A tether isn't a safety device in and of itself, usage makes all the difference between safe sailing and putting yourself in harm's way
Hearing a tale from the Rolex Fastnet Race had me contemplating the unglamorous safety strop. Many of these reflections came from bashing our way into the Southern Ocean with hanked on headsails in the British Steel Challenge.
I like to have a strop long enough that you can stand up with a little slack. The clip must feel robust and be easily unclipped with a heavily gloved hand. The webbing strop should be florescent and of course come with a test certificate.
When not in use it should have both clips fixed to the lifejacket (when choosing a lifejacket make sure this is possible) with the strop draped around the neck. This stops it snagging as it often does when left hanging.
Some people like to have a double clip on the outer end but we found these fiddly and counter productive as they tangled up. A better practice was to change from one jackstay to the next in safe, predetermined positions and do it when there was a window of opportunity. If extreme, you can always use a spare strop but I found the practice complicated with people focused on fiddling about to the cost of watching for dangerous waves.
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All areas of the boat must be accessed whilst clipped to a jack stay. Reach out and clip on before leaving the cabin and don’t unclip until below. The highest point of the boat is often the companionway, making it the most vulnerable place on board, particularly with a complacent end of watch or a groggy oncoming watch.
During live man overboard drills we found it empowering for the casualty if they held up their strop, hands apart, to offer a convenient loop for the boathook or halyard. As an aside I would highly recommend donning all your gear and having a play in surf. It soon teaches you the importance of the crotch strap, face guard and which pockets are inaccessible with an inflated jacket.
When going forward always pull the strop tight so that it runs cleanly along the jack stay beneath you. It’s less likely to tangle as it snakes behind you, and of course doesn’t wake up the off watch as it rattles by.
One of the biggest dangers which nearly caused the loss of one of my crew was unclipping the wrong strop. If we had six people swilling about the foredeck in the dark with all their clips bunched up underwater it was an easy mistake to make.
Always, always run your hand from your jacket down to your strop to avoid this. Sometimes we had to release someone else. Once again, grab their clearly offered strop, run your hand down to their clip and only release at their request.
This of course requires everyone to know who is who and so we stencilled our names on the back of hoods to give identity to that huddled mob of crew. Being swept along to crash into deck gear caused most injuries. With this in mind we would always loop the strop over something to windward such as a deck winch or cleat to reduce the snatch distance. Whenever in the cockpit we would always drop the strop over a winch for it is amazing how far you can be dragged by a wave as your clip runs down the jackstay and stretches out any slack in the system.
This all came to mind when I heard about a Fastnet crew member being swept across the cockpit to crash into the steering pedestal and run out through the push-pit. He was immediately dragged below unconscious and not breathing.
He fortunately survived but it just shows the power of the sea and the importance of paying due diligence to little disciplines.
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