“Safety Equipment for the Sailor”
and safe ~ by Greg Jones
(In “Blue Water Sailing” Magazine - June 2005
It's the gear you travel with, and it's your offshore insurance policy
There is the safety gear
installed in the boat
, such as lifelines
, the EPIRB
and so on, and there's the gear you are expected to have on your person, your so-called personal safety
gear. This includes among other things your life jacket, harness and tether as well as items such as a whistle, flares, strobe or flashlight, knife, and on some boats, a personal MOB
locater or alarm
The best personal safety gear is your attitude to the subject. While technology has made great strides in reducing the risk of offshore sailing, good work
habits and a constant awareness of your surroundings are vital. Making a practice of never stepping out of the cockpit
without being tethered is a matter of adjusting your work
habits. Most of us modify that rather extreme position by only requiring tethers at night or when alone on deck
, but that is a significant improvement from the old habit of "one hand for the ship and one hand for yourself." That one hand can be dangerously weak when faced with a deck-sweeping wave.
Most safety gear would never be used if sailors were more careful, but there's no getting around that one big wave. The best safety item to never use is anything having to do with man-overboard recovery and the good news is that going over the side is almost entirely preventable. Staying on board is the essence, the final and most valuable product, of any onboard safety program, and it begins with harnesses and tethers.
A good harness is easy to wear and supports the body at the upper chest. Harnesses for mast
climbing aren't suitable because the point of attachment is too low. A sailor's harness has to be made with the knowledge that, if used, the sailor will be pulled through the water
headfirst. A climbing harness can tow someone through the water feet-first or even sideways.
Incorporate a life jacket with your harness. There's no reason not to; inflatable
lifejackets are now small, efficient and very buoyant. Most inflatables provide a buoyancy of 33 to 40 pounds and are designed to turn an unconscious person face-up.
There are several manufacturers of inflatable
lifejackets with harnesses, the most well known of which are Eastern Aero Marine
, Mustang Survival, SOSpenders, Stearns and Viking Life-Saving Equipment
, Inc. Stearns has recently purchased SOSpenders, but the name SOSpenders will continue to be used for their inflatable lifejacket/harness combos.
There are two basic varieties: manually inflated and automatic. The automatic version uses a water-soluble "pill" to release the plunger that breaks the seal on the CO2 cylinder. When first introduced, there were problems with accidental inflation but improved versions have significantly reduced the number of these incidents.
There is one addition we would strongly recommend to your inflatable lifejacket/harness combo, and that is a crotch strap. You can be pulled out from your harness if your arms go over your head
while being pulled through the water, leaving you in a worse condition than merely being overboard
. They are sold through West Marine
, among other sources, and are a worthwhile addition. While crotch straps are required by the ORC, you will have to remove it for your lifejacket/harness to pass a Coast Guard inspection
, as they have only approved inflatable lifejacket/harnesses that do not have them.
A tether is the link between you and the boat
. We have become fond of tethers that incorporate a length of shock cord sewn into the tubular nylon webbing. With the tether under no load it is about three feet long and is much easier to deal with.
Consider having two tethers. That will allow you to unhook from one while remaining attached to the boat. Some sailors prefer having one tether full-length, six feet seems to be about right, and the other four feet or so. The short one can be attached near to you when working and will allow you to pull against it for added security
. We have also seen a single
tether with a second hook attached halfway along it, reducing the number of tethers to get in your way.
The harness end of the tether should be a quick-release snap shackle, of the sort used on a halyard
. We like the light weight of Titan Marine's version, as well as the strength and immunity to corrosion
. The other end, the "boat end," should be made up with a safety hook, and here we like the Gibb snap hook. Releasing it requires opening an inner gate, and as a result there is no chance that it will open accidentally. We have had one for many miles, and it continues to work flawlessly.
There is nothing so useful on deck
as a flashlight, and we think a headlamp is the way to go, especially those with red filters to preserve your night vision. The light goes where you look and is a vast improvement over holding it with your teeth. The new generation of LED headlamps has revolutionized the genre, eliminating the need to carry spare bulbs and vastly reducing the number of spare batteries
needed. The best of them are waterproof to the extent required for working on deck in any weather
. This month's New and Noteworthy on page 95 evaluates one such headlamp.
The need to carry a source of light is not limited to a headlamp. Every lifejacket should have a rescue
light on it, and you have a choice of using either a strobe or a constant-source (i.e., a standard incandescent bulb) light. While a strobe is more visible (and likely will work longer) than a constant-source light, our experience indicates that it is difficult to determine the distance of a single
light source, and if it is a blinking strobe it is nearly impossible. However, it is the bearing that is critical, not the distance, since you will simply head
to the light until the MOB
We like the smaller lights that attach to the lifejacket and which are not visible until it inflates. This eliminates forgetting to attach it to your harness and keeps it safe from random knocks and bumps. Somewhat large and brighter are the lights that attach to the webbing of your harness. Both varieties are generally water-activated and some have a manual switch as well. A nice feature on some models is a manual "off" switch. There are two scenarios in which this would be useful. The first is the most obvious, extinguishing the light after an errant wave turns it on, but it is also good to be able to turn it off at the last moment of rescue
to avoid blinding those on the boat reaching for you.
ACR, McMurdo Paines Wessex, Ocean Safety and Plastimo
are the leading suppliers of lifejacket rescue lights. Some of the lights offered can be powered with either alkaline or lithium batteries
, and a good example of this is the C- series of lights by ACR, which look like AA-battery flashlights. The C-Light has an incandescent bulb within a focusing lens that both shines a beam straight ahead and produces a bright ring of light in a full circle around the light. The C-Strobe does not have the focusing lens but has a very bright strobe light. Both will produce light for more than eight hours but the lights only have USCG approval when using lithium batteries. The lights can be worn with a wrist lanyard, tied to your upper arm with a Velcro strap, clipped to your harness or attached to a life jacket's oral inflation tube with a specially made adapter ACR calls a C-Clip.
Ocean Safety makes the smallest rescue light, a diminutive water-activated strobe that attaches with a clip to lifejackets. The USCG-approved strobe will flash for at least eight hours and there is a manual off-switch. The Aqua Spec AQ98 has a five-year shelf life.
Plastimo's Safety Light uses a red, incandescent bulb with a focusing lens to produce your choice of a steady or a flashing light or a continuous Morse SOS flash. It is manually activated and attaches to your harness or lifejacket with a clip. It uses a long-life, replaceable lithium battery
A small flare or two could be a literal lifesaver, attracting attention to your position if a boat is searching for you. The small Orion Skyblazer flare is waterproof and about the size of a standard AA flashlight. Two is probably the right number, as the first one will get attention and the second will allow the rescuers to take
a bearing on you. They burn will for 6.9 seconds and will go as high as 450 feet. While some may think this is a bit much to put in your pocket, you can attach a small pouch to the belt of your harness; West Marine's Personal Gear Pouch fits the bill, with large, two-inch loops in back.
"Hey, I'm over here!" Shouting over the tumult of a seaway serious enough to sweep you overboard
could be a fruitless endeavor. Nearly all inflatable lifejackets have a whistle attached to them but we recommend replacing the relatively discrete OEM version with a Storm Whistle. It's so loud that when we tested it we found it better to cover our ears. A Storm Whistle has lived in the pocket of our foulie jacket for years, with another tied onto the lifejacket.
Every sailor has to have a knife that should be rustproof, sharp, non-magnetic, easy to deploy and safe. After a dozen or so stainless steel
knives eventually rusted into uselessness, we found a folding sailor's knife that literally doesn't rust, and it's non-magnetic as well. The Boye Dendritic Cobalt Lockback is literally the last knife you will buy. We have had one for more than a year. It has lived in soaking wet foulies for days on end and it still looks nearly new. It holds an edge remarkably well and is the only sailor's knife we recommend.
Relatively new on the scene are personal EPIRBs, dubbed the Personal Locator Beacons (PLB). These are smaller versions of the EPIRBs used on boats, meant to be carried on your harness or belt. They are small, pocket-sized (if you have a fairly large pocket), broadcast on both 406 and 121.5 MHz and don't have the operating life of a large EPIRB
Personal Locator Beacons are made by ACR and McMurdo Paines Wessex. ACR offers the Aquafix 406 and McMurdo Paines Wessex has the FastFind. The Aquafix 406 comes in either the GPS
I or the GPS
I/O version, with the latter having an integral GPS. For McMurdo Paines Wessex the GPS version is the FastFind Plus. The non-GPS model of the Aquafix 406 (the GPS I) couples with the boat's GPS until you actually wear it. The signal, therefore, tells the rescuers where you were when you went on watch. Regardless of which brand you purchase
, we strongly recommend the version with integral GPS. We like the Aquafix; it is smaller and lighter than the FastFind. Additionally, the non-GPS FastFind cannot receive location data from the boat's GPS, thus placing a heavy reliance on the 121.5 MHz homing signal.
ACR also has the Mini B300, a 121.5 MHz PLB that is intended for MOB recovery in conjunction with their Vectra2 Direction Finder. The Mini B300 is slightly smaller than the Aquafix 406 and attaches to your harness. It makes what the manufacturer calls an "audio warble," coupled with an LED light, when it is activated.
The latest in MOB technology comes from Australia
, the Mobi-lert Crewsafe system. Its genesis came when the 11-year-old son of inventor Mark Pallister sleepwalked off the boat and was not found for nine hours. Mark invented an overboard-alert system that sounds an alarm
and makes a GPS note of the location. The screen
of the control console, the CON 7000, then shows a backtrack to the MOB's position using its built-in GPS receiver. Each crewmember wears a PTX 7000 pendant, a colored plastic module that measures 2 3/4 by 1 3/4 inches, either on their belt, harness or around their neck. The modules are in constant radio
contact with the console. If the wearer (and the pendant) stray more than 100 feet from the console, a very loud alarm sounds. The console can also trigger the release of a Dan-buoy, shut off the engine
, disable the autopilot
or trigger the EPIRB.
draw is minimal. The CON 7000, the control console, draws 30 milliamps at 12-volts and the pendants, the PTX 7000, use a rechargeable NiMH battery
that will operate for 48 hours between charges and will recharge a completely flat PTX 7000 in 14 hours. An LED sealed in the watertight unit indicates the state of charge. A single CON 7000 can handle as many as 12 PTX 7000 units, and, if necessary track all of them in the event the entire crew deserts. It will not, however, get them out of the bar.
A similar unit is made by the French firm, NKE, and was the unit of choice for some of the Around Alone competitors. With a capacity of eight transmitters, they cease to be in communication with the control unit beyond 100 feet. At that point, the control unit can be programmed to shut off the engine
, activate the EPIRB, head the boat into the wind
or move the rudder
to a full stop on the opposite side of its existing position (if the boat has an autopilot). The NKE unit must be connected to the boat's GPS; otherwise it will just indicate the bearing and distance to the MOB.
If you want to read the rest of this article, sail on over to the ships store and buy the back issue today: http://www.bwsailing.com/