Person Overboard Prevention—TeamO Backtow Lifejacket/Harness

Several of our members have asked for my thoughts on the TeamO Backtow lifejacket/harness.


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.)

Activation Practicality?

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.)


So, am I endorsing the TeamO jacket, you ask?

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