Safety Harness or Death Strap?
by Tom Rau

There are sailors who revere safety harnesses as lifelines, yet other sailors swear that safety harnesses are death straps. The fact is they can be both. So how does one explain the yin and yang of safety harnesses? Easily. For the conflict does not lie with the tether line and safety harness, but in its use. The following case file illustrates how a safety harness when used incorrectly can become a death strap.
Holland, Michigan, September 20, 2002. A 50-year-old male had departed Holland, Michigan, at 7 p.m. on Friday evening aboard a 38-foot sailboat in a solo race to Michigan City. On Saturday morning a shoreline resident discovered the boat with the mainsail up, about a mile south of Holland. Responders found the solo sailor dead along side the boat tangled in the jib, secured by a tether and safety harness.
Ultimate Safety Harness

This is why I strongly oppose sailors wearing a safety harness that trails enough tether line to dump them in the water while attached to the boat. Safety harnesses are meant to keep you on the boat, not drag you through the water. What could the captain have done while being dragged through the water with the main sail driving the boat along at eight knots in four-foot seas? The strain on the harness release mechanism may have restricted his ability to release it, especially with nostrils and mouth inhaling water at a rapid rate. As for a knife, it would require tremendous focus to reach for a knife — that is if one were readily available — then draw it up and cut the line. Then add darkness, cold water, and body shock — the results speak for themselves.

I believe many sailors assume that if they are attached to a boat with a tether line and safety harness they can simply pull themselves back aboard, or if that fails, simply release themselves from the safety harness. Nothing could be further from the truth. Take it from a sailor who knows.

Jeff Allen, who has sailed in a number of major races on Lake Michigan, once experienced an overboard plunge while attached to a safety harness and tether line. During the Queen Cup Race, Jeff had gone forward on the deck of a 33-foot Tartan sailboat late at night to haul down the spinnaker. The sail went aback; he was knocked overboard.

His six-foot tether line was attached to a jack line that ran aft. The harness line ran down the jack line and Allen found himself being dragged astern at six knots in six to eight-foot seas. I asked him how long he was in the water. “It seemed like an eternity,” said Allen. “I rolled onto my back. I would have drowned face down had I not. It took three crewmen to haul me aboard. Another minute in the water and I would have been done. I hit the rack after the ordeal and slept. I was physically whipped.”

I have been conducting an on-going survey with sailors regarding safety harnesses and tether lines. The feedback is not encouraging. Let me share an interview I conducted with the captain of a sailboat. The solo sailor had made an overnight passage from South Manitou Island to Manistee Michigan aboard a 29-foot C&C sloop. I spoke with him at Manistee’s Municipal Marina the following day. He told me he had used a safety harness the night before in heavy weather while hauling down the head sail. “I almost slid over the portside and into the lake,” he said. “I grabbed a life line to keep from going overboard.” He said he was wearing a safety harness.

The captain produced the life harness and six foot tether line he had used. He had attached the tether line to a jack line that ran fore and aft, center deck. I pointed out that the length of the tether line plus slack in the jack line when taking load would place him in the water for certain. Unless he could quickly release himself he would quickly drown. And he would have drowned since the safety harness d-rings were attached to a carabiner at the end of the tether line. It’s nearly impossible to open the release arm of a carabiner under load and detach the eye of the tether line from the carabineer. Then I pointed to the gear he was wearing: weather-proof coveralls that resembled chest waders tightly secured at the ankles. I pointed out that if he went overboard, his outfit would act as a sea anchor that would pull him beneath the surface.

He took my suggestions well, unlike some sailboaters who look at me in scorn as if I had proven their safety harness god to be false. Although, I suspect they felt sheepish for not thinking this issue through. So what would you do if you were being dragged through the water attached to tether line?
If you hesitated with your response, you’re dead.

Boat Smart Brief
Here’s what can be done to prevent such a fate. Use a short tether line that will keep you on the boat, and attach it to a hard attachment point like the mast. Do not attach it to a life line or shroud. Use a snaphook as the attachment device. The Offshore Racing Council’s Sailing Special Regulations advises that a tether line with a snaphook should be used to attach to the life harness d-rings and a hard attachment point on the boat like the mast. The snaphook allows quick release at both ends. Have a serrated knife readily available on the sailboat in order to cut the tether line if all else fails, including stopping the boat. A person being dragged through the water will quickly drown, so time is of the essence.

Remember, the difference between a safety harness and death strap is in its use. Boat Smart- use it wisely.

Tom Rau is a long-time Coast Guard rescue responder and syndicated boating safety columnist.

Look for his book, Boat Smart Chronicles, a shocking expose on recreational boating — reads like a great ship’s log spanning over two decades. It’s available to order at:,,, or
through local bookstores.

All contents are copyright (c) 2007 by Northern Breezes, Inc. All information contained within is deemed reliable but carries no guarantees. Reproduction of any part or whole of this publication in any form by mechanical or electronic means, including information retrieval is prohibited except by consent of the publisher.