If you've ever had the unfortunate experience of watching a rig topple over the side, chances are you are more diligent now when it comes to maintaining the many fittings that keep the mast standing than you once were. And if your sailing experience doesn't include that kind of calamity, you've either been doing something right all along, or the sailing gods have simply opted to keep you in their favor. Regardless, you still might want to avail yourself of some essential tips for keeping your rig in the upright position, without relying too much on the whimsy of fate.
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.
There are some other causes of swage failure that are derived from the method the wire is affixed to the terminal end. Swaged terminals are manufactured to make a close fit over the end of wire rope through a process that essentially cold welds the two together. The section to the terminal around the wire is passed through a set of rollers under enormous pressure. On some swaging machines, one pass is all that is required, on others, two passes. But the fitting can be work-hardened if it is over-swaged, or left in the machine too long. If so, the fitting can become brittle and develop hairline cracks in a much shorter span of time than if it had been swaged properly. That alone will tell you that when you consider replacing your rigging, it pays to go with a reputable rigger.
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.
Another potential trouble spot is where the shroud meets the spreader. At least once a season, it's prudent to check under the spreader boots to ascertain if anything out of the ordinary is going on in this high-stress area. As noted, while most failures stem from the lower terminals, if there are any bending problems or broken strands in the wire, the shroud will need to be replaced. Stainless steel wire often offers telltale signs before it fails, usually rust or broken strands. Remember that stainless steel needs to breathe, and should not be wrapped in rigging tape to guard against corrosion. Even in the best tape jobs, water will find a way to penetrate and make its way into terminal ends.
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.
Ideally, any stainless steel parts are kept from coming in contact with an aluminum mast through using bedding compound, or even a layer of electrical tape to insulate the backs of stainless blocks and pad eyes. If you are faced with the prospect of removing frozen fasteners, a hearty dose of patience can be augmented by repeated dousings with lubricants, the use of a torch, or a selection of drill bits.
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.
Rod rigging is more often used aboard racing boats than on cruising boats. While an argument can be made for rod rigging lasting longer than wire rigging, it won't take any kinks the way wire rigging will, which means one ill-placed docking can mean the end of a shroud. And, there is no way to inspect rod rigging short of x-ray, which presents the possibility of surprise catastrophic failures. While rod rigging may last longer than wire, it's somewhat of a moot point since the terminal ends will wear out before the other components do.
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:
- The best way to check rigging is in the bosun's chair. Use two halyards and tape the shackle shut to keep it from accidentally opening and spilling its precious cargo.
- Rinse standing rigging as high as the stream from your hose will reach and as often as possible, especially after a day of sailing in spray. Dirt and salt spray will cause corrosion, but most of it will rinse off stainless steel standing rigging.
- Inspect regularly for any unusual corrosion, especially near the lower wire terminals. Lubricate and "work" (screw out and in a few turns) all turnbuckles at least once during the season, lubricating the threads lightly with a lanolin-based protectant such as LanoCote.
- Replace any damaged clevis pins, cotter pins, or rings.
- Don't tape heavily over stainless steel parts or use other adhesive coatings—stainless steel needs fresh airflow to prevent corrosion. Tight wrappings of leather or tape invite corrosion and make inspection difficult.
- Don't make tight radius bends over the ends of spreaders, since this will permanently deform the wire and reduce its strength. The proper radius for all 1 X 19 stainless wire is a minimum of two cable diameters, or one half-inch for a quarter-inch cable. Use more LanoCote where the stainless wire bears on an aluminum spreader end to prevent electrolytic action. Use professionally made spreader boots and turnbuckle covers.
- Inspect for any unfair strains at tangs and chainplates because these will damage turnbuckles, bend terminal fittings, or cripple the wire.
- Add toggles to keep the wire and fittings straight, or solve the problem causing any misalignment.
- Check each tang and clevis pin for unusual wear, corrosion, mis-matched sizes, or deformation.
- Use a water-soluble detergent, but be kind to the environment by selecting a biodegradable type and using it sparingly.
- Use a soft rag with the soap and inspect the wire as you clean and rinse the wire. And rinse well with freshwater.
- Don't use chlorine bleach, or any product containing chlorine, on stainless steel—it is a major source of chemical corrosion. Inspect for broken strands in the wire, deep pockets or pits of corrosion, or for cracks in swage terminals. Any of these conditions ought to make the cable assembly suspect, and replacement over the winter should be considered.
- Don't use steel wool to remove rust stains, since it will leave bits of ferrous metal in the strands of the rigging wire that will cause more corrosion. Instead use fine bronze wool or a plastic scrubber such as the fine 3M ScotchBrite pads in conjunction with a fine polishing compound.
- Wax after cleaning, or use a protectorant such as Boeshield to care for the stainless.