Tether vs No Tether: When safe isn’t

My dad and I had a little back and forth email exchange recently about this article from Practical Boat Owner – “Is it safe to use a tether?” As the article read-in below indicates, using a tether to keep sailors aboard has been the prevailing wisdom.

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Solo sailors, especially, are dependent upon a harness and tether, and rely on the system to either stay aboard or enable them to pull/climb/claw their way back aboard after a fall overboard – at least, that’s the hope. Tethers and jacklines are mandatory safety items for most (if not all) open water races. Even the Chicago-Mac race rules required us this summer to rig jacklines and have safety tethers. (The fatalities of 2011 Chicago-Mac race prompted a change in the race rules and generated attention related to the design and use of tethers: Practical Sailor blog and New Mac-Race safety regs). My thoughts last summer about the actual safety of the system are confirmed by the video linked below. The first rule – of course – is to stay ON the boat; DO NOT go over the side. But if you do go over the side, you may wish you weren’t tethered.

Watch the video yourself and see what you think:


Many sailors, perhaps, place too much faith in their equipment. If you read the Practical Boat Owner piece, you’ll note that four of the “real-life situations” at the end of the article highlight the danger of being tethered if you do go over the side. And in two of the situations, slipping or wriggling out of the lifejacket/harness was the saving factor. In the other two situations, it sounds like the skipper got free from his tether in one instance, and in the other the boat drove up on the beach. I also recall another story of a husband and wife cruising alone together. The husband had the night watch and when the wife awoke in the morning to relieve him, he was nowhere to be seen. She soon found him – dead – being dragged behind the boat by his tether.

So what’s the take away? A few things come to mind, but first the obvious: don’t go over the side; stay on the boat! Second, design a jackline and tether system that prevents crew from going over the rail. Perhaps rig a jackline along the centerline of the boat and use a tether that’s less than half the boat’s beam. At the very least, test your current jackline/tether arrangement to see what could happen if things went wrong. Third, ensure that you have a functioning quick-release tether – easily releasable under load – that will allow you to keep your lifejacket on in the event of a trip overboard, rather than wriggle free from it to avoid immediate drowning. And the last item: it just might be better to go untethered, depending upon your circumstances. Given the option, I’d much rather take my chances with a MOB recovery than A) be drowned while being dragged alongside the boat, or B) be stripped of my lifejacket and adrift for who knows how long while awaiting rescue.

As any good sailor will agree, it’s important to know the potential limitations of any system you rely on aboard – whether it’s radar, your engine, GPS, or your anchor. And whether you use jacklines and a tether or not, it’s always good practice to consider eventualities. Doing so just might save your life.

2 Responses to Tether vs No Tether: When safe isn’t

  1. Rick Bailey says:

    This resonates with me David. I’ve long been concerned about solo sailing and staying on the boat. Port and starboard jacklines never made sense to me, if the goal was to stay on the boat – not be dragged behind and drowned. The entire question of how to get back onboard once one is over the rail notwithstanding, the fall overboard may be enough to incapacitate the MOB anyway. Here’s my solution on my own boat. It is inconvenient, but I’m confident that it keeps me on board. https://middlebaysailing.wordpress.com/2012/07/21/safely-single-handing/

    Rick s/v Cay of Sea

    • David says:


      Interesting read. Thanks for sharing. I wear an inflatable pfd/harness when I’m sailing alone and conditions warrant. I clip in wherever I happen to be working, but I’m not clipped in during the trip forward or aft. We have a folding padeye in the cockpit that enables us to be clipped in and yet still move about to handle sheets, etc.

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