One of the projects high on the priority list for our impending voyage through the Caribbean was changing out the standing rigging. The standing rigging aboard our 1965 35-foot sloop Althea
had seen more than its fair share of bashing to windward and baking to a salt-encrusted perfection under the tropical sun. At some point after transiting the Panama Canal, the boat's previous owners noticed a large crack in the backstay and had to keep a wary eye on it for several hundred miles as they sailed back toward the States. When Laurie and I subsequently bought the boat, in addition to the deteriorating backstay, several of the lower shrouds also exhibited meat hooks where their strands had started to unwind, while the tops of the old swages were brown with rust. When it comes to replacing standing rigging, deficiency in one shroud usually means that the rest of the lot is on its way out. We knew we'd be better off replacing everything at once.
An awareness that the upcoming passages and the steady tradewinds we'd encounter would test both our crew and boat alike helped cement the decision to take the plunge and replace the entire standing rigging. Doing it ourselves would ensure limited incursion into our cruising kitty, and we knew that the intimate familiarity we'd develop with of every crucial clevis pin, terminal, and load-bearing tang would further increase our confidence.
The first step for us was figuring out how much wire we would need, a relatively straightforward affair accomplished with a 100-foot tape measure. We ran the end of the tape measure up on the main and jib halyards for the forestay and backstay. For the uppers, one of us went up the mast half way to hold the tape measure out at the spreaders. The lowers were also measured at this time. While it's important to measure the wire length as accurately as possible, you're going to add a foot or two to the total length just for insurance, and whoever is supplying your wire is also likely to add a bit of insurance as well, based on the fact that if you cut the material too short it's almost worthless.
The plan was to change out each stay one by one. Althea
is rigged in the conventional manner of most masthead-rigged sloops with a forestay, backstay, a pair of uppers and four lower shrouds. The uppers, forestay and backstay consist of 9/32-inch wire, while the lowers are all 1/4-inch in diameter. We adjust each of these by way of half-inch bronze turnbuckles.
The next step was contacting the Custom Rigging Shop at SailNet. We called the office in North Charleston and talked to the riggers there, giving them our measurements and the wire diameter. Having firsthand experience with degrading swages that can't be fixed in the field, we decided to go with mechanical cone-type fittings and used Sta-Lok terminals. Sta-Lok units have the advantage of being able to be made up on site. With a pair of crescent wrenches, a little Lock Tight, and some silicone, these mechanical beauties allow you to make a wire-to-end-fitting attachment that is stronger than the breaking strength of the wire itself. And somewhere down the road should you need to inspect this critical attachment point, you can disassemble and reassemble them as well.
One popular approach to rigging that is favored by many cruising boats is a roller swage fitting on the top of the stay and a Sta-Lok terminal on the bottom. Because water can eventually weep down into swage fittings, the lower fitting of a shroud or stay is more susceptible to corrosion and degradation. When using conventional swages, check which type of machine the riggers will be using, as swages rendered by a rotary swaging machine are much superior to roller-swage terminals. (See Tom Wood's piece on Swage Fittings.)
|"When we were sure of our length, we wrapped tape around the incision point on the new wire, put it in a vice, and cut it with a hacksaw"|
We changed out Althea
's old rigging while we were tied to the dock, using a halyard to substitute for each shroud or stay we were changing. Once the stay or shroud was removed, we drove a screw into one end of the dock, attached the stay we were changing (complete with the turnbuckle), ran it down the other end of the dock, and drove another screw. This was so that we could determine the crucial clevis-pin-to-clevis-pin length we were aiming to match. When we were sure of our length, we wrapped tape around the incision point on the new wire, put it in a vice, and cut it with a hacksaw, filing the burrs off when we were finished.
After we slid the receptacle end of the Sta-Lok over the wire, we unwound the outer strands until only the core remained. Then we slid the stainless-steel, wedge-shaped cone over the core and rewound the outer strands over it. Sta-Lok fittings have a forming device that sits in the top of the eye fitting and when you screw that together with the receptacle end, the wire is compressed. This compression force from the two halves screwing together makes all the components act as one. Once we did that, we unscrewed the Sta-Lok to add silicone to the inside and smeared a little Loctite on the threads. (Sta-Lok's instructions caution against over tightening. They recommend using no more than the force of one hand on a wrench.) After that we reassembled the fitting and one of us went back up the mast with it to make the upper attachment.
To change out Althea's rigging, we used a total of 16 Sta-Loks. (We also used this system to adapt a pair of backstay insulators for the SSB as well.) While the system is ingenious and easy, it still demands attention. Having successfully completed 14 of the fittings, I was working on putting together one of the insulators and with a bit of bad luck and operator error, I managed to cross-thread the fitting, postponing successful completion of the project and ending the day on a bad note.
Adjusting the spreaders proved challenging, and demanded that we make multiple trips up the mast. For standing rigging that runs through spreader tips like ours, one critical component is the angle of the spreader. The angle of the spreader should not be perpendicular to the mast, but should instead bisect the wire so that the angle of the spreader and the wire is approximately equal above and below—usually that means the spreader needs to be raised about seven or eight degrees above horizontal. Discerning this in a pitching, swinging bosun's chair hampered by the insolent wakes of passing powerboats is a challenge in itself. For the final adjustments, we ended up using a homemade tool consisting of two pieces of plywood screwed together as a makeshift bevel gauge. We used Monel seizing wire to keep the spreader tip in place, adding tension with the turnbuckles after that.
When you're working with rigging, it's always good to remember that when aluminum and stainless steel come into contact, the conditions are right for corrosion. No matter how insulated stainless-steel wire is, water will find its way in and serve as a conductor for electrolysis. Moisture can become trapped beneath rigging tape and in spreader boots, degrading the wire's integrity. To keep our aluminum spreaders insulated from the stainless-steel shrouds, we used self-amalgamating rigging tape on the end of the spreaders. We wrapped our spreader boots tightly at the top, but kept them open at the bottom to allow air to circulate and keep water from becoming trapped.
Like clevis and cotter pins, turnbuckles deserve their own careful inspection. If they haven't been adjusted in a long time, they can be difficult to turn, and the threads can become galled or disfigured. These can also generate a surprising amount of heat while you're turning them, so go slowly and in a controlled manner. Once you get them unthreaded and loose, coat them with a light film of grease to ensure that they won't be as difficult to adjust next time. One of our more high-profile setbacks during this project involved an especially reluctant turnbuckle that had seized together. Just when it seemed like no combination of lubricant or wrench persuasion would help, the thread on the lower fork parted; the offending piece zinged into the drink, and my seaman's curse echoed throughout the marina.
During our dockside rigging endeavors, more than one curious passerby asked if we were going to change up a size in rigging since we were going cruising. The answer was no. For starters, the boat had proven itself well with the existing configuration. Adding more weight aloft—even on a cruising boat—is rarely warranted. Additionally, adding larger wire and fittings can suddenly mean that your whole set of turnbuckles or tangs no longer fit because of the change in pin size. By and large, sailors are not riggers by trade, so that means any changes you make in this area should be carefully considered relative to their consequences.
If your boat's mast is properly tuned, noting this before you start unscrewing turnbuckles will help later if you're unsure of the proper tension. We used a Loos gauge to measure shroud tension and get the mast straight and take the guesswork out of getting the tension in the right neighborhood after we'd finished the change out. The gauge also comes with some helpful guidelines for tuning the rig based on the wire diameter. The ultimate rigging test, however, is going sailing, which we aim to do soon as possible.
Minus the cross-threaded Sta-Lok and the broken turnbuckle, it was a successful project and we've crawled through enough bilges and lazerettes to know that any major upgrade will likely involve a tale or two of woe. We're confident that the boat will be able to take what Mother Nature dishes out once we get underway, and we saved a heap of cash in the process, plus we now have a better understanding of the forces operating on our mast and the demands made upon its components.
Safety Tips for Going AloftGoing aloft is inherently dangerous, so a few tips are in order to make the trip easier and safer. For starters, it helps to be patient. Even the simplest task aloft can become frustrating, especially if neighboring boaters are unaware of the problems their wakes are creating. Slight boat movements get amplified the higher up you go, so make sure your help on deck is aware of this too.
Anytime you go up the mast, use two halyards rather than one if you can. Even if you've only got one person tailing on deck, they should take their time and alternately tail each halyard. And instead of using the halyard's shackle, tie a bowline to the bosun's chair or harness you're using. This will ensure that there won't be any accidental release. If you're using a bosun's chair, wear a harness for additional insurance and attach the second halyard to the harness.
While you're aloft, make sure no one stands underneath you in case you drop a tool or other item. If your boat's halyard winches are on the mast, consider leading the line back to the cockpit so that your deck helper isn't directly beneath you. Depending on how many tools you'll need once you get to where you're going, consider bringing a messenger line along with you and pulling up a bucket to hold heavier items like a drill or hammer. Attaching a line to your precious cordless drill at this height is also prudent.
As you ascend, try to pull as much of your own weight up the mast as you can and work out a rhythm with whoever is winching you up. Clear and direct communication with the person who has your life in their hands is essential, so work out a set of signals before you go aloft because you won't be heard as well from up there. Finally, leave all libations at deck level for after you've finished and are back on terra firma.
Standing Rigging Basics by Mark Matthews
Avoiding and Surviving Rig Failures by John Kretschmer
Swage Fittings by Tom Wood