Why is a lifeline a lifesaver - and why can it be a danger?

When sailing across the warm, sun-drenched Bay of Gibraltar, it can be hard to envisage when a need for lifelines might exist. In fact, for many day sailors and summer cruisers, it’s hard to imagine just how bad conditions must have to be before the sea is rough enough to mean a lifeline becomes a necessity.

As all graduates of an RYA course will know, lifelines are designed to keep you attached to the vessel. At night they are a mandatory requirement and for good reason.

Nowadays lifelines are usually made of sturdy webbing with stainless steel clips at both ends. Many boats now have three point lines so that you can always be attached to the boat and have a choice of line length to suit your circumstances and position on the boat’s deck. The lines have a paper-like sleeve sewn over the top of a stitched fold in the line. The idea is that if the fold has ripped out and the paper has split, the line has been stressed - and must be replaced.  

Of course, for a lifeline to work several other factors come into play. The lifeline must be in good condition, it must be properly attached at either end to a sufficiently strong connection, the lifejacket to which it is attached must be properly fitted and crotch straps must be fastened and both ends must be attached at the time it is needed!

If you are coastal sailing during the day, there is really no reason why the competent skipper should ever be in weather of such violence that lifelines are a must - unless he was expecting it. Weather forecasts and a little skill in evaluating sea state should make lumpy seas pretty much predictable. However, for the more experienced offshore sailor, the lifeline will become a familiar accessory worn in most circumstances.

However, if the crew is not properly trained in how and when to use the lifeline and what to do when a crewman goes over the side, then wearing a lifeline can become an immediate danger that all crew need to be aware of.
At night in very bad weather or poor visibility, remaining attached to the boat might be your only real hope of being found, but if you are sailing fast in good conditions on the foredeck of a racing boat with the kite up, those more imaginative sailors amongst you might have imagined just what might happen if you went over the side at 15 knots and proceed to be dragged through the water at almost 20 mph!  It’s a sobering thought. Trying to detach yourself with that much force on your harness will be impossible, so those left on deck must react quickly.

Raise the alarm! The first thing must be to let the helm and other crew know the problem. Then stop the boat. This should be the case in all conditions, but when a crewman remains tethered it is absolutely critical. If you have a kite up you need to make sure everyone knows what can and can’t be done to depower the kite and safely get rid of it - quick!

If the boat takes 20 seconds to stop (which is very quick if you have a powered kite flying) you are likely to have a crewman running out of breath, assuming they haven’t taken a mouthful of cold water when they fell in. That is when the fast-thinking, cool-headed crew need to be considering options. If you have a lot of crew you might spare two or three to help pull the casualty’s head from the water until the boat can be stopped. Of course, everyone needs to stay low and be securely clipped on with short lines! Even then, this might not be an option. You are likely to be on the low side and so you are already in a bad place (always choose to move down a boat on the high (windward) side. Dependent on how you plan to lose the kite, there might be dangers midships or at foredeck that prevent immediate intervention (like running guys and flogging kite sheets) so this is why running through ‘what if’ scenarios alongside is so beneficial to safety.

Once the vessel is stopped, recovering an MOB that is tethered should be quite straightforward, with a headsail halyard usually the best option for retrieval, ideally attached to a large helicopter-style strop. Whatever the preferred method for your vessel, make sure you’ve practiced it alongside (and at sea) before you leave on passage. Of course, if you were under white sails it becomes far more straightforward. Merely round up and eventually through the wind, keeping the headsail sheets fast and heave-to. That will stop the boat and, if the casualty went over on the low side (which is likely) they should now be hanging above the water on the new high side. Voila!

Some recent events have led some to consider lifelines to be dangerous because they can, if misused or used without training, lead to tragedy. I beg to differ. Having been on deck in the pitch dark in a Force 10 storm and phenomenal seas, I know the likelihood of being recovered in an MOB situation if I am not tethered is highly unlikely. I’d always take my chances and remain tethered at all times. 
Some students have asked me “can’t you just hang on if you see a wave coming”. To that I’d say two things (i) you rarely see the wave coming and (ii) even when you do, if it’s big enough, not even Arnold Schwarzenegger is going to be able to hang on! 

Trust me on this. Lifelines are called lifelines for a reason. Just make sure that all your crew know how to use them and what to do if someone goes overboard.

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