My thoughts on lifelines……..
I would not want a boat without lifelines and I am especially cautious when sailing on a boat without them (and I have raced on boats without them). My exception would be dinghies and similar craft.
In years of sailing (often before the mast, during races on big boats) in 20+ knots and cold water
53 °F (12 °C), I developed a great appreciation for lifelines and also a wariness of them too. Because I have experienced some long distance offshore
sailing during a strong gale (45+ knots), and much sailing in 20+ knots winds (racing in San Francisco
Bay), my feelings are formed by those experiences and my plan to do more offshore (blue water) sailing. However, I have seen the same utility of lifelines in coastal sailing and near-shore (bay or even lake sailing) too.
While I use lifelines when needed to steady myself when going forward, I much prefer to use solid handholds (usually on the cabin
top) and jacklines
Lifelines Can Break, even with little pressure!
I have also used a typical stainless wire lifeline for some partial support (holding it in my hand) and had it unexpectedly give way (break) under very little pressure while I was in a precarious position (with my head
over the rail), almost causing me to go overboard
. This was not my full body weight applied at the time, in fact very little weight at all. Due to this experience, I would carefully examine and test the lifelines of any boat I buy, and consider changing from plastic coated stainless wire to Spectra or Dyneema
lines. Thereafter, I would regularly inspect and check the condition of the lines. I would also NOT depend on them solely while offshore during challenging conditions where a jackline and harness would be my preference (in addition to lifelines). That said, I think a lifeline is a good thing to have in addition to jacklines
Lifelines May Not Always Prevent Going Overboard
I have also been tossed overboard (from the foredeck) due to an accidental jybe and broach, during which I instantly slid UNDER the lifelines while trying to get a grip on anything on the steeply heeled and slippery deck. In the blink of an eye I was over the side and in the water, despite having good boat shoes and gloves on. This taught me that even when using caution, good posture (low COG) and good gear
, bad things or accidents can happen, even to experienced crew. Going overboard while the boat is in full sail brings a sudden awareness that sailboats move much faster than people can swim, and the sight from water level of your boat going off in the distance while you tread water is not one I want to ever repeat. It does change ones perspective.
I have also raced on boats without lifelines and always felt a much higher level of caution when moving forward on the boat (usually to change headsails or to fly a spinnaker). Crew on the helm
or in the cockpit
have a MUCH different perspective of the difficulty of working on the foredeck during higher winds as the foredeck can be pitching (sometimes it was like riding a horse, with the foredeck going up 6+ feet and then down six feet or more), greatly heeled at a steep angle while close hauled , rolling, wet.. The cockpit
crew is often seated or holding on to the wheel
and much more secure in their places. Remember, I am talking about conditions that are not flat calm or light winds and no roller-furling. The usual condition was cold water (almost constant spray), steep chop, and high winds over 20 knots.
Going overboard can be deadly in just a few minutes, and even when close to other boats.
I have witnessed two people (very experienced sailors) die during a race
in SF Bay
when they were thrown overboard (without a PFD) during a race
I was in (I was in a boat about two hundred yards behind them). They both died from hypothermia in a very few minutes, while other race boats were all around, as they treaded water waiting for the return of their big boat. It only took a few minutes for them to succumb, and their boat was crewed by VERY experienced sailors (semi-pro and pro) and had a large crew (about 10 men). One of the sailors who died was considered one of the best in SF.
Keep Your Center of Gravity Low and Crawl Forward if you have to!
My feeling is that many lifelines are lower than I would like on my own boat. I would prefer 30 inch or higher on my future boat.
I like the solid ones (top hand rail) often seen on steel
boats and on some motor
sailors (see a Nauticat 44 for example).
1984 Nauticat Motorsailer Sail Boat For Sale - www.yachtworld.com
I also like bulwarks (seen in the photo
above) or practical toe rails on boats without bulwarks. Those plus good nonslip (e.g. Treadmaster) provide a very good footing for the foredeck.
Netting for Offshore
In addition to lifelines, I would put netting on the lifelines when on an offshore cruise
(or long term cruising). Why? Netting provides additional "catching" ability of people or things. That can also include very useful or even essential things that would not be quickly or easily replaceable when on a long passage
, such as winch
handles, binocs, or other things likely to go over the side. In other words I do not see netting as solely for boats with little children
. In fact, netting would have kept me from going overboard (under the lifelines).
An excellent example of solid lifelines (tubing handrails) AND netting is shown in a very fine boat refit
done by Panope (a member
here). Here is a link to a photo
he posted in a different thread on this forum: