Inspecting and Replacing Lifelines - SailNet Community
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Inspecting and Replacing Lifelines

This article was originally published on SailNet in January, 2001.

Lifelines are only as secure as their individual parts. Sun and salt spray deteriorate swages, fittings, and wire over time, so check carefully when you inspect the components of your lifeline system.

Itís not by chance that lifelines got their name. As sailors, we expose ourselves to some pretty unstable situations, whether bouncing around on the high seas or just cruising down an inland waterway negotiating wakes from large motorboats. Very often it's our lifelines that keep us from falling in the drink if we're caught off balance.

Over the years, however, lifelines can start to fail due to prolonged exposure to the marine environment along with general wear and tear. For lifelines to live up to their name, they must be inspected regularly to ensure their integrity and your safety. The good news is that warning signs are usually present well in advance of lifeline failures. These signs are very apparent and will show during a proper inspection.

Lifelines are usually fashioned out of 1/8-inch diameter, twisted stainless-steel wire for boats less than 28 feet or 3/16-inch wire for boats 28 feet or larger. This wire is often coated with a white vinyl material that has some UV protective qualities and is easier to hold onto than bare wire. Various end fittings are hand-crimped or machine-swaged onto the ends of the wire to affix them securely to bow pulpits, stern rails, and gate stanchions. Most boats have a top row and a middle row of wire, which are both supported intermittently by stanchions spaced along the perimeter of the deck. Opening gates are frequently included to facilitate getting on and off the boat more easily.

A casualty of corrosion. Rust is a warning sign and any errant strands mandate replacement.
To inspect your lifelines youíll need a magnifying glass, some bronze wool (not steel wool), or a rag with some metal polish, and a good set of eyes. Start at the bow and check the attachment of the lifeline to the bow pulpit. This adjustable fitting commonly terminates with a clevis pin. Make sure all clevis pins are free from corrosion and securely fastened by their cotter pins or split rings. If the end-fitting itself shows signs of corrosion, rub the surface lightly with bronze wool or polish to remove the discoloration, then look carefully for any hairline cracks with your magnifying glass. Pay particular attention to the area of the fitting that encases the end of your wire. Hairline cracks often appear on this swaged or hand-crimped part of the end fitting well before its failure. If you detect cracks on any of your fittings, itís time to replace that fitting and probably all of the lifelines on your boat as well.

Continue your inspection along the lifeline and look for signs of rust or corrosion. Rust often appears on the wire where it meets the swage or crimp fitting, giving the appearance of a brown stain or, in more severe instances, rusty flakes that fall onto the deck upon probing. If your boat is rigged with vinyl-coated wire, this rust and corrosion can be even more severe where the vinyl meets the wire. Saltwater can wick its way into the wire and become trapped. This corrosion will eventually eat away at the metal and cause the individual strands of wire to break. Excessive corrosion or any broken strands of wire are sure indicators that the lifeline should be replaced. Light staining of the terminal fitting that can easily be removed with a rag is probably OK, but you should keep a close eye on that area. Special attention should be given to any part of a lifeline that passes through the middle of a stanchion, since chafe or corrosion is often found at these locations.

"Special attention should be paid to any part of a lifeline that passes through stanchions, since that's where chafe or corrosion occur."
When cleaning lifelines, dirty vinyl coatings can often be renewed by quickly wiping an acetone-soaked rag over the surface. Donít linger though, or the coating will start to melt. If your lifelines are cosmetically in poor condition due to excessive use or years in the elements, theyíre probably in poor structural condition too. Maybe they donít just need cleaning, but replacing, so check carefully.

If after carefully inspecting your lifelines you determine that they should be replaced, you have two options. Do-it-yourself types will be happy to hear that this is a simple project to undertake. You can cut your own wire and hand-crimp the end fittings yourself. Those of you that donít have the time or desire to do it yourselves can either take detailed measurements of what you need, or simply send all your old lifelines to SailNetís full service Rigging Shop to have new ones made for you. These terminal fittings will be machine swaged onto the wire. Machine swaging retains 100 percent of the breaking strength of the wire. Hand crimping retains only 65 to 70 percent of the breaking strength, which is acceptable for lifelines, but should not be used for standing rigging.

Itís important to remember that lifelines are not designed to be the usual thing you grab to keep your balance when moving about on deck. Your boat should also be equipped with a number of strongly attached handholds that you can use as you negotiate the areas outside of the cockpit. Think of your lifelines as being there just as a backup in case you slip or miss your handhold. Lifeline gate-opening fittings should be seized closed with wire during passage-making. In rough conditions or when sailing alone or at night, harnesses should be worn by all crew members so that they can tether themselves to jacklines on the boat. A seasoned sailor does not rely solely on the lifelines for his or her safety.

Netting strung on the lifelines is another way to ensure that kids, pets, and sailors stay on board where they belong.
For extra security in keeping things on deck, rugged nylon netting can be added to your lifelines. Many sailors with children or pets on board will rig up such netting on a permanent basis. If youíre looking for assurance that no equipment, sails, or crew members will be lost overboard, add this netting to your lifelines.

Most lifelines are set up with a turnbuckle or similar fitting at one end that allows you to adjust the tension. These should be tightened so that there is very little play in the wire. The looser your wire, the less support youíll have if you fall against it.

Because lifelines are often used as a backrest when sitting in the cockpit, the addition of specially designed tubular lifeline cushions will be appreciated by everyone aboard. There are a number of different styles and materials available. Make sure the ones you choose are UV resistant. Be aware though that if you are constantly using your lifelines as a backrest, they will be under increased stress and inspections become even more important.

Although we are all guilty of doing this at times, fenders should not be tied to lifelines. Repeated fender attachment will cause undue stress on the lifelines and stanchions as the boat moves about. Fender lines should be attached to a lower point, such as a toerail, cleat, or jib track.

It only takes a few tools to replace lifelines, but if you're at all intimidated by the prospect of doing this, you can always have professionals (like the folks at SailNet's Rigging Shop) do the job for you.
We made our new lifelines on Serengeti in just one day. We bought the needed wire, fittings, and hand-crimping tool several weeks earlier, but we kept putting off doing the actual work. While sitting at anchor one day, we were happy to see a boat we had met briefly a week earlier sail into the harbor. That night we shared a happy-hour drink with Craig and Kim from s/v Walkabout and swapped boat refit stories.

Soon after sunset, we discovered that they had recently redone their own lifelines and had one of those really nice, $182, professional crimping tools. We had purchased the $38 lifeline-crimping tool. We quickly elevated them to the status of "new best friends" when they offered to let us borrow their big crimping tool. This was the motivation weíd been seeking, and we made all our new lifelines the next day. Although both tools give you similar results in terms of strength and looks, we probably saved several hours of time in labor by using the bigger tool.

Unfortunately, we know a tragic story involving lifeline failure. A man who cruised for 12 years on a boat that he bought new was lost overboard. It happened when he was alone on deck and by the time he was missed, it was too late. A corroded, broken lifeline end fitting dangling on the stern rail left horrifying evidence regarding what had transpired. Itís easy to sail around on our boats and put off inspection and replacement of things like our lifelines, but itís never smart.

DIY Lifeline Replacement

If youíve assembled all of your components and reviewed the procedure in advance, you should be able to fabricate all of your new lifelines in a single day.


  • Lifeline wire
  • Hand-crimp end terminal fittings (turnbuckles, pelican hooks, etc.)
  • Cable cutter or hacksaw
  • Sharp knife or cable stripper
  • Pencil or pen
  • Ruler
  • Hand-crimping tool
  • Half-inch, open-end socket wrench

1. Adjust all turn buckles and pelican hooks so that they're 2/3 extended.

2. Strip vinyl cover back to expose bare wire. Bare wire should be 1/8-inch shorter than the end of the terminal into which it will be inserted.

3. Insert wire into the terminal fitting that has already been placed in the correct crimping spot on the tool you're using. Make sure that the vinyl coating fits tightly against the terminal.

4. Crimp according to the instructions for the tool that you're using.

5. After the crimp is made, check for proper crimp dimensions with the gauge provided.

6. Attach the completed terminal at the required position and lead the wire through the stanchions to the next attachment point.

7. Pull the wire tight while holding the terminal fitting horizontal and mark the wire for cutting.

8. Repeat steps 2 through 6 above.

Once you've completed the job of replacing your lifelines, tighten the turnbuckles so that the lifelines are taut, pin them so that they won't become loose, and then sit back and have a Margarita. You'll deserve it.

Suggested reading:

Let the Refit Begin by Sue and Larry

Swage Fittings by Tom Wood

Safety Check by Mark Matthews

SailNet Store Section: Lifeline Wire


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