For starters, there's no hard and fast rule about how often a boat needs new rigging. The only rule is this: eventually it all needs to be replaced—wire, toggles, turnbuckles, clevis pins, swage fittings, and couplings. Standing rigging will obviously last longer in relatively benign, freshwater environments. In the semi-tropics, however, many surveyors recommend that rigging be replaced every 10 years. Most rig failures are caused by corrosion, which can lead to metal fatigue. Rigging professionals say that 99 percent of the time the lower terminal is the weakest link. While on rare occasion the wire itself can also fail—usually due to an alignment problem or a bending problem—the bottom line is vigilance when it comes to keeping the rig up.
Relentless exposure to salt water spray, sun, temperature change, and the fact that gravity directs water into the swage, all contribute to the lower fittings wearing out before those that are higher up in the rig, which by virtue of their location are usually out of the way of most of salt spray. Add temperature changes, especially in northern climates, and the life of the lower terminal is a hard one indeed. Then add several thousand pounds of load thousands of times through various tacks, jibes, broaches and the like, and one can see a larger picture emerging—one in which these fittings endure heavy and repeated stresses in a corrosive environment.
All it takes is one failure in the many swages, cotter pins, wires, and end fittings to set an unstoppable chain of events into motion. The best way to avoid a major failure is through prevention. Every year, the swages of your rig should be closely inspected. Use fine bronze wool or a Scotch-guard pad to clean off any tarnish and help you uncover any cracks. By patiently using a magnifying glass to inspect the terminals you'll be able to identify the smaller yet problematic hairline cracks. Keep in mind that the cracks in swages function essentially the same as cracks in a windshield. Over time, they only grow larger, and weaker. Any cracks in the swages or wire mean that particular shroud needs immediate replacement. You can also run a cottonball along the entire length of the shroud. If it frays, a closer inspection is necessary. Any errant strands or meat hooks qualify the shroud for immediate replacement. When one stay is found to be deficient, it means the other stays are also likely suspects, even if these don't exhibit outward signs of wear. There are few things worse than enduring a& stormy night at sea anxiously willing the rig to stay up. Regular dockside inspection is the key to escaping such a fate.
Likewise, you'll want to keep an eye out for anything abnormal when it comes to the spreader itself, closely examining that all clevis pins, and rings, and the socket. Often in the course of examining a rig, you will come across two different types of metal in contact with each other, most often stainless fasteners and aluminum fittings, which sets up a situation in which corrosion is all but assured.
In addition to the conventional swaging, there is also the choice of mechanical fittings to consider, most notably Sta-Lok and Norseman. These allow cruisers and do-it-yourselfers to prepare their own rigging without the use of heavy machinery, and also allow repairs in out-of-the-way destinations with relatively simple tools. These fittings are as fully secure as swages, and most create a bond that is stronger than the cable itself. While the initial price per fitting is usually more than that for conventional swages, the ability to effect your own repairs beyond the reach of professional riggers makes these options attractive investments. With a coil of wire and some Norseman or Sta-Lok terminal ends onboard, all it takes is some simple hand tools and a little skill to make up a new shroud or stay. And the old mechanical terminals on a questionable shroud or stay can actually be unscrewed, fitted with new cones and reused. Some cruisers use mechanical fittings for the lower terminals, and conventional swages for the upper ends.
Your may shudder at the thought of investing in new rigging, but considering the alternative and the potential danger it poses to other expensive equipment (insert a quick mental tabulation of replacing your mainsail, headsail, furler, and then add the price of new rigging on to this), to say nothing of the dangers it poses to the crew, this is money well spent.
SailNet's Rules of Rigging
It's good to know that, whatever your rigging needs might be, there are specialty shops all around the waterfront. In fact we've got one right here—SailNet's Custom Rigging Shop. The professionals there can accomplish a wide-variety of rigging jobs, from replacing all your standing rigging, to splicing wire to rope, to assembling new lifelines, and more.
Here are some tips from the staff at SailNet's Rigging Shop on how to get the longest life out of your standing rigging: