The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Boatyard Fall Prevention

Us offshore sailors think and talk a lot about crew overboard prevention, but there’s another risk we subject ourselves to frequently that does not get much air time (ouch, bad pun):

Falling off the boat when she is out of the water.

And, believe me, even a 6-foot fall onto a hard surface can do huge damage, as I found out some years ago.

So it’s well worth learning about, and using climber’s fall protection. And the cool thing is most of us already have much of the required gear in our mast-climbing kit, or at least we should.

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Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
Good warning.
For me scaffolding is the scariest. I know 2 people whose lives became severely compromised by falls of ~~6 feet off scaffolding. One was a boat yard professional and one a skipper and both just lost a sense of where their feet were as they concentrated on the job at hand.
Harness-up is good sense to provide safety at sea or on land.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Matt Marsh

This is good advice.
Honestly, the main take-away here (and the basis of all fall protection) is that you need to take a moment to stop and think:

  • Am I at risk of falling?
  • If I fall, what will I hit?
  • If I tether myself to prevent a fall entirely, how do I need to route and secure the tether?
  • If I tether myself to arrest a fall before I hit something, how much space do I need to allow, and what should I tie to, and with what equipment?

If you can honestly and truthfully say that you’ve considered those questions and are satisfied with your answers, then – no matter what actual system you end up deciding to use – you are in a much better situation than the vast majority of people who are doing similar work.

Art Nacht

I fell in January while descending a ladder in the boatyard after completing some work on my Beneteau 49. Dropped about 3′ to gravel and rolled back almost hitting stern drive on adjacent boat with my head. Broke my fall with my hands, 1 fractured and casted for weeks.

I live alone and realized that if I wasn’t conscious after an injury that it might be days before I was discovered. Same could happen inside the boat, the chance a good Sam would discover me are nil.

New procedure! I activated the fall detection on my Pixel phone and watch. That yields auto 911 and ICE contact notification. Additionally, I use Google’s Personal Safety app religiously for any solo boat work. You start a safety session with a planned time to complete, example 2 hours. If you don’t check in before time expiration it calls your ICE list and 911.

There’s a lot of attention about the need for PLBs at sea. We need to have help find us in the yard or working at the dock too!

Sarah Hedges

I managed to miss the dockstep descending backwards off our boat: fell ~4’ onto concrete, landing on the point of my shoulder. Ow. Husband loaded me into a dock cart for the trip back to the car, to drive me to the hospital: I was conscious and refused to pay the exorbitant costs of an ambulance! (I’m in California.) Broke the head of the humerus, but fortunately no surgery required, just six months of aggressive physiotherapy. I am obsessively careful about disembarking now!

Peter Dunbar

i was going to climb a ladder and do some boat work–and was reprimanded by a professional boat painter who told me that “ladders are for climbing not working” (he has a set of very safe looking platforms that he uses).

And yes –scaffoding can be great or very dodgy!!

Very useful article


Julian and kylie Power

Great to see John raising this issue and the fall arrest suggestion provided. 

The below dot points may be helpful. These are based on erecting/dismantling scaffold on high rise and low rise buildings. This ranged from working at heights > 500 ft to housing estate contracts.

  • A scaffold erected to the established Standards by a licensed scaffolder, which is securely based out, with a full deck of boards, parallel guardrails, braced, meshed and with safe access/egress to the working platform/s is safe.
  • Movable scaffold for hire are commonly narrow, often lack parallel guardrails, mesh enclosure and a means of safe access/egress. These and the array of ad hoc scaffold you see in boat yards are unsafe.
  • Using a ladder to gain access to the deck / inside of the boat during haul out, multiple times per day, transferring equipment, under time constraints and fatigue is unsafe. Even when aiming to employ the 3 points of contact rule. Transitioning between the deck level and the top of the ladder is particularly dangerous…similar to moving from the cockpit and forward of the dodger when offshore. 

Adopting all of dot point 1 criteria may be cost prohibitive or impractical. An alternative is a small scissor lift. In remote areas without access to equipment, the scaffolding criteria provided in dot point one can be constructed for deck level and lower heights access. Scaffold standards with the criteria are readily available.  

A safer option than the dot point 3 ladder access are stair treads that include a wide landing return at deck level and guardrails on all sides. Fabricated versions exist or can be made up. 

My era of scaffolding was back when erecting scaffold on 1 board and climbing the outside of the scaffold was commonplace. Safety harnesses were not used. Would I haul out with dot point 2 and 3 access? Not on my life.

Drew Frye

A few thoughts:

  • You are dead right about the need to secure a ladder to make it safe, particularly on slippery surfaces, like boats. I would have liked it if that had been in your “5 points,” since it does not appear to be tied off. I think that is more important than the tether. People don’t just fall off ladders, the ladder falls.
  • I agree that ladders and scaffolds are equally safe when secured. The best choice depends on the nature of the work.
  • The safety line should be dirrectly above the work point if possible. A short fall with the tether at an angle like that can be nasty. Perhaps there was a reason.

I would suspend my self with some manner of ascender. In this way I can move up and down and maintain the tension (or at least lack of slack). Ascenders are ONLY rated for falls if there is no slack, and are used in pairs (at real height), but for this example, one would be very safe.

You can also clip to a well-secured ladder for extra stability. I’ve done it many times.

Drew Frye

I might have run the rope around the other side of the steering pedestal, but I don’t know your exact arrangement. I will tell you that short sideways swings can be surprisingly jarring and damaging, as you head smacks into something. But better than hitting the ground!

This was written by Petzl and summarizes ascenders and fall arrest. The main problems are:

  • They can lever off the rope.
  • They can strip the rope cover unless the fall is quite short.
  • They can overload. They were not built for long falls.

But used for positioning (kept snug while working–no slack) and near the ground such as this, they can be very useful. Up the mast they must be used as specified. Accidents with a single ascender are rare but not unheard of.