in the Caribbean, and now we lead charter groups worldwide and do deliveries on a regular basis. Over the years we have found that, whatever the sailing background of those joining the boat, a briefing before departure with an explanation of our rules is invaluable for crew harmony, efficiency, and safety in all conditions. The briefing generally takes at least an hour, but differs in length and scope depending on our plans and the skills of the crew joining us. A local race or short coastal passage requires less equipment, preparation, and crew knowledge than an extended passage offshore, where a crew must rely entirely on its own resources.
At least a day before starting a passage we allocate time to familiarize any new crew with the gear we carry on board, outfit them with personal safety equipment, and instruct them in the location and use of each item. Emergency procedures for persons overboard, flooding, or fire are discussed in detail as well as safety rules that must be followed in routine fashion. For us, these procedures have stood the test of time and over 90,000 miles of cruising and racing, and because most are rooted in common sense, we find that once we establish the rules, there are seldom any disagreements between our guests and ourselves. Harnesses and Tethers
We use these items every day on Bagheera
when offshore because our philosophy and commitment to each other is to stay on board. In particular we have agreed that safety harnesses should always be worn at night, when alone on deck—including while in the cockpit and definitely when going forward. (On Bagheera
, we only allow that when another crew member is on deck to watch and assist.) We also mandate that harnesses be worn at all times in rough weather by anyone coming up from below. This is usually when the wind is over 20 to 25 knots; although it is also contingent on the point of sail, ambient climate, and the water temperature.
Safety harnesses come in a variety of forms from basic straps to a combination of life jacket- harness and wet-weather gear-harness combinations. It is worth buying the best, and to determine what works, we always examine the webbing strength, the stitching, and lastly the fit/comfort as factors in choosing harnesses. Sailors should consider the different climates involved in their cruising plans when setting out to purchase safety gear. Because we often sail in the tropics, we favor the inflatable vests that have a with built-in harness. In our safety check we make sure these fit each crew member securely. The straps must always be snug and tested for clothing of different thicknesses. Their weight should also be considered, particularly in combination units since a heavy harness and tether can lead to neck and back pain.
A waterproof light (strobe lights are very useful if they're within your budget) and a whistle should be permanently attached to all safety harness. Customizing your harness with a crotch strap is also recommended since it is possible to slip out of a safety harness while being hauled back on board. We had a friend who was tragically lost off the South African coast while his wife was trying to haul him up their boat's high topsides. Since then we have heard of several other cases where this has occured, and there is particular mention of this problem in some of the accounts of the tragic 1998 Sydney-Hobart Race.
The tether must be strong and connected correctly to the harness, usually through two rings. Clips vary in quality and type and must be secure, yet still easy to undo. For this reason we prefer the double-gated Gibb snap hooks that are easy to operate and do not open when jammed or twisted on a pad eye attachment point, as can happen with a single snap hook. When going forward, many sailors use a tether that has two attachment hooks or use two tethers with a hook at either end so they can be hooked on at all times. And in the cockpit, it is useful to have at least two pad eyes located conveniently for attaching safety harness tethers, or a short jackline for comfortable maneuverability while on watch.
While you're pondering onboard safety equipment, it's important to remember that the load on these devices can be huge—often many times the weight of the person. The Ocean Cruising Club suggests that the minimum breaking strength of tethers be 4,950 pounds, and that they should be able to withstand a constant load of 3,300 pounds. This organization also recommends that all the sewing in harnesses and tethers be lock-stitched.
Jacklines Most offshore vessels are rigged with lines or solid strands of webbing that run along the deck fore and aft and are attached by shackles to strong points at the bow and stern. And most designs for jacklines stipulate that the lines terminate well forward of the transom so that a person who goes overboard cannot be dragged behind the boat, increasing the potential for drowning. With the tether from the harness clipped into to a jackline, sailors can make safe, easy maneuvers on deck in most conditions.
|"With the tether from their harness clipped into to a jackline, sailors can make safe, easy maneuvers on deck in most offshore conditions."|
Two materials are commonly used for jacklines and each has its pros and cons. Traditionally, stainless steel wire is the norm. This provides a strong line that will not stretch or deteriorate in the sun, although when stepped on, it can skid underfoot, leading to accidents. In contrast, flat nylon webbing does not skid, but after a period of time it will deteriorate due to UV rays and become unreliable. Also, most webbing tends to stretch when it's wet and shrink when it's dry. The disadvantage of this stretching, particularly when under load after a person has gone over the side, was again dramatically documented in reports of the 1998 Sydney-Hobart Race.
We use stainless steel jacklines on board Bagheera because we feel more confident in their performance. We were, however, given some webbing jacklines last year and decided to put them to the test. The stretching soon became evident and because a friend’s webbing had just failed, we returned to stainless steel. When wearing shoes we are careful not to tread on the lines, but find skidding is not an issue with our usual bare feet. The best solution is probably stainless steel wire inserted inside tubular nylon webbing—which is something we hope to try when we have the time.
Life Jackets There are many different types of life jackets. At purchase time it is important to check their suitability for offshore cruising and for the climate you anticipate. A life jacket that is comfortable in cool conditions may be unbearable in the tropics. Each person on board should be allocated a life jacket for his or her size and weight. On Bagheera, the rules for wearing life jackets follow the same procedures for safety harness use—when on deck at night, when alone on deck, when going forward, or in rough weather.
When purchasing life vests remember that having one for each person is also necessary in the dinghy. Cheaper ones for this purpose are advisable since they are often subject to theft. A storage bag for the vests that are kept in the dinghy can be useful; we have one that is an integral part of a padded seat for our little dink.
Experienced sailors know that there's a vast amount of safety equipment available on the market. But cruisers who are planning to go offshore should provide themselves with the best quality gear that the size of the boat and the budget will allow. You'll find that the quality of life rafts, the performance of flares, the effectiveness of fire extinguishers, and the strength of safety harnesses all vary. Detailed research is usually the best way find the gear that will function best, but don't be disuaded by expensive safety gear. Like most cruisers, we too have a finite budget for our sailing adventures, but we've learned that safety equipment is the wrong area for cost-cutting.
Preparing to Sail Offshore, Part One by Liza Copeland
Overcoming Your Offshore Fears by Joy Smith
Offshore Perils by John Rousmaniere
SailNet Store Section: Safety