Safety harnesses, tethers and jack lines


When one is sailing overnight, be it offshore or coastwise, it’s important to take extra safety precautions. Many night watch schedules call for two people on deck at all times, one reason being that two sets of eyes are better than one at night. Another reason is that it often takes two people to handle sail adjustments due to wind shifts, wind velocity changes that require putting in or shaking a reef, course changes for avoidance or planned course alterations.

Often, however, cruisers are sailing as a couple and thus do not have the luxury of having both people on deck all night. Either way, when on deck alone during the day and whenever on deck at night, crewmembers should be tethered to the vessel to assure they do not go overboard. Jack lines, harnesses and tethers are the safety items used to provide this level of safety and security. Stay safe and on the deck with these post-twilight necessities.

Harnesses, tethers and jack lines will keep you attached to the boat if you fall overboard, and if placed well, they’ll keep you from going overboard in the first place. Jack lines are a staple safety item for anyone planning to sail after dusk. While each boat and boat owner may have a different view on where to attach them, the process of attaching a jack line remains the same. Jack lines can be run on the boat’s centerline, along each side deck and/or secured inside the cockpit.

Consider terminating your jack lines at an aft point that is a tether length forward of the stern to minimize the danger of falling out of the boat while tethered.

Harnesses are either stand-alone items or are integrated with offshore-type inflatable life vests. PFD sailing harnesses are designed for freedom of movement and are highly adjustable to fit comfortably over foul weather gear or sailing clothes. Tethers attached to harnesses allow you to clip to a fixed-location pad eye or to your jack lines. Tethers and jack lines tend to be made of low-stretch and abrasion-resistant materials used in a strap configuration. Of course, tethers and harnesses are only as good as the jack lines or hard points that they are attached to.

For years, sailors bought life jackets, safety harnesses and tethers when they equipped their boats to go offshore. This has changed dramatically with the introduction of the combination safety harness/inflatable life jacket. In virtually all conditions where you would choose to wear a safety harness, you would also want to wear a life jacket, which is why many boaters these days choose a PFD that combines the two.

Another reason to wear harnesses integrated with inflatables is that it’s very difficult to find a combination of separate life jackets and harnesses that don’t interfere with one another. It’s also time consuming to prepare to come on deck when you have to don such things as foul weather gear, a life jacket and a separate harness; the ease of putting on one piece of safety gear with all of the components built in is preferable.

Double tethers are preferred to single tethers, with one 6-foot tether and one 3-foot tether. You can use the long tether when you’re moving about the boat and hooked onto a jack line, then clip on with the shorter tether if you’re working on the bow or other stationary location. The double tether also allows you to always be clipped on as you switch from jack line to pad eye to tackle a specific task since one tether is always clipped.

Let’s have a look at what your best options are for this safety gear, which companies make and sell these products, and the costs involved. Remember, this is potentially life-saving safety gear, so it’s best not to skimp.

West Marine Ultimate Safety Harness
This safety harness features soft, comfortable 2-inch “W” webbing, double D-rings and a centrally located acetal resin buckle for easier donning. It comes with a SOLAS-grade whistle and lanyard that stores in an elastic pouch, while a second elastic pouch with lanyard can fit a personal strobe light, flares or a knife. SOLAS-grade tape patches on the shoulders reflect light for visibility, and the shoulder/chest straps are bright safety yellow (tether sold separately).

Key features:

  • Designed for comfort and strength
  • Meets ISAF requirement
  • Comfortable, strong, 2-inch “W” nylon webbing with 5,000-pound breaking strength
  • Acetal resin and stainless-steel buckles
  • Quarter-inch stainless-steel D-rings for tether attachment
  • All-stainless steel, non-magnetic hardware
  • Includes SOLAS-grade whistle
  • SOLAS-grade reflective patches on shoulders
  • One-year warranty
  • Price: $89.99

West Marine Double Safety Tether
This elastic double tether features a 3-foot leg that extends from 18 inches to 36 inches, plus a 6-foot leg that extends from 41 inches to 72 inches. This tether meets all World Sailing Offshore Special Regulations (OSR) Section 5.02 requirements for strength, design and features for sailboat racing. It incorporates lightweight aluminum, double-action safety hooks; built-in stress indicator; and welded O-ring for improved security offshore, whether racing or cruising. The two leg lengths give you two options for safely tethering yourself: The short leg provides the highest security, while the longer leg allows you to stand or move around while safely clipped on.

Key features:

  • Bright overload indicator flags embedded in the stitching become visible when the tether is stressed to the point of needing replacement
  • Boat-end aluminum safety hooks have easy-to-use, double-action gates that automatically lock closed so they won’t accidentally release from attachment points
  • Double-action gates are easy to open in one movement without pinching your hands
  • Internal elastic located inside the webbing cover retracts when not under load, staying out of the way
  • Non-magnetic, stainless-steel snap shackle at chest closes securely and easily releases from the harness when it is under load
  • Price: $129.99

West Marine Polyester Webbing Jackline
West Marine’s newest model features a 12-inch eye, and comes in lengths of 30, 40 or 50 feet.

Key features:

  • 6,000-pound minimum breaking strength
  • Stretches 15 to 22 percent at 80 percent break strength
  • UV resistant
  • Color-fast dye won’t run
  • ncludes ventilated storage bag
  • Price: $99.99

Wichard Tether #7005 and #7006
The #7005 is a 6.5-foot elastic webbing tether with two fluorescent double-action safety hooks. These hooks feature single-handed operation with no risk of accidental opening, as both the gate and the colored lever must be pressed simultaneously to open the hook. The elastic retractable tether is reportedly a Wichard innovation: It can provide freedom of movement as it retracts and extends without dragging on the deck behind the user.

The #7006 two-leg safety tether is equipped with a third fluorescent double-action safety snap hook in addition to a color-coded harness attachment hook. It has a short, 3-foot flat webbing leg with a safety hook for attaching to an anchor point or jack line on the boat, and a long 6-foot elastic webbing second leg with a safety hook. The extended length of the stretchable leg is 6.5 feet. The two-leg design allows you to always maintain one point of attachment for increased safety. Elastic retractable tethers provide great freedom of movement as they retract and extend.

Key features:

  • 4,500-pound breaking load
  • Elastic webbing retracts from 6 feet to 3 feet
  • Fluorescent lever for easy detection during operations by night
  • Non-retractable flat webbing
  • Compliant with European standard EN 1095
  • Double-action safety hook is made with 316-grade stainless steel
  • Polyamide webbing is lightweight and dries quickly
  • Price: $214 for #7005; $316 for #7006

Spinlock Deckvest 5D
The Spinlock Deckvest 5D 170N Pro Sensor PFD is an auto-inflating life jacket with an incorporated harness that is designed for frequent offshore use. The Deckvest 5D includes the “Pro Sensor” inflation system, which uses a compressed pater capsule that dissolves in water to release a spring, activating the inflation cylinder. The cap is designed so that only water flowing upward will cause it to activate. For added security, this model comes with Spinlock’s “Pylon Light,” a high-intensity, water-activated flashing LED light with a 23-centimeter flexible antenna wand that gives improved visibility above head and water.

Key features:

  • High-spec auto-inflating lifejacket with integrated harness and soft-loop safety line attachment point
  • Light, comfortable, compact design for extended use
  • Pro Sensor auto matic inflation system
  • Pylon Light for improved visibility
  • “Lume-On” lifejacket bladder illumination lights
  • Sprayhood to reduce the risk of secondary drowning
  • Quick-access emergency safety line cutter
  • Back adjustment is hidden and non-snagging, and Spinlock’s “Shoulder Fit System” ensures correct fit on shoulders
  • Attachment points for optional Spinlock chest packs
  • Easily converts to “manual only” firing head with Manual Conversion Kit
  • CE-approved ISO12402-3 lifejacket
  • Option to extend warranty to five years through Life Support (TLS) Registration
  • Price: $369.00

Harnesses and tethers are a crucial element when it comes to observing the first rule of sailing on the ocean: ALWAYS STAY ON THE BOAT. Whether voyaging offshore or coastal cruising, staying aboard is critical to staying alive. Once you fall off a moving sailboat — unless you are mighty lucky — the chances of getting back aboard are very low. And in colder weather, survival time in the water is measured in hours at most. These safety items are a must; get them and use them!

Charlie Humphries is an ON staff member and an experienced sailor with more than 40,000 offshore miles on ocean passages and deliveries.

By Ocean Navigator