Lifejackets and harnesses

Although nothing can be guaranteed, having the right gear can add greatly to crew safety.

If stanchions and guardwires are the first defence against taking an involuntary swim, then harnesses and jackstays represent the last ditch stand. Let’s face it: there are few incidents as terrifying as a man overboard (MOB) situation and whatever we can do to ensure we stay on board has got to be a good thing.

The choice of harness is crucial and I have this vision of the folk who design some of them. They are the sort who compile cryptic crosswords, or devise idiotic television game shows. Some harnesses are as baffling as Chinese puzzles. And I knew one sailor who actually dislocated a shoulder squirming into his.

They come in three basic types:

*** The standalone harness, an arrangement of woven polyester webbing and a great choice in hot climates where you wear light (or no!) clothing.

*** Harness and lifejacket combined – a good compromise for the average sailor and far and away the most popular choice. The two crew members above have exactly this type.

*** Inbuilt wet weather jacket harness. Here the webbing is incorporated into your oilies (foulies) and is simply shrugged on and buckled up with said jacket. This would probably suit those sailing in higher and wetter latitudes but is far too cumbersome and hot for the Med and tropics. It’s my own fervent hope that I shall never again find it necessary to wear such a garment.

All are adjustable to fit individual body sizes and shapes and should be labelled with the owner’s name so you know whose is which. On Shindig we have two harnesses each, one adjusted to fit over a sweater or similar and the other for when stripped. An emergency situation is no time to be fiddling with adjustments.

When standing watch in the cockpit, the harness tethers should be attached to strong-points such as the ones shown below. This type can be folded back when not in use. Note the safety hooks which cannot be accidentally tripped.

For those working on deck – perhaps going forward to change a headsail, take in a reef or rig a spinnaker pole – the usual procedure is to clip the harness onto a ‘jackstay’, typically a wire or length of webbing usually running from bow to stern. Choosing between wire and webbing means making compromises. The wire type is virtually indestructible but can roll underfoot – perhaps precipitating exactly the type of accident it’s designed to preserve you from. My own preference is to have jackstays made of strong polyester webbing [1in (25mm] wide, 3 tonne breaking load) which lies flat. However, polyester jackstays are prone to UV degradation so will deteriorate with time and should be stowed below when not at sea to prolong their life.

The positioning of the jackstays is important. Remember that the object of the harness is to prevent you falling overboard, not tow you astern or alongside if you do. On Shindig it’s rare to have to go any further forward than the mast, so we have a pair of short jackstays running along the doghouse top exactly for that purpose. You can clip onto them before you leave the cockpit. Combined with a shorter than average tether, it’s virtually impossible to get far enough outboard to become an MOB.

For work on the foredeck we have separate jackstay running along the side decks. Obviously, whichever is to windward is the preferred choice, since a typical slip will have you falling to leeward.

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