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HSH Yacht Articles

Do you always wear a safety harness at night?


Jeremy R. Hood

Last month I took a few days out to travel, for the first time, to California. I had been invited to sail aboard a Cherubini 44 on the 125 nautical mile Newport to Ensenada race and that seemed as good a reason as any for a trip.

I arrived late on Wednesday night and we traveled north from San Diego airport to Dana Point where we sleepily boarded the boat and crashed. On Thursday we prepared the boat a little by taking off some of the extraneous equipment (such as the vacuum cleaner) and with most of the crew assembled we went out in to the bay for a test sail where we practiced tacking and generally got to know the ropes.

Then it was Friday and the race was to begin at noon. In the still morning air we set off at 8:30am from the harbor to motor towards Newport which was some 10 miles north of us and as we did so we fixed a few things aboard that were still outstanding. Nearing Newport harbor the number of boats around us increased and as we passed the #2 marker and headed-in to register with one of the check-in boats we saw hundreds of others heading out towards the start. Cruising boats, racing sleds, ultralights, Catalina 27ís, huge trimarans and even Stars and Stripes (without Dennis Connor on this occasion). It was an incredible sight and I experienced a sense of awe at the amount of sail around me.

Then out of the harbor towards the start line which was split into two parts, inshore and offshore starting lines, because of the number of boats that participate in the race. This year it was around 450 but in years past there were up to 600 boats. We were scheduled to start at 1:20pm on the inshore line so we kept well back as all the classes ahead of us jockeyed for position at the start and we watched as group after group set off south towards Ensenada, Mexico. The wind was out of the west at about 10 knots and with a southerly course it was great sailing on a beam reach. Many of the boats flew a reaching spinnaker but our spinnaker was cut too full to fly effectively and, for much of the race, we had to make do with yankee, staysail, main, mizzen and the mizzen staysail.

Compared to previous years the wind was strong at 10-12 knots and we were sailing well all afternoon and easily passed the point where, the previous year, our boat had found herself bobbing and becalmed on Saturday Morning.

As the sun grew lower in the late afternoon and the temperature began to drop we all put on extra layers of clothing and I went below for my heavy foul weather jacket with its built-in safety harness. Coming back on deck with the harness tether around my neck produced some comments from the rest of the crew as they had never previously felt the need to wear harnesses at night and as a consequence they had not run jack lines along the deck either. We did both this year. Maybe in the near calm conditions of most Ensenada races these are not as necessary as they were this year but one slight slip and a person overboard and in the water at night is a real emergency.

As navigator aboard the boat I was not formally on watch though I plotted our position each hour on the chart using the GPs for position and then comparing the distance run on our knot log with the distance covered between fixes just to make sure that I was not plotting the positions wrongly or some other simple yet potentially serious error. By around midnight we were in Mexican waters and we passed the first of the Coronado Islands about 4 miles distant to port which was in line with our plan. In previous years one of the most important considerations has been whether to leave these islands to port or starboard. Leaving them to starboard means taking the inshore passage which is slightly shorter but you then risk losing the wind at night; staying more offshore is longer but gives a better chance of a breeze. In retrospect the inside passage was clearly the better option this year. The wind held steady all night, even inshore, and with the shorter route those boats that took this course did better.

We didnít win. We didnít even place even though we sailed well. The boat was just too heavy to reach hull speed when many of the others in our class were able to do so. But we had a great sail and a great time in Ensenada before the awards presentation on Sunday afternoon. There, before the first award a number of announcements were made and it was then that I learned that one crew member on one of the true racing yachts had fallen overboard at night. Fortunately another crew member managed to get him a line but by the time the boat had been slowed sufficiently to recover him aboard he had suffered serious rope burns to both hands and he was taken to hospital. Despite the serious injuries which will no doubt leave permanent scars, he was lucky to be rescued at all.

Earlier this year, a friend of mine was undertaking the delivery of a small sailboat across the Gulf of Mexico. One night when he and another crew were on watch he leant over to adjust a sheet on the low side of the boat when a sea caused the vessel to heel just a little more and almost in an instant he was in the water not even having time to grasp hold of the lifelines or anything else. Fortunately he was wearing his safety harness and the tether was holding him as he dragged behind the boat until the other crew could slow down and, with help, he was pulled back aboard. Later he confided in me that rarely did he use his tether when in the cockpit but I suspect he will do so in the future. On that occasion his safety harness and tether probably saved his life.

By the time that you read this, the many boats setting off for our race to Vera Cruz, Mexico will have set off and so it is probably too late to warn them with these cautionary tales but there will be those of you who are planning to sail back from Vera Cruz. And then, in October, we have our overnight race to Port Aransas on the weekend closest to the Harvest Moon. I know that in years past, many racing boats have spurned the idea of safety harnesses, the skipper feeling they were unnecessary or an encumbrance to quick actions but I have raced along the Texas coast and won and we have used harnesses and tethers. Racing is fun and you do need to push constantly to win but the small inconvenience of wearing a harness and tether is worth the increase in safety that it affords. I believe it is reckless on the part of skippers who choose not to rig jack lines and who do not insist on the use of harnesses, particularly at night. You have to decide for yourself what is sensible and what is not; what is safe and what is reckless. But you wonít find me sailing at night without a harness and tether even if I only have a tee shirt on in our Texas heat!

Safety harness guidelines

When it comes to choosing a safety harness, I prefer those that have adjustable waist and shoulder straps so that you can get it to fit comfortably and snuggly. Rather than having ďDĒ rings to attach the tether to I prefer some type of latching clip so that even without the tether attached it remains fitted. For a tether I do not like the type with a clip at only one end (the other end has a loop which is often attached to D rings but it means that, in an emergency, you cannot unclip from the harness end). Best of all are the patented Gibb clips as these are easy to clip and unclip but they resist opening accidentally which is a weakness of some caribiners. For jack (safety) lines I prefer the flat braid type because they lie flat on the deck, are less likely to cause you to trip on them and, at night, are easily distinguished from other lines such as the genoa sheets!

Make sure that:

  • you have your own well made safety harness
  • it is in good condition
  • is adjusted correctly (too loose and it could pull off over your head)
  • the tether is in good condition
  • the clips, shackles or caribiners are sufficiently strong and safe
  • the harness jack lines on deck are sufficiently strong and are securely attached

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