Stay Safe at Sea With a Custom Jackline System
A study by the U.S. Coast Guard found that from 2000-2011, drowning accounted for 73% of sailing deaths. It’s a senseless tragedy when a sailor goes overboard because they aren't properly tethered, or when the tether is too long and they get dragged alongside the boat and drown. The worst part is that these deaths may easily have been avoided if the sailor had installed a safe and useful jackline system.
Longtime Sailrite customer Captain Donald Quackenbush is a veteran sailor with 28 years and 100,000 miles of sailing experience. He’s been a 100 Ton U.S. Coast Guard Master Captain for 20 years and, as a member of the National Boat Handling Committee, created the Man Overboard System that is taught by the U.S. Power Squadron nationwide and is also available as a college course at the University of West Florida. He has generously offered to share his vast knowledge of sailboat safety measures with us. Everyone should feel safe on the water, and Captain Quackenbush’s system is set up in a way that, when properly installed, will prevent you from going past the toerail and getting dragged through the water.
One of the greatest benefits of Captain Quackenbush’s system is that it offers sailors the “third hand” so often needed while at sea. The tethers are shorter than most popular tether options on the market, meaning you don’t have to hold the tether with one hand as you move around the boat. This hands-free system gives the sailor freedom of movement compared to commercial jackline and tether setups. It enables the sailor to lean or pull against the tethers while working, offering support and stability. The three key parts of the captain’s jackline system are the location of the padeyes, the length and construction of the jacklines, and the short legs of the “Y” tether. We’ll cover all three aspects below and show you how to install this lifesaving jackline system on your boat. Captain Quackenbush has installed his jackline system on several customers’ boats over the years with excellent results and a perfect safety record.
The first step is to install the padeyes in the correct locations. Most sailboats will require eight padeyes. Install a padeye right outside the companionway so you can hook yourself in as you exit the cabin during severe weather. The helmsman should always be tethered while on watch, so install a padeye in the cockpit (a second padeye at the aft end of the cockpit may be needed on larger boats). A padeye should also be attached near all four corners of the cabintop so that the jackline runs down the halfway point between the toerail and the boom as near as possible. This should make it possible to reach the boom and toerail but not go past either point.
Finally, two padeyes are installed on the foredeck, one center aft and the other center forward. The aft foredeck padeye should be reachable from either forward end cabintop padeye without unhooking. The padeye at the forward end foredeck should be forward enough so that you can reach the anchor, windlass, etc., but aft enough so that you can’t fall off the boat at the foredeck. Captain Quackenbush recommends through-bolting the padeyes as you will put a lot of pressure on the system if you slip or a wave sweeps your feet out from under you.
It’s not necessary that the padeyes are placed the entire length of the foredeck and cabintop. The most important factor in padeye placement is that you should be able to move around the entire boat and never be unhooked in severe weather. So as long as you can reach the next attachment point without unhooking yourself from the current one — and the padeyes are far enough from the edge of the boat to not be able to fall overboard — the system is set up correctly.
You may be wondering why you can’t just use the cleats to attach the jacklines instead of installing padeyes. The reason is that the entire goal of Captain Quackenbush’s system is to keep you on the boat at all times, and the cleats are too close to the edge of the boat. Even with a short tether, you would still roll over the side of the boat. During inclement weather, this is the last thing that should happen. It’s incredibly difficult to hoist yourself back on board when you’re being tossed around and soaked by a merciless storm, especially if you’re a solo sailor. Usually, it’s impossible.
Once you have the padeyes installed, the next step is adding the jacklines. You will have three jacklines on your boat: one each running along the port and starboard sides of your cabintop, and one running aft to forward on the foredeck. The beauty of Captain Quackenbush’s system is that with jacklines running along the cabintop and down the center of the foredeck, and with shorter tether lengths than commercial offerings, nothing will ever be around your feet and ankles as a potential tripping hazard. Captain Quackenbush uses Dyneema or Spectra webbing for his jacklines. Both have very little stretch under load, have good UV resistance, and the padeye knot or hook holds the webbing up at each end, making it easy to hook in. Another benefit to using webbing is that it is flat and, therefore, won’t become a tripping hazard should you step on it. Never use wire or line as they can roll underfoot. Be sure to pick a webbing color that is visible at night and easy to see.
Update: In 2021 Sailrite updated its webbing inventory. We now offer a Super Heavy Duty Polyester Webbing (#100PLHDYL) with an even higher breaking strength rating than Dyneema. Its bright yellow color is for safety and visibility purposes. We highly recommend this webbing for jacklines.
The jacklines are removable for easy repair and storage. Sew a hook to one end of the jackline to clip to the padeye with repeated or heavy stitching (Tex 90 or heavier), and then tie the other end to the opposite padeye using an anchor bend and two half hitches. Or, you can tie both ends if you choose. Because the webbing is nonstretch, the jacklines don’t need to be tied super tight. The sun is your jacklines’ worst enemy, so storing them when not in use will help to prolong their life. Captain Quackenbush says his jacklines last about five to ten years, and he sails about 250 days a year. To check the quality of your jacklines, take them to a quiet location, hold the webbing up to your ear, and flex it. If you hear crackling, that’s a sign your jacklines are becoming brittle and need to be replaced.
Now that you’ve got your padeyes and jacklines installed, the final step is sewing your own tether for your harness. Captain Quackenbush recommends a Y tether, meaning it’s shaped like a Y with one attachment point at the harness and two legs that attach to the jacklines. The central hook should be heavily sewn with a box X stitch and heavy UV thread as well. Go over it several times as you sew it. The hook that attaches to the harness should be brightly colored and easily visible at night (Suncor Poly Grip Harness Clip #103763 is a great choice) should you ever need to unhook in an emergency in poor visibility.
The tethers are made with tubular webbing with a heavy bungee cord inside to shorten them further when not in use. One tether leg should be shorter than the other so that you have a choice of tether lengths based on where you are hooking in on the boat — the leg for the foredeck jackline is typically the shorter one and the cabintop leg is typically the longer one. Determining the lengths of your tethers will require some measuring and experimentation on your boat. Create a Y tether with longish legs and tied on hooks, then go out on deck and determine the distance you need from the jacklines to just reach the toerail and boom with considerable pressure. Do the same with the foredeck jackline. Once you have your measurements, you can finish constructing the tethers and add the internal bungee.
The genius of the two-leg tether system is that you can move around the boat from one jackline to another without ever unhooking. Two tethers also allow you to be attached to a jackline and another spot on the boat, such as the mast, for even more security. This is a huge safety advantage and can be the difference between staying on your feet or being tossed around when the boat is pitching and rolling during rough weather.
Proper tether and jackline lengths are determined by the size of the boat. Every boat requires a separate setup. Jacklines should be located halfway between the toerail and the mast/boom. The padeyes should be placed so that you can move from the cockpit to the jackline, and then from one jackline to the next without ever unhooking. Simply switch back and forth between the two tethers as you move around. Keep the unused tether hooked back on the D-rings of your harness when not in use. Spending a bit of extra time during the planning stage — taking measurements and experimenting with padeye placement, and jackline and tether length — will ensure your safety while sailing. And that peace of mind is priceless.
The problem with commercial tether and jackline designs and kits on the market, according to Captain Quackenbush, is that they allow the sailor to fall off the boat and get dragged through the water. The tethers are so long they drag around your feet, getting tangled and tripping you. This requires you to constantly hold the tether up off the ground, leaving you with only one working hand and creating a very dangerous situation in rough weather. Likewise, jacklines located along the side decks also present a serious tripping hazard. The inconvenience of these commercial tethers and jackline kits is why so many sailors don’t use them in favor of faster and easier movement around the boat. A deadly gamble.
We at Sailrite feel confident in recommending Captain Quackenbush’s jackline system to our customers. In fact, here’s what Owner and Vice President Matt Grant has to say about this system:
“Captain Quackenbush is a longtime Sailrite customer with a keen understanding of safety and self-reliance at sea. His system makes perfect sense and his sole motivation in helping Sailrite to write these instructions is to save lives. Sailrite applauds Don and others like him who encourage safety at sea and are willing to freely share ideas.”
Here are all the supplies needed to install Captain Quackenbush's jackline system on your boat:
We’re hoping that by spreading the word about this great safety system we can help keep sailors safe and — most importantly — stay on their boats! Sailing is a wonderful sport and hobby, and it should be enjoyed to its fullest at all times without the worry or concern of your tether and jackline system failing you.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is the opinion of Sailrite Enterprises, Inc., and is not corroborated or verified by a sailing safety authority. Sailrite shall not be held liable in the event of injury or death. Use at your own risk.
This blog was updated in January 2022 to mention the new webbing selection Sailrite offers.