In a sideways look at safety, Ken Endean explores ways to wear a harness and stay safe onboard without the usual discomfort and inconvenience
Enjoying life in harness
The term ‘safety equipment’ is commonly applied to items that could more accurately be classed as ‘emergency equipment’, because they are for use in situations that are already unsafe. Flares, personal locator beacons, lifejackets, fire extinguishers, dan buoys and MOB recovery devices only come into their own when a hazard has turned into a full-blooded accident – in other words, when safety precautions have failed.
On the other hand, some pieces of kit do serve to maintain safety and the obvious example is the safety harness, which is intended to keep its wearer on board (or at least in close contact with the vessel) and hopefully avoid the need to use the emergency equipment. When my wife and I started cruising we wore harnesses on night passages or in rough conditions. Nowadays, even in fair weather and particularly when our boat is under autopilot, we have become much more aware of the risk of carelessness (and the nightmare of one person going below and later returning on deck to find an empty cockpit), so our standard practice is to don harnesses for the whole passage.
I used to resent the discomfort associated with a harness – because it hampers the wearer’s ability to shed or adjust any clothing underneath. When coastal cruising in warm places like southern Brittany, we often find ourselves thrashing along with flying spray and in hot sunshine, when sitting in the cockpit demands waterproof protection but anyone who goes below – to the chart table or the galley – soon becomes overheated, because the cabin is like an oven. If they are wearing a harness over their waterproofs, it must be removed before they can strip off any other clothes, and replaced before they return on deck. That’s not difficult, but it takes time and replacing it might be forgotten if they are in a hurry.
Harness below jacket
I once had a similar problem when participating in a corporate team building exercise that involved short races in chartered yachts. The skipper for our boat came back from the race briefing with instructions for all crew to wear lifejackets with harnesses at all times. I expected to be a deck hand, and dressed to withstand a cold soaking. But then, as we approached the start line, the navigator’s complexion turned green and he moved close to the lee rail, handing me the race instructions with the words: ‘I think you had better do this.’ For the next frantic hour I was mainly in the cabin, darting between the chart table and the hatch, with no chance to modify my many layers of fabric, until I was practically dissolving in my own sweat.
I prefer to enjoy sailing without such drawbacks and a few years ago we found a way of avoiding discomfort: by wearing our harnesses below our outer clothes. To anyone who has not tried it, this may sound ridiculous but it works surprisingly well. The safety lanyard simply leads out from below the hem of the waterproof jacket and down to its clip on point or jackstay.
Lifejackets to hand
If the wearer goes below and decides to shed their outer layer of clothing, they are still wearing the harness; in the event of an urgent call for ‘All hands on deck!’ or ‘Come up and look at these dolphins,’ they can re-emerge and clip on without any delay.
Even if they go overboard, this arrangement should not create difficulties. I experimented by suspending myself in a harness, with the lanyard passed over an attic roof beam, and the straps simply caused my jacket to bunch up, under my arms and in front of my face. It was relatively comfortable and may even create an extra layer of protection.
There is one obvious snag: this technique cannot be used with a combined harness and lifejacket, because inflation would be restricted by the outer garments. By not wearing lifejackets with our harnesses, we are at greater risk in certain kinds of accident (eg. sudden sinking). On the other hand, if weather or sea state deteriorate quickly (a much more common crisis) it is more likely that each crew member will already be wearing a harness. To cater for most other emergencies, the lifejackets are stowed close to the main hatch.
In my view our wearing of harnesses under outer clothing strikes a reasoned balance between risks and benefits, providing a high degree of safety while not detracting from enjoyment. I imagine that some people will disagree with this policy but I like to think it illustrates a principle: that safety equipment should be easy to use.
For safety equipment to function properly it may also be necessary to carry out some preparatory work on the yacht. With harnesses, that means ensuring that there are sufficient clip on points or jackstays, fitted in the right places.
In a knock-down, harnessed crew could find themselves attached to the boat but outboard of the lifelines. Mary and I nearly experienced this when a wave thumped London Apprentice to leeward, pitching us off the windward cockpit bench. We landed in the lee side of the cockpit but a more violent impact might have pitched us over the side, leaving us dangling from our tethers. There have been many MOB incidents in which people have been flung or washed out of cockpits and I suspect that crew are more at risk in the cockpit than on deck – as they are less likely to be gripping a secure handhold. Therefore, harness clip on points in the cockpit should be positioned to minimise the length of safety lanyard that can extend beyond the lifelines. That means putting them low down and near the centreline, so that crew don’t have to change their clip-on points between tacks.
By chance, we had adopted this kind of layout on our own boat. There is a short transverse jackstay against the bridge deck, originally installed for our children, which enables crew to clip on from the companionway before climbing into the cockpit. We also have a separate U-bolt aft of the rudder post, for the helmsman, who changes sides by stepping across the tiller. With our normal lanyards, a short part of their length would fall outside the lifelines (see above). The overhang is undesirable but is short enough to hold a wearer with their head above water and in a position to grab at lifelines etc. Shorter lanyards would keep us within the cockpit but restrict our movements when working around our central mainsheet track to handle winches and sheets.
Corsair, another Sabre 27, has a different layout with its mainsheet clear of the cockpit well and longitudinal jackstays along each side, which facilitates fore-and-aft movement while wearing short lanyards.
At a couple of recent boat shows, many of the brand new yachts seemed to have inadequate provision for clip on points in their cockpits. Typically there was one by the companionway and occasionally one by the wheel, but the sales staff told me that they expected buyers to ask for more if they required them. On the other hand, some boats did display evidence that their designers had already thought about the issue.
The Cornish Pilot Cutter 30 had a traditional cockpit with a small well and a basic but entirely adequate arrangement of anchorages: one U-bolt on each side of the well, near the hatch, and a third U-bolt for the helmsman, below the tiller. I was also impressed by the Pogo 1250, which has a wide stern and twin wheels but a transverse jackstay that allows the helmsman to move across the full width while wearing a short tether.
Older yachts may be less well equipped and during the summer I undertook an informal survey by strolling around marina pontoons in various harbours. There were many examples of well-regarded cruising designs, with sailing gear and other equipment that was apparently destined for blue water voyaging, but with no clip on points whatsoever in their cockpits. On reflection, I have the impression that books, magazine articles and website forums have been inclined to concentrate on deck jackstays while overlooking cockpit security, which may actually be more important.
Of course, there is much more to consider. To counter the risk of crew being flung across the boat, why not install additional grab handles? If they help to avoid injuries, then they act as safety equipment and should reduce reliance on emergency measures such as the first aid kit.