Safety Harness use on a Weta

June 22nd, 2020

Many of you would have read of Bob Shirley’s traumatic experience recently on Sailing Anarchy when he fell overboard from his Weta but fortunately was still tethered to his boat. He writes:

"I went for a sail yesterday on my Weta. It was both a dream and a nightmare.

After 3 days of calm conditions the predictions were for mid-teens westerlies in the Santa Barbara Channel for Friday. I left the Ventura launch ramp at 1 p.m. and headed out into perfect conditions. Relatively flat seas, 12 - 14 knots of wind. I headed straight out into the channel on starboard tack and decided to keep going out for at least an hour. The Frenchys Rum Run is coming up (out to Anacapa and back) I wanted to test myself for that kind of long distance sail.

Sailing comfortably at over 6 knots, my butt on the ama and leaning back into my harness against the tether, Platform Gail was becoming enticingly close. It is about 9 miles offshore from Ventura. So, my goal became to go around Gail. The wind kept picking up and by 2:30 was blowing 14 - 16 kts on the East Channel Buoy. I tacked onto port about 1.5 miles east of Gail. As I rounded Gail to starboard, I saw that it was a close reach to Platform Gilda. So I cracked off and two sail close reached down to Gilda.

After rounding Gilda to starboard, I cracked off to head back to Ventura and unfurled my Gennaker. Gilda is about 7 miles offshore. I had rounded Gilda before and was eagerly anticipating the broad reach home. By now the seas had built to about 4' @ 10 seconds on the East Channel Buoy. As I was surfing downwind I moved to the aft deck of the main hull. I don't usually sail from there, but a lot of Weta sailors do in heavy conditions so I thought I would give it a try. Up until this moment my sail had been a dream, just tons of fun.

I had only been blasting down wind, surfing down whitecaps for a short while when I was suddenly swept off the back of the boat. I don't know what happened, I can only guess that I didn't negotiate a whitecap properly. I was probably between 1 and 2 miles from Gilda at that time. So, now I am being dragged behind the boat by my tether and harness. I could just reach the aft crossbar and tried to drag myself back on board, but the boat was still sailing downwind at a good clip and I couldn't pull myself up.

I was being dragged like a bonita on a forgotten trolling line. I could reach the rudder so I tried heading the boat up into the wind. Nope, she just kept heading down wind. The Gennaker was uncleated, but the jib and main were cleated. With great effort I was able to pull myself up enough to uncleat the improvement. I tried to gybe the boat see if that would slow it down....nope. Nothing would slow the Weta down.

It was like a horse headed to the barn. I think I must have been dragged at about 4 - 5 kts. After several attempts at heading up, heading down to gybe, pulling myself up, I finally resigned myself to being dragged behind the boat until we landed somewhere on the beach. I checked my GPS later and I estimate that I was dragged behind the boat about 5 miles and for at least an hour.

I was wearing an armless long john wetsuit and booties, rash guard and splash smock. I had lost my board shorts pretty quickly. I started getting cold but was fortunate that water was about 60 degrees, so not too bad. With my left hand I was pressing down on the tether to keep my head above water and with my right hand I held the trailing edge of the rudder to steer the boat on what I hoped was the shortest, quickest course.

I ended up coming into the beach just west of the Ventura river mouth. Fortunately, there was a narrow ribbon of sand between the rocks underwater and the cobblestones piled on shore. In fact, the locals call that surf spot Cobblestones. Obviously I was unable to lift the daggerboard, so as I landed the boat perched up into the air until I was able to get to my feet, disconnect my tether, and get to the daggerboard and remove it.

Later inspection revealed a decent sized chunk was taken out of the leading edge at the bottom of the board. It will be an easy fix. A kite boarder ran to me on the beach and helped me pull the boat up onto the sand, out of the water. I was exhausted and could barely speak. My throat and voice were almost inoperable due to salt water incursion I suppose. By this time, the wind was starting to back off, but I still needed to launch and get out through the 1' to 3' surf to get back to the harbor.

I wrestled with the boat in the shore pound and was gradually getting swept down towards the river mouth but was eventually able to jump on and sail out through the surf.
But the ocean wasn't done with me yet. On the 3 mile reach down to the harbor the wind started backing off dramatically. I actually started feeling a little sea sick from the slapping around in the left over seas and light wind and I very seldom get sea sick.

By the time I got to the harbor I had to drift into the ramp at about 1 kt. I got the boat on the dolley, went up to the truck and called my wife to tell her I was running a little late. She immediately became concerned because I could barely speak. I reassured her that I was alright and would tell her all about it when I got home.

Once I did that , though, as she was tenderly taking very good care of me, she threatened to divorce me because she doesn't want to join the "Widows" club that 4 of her friends comprise.
Today I am so sore and stiff I can hardly move, but I am alive and grateful to have survived my ordeal.

Lessons learned:
1. I am f**king 63 years old and I have to realize the my mind writes checks that my body can't cash.

2. ALWAYS wear the tether and harness. Although mine tried to drown me, it actually save my life. What would have happened to me if I wasn't tethered and fell overboard 5 miles offshore? BTW: I wasn't wearing my PFD. I can't wear both it and the harness. Perhaps I will start looking for a PFD that I can wear with the harness.

3. NEVER go more than 1 or 2 miles offshore unless accompanied by other boats and/or a chase boat. Here in Ventura we have an active beach cat fleet that I can sail with. In fact they are going out today (Saturday), but I wanted to take advantage of the lesser crowd at the ramp and smoother seas of yesterday.

It was a dream and a nightmare, but as soon as I fix my daggerboard I will be back out there."

Our first comment is that we are really happy that Bob managed to get back to shore. As the manufacturer of the Weta we would like to give some background on the safety harness.

When we first started manufacturing the Weta we considered the pros and cons of a safety harness.

- You will always be attached to your boat which is the best place to be if you need to be rescued.
- The length of the tether allows you to stack out on the beam rail.
- Has a quick release clip to allow you freedom in the water
- It was manufactured by a division of Gaastra who subsequently became the supplier independent of Gaastra.

- If an inexperienced sailor or someone new to the boat capsizes without releasing the clip, it is possible to be caught under the boat. An America's Cup sailor having his first sail on the Weta capsized and had difficulties releasing. Get familiar with your clip.

We decided on providing a basic harness with quality clips. Sailors were given instructions to unclip as you were about to capsize. After about 8 years regulations changed with safety gear and our supplier would no longer supply the harness. We still kept the pad eye in the cockpit floor so owners are able to purchase a compliant harness and use it to help their safety.

If you do sail out off the coast where you are less visible and have no patrol craft within sight it is always best to plan for the worst case scenario.

- Let someone know that you have gone sailing and roughly your plans.
- Always wear a life jacket.
- Clip a fully charged radio onto your life jacket.
- Put a fully charged cell phone in a waterproof bag in your hatch.
- Use a safety harness with clear knowledge how to clip and unclip (with eyes shut underwater).
- The list could go on with fluro clothing, flares etc but get the basics right. It depends on your adventure.

We would like to thank Bob for sharing his experience. He is a Weta legend and at 63, just a spring chicken. Happy sailing for the next 30 years.

Roger Kitchen
Weta HQ
New Zealand

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