Safety Aloft

© 2023 Jeffrey E. Isaac, PA-C

Gravity is not just a good idea, it’s the law. This law catches and kills something like 300,000 people per year. These facts are worth remembering anytime you put a lot of air between you and the next stop below.

As a member of a high-angle rescue team, I am constantly reviewing safety systems and procedures. I wear a seat and chest harness, and a helmet. On a rescue scene I never go near the edge without being clipped into an anchor and checked by a safety officer. The ropes we use are inspected before and after use, and retired on any suspicion of damage, even prolonged sun exposure. Carabiners and belay systems are doubled to further reduce the chance of failure.

But as a sailor, I just hook my bosun’s chair to the main halyard and let my wife crank me aloft to work on the rig. I am exposed to the same potential for injury and death. Yet, I put my trust in systems that have no redundancy and undergo far less scrutiny. Why?

The answer is in history and culture. To the mountaineer, gravity is a constant threat. The possibility of a long fall is a constant danger. To the sailor, gravity is inconvenient only when going aloft. To the modern sailor, this is not very often, and usually treated as a quick trip with little consideration for the risk involved.

In deference to the law of gravity, and from the perspective of a mountaineer and a sailor, here are some tips to help you reduce that risk:

1. Use a climbing harness, even if you are sitting in a bosun’s chair. Properly fitted and attached, you cannot fall out of a climbing harness. A typical harness for rock climbing will work fine as a backup, and is not expensive. For a little more money, a padded rescue harness will allow you to work in relative comfort without a bosun’s chair at all, for example the CMC Atom Series Rescue Harnesses

2. Never attach your harness or chair to a snap shackle, or even a screw shackle. Tie the halyard directly onto it with a bowline or figure 8 follow-through. Read the directions. Be sure that you have made fast to the proper D-ring or loop. Some harnesses require that the belay line be passed through multiple points.

3. Don’t depend on a marine safety harness as your only protection aloft. These chest harnesses are designed to keep you from falling off the boat, not to catch a fall from a height. Some models will squeeze the breath out of you and smash your head between your shoulders if you drop any distance.

4. Consider a back-up belay. If you’re being hoisted aloft on the main halyard, attach the jib halyard to your harness, too, and have a second crew member take up the slack as you ascend with a couple of turns around a winch to catch you if you fall. This will substantially reduce worry about the integrity of a single halyard.

5. If you need to work aloft for a while, have your belayer securely cleat both halyards. Don’t depend only on the self-tailing winch. If there are people aboard who may not be aware that you are working above, post a warning sign to that effect near the cleat.

6. If you are climbing around on the rig, don’t let much slack develop in your belay halyard. Your belayer should be watching you from below and maintaining some tension at all times. Halyards are static lines; they will not stretch to absorb the shock-load of a fall like a dynamic climbing rope. The halyard will break, or it will break you.

7. Lanyard all of your tools to yourself or the chair. An 8” crescent wrench dropped from 32 feet will be moving at 22 mph when it connects with your mate’s head. Better yet, forbid any activity on the deck beneath you.

8. Take the business of going aloft as seriously as a rescue team does when preparing to go over the edge of a cliff. Rescue personnel and climbers have a really good reason for behaving the way they do. Gravity will have exactly the same effect on you.