The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

The Real Reason to Use a Harness and Tether

JAE 0902 105

Our friend Wilson Fitt is one of the sharper knives in the drawer and also one of the better seamen I know. He has made some admirable voyages, including a single-handed passage from Newfoundland to Scotland and a double-handed passage back to Halifax against the prevailing winds in April. (Wilson may be smart but he seems to have a strange and very rare disability that prevents him from reading calendars and pilot charts.)

Be that as it may, Wilson made these very tough passages, on the plank-on-frame sailboat that he built himself, look easy, with almost no gear failures and absolutely no drama.

In short, Wilson is worth listening to. Over dinner some time ago, while we were discussing this Online Book, he said something that really made me think.

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Dick Stevenson

John, Agree wholeheartedly with Wilson. Top of my offshore reminders list is to move at 1/2 speed. Rarely is there a need to move faster. We also agree that there are limitations to all gear and that ultimately, dependence is on one’s own good judgment. Gearing up, whether putting on foul weather gear when called from below or adjusting tethers should always be a chance to review the work to come in your head and to slow down and be prepared.
Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy, Gotland, Sweden

Nick Kats

Great picture!!

Dick, this pic shows a sailboat bowling along midAtlantic. This definitely is not half speed. Should she be at half speed?

Half speed doesn’t cut it for me in a lot of ways. Examples.

From the time I start hoisting the halyard to sheeting the sail home it is all luff flap luff flap, which drives me batty. So I want to be rapid & smooth in this whole process, to minimize the time from hoisting the halyard to sheeting home. With practice I flash up the sail, and at the moment of cleating someone in the cockpit sheets it home quickly, or if solo I go straight on to this.
Or when tacking, I wait for that exact moment, then instantly pull in the genoa sheet by hand & set it. Very quick movements, but it saves me from having to use the winch handle or luffing up to reset the sheet by hand/winch handle.
Or when jibing: I pull in the main sheet, wait for that moment when the sail begins to go over, then flash in the sheet some more. Which quick action further reduces the force of the jibe.
Or dropping sail on deck. I want the whole sail to drop in an instant, not hang up there & complicate things.
Jobs where speed is irrelevant? Like sail covers going on or off – well I want that to go quickly, minimum of effort & time & fuss. If it takes a long time it gets discouraging & I might get lazy about using sail covers..
Etc etc.

Another angle. After the winter months of no sailing I’m really rusty. Emphasizing efficiency & speed is a great way to get back in form quickly.

Does this mean hurrying? No way – thats a great way to mess up. No, it has to be easy, natural, calm. Rapid yet never hurried. My ideal: never hurry, yet often rapid. And ALWAYS capable of being rapid.

I view speed & efficiency as absolutely essential to safe cruising. It means instant & total understanding, & the ability at all times to exercise efficient economy of action. And that takes practice..

David Nutt

In that John, Phyllis and Wilson are all still aboard is a testament to doing the right things, even if different, at the right times. In all the miles that Judy and I and our kids and others have sailed on Danza never once has one of us come up hard on our harnesses and been saved from a different fate. As we prepare for another trip to the arctic we are spending time discussing harnesses and jack lines and rules and recovery techniques although I am not sure the dangers in the cold arctic waters are significantly greater than those of a tropical night.
I had never articulated the concept that the harness slows me down and makes me more careful and mindful of my moves. I am glad to think about it and I do believe it will add a level of safety to my moves.


Je mets et fait mettre les harnais même dans des moyennes conditions, n oublions pas pour ne pas les citer des marins confirmes ayant disparus faute d avoir omis cette règle élementaire et incontestable de sécurité

Erik de Jong

Hi John/Wilson,

I totally agree with Wilson about slowing down and being more careful, although I never thought about it like that.
But I started wearing my harness backwards a couple of years ago so that the clip points are at the back rather than the front.

I always found the tethers extremely annoying, and more a tripping hazard rather than a safety feature. A new world opened for me since I clip myself on while the tether is dragging behind me over the deck instead of going between and around the legs. I can recommend this to everyone.

Another advantage that I can imagine (I did not test it) is less risk of injury. I always imagine falling overboard, clipped on on the front, body and legs dragging through the water and that the spine will snap as soon as one gets exposed to the pressure of the water due to the boat speed.
When clipped on from behind, the body can give way in a more or less natural way.

Marc Nash

Hi to all,
I must comment on Erik’s suggestion, supported by our own practice on a recent long ocean race (Tanspac 2013), in that when we changed watches, the retiring crewmember would come down the companionway, unclip and then route the tether to the fresh crewmember through the rear of their PFD/harness as they emerged through the companionway to take their on deck positions…quite a revalation…you could move to a winch to trim, even in total darkness, and there was no entanglement in your working area..the natural limit of the tether gave you good stability, and this where Erik is spot on…if there is a moment of high forces.. your natural body posture means the load is transfered in bending to your spine the right way, you can maintain your balance…and no need of overextension of vertebrea…a very interesting idea Erik, and I wholeheartedly ask the manufacturers of PFD/harnesses to understand we bend well in one axis, but the other can, and could be, very painful, with consequent results on crew/boat performance…perhaps a D ring at the base of the spine? Absolutely!



Erik de Jong

Just two minor additions:

-The standard fall protection harnesses used in construction are very suitable to accommodate this kind of clipping on.
– I have the tether connected before putting the harness on, clipping it on afterwards is not easy, or requires a hand from another crew member.
– I am considering making the tether a permanent attachment to the harness, one never takes it off anyway, and it is one less fitting to worry about.


Erik de Jong

Hi John,

I never un-clip from the harness itself, always the end that is attached to the boat, jack line or rigging. Once un-clipped, I keep the loose end of the tether attached to the front of the harness, very easy to reach.

Erik de Jong

Sorry John, I missed that part.

How about a short strap, less than a foot, attached to your harness, lashed with some twine to the side of the harness. That way, one will still have the tethers hanging on the side and out of the way, one can easily reach them, and whenever there will be a large load on the tether, the twine snaps and will keep the victim aboard without breaking the spine.


I would add one comment about permanent attachment of tether to harness. A few years ago in the Chicago to Mackinac race a boat, Wing Nuts, capsized and remained inverted. A crew member drowned when he could not undo the quick release from the tether to his harness. Granted, this was partially the fault of poor boat design but I think most of us would be looking for a way out if inverted even for only 30 seconds. Food for thought.

Chuck B

Hi Erik, I’m really intrigued by the idea of clipping to the back and have been thinking about this quite a bit. What’s your thinking about handling a situation that may require emergency untethering, like a capsize/inversion? Clipped from the back, quick release and cutting the tether would be more challenging.

Best wishes,


Onno ten Brinke

Food for thought, and thanks for your amazing website that is teaching me so much as a starting out yachtsman. But, the main reason I have to jot something down is this:

Mr Fitt, you have a very pretty boat! More pics of it, and more on his crossing to Scotland here:


As always, the information on your site is appreciated. I enjoyed the reasoning that use of a tether 100% of the time makes one slow and conscientious. The idea of using a tether “even while motoring in a flat calm” offers a side benefit of learning to be comfortable everywhere on deck so that functioning when the conditions deteriorate is a bit more routine.

Daria Blackwell

I have often thought that the benefit of the tether is that it slows me down and makes me more conscious of risk.

Two things happened on our recent trip from Ireland to Scotland that made me rethink things again. I usually don’t use the double tether as I am short and the long tether tends to trip me up. It happened again this time as I got it caught around my leg when going forward to remove a reef. As I was moving extremely slowly and had “one hand for the boat”, I was able to steady myself readily. No more double tether.

Second, we were motoring in a flat calm and wanted to get the main down, so I stayed at the helm (sans tether) while Alex went forward. Suddenly, we hit a swell and started metronoming; the boom swung from one side to the other with the sheets almost taking me overboard. I kept the tether on from that point on regardless of weather.

All good points. I am ruminating about the backwards attachment idea.

Marc Dacey

I suppose the logic of “always tethered, always mindful” is similar to that of “you must use only your non-dominant hand for single-handed jobs”. I am fortunate in having a certain degree of ambidexterity, but my strong impression is that most people, particularly right-handers for whom the world is preferentially designed, have frustration and difficulty using only their left hands…but the effect of mindfulness required sounds very similar to the “slow down and think” mode imposed by constant and non-negotiable tether usage. At the same time, if a right-hander persists, they can gain far more fine control with their left hands than they might have expected in the first place; if a tethered sailor on deck persists, they can similarly expect improvements in grace and speed.

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before, but I became a convert to “forever tethered” offshore on delivery in a manner similar to Ms. Blackwell. A clear-air squall in the middle of the night canted the boat over enough to slid a reclining (but most certainly awake) me out over the coamings and under the lifelines. The tether on the helm pedestal stopped me, and allowed me to quickly recover and loose the main sheet, whereupon the boat recovered her footing.

Neptune’s lesson learned!

Nick Kats

So it is accepted that harnesses & jacklines slow one down.
This is exactly why I threw out my jackline, & rarely use my harness. Anything impeding my movement is out, out, out.
Safety is a state of mind, first of all. As demonstrated by people who feel safer when slowed down by harness/jackline. Different solutions for different people.
Something more relevant which does not come up on this site. Jacklines are a relatively new concept. Before the jackline, sailors did fine.
Which brings up the current wave of safety protocols & equipment like jacklines. This wave is a relatively new phenomenon. There was a time when this instence on safety protocol & equipment did not exist… not so long ago.
Now in the sailing world this appears to be mandatory – see sailing magazines, some comments on this forum, boating catalogs, many of the latest ‘experts’ etc.
I hope people do protocols & safety equipment because they worked things out for themselves & it feels right to them, not because it is fashionable. I think that there may be far too much of the latter. In the latter case, there is a tendency to buy far too much safety related equipment. This is primarily a form of consumerism fuelled by advertising & by fear.
Cruisers probably tend to be an exception. They tend to put a lot of time & thought into each step & piece of equipment, into any protocol they work out.

For safety, there are alternatives to the current thinking in safety protocol & equipment. That includes the jackline.

Dick Stevenson

Since you address me, I will respond. To start, yes, agreed, that is a great picture. I wish I had something to do with taking it let alone being on the beautiful boat. There is a great feel to the picture.
And there is truth to much you say but there is a good deal I would challenge, at least on the face of it: we may be talking more similarly than is immediately obvious. Maybe.
When I wrote a few weeks ago that my putting on harness and tethering up was a signal to me to slow down, essentially the same message as Wilson, I meant this both mentally and physically. I am a firm believer that when I slow down (mentally), things frequently get done faster (physically). I do admit that when I raise sail, tack and do some of the other items you refer to, (what I think of as over-learned everyday activities) I do them as fast and as smoothly as possible: I believe that is what you call rapid. However when I gear up to go on deck to do something that is not regular, I benefit from slowing down and the activity generally ends up being done more rapidly.
I agree generally that one should “never hurry” although I always find it dangerous to use the word “never” —or “always” for that matter. I believe however that many equate speed with hurry although I hear that you do not. In my world, both generally lead to mistakes and accidents. I would also not want to buy into a faster is better scenario that you ascribe to, especially when it leads to decisions like doing away with harness, tethers and jacklines. Unexpected things do happen and safety items, like seatbelts in a car, have a place on a my boat.
Some of your other comments about consumerism and the need for practice are right on target.
Thanks for your comments, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy, Kalmar, Sweden


Correct me if I’ve missed it somewhere in the discussion, but the installation of full perimeter rails at 36″ height is worth considering, especially but not only, on metal boats. Only one production boat installs these that I’m aware of (Amel) but they are a little lower. Mine are 1 1/4 ” od sched 40 ss pipe with stanchions welded to a 4″ bulwark, which puts them at hip height for me (6′). Until one has sailed with such rails in bad conditions it is difficult to realize how much security they give. And not as ‘unsightly’, or ‘heavy’ as one might think.


Am late to the party here in terms of this thread, and a relative newbie who is gearing up for some longer passages in the future and using this excellent site as a way of researching/preparing. With that caveat in mind, and based purely on intuition, every time I have decided for sure to put on a centred jack line, I keep hesitating because unless I have a way to get back on board, I am not sure if being tethered wouldn’t make it all but impossible – dangling on the end of a line with huge pressures to deal with etc.
The suggestion of tethering to the back makes sense.
Unless I feel I can very quickly unclip / untie a tether, they frighten me.
My current thinking is that either they should work tightly to prevent one from being able to go overboard at all (in which case I might put a line between the mast tabernacle cross bar and the boom gallows aft for midship work, along with a tight ring around the mast, and then a tight line to the sampson post up for’ard, and something to the mizzen mast aft, all tight enough (3′ max’ that although I might get dangled overboard, not the whole body can make it.

Failing that, I have been wondering: does it not make sense to let the line be long enough so that one can end up astern where there will be both a boarding ladder and a 100′ line trailing. Indeed, with a trailing line, perhaps it is better not to have a harness at all given how hard it must be to function if on is both in the water and in a harness.

John you mentioned you would follow up on how to get back on board when harnessed but I haven’t found that post, if it exists. If it doesn’t, am greatly looking forward to it. Also be good to get more stories of people who have gone over in harnesses, because otherwise I find it hard to trust to them.


well, that is interesting. Personally, have never tried to board a ladder under way or hold onto a line trailed from a moving vessel. I remember from doing multiple MOB’s in Mahone Bay on my lovely little Chester C-100 back in the 80’s, and the student at the helm rescuing me in the water didn’t get it quite right so I tried to catch onto the stays on this low freeboarded 33 footer and, even though she was at half speed due to turning etc., I found it almost impossible to hold on and in any case let go. I was surprised by the forces involved when only going, essentially, about 3 mph. But if, as I suspect, you are right about holding onto a line trailed astern (which I am going to test the next time I am out with crew in warm waters for sure), namely that is might not be possible, then how much less likely it is that one can effect anything whilst tethered. Seems to me the tether is best in a knock-down when there is little momentum underway but it keeps you on or near the boat versus being swept away by the next wave.

I was hoping that a stern ladder might work in the sense that one could first hook one’s arms to the part above water where there is no pressure, and then, using the Fear of Immanent Death as spontaneous motivation, basically ‘do a Spiderman’ and end up on the deck somehow.

With the towed rope – which I read about in an old guidebook years ago – if self-steering with a sheet-to-tiller arrangement (which I might begin to favour during longer passages though my preference is sail balance with tiller left free, usually good for 15-30 mins at a time on a steady day), those stern-trailing lines can be rigged as trip-lines to the sheet-self-steering arrangement in order to make the boat stop; if doable – as I intend to attempt this summer – that strikes me as a very good approach: the trailing line gives you time to recover from falling in and then make your way to that trailing line, which is ideally only 1-3 yards away, and then the line in turn, when pulled on, causes the vessel to head up into the wind and go into irons.

But other than that was assuming that, again using Fear as Strength, that assuming one can grab it before the very end, one could wrap it around an arm and then tie a loop further down the line into which one can place one’s foot for purchase.

After that, of course it would be mere child’s play to rise up out of the waves like glistering Phaethon and then careen to windward in order to cause the vessel to point to windward and come up in irons. I suppose this sort of thing would take some practice, though. (!)

All-in-all, it sounds like it really is best not to fall of the boat. In which case, not only tight tethers etc., but 6″ bulwarks would seem most advisable as others have mentioned. (I also am leary of stanchions because, as a 6 footer, I think they are more likely to trip me over than stop me sliding overboard, but that’s another story.)

Jeff Bander

This is a late arrival to this thread I know but I just came across what appears to be an imaginatively designed tether that facilitates an MOB self-rescue The two videos record the same event from two different angles and it pays to watch them both to grasp how the tether operates.

Jeff Bander

Here’s the correct second video that shows the same event from the POV of the MOB

Jeff Bander

Agree John. Still, the videos raised two thoughts for me. First, even before self-rescue begins, fellow wearing forward facing tether is not being dragged and drowned. How come, isn’t that a contention of this thread? And second, even if a complete self rescue is too strenuous for a middle aged solo sailor, maybe on a short-handed boat a few tugs on device by POB is all that’s needed for safety while remaining crew brings boat to a stop.

Matt Marsh

Viscous drag goes with the square of the speed – a bit over twice as much drag at 6kt as at 4kt. But you also have wave drag to consider. A person can be dragged at 4kt without too much fuss. At 6kt, the MOB’s wake is enormous, and at 8kt he’s starting to bounce and tumble along the surface in addition to creating a maelstrom of spray.

If I need a self-rescue system, my vote is for big scramble nets rolled up on the gunwales for quick deployment with a one-tug release line. Tying foot loops onto the tether while being dragged may make for a nice demonstration, but – even as a former lifeguard in good physical shape – I’m quite sure I couldn’t reliably rig and use them while being dragged at six or eight knots.

Stein Varjord

Another late comment to an old thread, linked from the Better jackline systems thread. I still write because I think it’s important to make sure nobody believes the system in the videos will ever work in real life. All that fiddling he’s doing is just ridiculous.

I’ve pushed my body in many ways most of my life, so I’m quite fit, even at 55. I can easily get onboard a boat with 1,2 meter (4 foot) high hull sides, by just getting some swim speed to jump and pull myself up with the arms. So I’m in no trouble if I go overboard, am I? Well… If the boat isn’t moving much, the water is calm and I’m wearing swim trunks only….

Add one layer of sports underwear, one layer medium fleece and a medium to light shell layer, I struggle with half that height. I need to get my arm pits onto the edge of the deck and hang there for a while for the water to run out of my clothes, then lift onto my elbows and then get one foot up on the edge…. One try is all I can handle and I’ll be drained. I’d say most normally fit people would struggle with a hull height of 30 cm / 1 foot. This still in calm water at zero speed. Swimming pool conditions.

This means that even in ideal conditions, we normally need some sort of help, as very few boats are that low. Only dinghies. If we then add speed and waves, the task becomes close to impossible, even if the hull is at the water level. Putting one’s feet into steps etc is normally not even remotely possible in any type of realistic situation. A net made from thick ropes could help some, but not much. The arms are just not strong enough and the feet will not get much grip on a net that would probably be flushed along the hull a bit above the surface while we’re slammed in and out.

Our arms are just not strong enough for this task. That is true no matter how strong we are and no matter if we’re in the water or on deck trying to help. We might get lucky sometimes, but mostly we’ll not even be close. I think the only solutions for getting a POB back onboard must be either:
1. The person can be given a strong steady foothold at a useful position to climb out of the water, or
2. Someone still onboard must use winching or other technical aid to lift the POB.
I have no idea how no 1 can be achieved. The videos mentioned certainly don’t give any usable answers. I put my trust only in no 2. Also, whatever method, it must be practiced. Otherwise, even a good system will usually fail.

David B. Zaharik

And lest we forget … hypothermia is energy draining and life sucking. I posted late on the first article in this series and told a story of my incident where I fell overboard in the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia… I was alone, without a life jacket. The boat was motoring in flat seas on autopilot. I swam for 3 hours and 45 minutes… according to the Canadian Coast Guard graphs I should be dead. I literally burned 7 pounds of fat off my body that night… It took me over 3 hours to regain body temperature breathing the Coast Guard 100% humidified heated oxygen (once they picked me up) and was hospitalized (Go back to the thread to read the a longer version of the story.)

When my buddies from the Canadian Airforce hear this story they unanimously are amazed for part of the airforce training is to be tossed into the same Strait, with their “official” survival suits on, in a controlled environment, meaning the dinghy and instructors are right there. Invariably every one of them relate the extreme difficulty they had in getting into the rescue craft and within a very short time period they began the slippery slope into hypothermia and their strength disappeared… these are young fit men.

I wasn’t doing anything foolish or risky when I fell off. I braced myself on a life line that was attached to the stanchion by a pelican clasp that let go. I stood on the stern quarter doing some weird balancing act for several seconds during which my mind raced to “oh no! I can’t go over… I’m not wearing a lifejacket… I’m 5 miles off shore… the water is 14 degrees C… if I fall I am going to die…” Splash … reverse double gainer with 2 twists… no judges saw for it was a night.

The weight of my autumn clothes dragged me down so fast it was incredible. I was fortunate to have survived let alone make it to the surface.

The 100% foolproof method to survive a MOB is don’t go overboard. Further to that, hypothermia is indiscriminate…. it will kill you with a life jacket on. Stay on-board.