The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Staying Attached To The Boat


OK, enough of the theory and philosophy I blathered on about in the first chapters of this book.

In this chapter I will write about two requirements in our quest to stay aboard and the gear and procedures we use to satisfy them: reach and continuity of attachment.

Login to continue reading (scroll down)

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Marc Dacey

John, an excellent and thorough post…and I look forward to its continuation, as thinking on these topics surrounding “staying aboard in all conditions” is, as you point out, currently evolving.

I have a question, however: When you say “we will forgo the added convenience of a rigging system if it impinges on this requirement”, to what convenient rigging system are you referring?

Marc Dacey

OK, thanks. Sacrosanct is not a bad thing, particularly if you consider sailing a more religious experience than any lubberly church attendance. I assume the ban on jackline interference would likely include preventers, as well, I suppose. No wonder you’ve put a lot of thought into your reefing set-up!

Jacques Landry


Nice post, and I am with you on most of it! I too use a similar arrangement of jack lines and strong attachment points all over the place. But I don’t understand or agree with you comment about double tethers. How could you say it is “too much clutter to be dragging around with you as well as potentially confusing…” when your installation would be a lot more confusing for most, even more for visitors who are trying to help (maybe you are hurt or something) ? Your scenario is a very complicated choreography which I’d rather leave to the ballet dancers! Additionally, in very bad weather and darkness (what the heck are you doing on deck you will say 😉 you may have difficulties finding the tethers out there. The one ending on your harness is a sure bet!

I bought a double tether but did not like the shorter section (which is there to keep you closer to the attachment point and prevent falling over the lifeline) so I simply use 2 tethers. Simple, cheaper and you can even attach yourself to two points at once for stability when needed. Furthermore, I have the assurance that I will always be attached, as in your case you may end up having an obstruction in the way preventing you from reaching the next “tether station”.

Having said that, I can’t say you don’t have a safe approach !

Tom Hildebrandt

After my ten years of offshore cruising, I have evolved to essentially the same system of a full run for the Jackline, and longer tethers for in the cockpit and shorter tethers on the jacklines. I personally use a single tether when I am doing normal tasks in the cockpit and when going on deck, but occasionally use two tethers when going on deck. I should note Juno is a aft cockpit so I only need two jacklines. The deck is aluminum with welded cleats both sides fore and aft which I use as an attachment points for the jackline so it is a full run fore and aft.

I have a boombrake and I lead the Jackline over the control lines for the boombrake, this has not been a problem but it does mean there is a bit of slack in the jackline.

I often sail with “casual” crew, backpackers and such, usually inexperienced sailors at best, and the rules I provide is that the person on watch has his harness on and is locked in, no if ands or buts. Watches start in the harbor. The watchstander can decide who else needs to be in a harness during calm weather during the day but my protocols also require that anyone, in the cockpit or on deck, be in a harness, and hooked in during the dark hours or in 15 knots or more. Day sails in sheltered waters, I make the decisions if harnesses are worn and by whom.

So our thinking is very similar on this issue.

I have had many people tell me my rules are draconian, but it is what makes me comfortable, and it is after all, my boat and not theirs!

David W

Reading the report below it makes one realise that the best place to be is onboard and IF you are on the low side make sure you are on your short tether.
I also wonder why no one has come up with a system for getting someone back on board that doesn’t require 6 deck gorrillas.


Half way down this link is a radar mast which has a short boom to assist with man overboard recovery

cliff johnsen

As to the getting someone back on board: On our life sling, I have a loop tied in the line about 6 feet outboard of the attachment point. So, when someone is in that sling, and the rope it tight, we can attach a line to that loop and through a winch to pull the person toward us. As the original line becomes slack we can detach and continue with the winch pull. There is never a time when it is disconnected. Without that loop, it would be impossible to pull someone in or to detach and then go through a winch. Once in close, a spinnaker halyard or something can be attached to the outboard loop that is about 20′ toward the boat from the float sling.



Reminds me of traversing a rock face on sequential belays. We use the same system, but are still in search of better jackline material.

Judy Raymond

I am loving this discussion and grateful for the input from such experienced sailors. How do you keep from slipping on, tripping over or otherwise losing your footing on loose tethers languishing about waiting to be used? Thanks so much.

Peter Passano

Hi John,
When building SEA BEAR 23 years ago, we addressed the issue of going overboard as follows:
Since she is all welded steel construction we sand blasted and epoxy primed the deck ( 2 coats).
Next we put on a heavy coat of Elastomeric Urethane.
While still wet we sprinkled a heavy layer of 1/8″ bits of ground up rubber tires.
When dry a final coat of flat, oil based enamel. Color beige
The result is a 1/4″ thick coating that provides an excellent non skid surface. In time the top coat of enamel wears down exposing black rubber spots. When this happens the non skid qualities actually improve. In practice, I overcoat the deck every couple of years for cosmetic purposes.
The urethane/rubber layer has remained in perfect condition for 23 years and in no place has it,in any way, come away from the steel or required repair or replacement.
One benefit of the system is it’s resiliency. If you drop a winch handle or a tool on deck, it only bounces. It doesn’t chip the paint.
Another benefit is that it isolates the deck plating from the sun to the extent that you can comfortably walk on deck in bare feet, even at the equator. This, of course, also insulates the plating from over heating the cabin. (We also have 1.5″ of sprayed urethane foam on the underside of the deck plate).
The last benefit was that it was very economical. The rubber was given to us by a tire re-treader at no cost.
We constructed high bulwarks the entire length of the deck. Forward it is up to 10″ high and decreases as it runs aft. Midships it is about 6″ above the deck. There are seven ample scupper holes each side to quickly unload a shipped sea.
The stanchions are welded to the deck as well as the bulwark. They are extraordinarily tall and the top lifeline is 32″ above the deck. This is about 8″ higher than standard. This hits my hip high rather an mid thigh. The lower lifeline is 18″ above the deck which leaves only an 8″ gap between the top of the bulwark and the lower lifeline. Compare the photo of Marina on the foredeck with the shots of LION’s foredeck in the report of the fatal accident to Christopher Reddish. The gap between the rail and the lower lifeline on LION is 11.4″ versus 8″ on SEA BEAR.
These three details provide a deck that is very difficult to fall off. Yes, the bulwarks add additional weight and windage and I guess we have sacrificed a
fraction of a knot for getting there safely.


Matt Marsh

For someone my size, anything less than 75 cm (30 inch) high is a trip wire, not a lifeline.

Good point about the bulwarks. If you have fallen and are sliding across the deck, you might slide over a 2″ toe rail (and under the lifelines) but would have a much better chance of being stopped by a 6″ to 10″ bulwark.

RDE (Richard Elder)

Hi Peter,
Couldn’t agree more on all counts. Yachts look sleek and sexy—seagoing voyaging boats have bulwarks and real life lines. When hard pressed I’ve always preferred to walk the leeward side rather than be 10 feet in the air on the high side where the motion is much greater.

I’ve suggest your deck coating system to several people who have terminally leaking teak decks and lack the funds to remove and rebuild them… No reason why you can’t buy 5 or 10 years and have a dry boat by using a thick, flexible coating system. However they just preferred to let their boat rot away—–.


I like my double tethers on my harness, but they’re both only a little over 3′ long. My jack lines roughly split the house top in thirds, starting at a padeye just forward of the end of the house on one side, through a padeye near the mast, down to the foredeck cleats and back up the other side of the house in the same manner. The mast also has an eye at boom height if I feel the need. There is a single padeye in the forward end of the cockpit. If I do fall, I can only slide as far as the next padeye. I can reach everything on deck except the far side of the lifelines. Thanks for all your articles; I’ve enjoyed reading them.

Steve Guy

I am very appreciative of my 6″ bulwarks and would specify them on a new boat. I wish I had 32″ lifelines.

Steve Guy



your system is very thorough and well thought out. So far I have been using a double tether with a long and short end. The tether line that is not used is clipped onto the rings of my harness, which means I always know where it is and can reach for it instantly. It also doesn’t dangle around my feet. Because my tether has Wichard hooks on both lines, I can clip that second tether line to the next anchor point with one hand and then unclip myself from the previous anchor point also with one hand, so that I am never uncliped and my spare hand can hold onto something else.

And that leads me to my question: with your system of multiple tethers, the clipping and unclipping is done at harness end of the tether, which means that you have to open and close a snap shackle. While opening it can be done with one pull, closing a snap shackle, especially if you need to pass it through the two D-rings on your harness, requires two hands, at least I do. What am I missing?

Also, why would you have two shorter jacklines on each side deck, vs one that extend from bow to stern?



Dan Alonso

I’ll take that reefing race John! I’m a double tether in mast furling guy on my current boat, HR 49. LOL. I know your thoughts on in mast and it’s not the discussion here. I run a jack line “tightly” from the cockpit around my mast pulpits and back to the other side of the cockpit. Another tight line from mast to bow terminating at the inner forestay. My gear is getting tight at the lifelines with one clip change inside the mast pulpits. I live in my “Climbing” harness and step it up when it gets big. The safest gear is the one you use. I solo 75% on the time, I don’t believe in ever ever going over the lifelines. With that being said, I will re-evaluate. Systems can change from boat to boat and through changes in Tech. If the point is to get us thinking, Well done!

David B. Zaharik

I’d love to see your climbing harness…. and make and model etc.

David B. Zaharik

Perhaps you can post a picture or a link to see it on line.

David B. Zaharik

Thank you John… I should have waited until I read the whole chapter… I saw that. Just got an email from Colin too and he uses the Spinlock deck vests and Boreal uses Wichard fabric jackstays… can’t wait to read the rest of this book… its a thriller!

Carolyn Shearlock

I like your multiple tether arrangement and wish we would have thought of it. We did the double tether deal and hated it.
Two comments:
1. After going back and forth about webbing jacklines vs. non-stretch line, we ended up doing a “both” solution: We ran the non-stretch line inside tubular webbing — the shackle ran very smoothly and the non-stretch didn’t suffer from UV.
2. We had a boom brake and simply ducked under it as we went forward (this may be one of those things that works on some boat’s configurations and not others).
We had similar rules to yours about when they were worn, although we said 10 knots. And the dog NEVER was unleashed on deck except at anchor, the free end was always secured (usually to a cleat, as she only weighs 7 pounds) and she wore a harness, not a collar that could break her neck. Yes, if you have a pet on board, you have to plan their safety just as much as yours!


Hi John,

I’ll be nearby in Halifax in July for that reefing race. De-loading is a little time sucker.

The climbing harness has been an evolution. First I must admit that, in a fall you will be hanging from your waist not your chest. This can be a balancing problem but a risk I’m ok with. Then sleeping in it was not great so I took an older harness and cut it down to bare bones. This is great for sleeping but not ideal for a fall. I also have a full on ISAF compliant PFD. They are all easy to get into and I use the right one for the conditions. I feel that it’s irresponsible to not be tied in offshore and the restraint that saves me is the one I’m wearing.

I’ve heard that nearly all fatal man overboards that are recovered have their fly open.

Nicolas Kats

Jacklines in my view & on my boat are not needed.

When moving around on deck my hands are free to hold on. If condition are bad, I use timing when I go. I have always felt safe doing this. It is important to develop this agility & confidence. It doesn’t take long. Not being agile is a huge negative.

On my boat I assess the main risks of going overboard in 4 ways:

Pissing over the side. To piss I walk up to the main lee shrouds & lean over, shoulders jammed against 2 shrouds, very stable.

Working the halyards. If unstable standing up, I lie down on deck on my back. This is very stable if a bit inelegant.

On the bowsprit working the foresail. If in severe conditions I wear a harnesss & hook myself to the boat, usually to the staysail stay.

Boarding seas. Twice solid water crashed down onto the boat when I was in the cockpit. I leaned into the water as it crashed down. My stability was perfect.

In none of these situations was a jackline needed. I wear a harness if feeling insecure for any reason & I can attach myself anywhere to the boat. My harness is on a hook, easy to get at, and I value this piece of equipment.

If a situation needs instant action, jacklines get in the way. Perhaps with practice this is not so, & it sounds like this is what you have done, John.

I used to have a jackline, but found that crew took all day to hook on & were constantly preoccupied with safety procedures, not with dealing with the situation. They tended to be paralyzed with procedure, even fear. Sailors have to be capable of instant action. People who don’t put the boat, the situation, first, are useful only as fair weather sailors.

Part of my difference with every one else on this post may arise from the fact that my boat is heavy displacement, low freeboard, full keel, 10″ bulwark. Lightweight boats with high freeboard & little keel tend to be vastly more unstable & dangerous. These boats never have a bulwark beacause it makes a high freeboard even higher. For these boats jacklines may well be necessary.

I cut up my jackline & use part of it as a towing strap for my car. Less is more.

Dick Stevenson

There is some I agree with in what you say about ability to be agile and to find ways to run the boat and relieve yourself with some degree of safety without a tether to jacklines. For yourself, I am very much of a mind that you are making reasoned and thoughtful decisions. That you have crew would worry me as they are not so experienced with the holdfasts to connect to on your vessel when jacklines are not available (and likely not so experienced at sea).
I do write primarily to address your contention that sailors need to capable of instant action. In many ways I believe I know what you are referring to and agree, but I would suggest that while being capable of instant action, most of us would be well served by rarely taking instant action. I can think of few (I think none actually) instances in my sailing career where instant action was called for while I can certainly name a few jumps into instant action I regretted quickly. Offshore I try to move at 2/3rds speed and to never jump into things. I tether up to a jackline while trying to maintain the headset that you well describe in your comments. I do not wish to find out what it feels like to rely on the tether, but it will be there connected to the jackline when offshore, at night, etc.
Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Nicolas Kats

Dick, sometimes I encounter situations where I choose to move fast. Severely luffing sails, about to jibe, caught in irons off a lee cliff without the space to jibe (I never made tha mistake again), broken steering cable or other equipment, or sometimes just for the pleasure of it. Perhaps the fastest I’ve moved was running back from the bow to take the wheel from a new & terrified crew who was trying to jibe in a gale.
Just examples. I agree with you & John. I need to be clear in head & often this requires thought first. When I move it is rarely at full tilt.
I cherish & deeply enjoy the ability to jump into action instantly & the clarity of mind that goes with this. The alternative is to be sluggish of body & mind. Who wants to be like that?
We’re saying the same thing really.
On jacklines. No one else on this thread has pointed out that there are alternatives. I just did. Looks like there are no real objections. This means concurrence that in terms of safety concepts jacklines are optional, and not essential.

Bill Balme

Excellent system – up to now we’ve been using the double tether arrangement and hate it – moreover, our practice is to keep the tether attached to us – rather than keeping it (them) attached to the lines and padeyes – the downside of which is that when we go below, there’s ample opportunity to put dings in the woodwork caused by flying tether shackles! Thanks John – we will be adopting your methodology this year.


I’d like to contribute a thought about peeing over the side. On Snowball that is strictly forbidden. In order to not end up as a DFO (Dead, fly open), I have a so called urinator, a simple cut off PET bottle which is often replaced at almost no cost. I pee into that and empty it over the side. When I have crew, it can be done discreetly with the back to them. I admit it’s a man’s solution, but the ladies go to the head anyway. One risk eliminated. Oh, and where do I stow the urinator when not in use ? In the bucket that is always tethered to the rail.


I have to respond to Nicolas’s post. I held back on the first few Nicolas post because I do believe we are free to choose our systems. I sail big bad stuff alone and all the time. I’m a little bit of a rebel in terms of what many think is safe or wise, my choice. I solo to the first set of spreaders 25′ off the deck while underway/alone. I understand “do it know”. However, I’m a little worked up about your post Nick. Running around on deck in a gale. Rookies at the wheel? Slow down, tether up and DON’T gibe in a gale, it’s a choice. I say this with respect. I appriciate John’s appoach “to each his own” As in climbing, you won’t have a second chance. clip in. My opinion!

Nicolas Kats

Hi Dan, I guess you need to know the story of this rookie. I first met him only 48 hours before, at the outset of the trip. We were introduced by Email. He lived in another country, so meeting up beforehand was out. I’m deaf & must lipread, so telephoning was out. We corresponded by Email. A man in his 60s, he spoke of 50+ yrs of sailing & of owning a few boats. Unasked he emailed me quite a few copies of certificates of a nautical character. Sounded OK, a coastal sailor of some experience.
The near gybe in the gale was the 1st real indication that there was a problem.
With the rising gale I asked him to take the wheel & keep her on a reach while I changed the headsail. Within a few minutes he started swinging her downwind. He ignored my gestures. I had to run back. The mainsail was lifting when I grabbed the wheel.
This instantly & totally destroyed my confidence in him In the next 2 weeks I gave him only easy responsibilities where if he messed up it was no big deal. He gybed half a dozen times in light winds & could not sort out the sails after gybing. He did other stuff that exceeded even my very low expectations. There were other problems, of a juvenile nature.
As an armchair sailor he knew a great deal & could outtalk me anytime. How he managed 50+ yrs sailing & boat ownership utterly eludes me to this day. I am sure he was not fibbing about his background. Curious how the water attracts all types. Hope you’re not so ‘a bit worked up’ now.


I understand the reasoning of your system and have but one question. What happens if you are at the mast, as in the video, and a wave washes the free tether down towards the stern of your vessel?

Dennison Berwick

Excellent post, thanks. Always good to hear what other people are using. This summer before sailing in Labrador I added another clip-0n point at the top of the companionway – in memory of Ned Cabot- as well as having jacklines running along both decks.

I was glad for all this safetey in more than one gale, especially being alone!

Bob Schupak

I’m a new reader of this site & I must say that a lot of experiences are coming through. I am in the process of getting my Hanse 341 ready to go off shore and I love the idea of multiple tethers. I’m thinking of modifying it by using expanding tethers inside the cockpit to reduce the clutter , rather than having multiple 6 foot tethers lying all over the cockpit. I have multiple strong attachment sites inside the shrouds for the jacklines but I would be inclined to use standard length tethers to prevent loosing them as they shorten up. Any thoughts ?

Erik Snel

I looked at the video where you show the use of your jackline system. Interesting to see and definitely something I will consider. What I was surprised about was the long tether that you use to walk from cockpit to mast. As your main requirement for the whole system is to keep your crew from falling overboard, this long line in my mind defeats the purpose, as it will not prevent the person walking from going over the railing. I think a failsafe system really should prevent this. Especially short handed, a person hanging on a lifeline over the side will be a hell of a job to get back on board.
Up till now I use a double lifeline with a short and a long end. When the weather is rough, I will always use the short line walking forward. When working at the mast, I tether to a pad-eys there and usually switch to the longer line as this gives me more room to do the work.

A question about your setup: how would a person move forward of the mast, say to the bow or furler? Is this part of the jackline going forward or is there another jackline starting somewhere at the mast. It seems to me it is one line all the way to the front. If so, how do you cross any items or lines that cross the jackline, without a double lifeline?

Robert Muir

John, can you post details and perhaps pictures of how the ends of the jacklines are attached? Any update on where to purchase tethers and how to measure the length for them?

Bill Attwood

Hi John
As regards short tethers I wonder whether the engineering loads need to be re-examined? The shock loads experienced when coming up short will be much less as the distance will be less. Like you we use multiple tethers each designed for their own location, and the only one which gives me any concern is that attached to the fore and aft jackline. There one could possibly go overboard, but I believe statistics show that this is the least common way to go overboard. Both hands used and the “500 ft cliff” rule perhaps?
We have made some of our custom jacklines using our Sailrite, but climbing shops also have a good selection which we use, together with alloy carabiners. All the climbing kit comes with breaking loads clearly marked, something that few marine manufacturers do.
Yours aye


Here’s a new twist on staying attached to the boat:

This time with a happy end.

Chuck B

Hi John, do the shackles at the ends of your various tethers bang around on the deck, especially during rougher weather? Or is a tether sometimes not where you expect it to be because it has slid along its jackline?



Philip Waterman

John I notice in the photo that you are using a snap-shackle on the harness end of the tether. What are you using on the jackline end? We have tethers with double action carabiners as commonly used by Spinlock, Baltic, Seago et al. We suffer from a persistent problem that when dragging the tether along a webbing jackline the line pulls under the spring loaded locking arm on the carabiner. This happens most often when you are pulling the tether at low angles, for example when crawling; a rather common occurrence on a sub-40’ boat. Whilst there is little risk of coming unclipped, it does stop you dead in your tracks, typically at that moment when you are at full stretch trying to grab a flying control line. I for one have ended up on my face on the deck several times as a cause (not overboard as yet).

Andrew Reddon

John: It was this series of outstanding articles that first attracted me to AAC and I have tried to follow all of the advice and wisdom from you and in the comments over the years. It is a great, and near perfect system; however, there are two unresolved issues – one that you have flagged and one that has never really been addressed. Reading the Transportation Safety Board report of the lost crew member on the Halifax pilot boat, I was reminded of these outstanding issues and decided to ask about/raise them in this question to see if thinking has evolved or changed.

Issue #1 – Tethering at the bow. This is really hard to get right. Netting is one good step. The other I use successfully involves two hard attachments to the rail on either side of the foredeck a distance back from the bow, dictated by the geometry of the boat and the user’s needs. Each hard point has a fixed DCR tether that stops 6″ short of the opposite rail where there is a kong-tango carabiner at the crew person’s end. When both of the fixed tethers are attached to the crew member on the foredeck, it is impossible to go over either side or the bow. It is surprisingly easy to get used to the two tethers and the restrictions on movement that they impose. The drawbacks include tethers underfoot, inability to rotate the body without wrapping the tethers, and (arising from the skinny geometry of the bow) inability to reach over the bow roller and still keep the tethers short enough to stop 6″ away from the opposing toerail. Still, especially when single handing and working on the foredeck, the security outweighs the downside for me. That said, I have not used these foredeck tethers in a really big blow and I have a vague feeling that it is a bit of a Rube Goldberg set up. The tripping/tangling risk seems worth the security against going overboard but I am not sure it is a seaworthy solution. Has anyone had other thoughts over the years since these articles were first published?

Issue #2 – Getting around the dodger. The geometries of my current and of my last boat made it impossible to have jacklines running aft from the mast (like the ones you showed on Morgan’s Cloud) and a thether that allows movement on that jackline from cockpit to the forward running jackline, all while still observing the “6-inches-from-toerail” rule for the tether length. Even in the video that you posted, it is not clear to me how the 6″ limitation could have been met on Morgan’s Cloud at the side deck by the dodger. Apart from the bow, this seems like a gap in an otherwise ideal system and we know from the Transport Canada report that such gaps can be fatal. Am I missing something?