Safety Essentials - SailNet Community
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Safety Essentials

Three interesting seamanship-related questions have come in recently from readers. Two concern very important safety issues: the jackline (a piece of gear that keeps the crew on board), and heaving-to (the technique for stopping under sail). The third question follows up on a recent column in which I described a seamanlike solution to a very demanding challenge. Let's start with the third one—fixing a wooden boat's leak while in the middle of the Gulf Stream.

Tom Adams caught in the act that garnered him the inaugural Rod Stephens Trophy for outstanding seamanship
From Dana Pierce (Annisquam, MA): In your column about the Newport-Bermuda Race "Back from Bermuda" you reported how the older wooden boat you were sailing on sprang a leak and the crew caulked it while still underway. What’s happened since then?

John Rousmaniere:

Tom Adams, who plugged the seam, has been awarded the Cruising Club of America’s first Rod Stephens Trophy for outstanding seamanship. Kirawan, the 53-foot wooden sloop built in 1936, made it back to New York with no trouble, sailed in the Op Sail parade on Independence Day, and then went up to Newport.

From Marinell Starr (Roslindale, MA): What’s new in the area of personal safety?

John Rousmaniere:

Once underway, these fellows are ready to stay safe by clipping in to the jacklines whenever they leave the cockpit.
The most important work is in the area of jacklines—the lines running fore and aft on deck to which sailors hook their safety harness tethers. (Regulators call them "jackstays," analogizing from a word for grabrails on a square rigger’s yard. That’s no more or less accurate than jacklines, few of which today are made of line or rope.)

According to reports from the stormy 1998 Sydney-Hobart Race, nylon webbing jacklines (which have become pretty standard) stretched so far when wet that some people who were hooked on were thrown long distances, resulting in injuries. Here’s a solution followed by two alternatives:

If you use nylon jacklines, reduce stretch by setting them up while they’re soaking wet and pull them taut. They’ll still stretch a little (which I think is a good thing, as you’ll see below).

Some people like a no-stretch material like wire or webbing made of Spectra, a high-tech fiber that, as a rope, is often used in sheets and halyards.

Consider polyester webbing, which stretches about half as much as nylon-webbing.

Proponents of no-stretch jacklines like the fact that they can be pulled bar-taut, which allows the tether to be tight enough to serve as a stiff "third leg" led to windward. This can keep a person steady when standing and both hands are occupied—for instance, when steering, handling winches on the mast, or working on the foredeck. That’s a good thing about wire and Spectra, but there also are problems. First, stepping on wire is like stepping on a ball bearing. Second, Spectra is more weakened by a knot than Dacron or nylon. Third, if a no-stretch jackline is pulled taut, there’s no sag or catenary to spread the load to the fixed ends. Fourth, no stretch means no give in the system. The tether or a shackle may break, or, closest to home, the wearer’s own dear body may undergo the nautical equivalent of drawing and quartering under the 2,200-plus-pound impact of a long freefall.

It doesn't hurt to wear your harness whenever you're on deck offshore.
I’ve heard enough stories of snapped ribs and torn ligaments to want to have some give in a jackline system, so I prefer polyester or nylon webbing. If I need a "third leg," I hook in temporarily to a padeye or cleat and keep the tether short to limit the fall.

The relative costs for jacklines for a 40-footer (provided by Skip Raymond, a sailmaker and rigger in Stamford, CT) are as follows: nylon, about $125; polyester, about $138; and Spectra, about $381. You can also check the SailNet Store.

Meanwhile, there’s talk of producing a tether with a little more give than the ones we use—and also of tethers that, when strained too far, display warning flags. Expect to see some trial runs in this direction—and more polyester jacklines—before too long. For more about harnesses and tethers, see my article "Safety Harnesses and Tethers", where we were the first to report on a major test of strength and comfort by Matt Pedersen of the Sailing Foundation of Seattle, WA. Design flaws in the two harnesses were quickly repaired, and the five tether hooks that failed were identified.

Finally, here are two tips: A jackline should terminate at least six feet forward of the stern so if you’re heaved overboard, you’ll be alongside the hull and can be recovered or make a self-recovery, not dragged astern. And jacklines should be removed and stowed below when you’re not sailing, just the way you’d put covers on sails and for the same reason—the sun degrades these materials.

Heaving-to aboard a ketch requires more than just sailing under "jib and jigger."
From Bonnie Gilmore (Berkeley, CA):
In discussions about heaving-to, I’ve never heard how to do it in a ketch. How is it done?

John Rousmaniere:

I have a long answer and a short answer, and both disagree with the traditional one. That’s to heave-to under "jib and jigger"—a jib and the mizzen, with the mainsail doused. In theory, the jib pushes the bow off while the mizzen pushes it up, and the boat sails along very slowly, steering herself.

While this may work fine in smooth water, in big seas the boat probably won't balance well because, as she pitches and rolls, first one sail and then the other takes charge, sometimes pushing her off onto a reach and beam-on to the seas and sometimes bringing her head to wind. In addition (and maybe most important), the mainmast won’t be supported by a mainsail. It’s remarkable how much fore-and-aft support a mainsail gives a mast. When the middle of a mast "pumps" back and forth in a big sea, the spar might well fracture. Running backstays provide some support, but a taut mainsail luff will keep most masts steady.

So I’d recommend dousing the mizzen (perhaps removing it to reduce windage), and setting a storm trysail or a mainsail and a small jib (either a storm jib or a small forestaysail), which you should back by trimming to the windward side. Ideally, this jib would be tacked down not way out on the bow, but well aft on the foredeck. If the center of effort is almost above the hull's center of lateral resistance, the boat should be well-balanced most of the time. And with the trysail or mainsail set, the mast gains some support.

That's the long answer. The short answer is from personal experience. I was once hove-to for two days aboard a 77-foot ketch in a hard northerly in the Gulf Stream—conditions about as rough as I've ever been in. We doused the mizzen, set the storm trysail, backed the forestaysail, and adjusted the sheets until the boat sailed herself very slowly at about 60 degrees apparent wind with the helm lashed. She was as steady as the proverbial church.

Suggested Reading List

  1. Safety Precautions Underway by Liza Copeland
  2. Four Seamanship Lessons from Auckland by John Rousmaniere
  3. The Harness/Tether Study by John Rousmaniere
  4. SailNet Buying Guide - Personal Floatation Devices


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