Short or long tether - it could be life or death

Safety tether - but safe only if used safely
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You're sailing solo. The wind is brisk but not dangerous and you're safety conscious as you work the foredeck with life jacket, harness and tether. You know your equipment is new and strong, and you feel secure in the knowledge that even if you fell overboard the tether would save you. But maybe not so...

History shows that one of the elements that can cause the death of a sailor is the length of a tether which might allow him to fall overboard.

There are two options on most tethers, one longer than the other to allow more flexibility of movement.

Even with a full crew on board, if a sailor's tether is attached on the longer connector, he might not only fall overboard, but be unable to be retrieved by the best-intentioned crew. Sail solo and there's no-one to help. It might be uncomfortable and irritating, but a short tether is more likely to keep you on board.

Here is a recent incident as related by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), which thankfully ended successfully. However it doesn't take much imagination to understand that in different circumstances the ending might have been tragic:

A Scottish sailor from Blackness Boat Club survived spending an hour drifting in choppy and cold waters across the Firth of Forth when he fell overboard from his yacht recently.

The 63-year-old had been alone on his 23ft vessel, the Puffin, when he found himself in the water shortly after setting off from Blackness. Although he was wearing a lifejacket and had a safety line to his yacht, Jim could not manage to get himself back on the boat.

He was spotted by the three-person crew of a Leith tug, the Beamer, that was in the area and was taken aboard. They informed the coastguard, who in turn contacted the RNLI Queensferry Lifeboat Station, where helmsman Martin Crawford and crew members Heather Still and Stephen Nesbitt launched the lifeboat.

An RNLI spokesman said: 'The lifeboat crew quickly located the tug Beamer, and took the casualty aboard the lifeboat and rushed him to Blackness where an ambulance waited to take him to Stirling Infirmary to be checked over, as he had been in the water for an hour.'

He added, 'The guy fell out of the yacht just off Blackness, he was just setting off. He was obviously on a line and the yacht more or less sailed itself, drifted, across the Forth with him hanging off it.'


Every yacht is different, but a rule of thumb would be that if you attach yourself to the lifelines or the jacklines, you should always use a shortened tether, and only use a long tether when attached to a strong point in the middle of the deck.

For your particular yacht, why not measure the distances while in port - this will give you a good idea of when the long tether can be used, and when it is essential to use a short tether.
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Email from reader in response, with a solution once you have found yourself in the predicament - but it needs awareness and practice first:

Prusik knot - or triple sliding hitch
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Sender: Ranger Steve Verchinski

Message: This could be an instance that sailors, who haven't been formally trained in the finer arts on land might give a bit of practice...

Mountaineers have had to rely on themselves for self rescue out of having fallen - usually unexpectedly, into a glacier crevasse (That's an opening into solid frozen as opposed to liquid water - for those who have never seen the real thing)

Usually it's not a self rescue but assisted ... why?
With a safety line to the mountaineers waist...kind of a teather...a climb up while suspended with a 50-80 lb. pack is not likely unless 1) an anchor is placed by his or her mate to which a Z rescue pulley system is attached to the line going down to the fallen climber ..usually a two person job or 2) multiple mates up on top are able to pull you and your pack up.

Most of the time however, the mountaineer down in the crevasse has to use his or her strength to assist in the rescue especially if a suitable place to anchor is not available or your fellow climber above is also injured. This means having to use a prussik system on the line either mechanical or by means of a prussik knot. Most climbing books will deal with it and even discuss the issue of wet line and means of adapting the knot and the line used for rescue to overcome.. Requires some practice but it sure beats stayin overboard in 50 degree or less water...