Dragging A Safety Line Behind Your Sailboat: Good Idea or Waste of Time?
-Capt. Randy & Capt. Bo
Imagine the nightmare of falling off your sailboat and watching it sail away without you… Could a line dragging behind the boat save your life?
While underway on long cruises, particularly when including overnighters and single-handing, we run a 100’ safety line off the stern of my sailboat. The theory has always been that if someone fell off the boat while underway, they would have approx. 15 seconds to gather their senses and grab the line, then leisurely pull themselves to safety.
But will this work in the real world? Captain Bo and I decided to put it to a controlled test. First, we donned appropriate PFDs, checked the wind, and headed for the Gulf of Mexico. Conditions were ideal for sailing, but admittedly, probably not the conditions that would cause someone to fall overboard. Wind was averaging 10 kts, seas were 1-2’, and sails were trimmed to hold a speed around 4 kts with autopilot.
First, with Capt. Randy at the helm, Capt. Bo descended the swim ladder to see if was possible to hang on while underway. After that successful test, we took turns sliding away from the boat while holding onto the safety line, then pulling ourselves back in. Third was to jump off the bow, watch the boat “fly” by, grab the safety line and return safely to the boat.
In true “MythBusters” style, we confirmed our hypothesis. At 4 kts, under sail, it is not only possible to grab the safety line and pull yourself back in, but more importantly, by just hanging on for a minute or two, you actually act as a sea anchor! By resting on the safety line, the sailboat quickly slowed down to 1.5 kts…very easy to pull yourself back in, even if you weren’t feeling 100%.
We now continue to drag a safety line of 100’ of brightly-colored polypropylene line (it floats, old halyards sink!) with a white float attached. But only for peace-of-mind. The ultimate result of the test was to remind us to use jack lines, tethers, PFDs, and a lot of prudence and common sense!