Person Overboard Prevention—TeamO Backtow Lifejacket/Harness


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

History

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.

Refinement

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.

Compelling

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.

Retrieval

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.)

Endorsement?

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

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Ernest

I’m absolutely with you that the impact may be debilitating enough to not being able to pull the handle. And as well with the requirement that the backtow extension must not deploy while aboard which would extend the tether in a situation where this is the last thing we’d like to have.
So what about some mechanism that automates the deployment in conjunction with the life vest deployment, possibly a couple of seconds (e.g. 10sec) later?
The positives: a tether which would be short enough to keep you on board is still short enough. If you go overboard with a tether that is long enough (depending on your position on the boat, e.g.) your life vest will deploy in 5 seconds and you’ll be dragged the “standard” way for, say, 10 more seconds. If you’re able you could activate the handle manually. If you’re disabled for what reason ever, the timing mechanism would automatically deploy the backtow latst 15-20sec after you hit the water.
The drawbacks: if your vest deploys on board, e.g. by being hit by a wave, your tether will be longer than you expect, and thus it migt allow you to go overboard i a situation where you had been safe without the automatic feature. Plus the size, complication and possibly weight of the additional automatic release device.
You can look at it like this: you can’t have the cake and eat it. Or, as Goethe had concluded, bright light gives dark shadows…

Drew Frye

Two thoughts:

The only way I have successfully recovered a POB shorthanded (testing) is, as you suggest, by clipping another line on and cutting away. Because my boat has sugar scoops, rather than using a halyard, I simply let the person (dumby) drift back and hauled it up there. If the scoops seemed dangerous, the side gate just forward of the transom is a safe location. The main thing is to get the POB out of the bow wave. So yes, the problem is often reaching something to clip.

Another problem (this is related–I’ll make the connection in a moment) is where to put the extra tether leg you are not using. Many people use 2-leg tethers and World Sailing requires that a certain percentage of the crew tethers have 2 legs. Where do you park the spare tether? By clipping it to the opening part of the harness end? Many are too small, once the harness is clipped. To the closed eye of the snap shckle? Too small. What people do, and this contributed to at least one drowning, is they clip the spare leg to the harness ring. Now the harness is no longer quick release (if you pull the harness end release it will simply extend to 9 feet). I believe only one tether model by only one manufacturer provides a parking spot on the tether for the spare end. I added “parking spots” to my tethers, even though I do not favor quick release tethers (as a singlehander, I doubt I’d be much better off bobbing in mid-ocean).

The connection? Perhaps installing a strong loop a few inches from the end of the tether would solve both problems. Clip a spare tether there, and for recovery, clip the halyard to that and cut the end away.

Interesting problem. I am nearly appalled that marine safety gear companies have not developed better real-world product test programs. Yes, they put them on race boats, but that’s not that same as going out in bad weather and testing these sorts of senarios by throwing a test dumby or similar over the side, from every side, at high speed. I’ve tested inflatable PFDs where the bladder either blocked access to the harness tether attachment shackle or the knife pocket you would use to cut away! When questioned, they said “we test to ISO standards” but in fact, had never used the PFDs in any real world testing. We should NOT be working these things out; the manufacturers should have already developed these procedures and the equipment to make them work. I would be embarrassed to offer tethers and harnesses if I could not answer such basic questions based on testing.

Russell L

I would be interested to learn more about safety gear for a single handed sailor. First thought is “don’t go over the side”. If you did go over are you done in most cases? Is there anything that could make much difference?

Marc Dacey

The old-school method was to leash the tether to a bungee lightly secured to the tiller. If you went over, so the logic went, the tiller would be thrown over and the boat would round up, allow you to swim back when it was in irons. The second idea was 30 metres of floating line trailing off the stern…frankly, I think these were fairly desperate approaches to the problem. I think I read these ideas here: A Manual of Singlehanded Sailing by Tony Meisel.

Ernest

The tiller-lashed bungee would work, albeit quite clumsy as you would need to have it at least the boats length so you could reach the foresail if needed. The 30m trailing line is, IMHO, complete nonsense – actually it would be quite improbable for you to reach it when you go over the side. And if you do the boat speed should be below 3kts – I tried it myslf if it would be possible to pull yourself back to the boat – at 3kts and beyond it was de facto impossible although I had only swimsuit on. And you seldom go over the side when going only 3 knots.

And how would you handle a wheel-steered boat? Except some complicated electronic solutions that instruct the AP to go hard to the side when a device you’re wearing gets out of reach (or wet).

My belief is that there is no real chance for a single hander to survive once over the side. People I know never wear a vest as it would only prolongue their suffering, but they always wear a harness and are clipped on.

Marc Dacey

Yes, a rather grim conclusion but, I believe, an accurate assessment. There are such systems that can operate an autopilot remotely, but not ones that will automatically round the boat up based on range, but I have to admit my focus has always been on staying aboard.

Drew Frye

I don’t know the answer to this, but I must ask.

With a horse collar (the same pressure as a normal harness) the force is on the upper back and armpits. you can breath. However, if you put a horse collar on backwards, the pressure is on your chest and you cannot breath. Obviously, the harness needs leg loops, and they better be adjusted to take pressure. (I was pondering if a conventional harness could be refitted, and this came to mind.)

You also made a good point about the benign conditions.

But I like the idea and have been following it for some time. However, the bottom line is that stuff like this needs to be tested by young, strong guys in tough conditions. That’s how climbing equipment gets tested; you go out and fall of some cliffs, sometimes in horrible weather. Start with a full body harness, well behind the boat at slow speeds, and then gradually make it tougher until it is real. I would have been up for it… 30 years ago.

Stein Varjord

Hi John.

I agree with you on all points. I also like the TeamO harness for trying to do something about a serious problem. Still, I have a bad feeling about it. As you mention, the TeamO is trying to solve a problem that should never occur. Most boats have very dangerous harness systems that will be slightly improved by this harness, but maybe it would be better to make people understand that their systems are actually dangerous. Maybe it’s wrong to use makeup to hide a mole that is actually cancer? I have a feeling that some sort of a wakeup alarm is needed.

I’ve mentioned it before, but I have similar feelings about “life vests”. That name is a marketing hype. For people who can’t swim at all, they’re a good help, in nice weather or very close to shore. For people who can indeed swim, falling in the water isn’t dangerous at all, as long as we are close enough to land to swim there, which, of course, is almost never real. Thus, in reality, a “life vest” gives a feeling of safety that mostly is at least 90% false and that will affect our ability to understand real risk. (With an AIS beacon or such on the vest, it does have a lot better functionality, but still not good….)

When we believe we’re responsible and safe, we choose to do things that put us in real danger. I’ve been thinking about these things and talking about them for years, but even that awareness does not help enough. If I wear a vest and a harness that I know is no good, I still act less carefully than if I was without either.

The fact is that even I am safer moving on deck with no vest and no harness than I am with a bad harness system and a vest. I recommend every sailor to think about that observation for a moment. I’m a pretty rational type of person, but I can’t stop my mind from fooling itself. I’ve never met anyone who could….

I think the one and only solution is to put real effort into developing the exactly right tethering system for each boat. I think reading the many ideas and experiences in this book is a very good start. Probably by far the best source of valuable info on this topic in the world.