A few years ago, a young crew member on a Volvo Ocean Race boat became so concerned about drag risk that he decided to do something about it and the result was a lifejacket/harness with a cleverly-designed attachment point at the front (in the normal position) that rips out and becomes a two-point attachment at the shoulders when loaded up in a fall. You can see how this works in the video above.
I think it’s important to note that the now-available jacket differs from the prototype in that activating the “Backtow” feature requires the person overboard to pull a handle. (For comparison, you can see the prototype in action here.)
Given that we firmly believe that the initial impact shock loads of landing in the sea while tethered to the boat are far more debilitating than most sailors realize, the question becomes will the Person Overboard (POB) be physically able to activate the handle?
No one can know for sure, but I fear that in cases where the boat is moving at speeds over about six knots, the answer may easily be no. Particularly since drag loads go up by the square of boat speed so said loads at just six knots will be over double that experienced by the tester with what looks like maybe four knots of boat speed and a very benign sea-state in the video.
That said, I don’t think that this activation issue should disqualify the lifejacket from consideration. After all, if the POB can’t activate the Backtow feature, he or she is no worse off than with a normal jacket or harness.
And if the POB can activate the Backtow feature the benefits are compelling:
The POB is dragged with their head well clear of the water,
and in a much more stable position that I think will result in fewer impacts against the side of the boat.
Those benefits are pretty obvious, but here is another one that may be at least as important to the POB’s survival:
I think it probable that, even on boats with quite high topsides, a rescuer on deck will be able to get a halyard clipped to the join between the Backtow harness and the tether, and then cut the tether to make lifting the POB possible.
Contrast this to the problem of how to clip a halyard to a tether on a standard harness, and then cut the tether to allow lifting.
(Yes, there are answers to this last problem, but most boats don’t have them installed and so in most cases cutting the jackline will be the only option, and even that option goes away if the POB made the error of clipping to a hard point. We will have more in the future on this problem and the possible solutions that we are testing on Morgan’s Cloud.)
John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.
Nothing on this website or in direct communications received from us, or in our articles in the media, should be construed to mean or imply that offshore voyaging is anything other than potentially hazardous. Dangers such as, but not limited to, extreme weather, cold, ice, lack of help or assistance, gear failure, grounding, and falling overboard could injure or kill you and wreck your boat.
Decisions such as, but not limited to, heading offshore, where you go, and how you equip your boat, are yours and yours alone. The information on this web site is based on what has worked for the authors in the past, but that does not mean it will work for you, or that it is the best, or even a good way for you to do things.