Safely Single-Handing

I love to sail my boat alone.  But I’m a klutz.  I’m a walking safety hazard.  Add my klutziness to all the trip and balance hazards on a sailboat, and you have a recipe for man-overboard.  If I’m alone when this happens…

I had determined several months ago that I was not going to sail alone again until I have my safety harness set up, and have established habits that keep me clipped in, and on the boat.  My sailing alone in the past without having this in place was simply foolish.

So now, I have recently set up jacklines for clipping in, and have acquired tethers and a harness.  I spent an hour or so recently adjusting the length of the tethers so that I (hopefully) can’t fall overboard.  I don’t want to just stay attached to the boat – I’ve heard the horror stories of people falling overboard and being dragged through the water on their harnesses until they drown.  I want to stay ON the boat, so this means adjusting tethers and jacklines so that I can’t leave the deck or cockpit, even if I lose my footing completely.

Sailing harness

Tethers. The single leg to the right clips into my harness. The two legs on the left clip to loops in the jacklines.

There are other injuries to consider (I experience injuries when no hazards exist.  Just talented in that way, I guess).  Harnesses are not “fall friendly.”  If you have a sudden stop due to your harness pulling you up short, it can break ribs, rupture disks, fracture vertebrae, and at the very least leave bruises.  But this is all preferable to drowning – or even leaving the ship with a life vest, and surviving in open water for who knows how long.

There are ways to mitigate the short-stop injuries:  use shorter lengths of three-strand twist for jacklines instead of the more typical webbing straps.  Three-strand stretches and slows you down before you are brought up short.  The advantage of tubular strapping is that it stretches, and it doesn’t roll if stepped on, like three-strand does.  This is a legitimate concern, and is something that I will have to experiment with.  I’m using three-strand for now, due to the stretch properties (and I have a lot of it on hand).  I’ve thought about jackline routing quite a bit, and decided to run them athwart ship rather than fore and aft.  Because they are not routed along the side decks, I think it will be easier to avoid stepping on them.

Jacklines run athwart. There are three: cockpit, amidships, and bow, each with a loop tied into the center point of the boat.

Drew Fry at discusses jacklines, tethers, and carabiners at length, and does a very good job outlining the dynamics involved and the gear needed, so I won’t duplicate any of that discussion here.  I finally began to have a concept of how to set up my lines after reading his article

I’ve run the jacklines athwart because fore and aft never made sense to me.  If the goal of the safety lines is to keep on you the boat, it seems like you would not want any significant length of line near the rails.  Any tether length that allows you to work the boat clipped into a line near the rail, would also allow you to go overboard on the side you are clipped to.  You also want the tethers and jacklines to stop you from going far if you fall.  So having a clear run fore and aft would let you slide a long way before you were stopped by the lines.  That doesn’t seem good either.  However, if you are clipped into one point near where you are working – say, amidships near the mast, for instance, and your tether is 3-4 feet long, you can only fall the length of your tether.  If your beam is 10 feet, you still fetch up short of going over the life lines when at the end of your tether.

I have set up my jacklines and tethers so that I can reach an adjacent loop and clip onto it before I unclip from the previous one.  I think I still need to shorten the tethers by 6 – 12 inches.  I don’t want even a moderate amount of slack in the tether – ideally, just enough is needed to reach the next loop.  That makes going forward inconvenient, certainly, and sometimes it will take longer to get forward because I have to negotiate a path between other standing lines.  That just goes with the territory though.

This is a loop that is tied by doubling the line in the middle and simply making an overhand knot with it. This loop doesn’t slip or tighten, nor weaken the line significantly.

I have also finally learned that footwear on board is extremely important.  I say finally, because of the many foot and back injuries that I’ve had on the boat – all from inappropriate foot-wear.  Hanging out in the cockpit without shoes, or with flip-flops is okay.  Leaving the cockpit that way is not.  Barefoot or flip-flops on deck is an invitation to injury.  Anytime I leave the cockpit now, I’m wearing boat shoes that grip the deck and cover my toes.

  1. All of this is great for the sailor… and for the mate who stays behind!

    • Takes some of the worry out of the equation, for sure.

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