The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Crew Overboard Prevention—Use of Climbing Harnesses

Pretty much every time I write about crew overboard prevention someone will suggest using a climbing harness instead of a lifejacket with a built-in harness, like the Spinlock Deckvests that Phyllis and I favour, or a separate sailing harness as many other voyagers use.

The benefits of this approach often cited by advocates include:

  • There is absolutely no way to fall, or be dragged, out of a properly-fitted climbing harness.
  • Much less bulky.
  • Will absorb tether arrest loads better.
  • Possibly more comfortable.
  • No need to mess about with separate crotch straps.

I can certainly see the attraction of this idea and don’t disagree with the above benefits list; however, I think that we must also think about the drawbacks:

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Drew Frye

Having climbed more than I have sailed over the past 35 years, I agree 100% and for the reasons you gave, plus one more. Climbing harness are for climbing. I keep both on the boat, each for it’s own purpose.

I wouldn’t even want to test it. If the boat were moving I suspect the leverage on your body in the water would be horrible.

I also believe a waist harness provides worse location for the arresting force. When climbing, the assumption is that you are falling down and slightly backwards. The CG location provides a nice even braking action. However, on a boat you are more likely either stumbling away from an anchor or being lifted, if the boat is rolling. Either way, the anchor is actually below you and you are moving sideways, not vertically. I’ve taken a few odd falls like that climbing, and the waist location was NOT kind to the body. Thus, I think a climbing harness might be more likely to cause back injury or to allow you to hit the back of your head on something dangerous. This is one of the reasons OSHA does not permit waist harnesses for fall arrest (full body harness with high attachment point).

A wide chest band helps, as does a location relatively high on the chest (not on the last rib). And nylon tethers. I don’t wear leg loops, but I won’t argue against them. Too many variables come into play, including the boat, the clothing worn, and the build of the sailor.

Matt Marsh

I (mostly) concur.

Climbing harnesses are for climbing.

Construction worker fall-arrest harnesses are for working on a scaffold or roof.

Sailing harnesses are for sailing. (And I should point out that this means deck-level work, on a tether that won’t let you go overboard. For going up a mast, you want something that’s specialized for fall arrest. And if the tether setup is such that you’re going overboard in a fall, *any* harness is going to have problems.)

Good quality equipment in each category (ignoring, for now, the unbranded bargain-bin junk and other stuff that’s just not up to snuff) is optimized for the types of accidents that are expected in that category – and not those that occur in other categories.

Where we run into a bit of a problem is with equipment that is sold for sailing, but was never really designed for anything. The most common example being the ubiquitous inflatable PFD with a “built-in harness” that is just a D-ring spliced into the waist belt. The marine industry is rife with this kind of junk, which makes the better gear hard to find and reduces everyone’s confidence in the ability of the industry to deliver a safe product.

Richard Elder
The back drag inflatable harness

Charles L Starke

Nice article.
We have Spinlocks made 4-5 years ago, 150N & 170N. What are the improvements in the new deckvests? Are the new deckvests a big improvement over the old?, and is it worth switching or upgrading?
Thanks and best wishes
s/v Dawnpiper

Matt Marsh

Here is John’s most recent look at the Spinlock Deckvest:
Spinlock, like most good manufacturers, tend to tweak their designs frequently. I’m not convinced the difference between a 2012 model and a 2017 model is enough to justify throwing out the old ones and buying new ones at full price, but Spinlock dealers sometimes have “trade in your old one for $100 off” deals that might come in handy if the old ones are getting a bit worn or chafed.

Jordan Bettis

If the climbing harness held you near your center of gravity, you would be able to hang from a top rope and spin your body upside down. I urge you to try it (you can use a halyard). I’ve tried it. It’s not possible. A person’s CG is just above his pelvis. The attachment point of a climbing harness is several inches higher, a few inches under the rib cage; when under load it’s even higher.

You’re giving the yachting industry a great deal of credit on this matter. This is especially interesting considering your other articles where you systematically dismiss yachting industry best practices on jacklines and tethers.

I see little evidence that the yachting industry has any competence designing fall arrest equipment. The self-regulation the industry does amounts to certification that the equipment will prevent a person who slips under the lifelines of a slowly moving boat in calm conditions from floating away, and that it can arrest the fall of a dummy without disintegrating or (presumably) ripping the dummy’s limbs out.

After several fatalities and when a sailing magazine demonstrated that yachting harnesses are extremely efficient devices for drowning their victims, the industry responded by adding the most poorly designed crotch straps I’ve ever seen.

When a construction worker falls into his NIOSH-approved fall arrest harness he is sent to the hospital to ensure that he’s suffered no damage to his femoral veins. This is an “abundance of caution” measure: his equipment is very well designed and approved by a government agency who takes worker safety very seriously.

But compare an occupational fall arrest harness’s padded thigh straps to the 1-inch wide piece of webbing the yachting industry has given us to put under our crotch. Imagine what that thing would do to your pelvis and genitals in a truly serious fall.

I agree that a climbing harness isn’t designed for all types of falls a boater may experience. In particular it’s not designed to arrest a head-first fall. NIOSH-approved occupational harnesses *are* designed to arrest a fall in any orientation, and to do so without causing any bodily injury in a healthy person. That would be, I think, the best piece of equipment one could wear. But of course such harnesses are very bulky.

Now compare the occupational harness to the climbing harness and contrast that with the yachting harness. The climbing harness is essentially the bottom half of an occupational harness. The yachting harness looks nothing like it.

The yachting harness was clearly “designed” by adding some strong webbing and an attachment point to an inflatable PFD. Everything they’ve done subsequently has been to evolve that design inadequately in response to bad press and public outcry. That’s why the harness is so different than fit-for-purpose fall arrest equipment.

Jordan Bettis

John, I think you’re giving the yachting industry too much credit by assuming they’ve designed a fall-arrest harness at all. Your centerline-jackline system is built around keeping the person on the boat by arresting their fall before they hit the water. But the yachting harness is isn’t built to arrest a fall because the assumption is the water will arrest the fall after you go over the side attached to a sidedeck jackline, and that the purpose of the harness is to keep you attached to the boat (and ideally not waterboard you to death in the process).

Looking at the industry testing process it should be clear that no thought is put into arresting a fall without injuring the victim. Looking at the history of the yachting harness it’s clear that the design has its genesis in “put an attachment point on an inflatable pfd.” I suspect if you ask Spinlock or any yachting harness manufacturer pointed questions about the device’s ability to arrest a fall without injury they will will evade or demur.

So the question what’s the best way to attach your climbing rope tethers to your body. The gold standard for fall-arrest is absolutely a government-certified occupational harness that’s been rigorously tested to ensure that it can arrest a fall in any orientation without injury. Of course they’re quite bulky, so one is compelled to look elsewhere, choosing to trade off absolute fitness-for-purpose in exchange for less bulk and hassle.

Obviously a climbing harness is not a device designed to arrest every type of fall, but compared to a harness that’s not designed to arrest any type of fall, I think the choice is clear.


Hi Jordan, (disclaimer) being no climber I believe the main difference between a climbing and a yachtie harness is the direction of “the fall”. When climbing, the load of the fall arrest will come from almost vertical above, while the load on a boat will come from below, orhorizontally at its best, given that the main concern should not be to drag yourselves after or besides the hull but to prevent leaving the boat at all.

So, on a boat, the higher the attachment point to the tether is the less likely it would be that your body rotates backward when losing stability. I compare it with supporting you between the shoulders when you stumble backwards against support on your back just above the sacrum. The first might very well keep you upright, just as leaning to a wall, the latter might let you fall on your back and possibly hit your head.

I concur with John that the main concern should be to stay on the boat, not besides it 😉


I just wanted to add that I would see a benefit for a climbing harness when going aloft as this will pose more or less the same risks as climbing.

Jordan Bettis

I think people are looking at a sailing harness, assuming that it’s designed to arrest the type of fall that occurs on a boat, and then applying from that assumption a post hoc explanation of the types of falls that occur on a boat given the design of the harness.

If the yachting industry had conducted a comprehensive study of the types of falls that occur on a boat, and built a harness to arrest such falls, then I would defer to their authority on the matter and agree that a yachting harness is the appropriate piece of equipment.

I am not aware of any such study and I highly doubt that one ever occurred. It would be quite a coincidence if the study and concluded that the required harness is pretty much exactly like an existing pfd with an attachment point sewn in.

If a yachting harness manufacturer would go on record saying that their harness is built to arrest the types of falls that occur on a boat without the person going in the water first, and without injury to a healthy adult, I would withdraw all my objections and stand corrected (I’d also buy their harness).

I completely, 100% agree with your, John’s and Drew’s criticisms of a climbing harness. But I continue to insist that a device designed to arrest some types of fall is better than a device that’s not designed to arrest falls at all.

Jordan Bettis

If we were comparing a climbing harness to an occupational fall-arrest harness, which is designed and certified by the government to arrest falls in any orientation, then I would agree. But we’re comparing a device designed to arrest some types of falls with a device that was never designed to arrest any type of fall.

Sean Hants

Hi, interesting comments all round which is often very common in the climbing fraternity. I did some rock climbing (in Australia) for some years in the 70’s and 80’s. Our simple harness initially was 5 wraps of seatbelt webbing finished with a tape knot and a leg loop arrangement from a fig 8 nylon strap. Not the most comfortable but it worked. Often the most uncomfortable area mentioned is related to the leg loops. Obvious point of of discomfort, maybe more for males but also the restriction of blood flow in the leg area if suspended for long periods- suspension trauma.
I worked as a climbing arborist for 30+ years and the most comfortable harness is always a sit harness; a type that incorporates a basic bosun chair type set up, with leg tethers to stop the seat running up ones back. To prevent a back flip/ inversion one can simply incorporate a nylon webbing fig-8 that can be put around arms and clipped to the main suspension anchor or incorporate an ascent/ descent device if required.
Going up masts I think is inherently dangerous in a seaway. Whether one becomes adrift from the mast needs addressing via a tether of some sort plus an ability to both self descend or be lowered if required. It all gets very complicated (or can become), and certainly isn’t something to become aquatinted with in a one off episode.
Mast climbing/ascending should be as much a training area as is sea survival training.
Fall arrest harness and the associated belaying restraints should be designed for a static environment, not dynamic lead climb falls which must be using dynamic restraints to absorb shock loads. Dynamic falls shouldn’t occur on boats. I agree with the idea of a central restraint line or similar as opposed to the (imo) dangerous jack lines on decks that seem designed to assist in causing an overboard fall and trawl.
I haven’t done tree climbing for at least a couple of years now (turning 60 in a few months) but toward the end of my career saw lots of the dynamic type leg loop harness type entering the industry also a plethora of knick knacks to offer mechanical aid.They certainly look nice and fancy but all I could find from their use was pain and discomfort and if unfamiliar with the knick knacks, then confusion and increased risk.; fashion instead of function!
The marine/yachting industry certainly could do with a purpose built harness and associated fittings with associated training in the use of restraint/ ascent and descent techniques.
Need to keep it simple.

Drew Frye

The idea that a seat-style climbing harness is not stable inverted is simply untrue. If climbing neatly below a top rope anchor an inverted fall is unusual, but hardly a week goes by that I don’t see a climber get at least hips-higher-than-head when leading or climbing something awkward. Certainly if you trip over the lifelines you will begin the fall head first. Once the climber begins to invert, that slightly higher than CG tie-in point slides slightly down the hips and the climber becomes at least meta-stable inverted. often actual effort (slight) is require to right yourself. Been there, done that. This also depends on how shoulder-heavy the climber is. Personally, I’ve found myself upside down more times than I can remember.

I also watched a climber invert, fall out of a too-loose harness, and die, not something I will forget. This is a significant hazard for sailors in foul weather gear, as it is difficult (or at least uncomfortable) to wear a seat harness sufficiently tight over layers and slippery gear. This is a major reason most ice climbers have switched to soft shells and short jackets for technical climbing; it is much easier to wear the harness properly. There is water dripping and it is cold, but no Gore-Tex for me.

Finally, long jackets are a problem. Tucking a heavy jacket in guarantees the fit will be unsafe and uncomfortable. Wearing the jacket over the harness interferes with the tie-in (in the tensioned position it is at least a foot above the typical foul weather coat hem. It is also true that a chest harness is a problem over rain gear. It is better over a dry suit (fewer layers), and I have a pass-through fitted to my rain gear so that I can wear the harness below decks and closer to my skin for improved security.

Jordan Bettis

Please note that I never said that a person in a climbing harness wouldn’t be stable upside down. I said that the attachment point of a climbing harness is above a human body’s CG. Any well-designed boat has a positive metacentric height, that doesn’t mean that a boat can’t also be stable inverted.

I’m not saying that the climbing harness is the perfect fall arrest harness. I’m saying that a yachting harness *is not a fall arrest harness*. If the goal is to stop from going in the water by arresting a fall in progress, then the yachting harness is not a suitable device.


Hi Jordan,

regarding “I am not aware of any such study and I highly doubt that one ever occurred” – a bit of googling found me a link to a tether and harness study, a bit outdated (1999) but a really interesting read:
Especially one conclusion stood out for me as this hasn’t been part of the discussion here at all: “The sailing harnesses did a good job of keeping the wearer’s head above water, while the rock climbing and industrial harnesses did not show this tendency.” This sounds logical as every inch that the tether fixture is lower makes the upper body a longer lever.
Interesting as well are the findings on wear comfort or discomfort, especially when worn over a foul weather gear.

Drag tests performed recently ( 2015) by PBO summarized “recommends the use of a short tether to ensure you don’t go overboard in the first place” – which would underline my point that its not the fall itself being the main prospect but the ability to keep you aboard, fixed to an attachment point which is below you, not above.

Jordan Bettis

Hey Earnest. Thanks for the links. Very insightful.

I want to be clear that I’ve never made the point that it’d be better to be towed through the water with a rock climbing harness than a yachting harness. My point is that the rock climbing harness is a *fall arrest harness* and a yachting harness is not.

Sadly the study’s only dynamic test was the standard “drop a dummy 6 feet and make sure the harness doesn’t break” test. This is inadequate because it doesn’t consider what damage is done to the victim’s body.

But they do observe that under the static load test (suspending a person from a halyard in the harness) they found that the yachting harnesses were “uncomfortable” while the rock climbing and industrial harnesses were not, because the victim’s weight was born by his abdomen in the former an his thighs in the latter.

Think about the forces involved in a dynamic versus static event. Discomfort under the weight of your own body becomes broken ribs, abdominal bleeding, and internal organ trauma when fetching up hard against the end of the tether in free-fall.

Ralph Rogers

I agree with Drew, having been a multi-pitch climber myself. An injury at altitude doing that makes it in the past.
There is a BIG difference falling on/off a boat and falling off a mountain. One of the big differences is climbing you are on belay with another person who arrests your fall, and if done properly you fall inches (which feels like many feet hundreds of feet up) to a couple feet. Any more and you should find a new partner. You are also using things that stretch. But fall a hundred feet and you will be hurting. A climbing harness is made to support two people, you and the one who is belaying you. In a fall the force is spread around the person doing belay, as he is clipped to the mountain from the back side, and the force of the fall comes from the front. You can support a hanging person indefinitely in a climbing harness. Way different animal.
But the biggest killer in climbing is you. Rely on that harness too much and it’s only a matter of time. Same goes for boating. All safety gear for that matter. It is only meant to do what it’s meant to do. Got a six point belt in your car? Some things are inherently dangerous. Nothing works all the time.
A climbing harness when you are hanging from it is at your lower chest, point being hanging. It is meant for a vertical fall, not sliding around a deck and slipping over.
Doesn’t matter which you wear, it seems if you fall into the water you will drag. If you prefer to be the first to use a piece of safety gear for other than it’s design, be a hero, be the first.
I’ll read about it one way or the other. So, like John says, don’t fall in.


Not a climber, but did have thirty years of experience with harnesses for ski lift evacuation and for tower climbing. To the best of my recollection, none of those harnesses, including the OSHA approve tower climbing gear with the attachment at the shoulders in the rear, had any floatation. Considering that being towed at much of any speed might cause one to need to uncouple from the boat, I think it would be nice to have some help in floating, as should come from a top of the line PFD with harness from several manufacturers.

Jordan Bettis

It is true that, if your goal is to be towed through the water by your harness then the yachting harness is probably the best choice as that’s what it was designed to do. However, check out Ernest’s second link. When that article was published it caused a bit of a sensation because it proved that being dragged along beside a boat is extremely dangerous even in a good harness.

My argument is that the yachting harness is not a good harness to safely arrest (stop) a fall in progress. This is because it was never designed to arrest a fall in progress and it does not have the features to do so without injuring the victim.

When we’re talking about staying on the boat through the use of a harness and tether, we’re discussing stopping a fall in progress. This is simply not something the yachting harness is designed to do.


a “fall” on the boat is inherently different from a fall when climbing. Focussing on the “stay aboard” objective the arrest load will come from below, or horizontal at best. Fall types comparable with climbing falls will only occur if you go over the rail, or at an accident when upside in the mast.
For me a climbing harness (plus a helmet) has a perfect reason to be aboard, but for going aloft – I would rather be secured by that instead of a yachtie harness. But aboard, with tether lengths designed to not let you go over the edge, I would always prefer the latter. And when singlehanding I’d rather skip my PFD than a harness…

Jordan Bettis

You’re on the foredeck wrestling with a billowing headsail. You’re kneeling on top of wads of canvas trying to grab the rest to get it under control. Suddenly the boat broaches. The angle of heel goes from 10 degrees to 50 degrees.

You’re tethered to a ceterline jackline with just three feet of slack. You instinctively reach for handholds but all you can grab is more sail. You quickly slide down the surface of the foredeck, friction nullified by the slick sail laminate.

After you come to the end of the tether, after falling just three feet down a 50 foot slope, your body is moving at over nine miles per hour. Imagine tying a tether around your abdomen and riding a bike to the end of a tether at 9 mph.

And only three feet of slack is a best case scenario on the tether You’re accelerating at 29 ft/s^2. 50 degrees is an extreme angle but fairly mild for a broach. Friction would have helped without the sail laminate, but any advantage would have decreased at higher angles of heel.

Point being, staying on the boat means arresting a fall. While there’s certainly a danger of sliding on a deck that’s mostly level with the tether under your feet. I’m pretty good at keeping myself out of danger on my own in those circumstances.

The question is when the deck suddenly becomes a steeply angled face to which you need to stay attached. You need fall arrest gear if you’re going to survive uninjured.

Drew Frye

The time I worry over this the most is solo, in bad weather, in the winter. My solution has been a dry suit, no PFD. A purpose-built harness fits better , and a PFD is nearly redundant with a dry suit (you float like a cork). But each sailor has different priorities.

There is no perfect design that I am award of. A full body harness could be designed, but we wouldn’t wear it. Mostly, I use the harness in what OSHA used to call a positioning roll. It keeps me just inside the rail, and thus, any impact should be horizontal. At least, they have been so far.

My experiences with tether arrest fall in two categories:

Catamaran stuffing a bow in a wave. You’ve seen this, following the AC 35. You tend to be going head first or sideways across a tramp, and a chest harness works fine. The tether is short enough to keep you inboard. If it is a work station tether, there is no slack. If it is forward, the jackline provides considerable shock absorption.

Testing gear. Over the last few years I have spent considerable time testing drogues and sea anchors, with the lifeline gates open. It’s hard to hold on when you are working with gear, so I set my tethers up to stop me right a the gates. I took quite a few hits, but I felt that the high, chest location was better in terms of keeping me inside the lifeline. I use nylon tethers, and even clipped to hard points on the cabin top, there was little sting, and I have old ribs that have been broken.

Would I use a leg loop or similar? Maybe, but I have yet to see a design I felt was practical. There is definitely room for innovation. I would like to see wider chest belts, perhaps with some structured foam. I think that could help, both with comfort and sliding out.


I saw a review in a French magazine of a tether which had three loops in it to act as steps for getting back on board. The steps were kept closed with velcro when not needed.

The journalist got back on board with the boat going at 5 knts and the inventor claimed that he had done it at 7knts.


Hi John, Thanks to you and Phyllis and your great advice on this website. Last week I purchased four Deckvests at the Southampton (UK) boat show ready for the arrival of my new yacht due to be completed in about 8 months !

David B. Zaharik

Whew made it… entire book and it was a compelling read. I found it humorous that it would appear no one grasped just what Jordan was saying. In a nut shell it is clear to me…

1) Sailing harnesses have never been tested for fall arrest. It would appear that in his opinion, they would not do a very good job with the impact physics.

2) To quote Jordan, “The gold standard for fall-arrest is absolutely a government-certified occupational harness that’s been rigorously tested to ensure that it can arrest a fall in any orientation without injury.”

3) Climbing harnesses do a great job of fall arrest when climbing.

I thought those three items were clearly delineated by him…. I don’t think he was in any way advocating the use of climbing harnesses over the sailing harness but was critical of using a sailing harness as we do fully expecting it to do what we all assume it will do and that being to arrest our fall, slide, slither, spill, dump, call it what you want, hopefully with out going over board by using adequately measured tethers for each specific yacht, measured to KEEP YOU ON BOARD.

So why can’t Spinlock incorporate the best of the three systems? Before you jump onto your keyboard and start speaking about cumbersomeness or speed to don such a unit lets look at this rationally.

Firstly, it sounds as thought there is a consensus that the Spinlock harness is the best there is for comfort and practicality for quick donning. If elements of the occupational harness and a climbing harness were incorporated, it does not mean they would be mandatory to do up if speed was essential. You would still have a first line of defence that being the original Spinlock…

wWe seem focused upon being woken up at O-dark-30 and being needed for action right away. I would suggest that that particular circumstance happens far less than we are focusing on. Yes indeed that does happen but not all MOB incidents take place in the middle of night, having just awoken, with a squall line bearing down causing potential harm. I fell off my boat while motoring on utterly flat seas with no wind (no I wasn’t peeing overboard… see chapter 1 comment).

Therefore, for the greater percentage of time, when time is NOT critical, you could attach the additionally incorporated components of the modified occupational/climbing/sailing harness increasing the effectiveness of the entire system.

I am sure that this could be engineered in a way to keep the fundamental ease of donning the Spinlock harness through utilizing John’s method of tossing it over his head with the ancillary components attached. Before you mention that they would be in the way, a judicious use of velcro for initial placement could be utilized until you have sufficient time to attach the perhaps more cumbersome buckles or hardware for legs etc…

Worst case scenario? You have exactly what you have now… a SpinLock harness that will function as it does now… Best case scenario, Spinlock will have provided a comfortable integral harness that will add substantial safety to any impact arrest.

I hope that makes sense… to visualize, just look at the picture that heads this chapter, on the left a climbing harness, on the right the sailing harness, are we saying that the designers of these fine systems can not design an integrated system with the additional integration of the dynamics of an occupational harness?

It just needs a good designer and a little thought put into it.

Charles L Starke

Question sent to Spinlock and their reply:
My Spinlock is good but it still needs improvement. Is here any way to incorporate the climbing and occupational harness improvements for deck wear design?

Spinlock Pro Support reply:
Dear Charles,
Thanks for your comments. The combined fall arrest/lifejacket harness is something that we look at periodically.
As you point out there is no fundamental reason the 2 parts could not be linked together, but the issues are two fold – firstly the certification, there are significant differences to the testing requirements which would need to be worked through. The use of the product also has to be very clear – we cant market a fall arrest harness that is only sometimes a FAH. If you are using the straps over the shoulders – then this changes the approval of the waist harness (mastpro) as it is then classed as a full body harness, this requires different construction as the current lifejacket shoulders/cover would not comply. This would lead to a full new product development.

If you research fall arrest harness you get the idea of the construction needed and the retail cost – in effect we would need to design some thing similar and then add the cost of a lifejacket on top of it, which brings up the 2nd point of cost and usability.

There are times when users would want to be wearing this combination, but we feel it is quite a small market. There are options in the commercial marine world where products have been combined, but our research shows that it is very hard to get the correct combination for all applications, users need different specification harnesses or lifejackets and often want to use them separately, as wont always need the function of both pieces.

The current Spinlock products can easily be worn together by a user, and the cost of both would be similar to a combined product, so the benefits of combining them is limited.

However we are constantly developing products, and researching improvements to how personal safety equipment is used and interacted with, so it might be in the future there becomes more of a demand in this area.

Kind regards,
Myles Uren
Spinlock Pro Support

David B. Zaharik

Thanks John… totally understood. And I do agree with you and Colin, if something is easy we will do it. I concede I am not an engineer or fashion designer and my thoughts were wholly subject to my imagination. I was trying to conceive an improvement without reducing functionality and ease of use. It is very encouraging that there have been improvements to the Spinlock harnesses and as you know, I too very much endorse short tethers and a well thought out and planned centre jack line system.

Thank you for the work you have done not only in real life trials and testing but the enormous effort to put this all down on paper … or cyber paper so to speak 🙂