Our mainsail halyard is wire-to-rope. We are concerned because when the mainsail is fully hoisted, the wire wraps around the winch several times. Is this safe or usual? We are considering changing the halyard to rope only and wonder about the pros and cons of such a choice. We bought our boat last year and had a survey done, but there was nothing much mentioned about the rigging.
Dan Dickison responds:
Thanks for your question. You're right to be concerned, but chances are the situation you've described isn't a problem at the moment. It's good to hear that the surveyor thought your present arrangement was OK; however, you never want to be complacent about something as critical as a mainsail halyard.
Wire-to-rope halyards are often fine. As you likely know, these were once the industry standard, but there are two potential problems with this arrangement. Wire moving over the winch drum, and sitting under load on the drum for prolonged periods, tends to accelerate the wear and tear on the drum. After years and years of such use, the metal of the drum will likely be worn, and in severe cases creased by the wire. If this is the case with your winch drum, I'd recommend replacing both the drum and the halyard.
The other problem is that you never want to have the wire-to-rope splice end up on the cleat or in a rope clutch, because it is the weakest part of the halyard, and having it sit under load in either area will only weaken it further. As your mainsail stretches over time (and the wire itself stretches somewhat) the splice will move closer to the cleat or the clutch. It's good to know that either of the above problems can be resolved by replacing the halyard.
When you consider that running rigging needs to replaced at some point, the cost of a new halyard isn't quite as painful. If your halyard was new in 1999, it's probably got a bit more life left in it, but no more than three years depending upon how and how much it's been used.
Now, the good news about getting a new halyard is that the technology in rope making has been very aggressive in the past decade and manufacturers have embraced new, exotic materials that have proven themselves admirably for these purposes. Not only are the newer products lighter than your present wire-to-rope halyard, they're stronger as well, and most of them don't absorb water. So what's the downside? Well, one disadvantage with all-line halyards is that they usually consist of a woven core inside a woven cover. If the core is degrading for some reason, you won't notice that until the line parts. These failures are pretty rare, especially if you make regular inspections and replace the material according to the manufacturer's recommendations. So for now, I'd suggest you keep a close eye on the condition of your present halyard and the drum, and start looking around at all-line halyard options in the mean time.
Just one final note. When you do upgrade to a new all-line halyard, you'll probably need to replace the sheave at the masthead over which the halyard travels because chances are it was designed for wire alone and it's likely to be worn as well.