I once suffered the humbling experience of having the mast aboard my boat come down before a cadre of witnesses on board. We were sailing under mainsail and genoa until that fateful moment, but fortunately no one was injured. The mast didn't crash down as much as it simply lowered itself forward into the awaiting bow pulpit with the lower shrouds becoming increasingly taut. As it turned out, the backstay had failed. We made it safely back to shore and I was ultimately able to endure the chagrin and realize that I'd been taught an important, if benign, lesson about inspecting rigs and other gear on board.
One of the areas aboard a sailboat that receives the most regular wear and tear is the running rigging. When you think about it, sheets and halyards and other control lines are subject not only to ongoing movement while sailing, but the loads on them change often, alternately releasing and tensioning the materials in a way that breaks down their structural integrity over time. Because of this, prudent sailors know to keep an eye on their halyards, sheets, and miscellaneous tackle (like barberhaulers, preventers, etc.), replacing these items before theyre too worn. When faced with the prospect of a seasonal increase in breezelike the fallthis practice not only promotes better safety, it helps the boat owner protect his or her investment and makes recommissioning go smoother later on. And even if you don't plan on sailing much this fall, it's a good idea to thoroughly inspect your running rigging and begin making a list of what you'll need to replace and when for the next season. Let's start by breaking down the various components that make up these systems:
Halyards Start your running-rigging check by inspecting your halyards. If youre putting your boat away for the winter (or at least for several months), you should consider removing the halyards from the mast and storing them indoors for the downtime. This will keep them out of harmful UV sunlight, and allow you to inspect them more easily. Just replace them with a messenger line and label that so you wont be confused when putting everything back together a few months down the road.
If you have wire-to-rope halyards, take a close look at the splice that joins the two. Do you see any significant fraying on the line, or is the wire burred anywhere? These are signs that the materials are moving toward the final chapter in their respective lives and you should consider replacing thema failed halyard at sea can rapidly bring on unpleasant and even dangerous consequences.
More common these days are all-line halyards made up of core strands and woven covers. If a halyard is worn near the headwhere it sits on a sheave when the sail is set and the line is under tensionyou may have the option of turning it end-for-end so that the tail becomes the head and vice versa. If theres a splice in the head of the halyard for a shackle, youll need to add a new splice to the tail before switching the line around, so make sure that youve got enough extra length (about four feet) to do that. Just one caveat here: its nice to get a little more mileage out of your halyards in this fashion, but if youre at all uncertain about the longevity of the line, replace it. Just like the standing rigging, your boats running rigging is the wrong place to economize.
The best racing boats use new, high-tech, low-stretch lines that are more than 10 times stronger than steel wire. In order to save additional weight, crews on these boats customarily strip off the covers in nonessential areas where the halyard does not rest on a sheave for long periods under load. If this is the case with your halyards, closely inspect the areas where the cover ends to make certain these are not fraying. Remember, if youre not taking the mast down for the season, leave one halyard rove so that you can use it to go up the mast to inspect and lubricate the sheaves. A burr on a sheave means unnecessary wear and tear on the halyard, so keep an eye out for problems like that when you go up the rig. Dont forget to inspect the topping lift for your spinnaker pole, or if your boat flies an asymmetrical kite, have a good look at the pole-launching lines and the tack line, as well as the sheaves that carry them.
Sheets and Tackles The end-for-end trick we discussed above can work well on sheets too; just be sure that you dont have any frayed or suspect areas in the body of the line. Pulled or cut strands in braided line are indications of problemsthese can affect 20 percent of the lines strength for each strand involved. A failed sheet is usually less of an emergency than a failed halyard, but its nonetheless something you want to avoid, and regular inspection of these lines is a good start in that direction. Youll also want to inspect splices (if you have them) on your jib, genoa, and mainsheets. And remember to have a close look at those seldom-used lines like staysail sheets, barberhauler lines, and the sheets on your storm sails.
Also, take a close look at the lines you use for your vang, cunningham, outhaul, twings, and backstay. On smaller racing dinghies, youll have other lines to inspect as wellmast ram, jib cloth, jib cunningham, etc.and it doesnt hurt to go over every piece of line that moves or carries a load. Again, youre looking for frayed areas or other signs of wear like stiffness and looseness between core and cover on doublebraid lines. It's not enough to simply peer into the boom with a flashlight if you've got an in-the-boom outhaul, you need to remove the system by releasing the forward-end anchor (usually a drift pin) and inspect all the lines in the system closely. While youre doing this, you also want to pay close attention to the condition of the blocks, pins, and shackles that are involved in each of these control systems (more on these items below).
One final word about sheetsdont be tempted to use them as dock lines, this just adds to their wear and tear. Dock lines are usually made of nylon, which stretches more and therefore doesnt shock-load the boat as much. Also, nylon dock lines are a lot less expensive than proper sheets.Blocks and Shackles Chances are that your boat has blocks that have been manufactured in the past five to 10 years, and if so, the maintenance needed is pretty minimal. Even though most block manufacturers fasten their blocks with rivets, you can still inspect them outwardly for wear and stress. Cracks in the sideplates or misalignment between these plates mean big problems in the near future, so replace blocks that look suspect in these areas.
Also inspect the shackles and pins that affix the blocks to their respective areas. Look for elongation, bending, or hairline fractures, which you can see better if you moisten the piece with slightly soapy water or a lubricant. If youre doing a simple, periodic inspection, after you're satisfied that everything is in working order, tape the ring pins and cotter pins in place so they cant back out. If youre disassembling these systems (like vang purchases) for the off-season, rinse them thoroughly with freshwater and lubricate their parts with a spray lubricant like Fastrac, McLube, or Boeshield before you put them away.
Think about these inspections that you'll be making to your running rigging as investments for the future, and you'll be a step ahead of the game the next time you use them. Having taken the time to inspect the gear will give you the confidence that all these systems are in working order, and that's worth more than you know out on the water.
Quick Rig and Deck Check by Tom Wood
Pre-Season Preparation for Race Boats by Dean Brenner
Working in a Bosun's Chair by Sue & Larry
Buying Guide: Cordage Basics