How To Choose A Sailing Safety Harness

Staying aboard a vessel is paramount to survival, even more so when sailing solo or short-handed. The chances of recovery of a man overboard when the crew is shorthanded and when the wind gets up are very slight.

The cliché that “prevention is better than cure” is most apt with sailing. What is most important to a shorthanded crew is to take all possible precautions to ensure that a man overboard (MOB) situation never happens. 

While being always attached to the sailing vessel is essential and increases safety, it is only part of the story. What, where, and how the crew is attached to the boat is equally, or maybe even more, important.

Ideally, you only attach to centrelines, and the sailing safety harness should be able to rotate the wearer in the water so that the head and nose are out of the water.

Choosing A Sailing Safety Harness 

While safety harnesses are generally mandated for crews participating in ocean races or other events, they should also be required for single and couple-crewed vessels, whether sailing inshore or open waters.

Although having a working man overboard alert system is vital, the reality is that the chances of a successful recovery in rough seas are limited.

The safety harness should ideally not be attached to a side jackline, where the sailor may end up in the water and being dragged along, which may be more dangerous than floating freely in a life jacket. 

Sailing safety harnesses attached to a center jackline provide security that there will be no man overboard event.

But there may be times when you need to attach to the side jackline, although there is risk involved. Just make sure your tether is short enough to keep your head above water.

Parts Of A Safety Harness System

Most harnesses are produced in a single size and can be adjusted to fit the individual. There are three components to a safety harness system.

The Harness

The safety harness on the crewmember must be fitted to the correct size to ensure it will remain secure if the person falls overboard.

The attachment straps must be tight (yet comfortable) and support the wearer’s weight without slipping off.

The Lanyard

The lanyard or tether is the line that attaches the safety harness to the boat’s lifelines (jack line).

Lanyards are sold in elasticated form or as classic lanyards. The elasticated products are easier to use, and there is less chance of them getting under the crew member’s feet when moving around.

Lanyards are typically supplied as a single-strand or double-strand length.

  • Single-strand lanyards are easy to use and adequate for most applications. 
  • Double-strand lanyards make it easier to attach one strand to a specific fixing point, move to the next, and attach the second to another point.

The Lifelines (Jack Line)

The lifelines are flat straps (or stainless-steel wire) running the boat’s length on the port, starboard, and sometimes the centerline.

As discussed earlier, it is recommended that only center lifelines be used, which will reduce the chance of the crew member ending up in the water.

Safety Features To Look For

A Sailing Safety Harness is only as good as the attached jacklines or hard points. The tethers and jacklines should be made from low-stretch and abrasion-resistant materials configured as straps. The safety harness should also have the seven features listed below.

1. It Should Be Integrated With A Life Jacket

The safety harness should be incorporated with an appropriate life jacket. Some models combine the life jacket itself and feature a strong harness point built into the design.

If the person ends up in the water, it is essential that the lifejacket keeps the person’s head above the water and can breathe.

2. Metal Clip Attachment

A metal clip should always connect a tether to a jackline. There is the potential for the fabric to chafe and melt when in direct contact under load.

3. Padding

The user’s comfort while wearing the harness is essential. It will only be worn under duress when it becomes uncomfortable or restricts movement.

As the harness should be worn for many hours at a time, one with sufficient padding and ease of movement for each crew member is essential.

4. Quick-Connect Buckles

Older models had cumbersome pass-through buckles, making them difficult to adjust and connect.

Most modern systems use quick-connect buckles that are similar to an automobile seatbelt. These are easy to adjust, making them easy to attach and remove when needed.

5. Harness Weight

Ideally, harnessing should become second nature and eventually go unnoticed by the wearer.

6. Webbing

Webbing should be secure and “Dry Coated” to reduce water absorption.

7. Integrated Features

The more integrated features included, the greater the chance of survival. These may include the following:

  • Clips to secure a man overboard (MOB) transmitter.
  • Stowage pockets.
  • Grab the handle to pull the person out of the water.
  • A signal light and whistle.
  • A sprayhood.

Using And Donning A Sailing Safety Harness

All the harnesses kept on board must have a clear label showing the size, or if it is assigned to a permanent crew member, then that person’s name.

To fit the sailing safety harness, follow the steps below.

  1. Remove the safety harness from its storage bag.
  2. If it is tangled, untangle it before attempting to wear it.
  3. Hold the safety sailing harness from the top to correctly orientate it.
  4. Put the harness over your shoulders like you would put on a shirt (always ensure that there are no twists in the webbing).
  5. Do up the leg straps until they are held snugly against your legs.
  6. Plug in all the other clips.
  7. Check that the harness is evenly fitted around your body and does not tilt to one side.
  8. Ensure that the leg straps are tight enough. You should be able to push a flat hand through them – if you can make a fist between your legs and the straps, they are too loose. 

When storing the sailing safety harness, take the following precautions.

  • Untangle it (if tangled) and fold it in an easy-to-access manner.
  • Check the safety harness for tears or rips, chemical exposure, and UV degradation, and ensure the buoyancy compartments are intact.
  • When the Sailing Safety Harness is not being used, always store it in its storage bag (as provided by the manufacturer) and keep it in a cool, dry place where there is no chance of mold.

Regulations And Guidelines

No regulatory requirements enforce a crew to wear safety harnesses. But there are regulations surrounding lifelines.

  • Lifelines – US Coast Guard regulations require lifelines to be made of stainless steel wire. 
  • Sailing Vessels under 30 feet must have one installed lifeline.
  • Clipping points for harnesses must be attached to bolted or welded deck plates.
  • Static safety lines must be easy to clip on as the crew member leaves the cabin and clip off when returning to the cabin.

The most compelling reason to insist on safety harnesses is that the vessel’s captain is fully responsible for the crew’s safety under US Coastguard regulations.

Balancing Comfort And Safety

There are two schools of thought about the best type of sailing safety harness. 

Some harnesses consist only of webbing and provide no flotation. 

The view of proponents of this system is that if the person falls overboard and is being towed by the boat, the last thing they want to have to handle is an inflated life jacket that compresses the throat and head while they are battling with the force of the tow.

The other view is that if the sailing safety harness is designed and fitted correctly, it will do three things when someone ends up in the water:

  1. It will rotate the person’s head so the nose and mouth are above the water and the wearer can breathe.
  2. It will automatically inflate so that it does not constrict the throat and head.
  3. The secure attachment point will be positioned correctly, and the person will be towed along on their back.

One harness that meets this specification is the Team-O Backflow.

Closing Remarks

A sailing safety harness is essential, particularly when the crew is short (or you are sailing single-handed).

The safety harness should be attached to a center lifeline, and the lanyards should be short enough to prevent the crew member from falling overboard. Here are some of the best tethers on the market to connect to your harness.

I recommend incorporating the sailing safety harness with an inflatable life jacket and ensuring that the harness is correctly fitted and will not come loose.

Retrieving a crew member from the water is a difficult process, and they may be in for a long time while sails are dropped and the boats slow down. Because of this, the harness must rotate the person’s head above the water to prevent drowning.

I’m the founder and chief editor here at Sailing Savvy. I spent a decade working as a professional mariner and currently, I mix those experiences with digital publishing. Welcome, and I hope that we can be the hub you need for safe passage.