5 Pieces of Gear to Keep Crew Safe Onboard a Race Yacht
5 Pieces of Gear to Keep Crew Safe Onboard a Race Yacht

Safety is a key consideration when sailing. To help keep you and your crew safe on-board, here are 5 pieces of safety equipment you may want to use while racing.

PFD – Personal Floatation Device

A PFD, or personal flotation device, is a must-have on-board for all crew whenever you’re out on the water.

There are different types of PFD’s available that can all do the job, which is keeping the wearer afloat in the event they fall into the water. The two main differences are standard versus inflatable PFD’s.

A standard PFD uses floatation material (generally foam) to keep the user afloat. They are generally a bit bulky, as the bulk of the floatation material is what keeps the wearer afloat.

Most yachties opt instead for an inflatable PFD, which is lighter and less bulky, and generally more comfortable to wear. Inflatable PFD’s use a CO2 gas cartridge to inflate the vest. This can be done using a manual or automatic (hydrostatic) release.

There are pros and cons to each type of release. An automatic, or hydrostatic release can accidentally deploy if it gets hit with a big wave. This can be an issue for offshore sailors in wet and wild conditions, especially those on the pointy end of the yacht. On the plus side, this can be a lifesaving feature if someone gets knocked unconscious going overboard. On the other hand, a manual release relies on the wearer to pull a cord to inflate the vest; it won’t accidentally inflate, but if someone is unconscious when they hit the water, the PFD won’t keep them alfoat.

This article from mysailing.com.au and Genevieve White provides a great overview of different types of PFD’s as well as features and servicing tips.

PFD Features – Integrated Harness, Crotch Strap, Spray Hood & Extras

If you’re racing offshore, you’ll want a PFD with an integrated harness, crotch strap and hood. Offshore racing regulations generally require skipper and crew to have a tether that can be securely attached to jackstays or other strong points on the yacht, preventing them from entering the water in the first place. A PFD with an integrated harness allows the weather to stay securely fastened to the yacht by tether attached to the front of their PFD.

Crotch straps are imperative, as without these the wearer can simply fall through the bottom of the PFD. This does not just apply to an unconscious victim. For conscious wearers who are in the water (especially in cold water) for extended periods of time, as they start to tire or lose function of their limbs, staying in a PFD without a crotch strap is extremely difficult.

If you go overboard offshore in large seas, a spray hood can prevent drowning by protecting you from spray and waves. Other features such as reflective strips, high vis material, an integrated strobe light and whistle can all help to attract attention when rescue is close.

Maintenance & Servicing

Like any piece of equipment, PFD’s require regular inspection and maintenance to make sure they are in good condition.

The manufacturer will supply guidelines as to how often your PFD should be inspected – often annually but sometimes this is extended to every two years.

These checks can be done by the owner; many manufacturers supply self-check guidelines and a service declaration form. This may be acceptable as part of your annual racing equipment audit, or a qualified service agent’s inspection and certificate may be required.

As well as the annual or bi-annual checks, it’s a good idea to self-inspect your PFD at regular intervals. Have a look at the materials, zippers, seams, CO2 cylinder and firing mechanisms to make sure everything looks in good order.

This article from NauticEd covers a number of helpful tips on self-servicing and checking your PFD.

Fit and Use

Before heading out, you should ensure your PFD, including crotch strap, has been correctly fitted to be worn over your wet weather gear (or whatever you will be wearing for the trip).

It’s also a good idea to practice donning your PFD a few times; remember you may be doing this in a hurry, in the dark in a moving yacht – not the best time to try and figure out how it works!

Another great thing to do is to actually jump in the water in a safe environment in your wet weather gear, and deploy your PFD. This will give you a better idea of how it feels once it’s deployed, how to reach and put on the hood, where to find your strobe light and whistle and why the crotch strap is so important! If you do a Safety and Sea Survival course (which is highly recommended, and often required for long offshore races), you will do this as part of your course.

Deploying your PFD also provides an opportunity to practice re-packing it and replacing the CO2 cylinder. If it does accidentally deploy in a race, you’ll definitely want to know how to do this. Here is a video from RFD Australia on how to check and repack their manual inflatable PFD and this video covers checking and repacking an auto inflatable PFD.

Safety Tether

A safety tether is one of the best ways to prevent a man overboard (MOB) situation, by preventing the wearer from falling into the water in the first place.

These are your first line of defence in many situations, and should especially be worn in bad weather, when sailing shorthanded or when sailing at night.

A safety tether can restrict the wearer’s manoeuvrability when working around the deck, but by planning your movements around the yacht and taking a little more time to complete manoeuvres, this can be minimised.

This article from the RYA provides some high-level advice on choosing and using your safety tether.

Single versus Dual-Clip Safety Tethers

Safety tethers come as single-clip or dual-clip tethers, and can come in different lengths.

A single clip tether is just one straight line, where a dual-clip tether has one line that attaches to your harness, then divides into two lines that can be clipped onto different points of the yacht.

With a dual-clip tether, you can always be clipped on as you move around the yacht. When moving from one place to another, you can attach the second (unused) clip onto a new hard point, before unclipping the first.

A dual-clip tether can also provide two different lengths, so depending on where you’re working on the yacht, you can choose the length that’s most suitable. Ideally you want to be clipped on so the tether length is short enough that it will keep you inside the yacht, eliminating the risk of going over the side and getting dragged under the water.

Safety Tether Clips

There are also different types of clips used on tethers. The clip that attaches to the yacht should be a double action gate locking clip. It’s important this clip locks securely in place so it doesn’t accidentally unclip from the attachment point. There are different mechanisms for this, some easier to release than others. It’s useful to be able to release this clip with one hand so that you always have a free hand to hold onto the yacht – this is something you can test when purchasing your tether.

For the clip that attaches to your harness, this can also be a double action gate locking clip, or sometimes a snap shackle is used so this can be released under load. There is a debate as to whether you should use a snap shackle on the harness end. On one side, this enables the wearer to release their tether under load, such as if they’re being dragged under the water, but on the other side this means you are no longer attached to the yacht. It is also possible for this to catch and release without the wearer wishing for this to happen.

Debating over what type of tether and clips is best? This article from Practical Sailor highlights some of possible failure points of safety tethers, including the risk of cross-loading, which led to the death of Simon Speirs in 2017 in the Clipper Ventures Round the World Race. This article from Practical Boat Owner highlights the risk of drowning death if someone goes overboard with a tether attached and is dragged alongside, without being able to release the tether.

If you are offshore racing, you’ll need to check the equipment requirements for the location and type of race you’re competing in, to see which type of tether and clips are acceptable.


Jackstays (or jack lines) are a length of line, often made of flexible stainless-steel wire, low stretch rope such as spectra, or webbing, that run along the topsides of a yacht, providing a place for crew to clip on while moving fore and aft.

Webbing provides a flat surface which won’t roll underfoot, and can be found in many colours – using a bright colour can make it easier to see. The circumference of rope means it can create a trip hazard, but is possibly easier to find, grab and clip onto in the dark.

When heading offshore, yachts should have their jackstays fitted before leaving the dock or mooring. When racing or sailing inshore these are generally not required, but yachts may opt to keep their jackstays fitted at all times.

They should be securely fixed to a secure point fore and aft, and be run in such a way that a crewmember can move from the stern all the way to the bow without unclipping their tether.

As a critical piece of safety equipment, it’s important to keep your jackstays well maintained and ensure they’re properly fitted. If you are leaving jackstays permanently fitted, they should be checked and replaced regularly as UV rays can damage the lines. Regular checks of the lines and attachment points are also important to ensure they haven’t chaffed, worn or been damaged in any other way.

A couple of good articles covering the different types, use and maintenance of jackstays are available from Sail-World and mysailing.com.au. This article from Yachting World covers a cautionary tale of jackstays, and what can go wrong even if they seem to be properly fitted and used.

PLB – Personal Locator Beacon

A PLB, or personal locator beacon is essentially a personal EPIRB.

An EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) is a way to alert search and rescue (SAR) in case of an emergency. When an EPIRB is activated, a 406MHz message is sent out including the beacon ID and GPS location (if the unit has GPS). A MEOSAR satellite detects the beacon and relays the message to earth, alerting a rescue coordination centre to the location and unique identifier for the beacon.

EPIRB’s are larger units used by and registered to a vessel. They can either be manually deployed or automatically deployed if submerged to a certain depth.

A PLB is a smaller personal unit that’s used by and registered to an individual. It essentially works in the same way, although requires manual deployment by the wearer.

This article from Yachting World provides a good overview of EPIRBs and PLBs.


Before using your PLB, you’ll need to register your details with your local emergency response or maritime organisation.

In Australia, PLB registration is done through the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) and in New Zealand it’s Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ).

Maintenance & Use

Like all of your safety equipment, it’s important to know how to use your PLB. It’s a good idea to read the manufacturer’s instructions and practice using your PLB (using its test function).

Before heading out to sea, you should test your PLB following the manufacturer’s instructions. You also need to keep an eye on the battery expiry date, and make sure you have the battery or the whole unit replaced before the battery expires. Normally, batteries last 5 years or 10 years in many newer units.

Accidental Activation

If you accidentally activate your PLB, turn it off immediately and contact the local emergency response organisation. Visit the Australian Maritime Safety Authority or the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand website to view accidental activation instructions.

Personal AIS

A PLB or EPIRB is great in an emergency situation to alert rescue organisations to your distress and location. However, if you go over the side of a yacht in a race, generally the most likely rescue will be from your crewmates on the yacht.

With a personal AIS, the yacht you fell off, as well as other vessels in the area, will be able to pin point your location with their on-board navigation equipment. This makes it much easier for them to come back and find you, especially in rough seas or at night when spotting a MOB can be next to impossible.

AIS stands for automatic identification system and is a global tracking system for ships. The International Maritime Organisation’s International Convention for the Safety of Lives at Sea requires AIS for most commercial and passenger shipping, and it is also used by many pleasure craft including race yachts.

A personal AIS beacon works on this same system. AIS signals are sent over VHF frequencies, and can be received in most cases up to 4 miles, maybe further with a higher antenna. So, as well as your yacht, any other vessels in the area may pick up your distress signal and come to the rescue.

You can find some more information and review of personal AIS systems in these articles from Yachting World and MyBoatsGear.com.