It happens every time there’s going to be a crossing situation, a windward mark that’s going to be tough to get around, or when that last little bit of speed is needed. It comes from somewhere in the back of the boat, where the instruction being given probably won’t apply to the person giving it — “HIKE [EXPLITIVE(S) OF CHOICE]!!!”
And with that kind, well-thought out request, you impale yourself with even more force onto the 1/4” piece of wire or Spectra in front of you to squeeze every bit of juice from the sails and foils.
To outsiders, this practice must seem ridiculous – and I think 98% of us would agree that hiking, for lack of a better word, sucks. The remaining 2% of you are out of your damn minds.
Anyone who’s done it knows that serious hiking hurts. It leaves bruises and marks that conjure images of medieval torture or an alien abduction. It leaves you exhausted, never seems to end and rarely seems to be enough for the slave driver in the back of the boat. But hiking is a necessary evil of our sport and when the conditions warrant hiking, it’s the only way to get you around the course with any speed or success. And since we’re all out there to beat the other guy…
I often get the feeling that skippers/owners turn a blind eye to the discomfort of hiking and the subsequent benefits they can gain from more effectively moving their crew’s weight outboard. Worries about the weight of a backpack or getting every possible inch of a halyard stripped to minimize the weight aloft often trump the poorly taped on pool noodle or 15-year-old padding that covers their lifeline.
So what’s a crew to do? Well, we have three products here at APS that we know will take the sting out of sailing – hiking belts. Hiking belts provide a level of padding and protection from the lifelines that is really unmatched by any other product on the market. There are three options from two companies right now: the Skelly Hiking Belt and the Hutchinson Sports Leg Savers in a Max Padding and Brief Cut.
The Skelly Belt is a great option for hiking off of wire lifelines. The exterior of the belt is made up of 9-10 individual crescent-shaped segments of PVC, stacked side by side, that cup the wire as you press against it. By stacking the segments side by side, this allows the belt to more accurately conform to your waist. On the opposite side of the belt, they have put about a quarter-inch of padding to cushion your weight. The belt has an adjustable buckle for fit and two padded neoprene leg/crotch straps that keep the belt in place.
The belt really does a nice job of conforming to wire with the crescent shape of the exterior. Does a good job of spreading the load out on your mid-section as opposed to point loading everything. The construction is solid for hard wear – the waist buckle is beefy and the protective material on the outside is really quite durable. The design is compact and doesn’t limit mobility in any way.
The neoprene leg straps are a little narrow and can occasionally work themselves into an “uncomfortable” position for guys. A little more padding against on the interior would have been nice. Due to size, use appears to be limited to wire lifelines; while it would probably provide some protection on larger padded lifelines, it’s not ideal.
This is a great option for PHRF boats where wire lifelines are the norm; especially on the smaller boats where hiking really makes a huge difference. Any discomfort that comes from the leg straps or light padding is overshadowed ten-fold by the comfort of not hiking on a thin little piece of wire. If you order three or more of these belts at the same time, APS will take an additional 10% off the retail price.
The Hutchinson Sports Leg Savers offer a greater range of protection for hiking, making them ideal for more than just wire. These are great for boats like the Melges 24 that have wider lifelines for hiking, giving you no excuse but to have every ounce of weight on the rail.
There are two versions of Leg Savers – the Max Padding and the Brief, with the biggest difference being the overall size and coverage. As you can see on the image to the right, I’ve superimposed the Brief Leg Saver on top of the Max Padding option (I outlined the Brief in red to make it easier to see…). The Max Padding Leg Saver sits just a little lower above your waist but extends well down your legs compared to the Brief. It’s also just a hair or two wider.
Each puts right around 1-1/4” of padding between you and the lifeline. Each has a stretchy/elastic belt at the waist and leg straps that are Velcro adjustable – the width of the belt/straps on the Brief is 3” wide while the Max Padding’s measure in around 6”. The Max Padding has a built in knife sheath on the back of the belt; this isn’t standard on the Brief.
Both options have facilities to insert battens to give even more support. These battens are made of a high-strength plastic and sit in line with your legs – they are flexible enough to cup around the lifeline while still being stiff enough to help reduce fatigue.
To get the definitive word on the intended weight range and uses for the different sizes, I shot the creator of the Leg Savers, Brian Hutchinson, an email. Here are the highlights:
– I recommend the “Max” to sailors heavier than 65 kgs (approx. 143 lbs.) who sail on single-lifeline boats. This seems to be the weight that requires the extra padding that comes in the Max, and sailors of this weight or heavier are able move this padding around without much trouble.
– Sailors of double-lifeline boats and single lifeline sailors lighter than 65 kgs usually prefer the lighter “Brief” design for the mobility it allows and the aesthetically pleasing “Itallian cut”. Sailors of double-lifeline boats tend to sit on the deck more and thus load the lifeline less. This, along with the lower clearance, begged for a smaller Leg-Saver design. Most of the larger crew (100 kg 220 lbs and above), tend to like the “Brief” design, too. For many of the big crew it is already a challenge to move from side to side, so they are mainly interested in protecting the skin.
– … if I anticipate a long slog to weather on the Mackinaw or Annapolis-Newport Race, I would certainly slip a pair of plastic battens in the front of my Leg-Savers.
Versatile design works for any type of forward hiking – can be used on virtually any boat. Lots of padding to really separate you from the lifeline. Battens definitely help to reduce fatigue and put something else between your body and contact points with the lifeline. Firm design, but pliable enough to conform and move with you as you bend, move around. Cordura outer surface provides plenty of long lasting protection for your investment in these hiking belts. Available in three sizes for different body types.
The Max Padding is a little cumbersome; admittedly, not so much that you won’t be able to perform a task, but you notice that it’s there when you’re moving around. Gets in the way of “the call of nature”. Both sizes can get a little bulky when you have full foulies on. Yeah, we’re reaching a little for stuff to put here…
Once again, the good vastly outweighs the bad. The Hutchinson Sports Leg Savers make forward hiking incredibly easy on any boat, giving you a huge advantage over the competition. I’ll be honest, we struggled a little to find things to put in “The Bad” section for these hiking belts – they really do the job.
To give you a better look at these hiking belts in action, we got Ian out of the storefront and brought him over to Eastport Yacht Club to do some hiking on a Melges 24 and a PHRF boat with wire lifelines. If you’re thinking about these belts, it’s a must see – if you’re not thinking about these belts, Ian is a clown in a few spots and we made him hike off of bare wire at one point, still making it a must see.
A special thanks to Henry Filter (owner of “Wild Child”) and Greg Robinson (owner of “Incognito”) for letting us use their boats for the demonstration.