27 June 2016

Safety Tethers | Save Money By Making Your Own. Maybe.

A word of warning. If you’re not into boating, then you’ll find this blog post extremely boring. You’d be better off shutting down your computer and doing something more fun like sharpening pencils with an emery board. Even if you’re into boating, you may find this dull beyond belief. I know my eyes always glaze over and I start to search for pencils in need of sharpening when I read detailed blog posts and articles about boat equipment.

But, as safety tethers are designed to save your life (at least that’s the theory and even that’s up for debate), this might be worth a read if getting a new tether is on your list of “extremely dull but important things” to do and you’re pondering what kind to get and whether you should make it yourself.

If you do decide to carry on and read this, go get a snack first. It’s long. Really, really long.

A Safety Tether Could Save Your Life. Maybe.

So here’s the deal – sailing can be dangerous in far too many ways. I try not to think about it too much because dwelling on my fears causes me to eat too many chocolate chip cookies. But, occasionally I have to put the cookies down and think about dreadful stuff - like one of us falling off of the boat, floating away and drowning.

One of the ways to prevent this is to be tethered to your boat. A tether is basically a leash which is attached to a harness that you wear (either integrated into a PFD, aka personal flotation device, or separate) and then attached to the boat. If you fall off the boat, you’re still attached to it which makes it easier to get you back on the boat. After an ordeal like that, you’ll definitely be needing a whole bag of chocolate chip cookies.
The key takeaway is that a tether can save your life. Except when it doesn’t.

The Controversy Over Tethers. Fortunately, Not As Controversial As Gun Control.

In 2011, Christopher Reddish, a well known sailboat racer went overboard during a nighttime sail change and drowned before he was retrieved. He had been wearing an integrated PFD/harness and a tether. One of the contributing factors to his death was the length of his tether which allowed him to be washed overboard where he was dragged along the side the boat while his head slid underwater.

Since this accident, some people have argued that if you go overboard, you’re more likely to survive if you aren’t tethered to the boat. Personally, I still think tethers are a critical piece of safety equipment. What’s important is to use a short tether to ideally keep you in the boat or if you do go overboard to keep you out of the water as much as possible.

Dissecting A Tether. Much Less Messy Than Dissecting A Frog.

Okay, enough controversy. How does a tether work anyway? Let’s dissect one and see. We’ll use the one our boat came with as an example - a 6’ (2m) long West Marine Standard Safety Tether.

Here’s what to look for:

1 – The end that clips to the boat – snap or double action safety?

Snap hooks are easy to attach, but can be difficult to detach when under load. They can also accidentally release. Double action safety hooks/carabiners are easy to attach and detach and they won’t release accidentally. I’ll take double action safety over an ordinary snap any day of the week.

2 – How many legs – one or two?

I like having two legs attached to my body and I’d prefer if my harness came with two as well. The beauty of having two legs is that you’re always attached to the boat. One leg stays clipped to the boat while you move about and clip the other leg to another point on the boat. The other advantage of having two legs is that one can be longer than the other (obviously not ideal when it comes to human legs, but we’re talking tethers here). It’s safer if you use the shortest length possible. You can use the shorter leg when you’re up on the foredeck or attached to something stationary and the longer leg when you’re moving about the boat.

3 – The end that clips to your harness – snap shackle or cow-hitch?

Some tethers are clipped onto your harness with a snap shackle which you pull open by the lanyard. Others are tied on with a cow-hitch, which can only be released under load by cutting it with a knife. I’m sure there are advantages to using a cow-hitch, but if I fell overboard I don’t think I’d have the presence of mind to cut the tether, assuming I had a knife with me (although our Spinlock PFDs have integrated harnesses and an emergency knife).

It’s Time For A New Tether, Don’t Take It Personally.

While our West Marine Standard Safety Tether is a lovely shade of blue, it has some issues. In addition to using a snap hook to attach to the boat, only having one leg and not being retractable, it also isn’t compliant with the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) standards due to the lack of a built-in stress indicator. When your harness is stressed to the point of needing a replacement, a flag is exposed so that you know you need to get a new one. This isn’t the kind of stress that comes from working long hours and then coming home to crying children. It’s what happens when there's too much load placed on the tether which will cause it to break. There wouldn't be enough chocolate chip cookies in the world to make that situation any better.

Geez Louise. These Things Are Expensive.

Okay. So, we all agree. A new tether is needed. Ideally, two new tethers are needed – one for each of us. We do have another tether that we brought back with us from New Zealand which is better than our West Marine one, but it only has one leg and I'd prefer to have two two-legged ones. But, goodness gracious, some of these tethers are so expensive! To give you an idea, here are some of the ones I looked at:

West Marine Standard Safety Tether

This is the one we currently have which sells at West Marine for $114.99. It doesn’t have the features we want and isn’t ISAF compliant, so we won’t be buying another one of these, but it’s a good reference point in terms of cost.

West Marine ISAF Specification Double Safety Tether

Another West Marine product, this one will set you back $179.99. It ticks the right boxes – ISAF compliant, two legs (one short and one long, both of which are retractable), a snap shackle at the harness end and double action safety hooks at the boat end.

Wichard Dual Safety Tether

This retails for $339.30, but you can pick it up for $190.99 at Defender. It’s ISAF compliant, has two legs (one fixed 3’ (1m) line and one retractable 6’ (2m) line), a snap shackle at the harness end and fluorescent double action safety hooks at the boat end. Wichard has a good reputation for their marine hardware, which is reflected in the cost of this tether.

Kong ISAF Double Safety Harness Tether

After looking at the prices of the Wichard tether, I was feeling a bit faint. Then I read about the Kong tethers, which are based on mountain climbing technology. These are a lot cheaper – you can pick up a Kong harness with two retractable legs (one short and one long) for $81.55 at Jamestown Distributors. It’s ISAF compliant, has a snap shackle at the harness end and double action Kong Tango carabiners at the boat end. Anytime you add marine to the front of any product name, the price goes sky high. Could the Kong tethers be cheaper because they didn’t start out as marine products?

Sailrite Tether Expandable Kit with Double Leg

Rather than buy a ready made harness, I thought I could save some money by making my own. So when I saw that I could get a kit from Sailrite for tether for only $66.95, I got excited. But is it too good to be true? This kit comes with the webbing and elastic you need (one leg is retractable and one is fixed), plus one Suncor snap shackle for the harness end and two Suncor carabiner hooks for the boat end. Because it uses carabiner hooks instead of double action safety hooks/carabiners, I’ve scratched this off my list as an option as the carabiner hooks can accidentally release. The quality of the Suncor hardware is also a question mark as it is cast as opposed to forged, like Wichard. Forged stainless steel is stronger and will deform before it breaks.

But, I Can Still Get Crafty With My Sailrite.

Making your own tether looks dead easy – check out this Sailrite video to get an idea of what’s involved. I don’t need a kit to make my own – all I need to do is source the components separately. The 2” tubular webbing, 1” white elastic and 2” tape are straightforward buys. The real challenge is around what hardware to use and this is where the costs start to mount up.

I priced out two options – one based on the Wichard tether and one based on the Kong tether – and compared the cost of making my own to buying a ready-made tether.

Here’s the numbers for all you nerds out there. (Note: I already have tape, thread and needles so they’re not included in the pricing.)


2” Tubular Webbing – 11 feet @ $1.10 foot from Sailrite = $12.10
1” White Elastic – 6 feet @ $0.35 foot from Sailrite = $2.10
Wichard Double Action Safety Hook Florescent (#2454) 2 @ $53.51 from Mauri Pro = $106.62
Wichard Quick Opening Snap Shackle (#2471) 1 @ $41.15 from Mauri Pro = $41.15

TOTAL to make = $161.97
COST to buy ready made from Defender = $190.99
SAVINGS = $29.09

THE SCOOP…It would be worth making my own to save $30. I don’t think the project would take long and I have the time to get crafty with tether making. But, is going with Wichard hardware worth it?


2” Tubular Webbing – 11 feet @ $1.10 foot from Sailrite = $12.10
1” White Elastic – 6 feet @ $0.35 foot from Sailrite = $2.10
Kong Tango Carabiner Red – 2 @ $25.90 from Jamestown Distributors = $51.80
Suncor 2-5/8” Snap Shackle – 1 @ $12.99 from Defender = $12.99

TOTAL to make = $78.99
COST to buy ready made from Jamestown Distributors = $81.55
SAVINGS = $2.56

THE SCOOP…I’m not sure what type of shackle they use for the Kong tether, but it has to be a relatively inexpensive one to be able to sell a ready made tether for $81.55. They could be using a Kong 57mm snap shackle, but I couldn't easily find a US dealer of this. I priced this out using a Suncor snap shackle, which enabled me to get the cost down to less than it would cost to buy a ready made one – but, only by $2.56. Given the fact that there would be shipping costs for both the Kong Carabiners and the Suncor Snap Shackle and the fact that the price I got for the snap shackle is a closeout price at Defender and they might sell out, the savings isn’t really there. It would be cheaper to buy a ready made one. But, what’s the quality of the Kong hardware like? Are there any safety issues? Why is it cheaper than the Wichard stuff? These are the types of questions that keep me up at night.

So, What Do You Think?

What kind of safety tether do you have (or are thinking of getting?) Have you made your own? What do you think about the Kong vs. Wichard tethers? What would you do? Have you had any chocolate chip cookies or brownies today? If not, why?


If you just can’t get enough technical talk about tethers, here are some articles you might want to check out.

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  1. Okay, you lost me at PFD. I could probably come up with some witty/stupid possibilities but I'll go with personal floatation device? Anyway I'd be going for the safest option and trying to source the cheapest supplier. I wouldn't DIY as I would probably never get it finished. Good luck with sorting it out :)

    1. Thanks for flagging PFD up. You're right - it's a personal flotation device! I've added that into the blog to make it less confusing.

  2. Not into boating of course, but I did find some of that rather funny. You have a great sense of writing humor.

    1. Aww...thanks so much Alex! I think I might reference this in my IWSG post next week :-)

  3. We don't have a sailboat, so we don't have tethers. We have other safety equipment for going overboard.

    I did not find this post boring. I found it most informative because I don't know much about sailboats. I've learned a lot from you.

    I don't have any brownies or chocolate chip cookies. I don't want any either. Now ice cream is my vice.

    Have a fabulous day Ellen. ☺

    1. You know what's even better? Ice cream on top of brownies :-)

  4. Thank you, Ellen, for another excellent article.

    I have made bungi filled climbing webbing tethers in times past, and have several commercial versions.

    For our next go around, we are going to switch to dynamic climbing rope. This was prompted by the work that Drew Frye has published. [Drew is a sailor, mountain climber, engineer, and Practical Sailor tester/reviewer, etc...]

    One advantage of the dynamic climbing rope is shock absorption is transferred to the rope from my rib cage...

    Here is one of his posts [leading to others] about the integrated system of jacklines, harnesses, and tethers:


    I'm sure I have read a good tether testing post by Drew including instructions for making the climbing rope tether [dead simple] but could not find them with a quick search... I'll search more if you are interested.

    From memory: basically he cow-hitches an appropriate length of 8mm dynamic climbing half-rope with a couple of the Kong shackles you mentioned on the ends. The ends are different lengths tailored to your vessel and jackline/attachment point placement. The cow-hitch is seized so it won't slip under load, and can be around a quick release shackle, or with a big enough eye to cow-hitch the rig to your harness per personal preference. The Kong shackles can be in seized eyes, or tied on with a locking figure 8 or other knot appropriate to dynamic climbing rope.

    And here is a link to the rope Drew suggested using after his personal testing:


    May I also recommend the Attainable Adventure Cruising web site. They have an entire e-book on this topic. [A modest membership fee is required, and very worth it to us @ US$1.66/month...] No affiliation other than happy members.

    Well done, and best wishes with your project.


    Bill on SV Denali Rose

    1. Thanks so much for this Bill! I had secretly hoped you would comment on this with some ideas given your technical know-how! So much to think about :-)

  5. Ellen, I forgot to mention...

    Currently we are using the double tethers from Spinlock, cow-hitched to our Spinlock 5d DeckVest PFD/Harnesses. At US$79 and treated to stay dry [i.e., light when wet...] they seem to be a very good value.

    e.g., http://www.landfallnavigation.com/2clipsafety.html

    In case this is useful.

    Cheers! Bill on SV Denali Rose

    1. That seems like a really good price for a tether. I'll have to check that out. The others have been much pricier that I've looked at, other than the Kong.

    2. I agree, Ellen.

      This is a very good price for a double retractable tether made of premium materials and hardware... One reason is is cheaper is it has only 2 shackles; the 3rd 'quick release' typically used on your harness attachment point is just a loop for cow hitching to your harness- which is what I prefer because I cannot think of a time when we are short handed when I am better off unattached to the boat, and if I must, I can cut it... [Releasing snap shackles under load can bruise/break knuckles/fingers if one is not careful... try it...]

      We are experimenting with a 'trapeze' method of tethering to the boat where several tethers are affixed along the route to be used primarily [as opposed to jacklines] The concept is to change tethers as you move about the boat- always being attached to at least one, but sometimes two when working in between two attachment points... It is not as cumbersome as it sounds, does require non-retracting tethers as the fixed tethers, and greatly reduces the amount you can travel if knocked down by a wave while forward... [I hope this brief description is adequate to make sense...]

      The bottom line is if you need a tether next week, these US$79 Spinlocks are hard to beat.

      Cheers! Bill on SV Denali Rose

  6. We own the Kong dual tether you linked to and a Spinlock 2-clip non-elastic tether. I prefer the Kong to the Spinlock. The only gripe I have with the Kong is one of the carabiners. One of them works fine, the clasp on the other one seems just a bit mis-aligned and doesn't snap all the way closed on its own (I have to push it closed with a finger then it is OK). I don't recall this problem initially so I'm not sure why it does this now.

    I honestly haven't used both legs...on our catamaran I rig the jacklines so I can reach everything I need to outside the cockpit while clipped onto it with the single 6' tether and the clip can free run from one end of the jackline to the other without having to reclip. I guess if the conditions were rougher than anything I've experienced yet, I might hook the shorter leg onto something near the mast if I am there to try and keep me closer to it. Hard to say. Anyway...something to think about when deciding what to do is how you will actually use the tether.

    I don't like the spinlock because the non-elastic tether makes it more of a tripping hazard on its own (a 6 foot loop seems to always hang at ankle height). The clips on it have a smaller mouth and are harder to get clipped onto a jackline or railing.

    The snap shackle on the Kong doesn't have any maker identification on it, only a stamp 316...which I assume means it is 316 stainless. So I can't really answer your question on the manufacture of it.

    I think if you find them on sale you will likely be able to buy cheaper than build...but if you build you could possibly make one with features you like better. A hard decision for sure. Good luck!


    1. Thanks so much for the feedback on the Kong tether - that's really helpful! I'm with you on not liking non-elastic tethers. I prefer the one that we have that retracts which keeps it out of the way when not in use. So hard to know what to do...too many choices :-(

  7. Thanks for posting this! It could save a lot of lives. Wish I had a boat to go with it. ;)

    1. Wow - thanks so much for reading this! I figured this would bore most people.

  8. Tethers are pretty important when you are cruising, especially when you do overnight passages. We bought them of a lesser known brand that was relatively affordable. And, we waited until they were on sale. :-) The rule on Irie was to wear a tether at night. On long trips, we would put our life jacket on and the tether when dusk set in and our shifts began. We buckled ourselves onto the chair in the cockpit and were not allowed to get on deck by ourselves, without waking the other one up. One sleeps better when knowing the other one is connected to the boat at all times. :-)

    1. That's a good rule to have that nobody gets out of the cockpit unless the other one is awake.

  9. We got our tethers down in New Zealand at Safety at Sea. They're both retractable but mine's a single and David's is a double -- I've always wondered what he was trying to say with that decision (mine came first).

    Stephanie @ SV CAMBRIA

    1. I'm not sure where we got our tether in NZ or what brand it is. That's very interesting that yous is only a single :-)

  10. I haven't done any long offshore sailing, but if so, I'd want to be tethered, especially at night. Good post.

    1. It's good practice to be tethered at night. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  11. I got the kong double tether last week, haven't tried it yet.

    1. I'll be interested to hear what you think of it especially given Mike's comments above about one of the carabiners being a bit wonky.

  12. Oh my goodness! I have nightmares about falling over, not being able to release, and bashing my brains out. I did all the same thinking and math, but did not think saving $30 was worth all the sewing and swearing and recovery brownie eating and rum drinking I'd have to do! We have the Wichard dual tether from Defender, on sale. Maybe there's a 4th of July sale?

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