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Hold That Line

Old-time sailing—horn cleats like these can still provide one of the best systems for making some lines fast.
Sailors dream about weird things. For centuries, one recurrent theme in the nighttime thoughts of seafaring folk has been cleating lines. After all, lines, whether sheets, halyards, or control lines, are what we use most often.

The centuries-old cleat pattern of twin shanks protruding from a base does have certain advantages when we want to put a rope in place for a long period of time. These items have evolved over time into a plethora of styles including horn, boat, hollow, Herreshoff, deck, dock, and spar cleats. Almost the first sailing lesson any of us receive is how to weave a line around these horns so that it stays there—in some cases so that Popeye wouldn't be able to untie it with a marlinspike.

For mooring lines, the standard horn cleat can't be beat. But for running rigging requiring frequent tweaking, the standard pattern has numerous drawbacks, most notably the time required to unweave the line from the horns, make an adjustment, and re-weave the line around the shanks again. After doing this for hours on end to the mainsheet on a day of fluky winds, we might all dream of a better cleat at night.

What is wanted is a cleat that allows instant release and the ability to make adjustments quickly. Fortunately, sailors' propensity for dreaming of strange mechanical things is happily matched by their ingenuity for inventing solutions to nagging problems. So it is with cleats—the years have brought us jam, Clam, and cam cleats, as well as rope stoppers and clutches. So many solutions have been invented, in fact, that sailors are sometimes confused by both the terminology and the proper usage. Let's take a look.

For lines that live under moderate tension, like the halyard on this Hobie Wave, simple jam cleats usually offer sufficient holding power.
Jam Cleats    These devices come in a variety of forms. The earliest of these was a simple adaptation of the two-hole-based spar cleat. By sharpening the V where the base met one shank of the cleat, a rope could be literally "jammed" into the narrow constriction, making it easy to hold tension on the line with minimal strength of the arm. These are ideal for mainsheet controls on small boats where the sheet is often hand-held for hours at a time.

Jam cleats evolved into a different pattern over time. The basic premise is to draw the rope into a wedge-shaped groove fitted with gripping ridges or teeth to draw the line downward into the narrower part of the wedge. The more tension that is put on the line, the deeper it is drawn into the wedge and the tighter it is stuck—a little like a Chinese finger puzzle. The line can be adjusted toward the sailor without un-cleating, and can be simply pulled upwards and out of the gripping teeth for instant release.

"Jam cleats are everywhere these days, including sewn onto sails for holding leech and foot lines."
The jam cleat concept is available for lines as small as 1/8 inch and as large as 5/8 inch. Most are hard plastic, but a few are metal. Most are made for top entry of the line, but some are built for either a port or starboard side entry. They are everywhere these days, including sewn onto sails for holding leech and foot lines. They are available with and without bails to hold the line captive, and some even have small sheaves built in to exit the line through a spar or deck. In short, the variety is amazing. The name Clam cleat often confuses sailors—it is a trademarked brand name of a line of jam cleats made in the UK and marketed worldwide. Due to that, some other companies refer to their models as V cleats.

When choosing a jam cleat, make sure that the rope size is within the range of the cleat and note that jam cleats often do not work well on lines with a slippery cover such as Olefin or polypropylene. Be aware that the drawback to a jam cleat is that a line under very heavy tension may be difficult to release without taking it to a winch. For lightly loaded control lines such as traveler controls, a jam cleat is often the best choice.

The six cam cleats on the deck of this 30-footer (three on either side of the line stoppers) make for easy adjustment of the lines they tend.

Cam Cleats    The next step in the evolution in line control is the cam cleat. The thinking behind the cam cleat is similar to the jam types, but with the added twist of making the sides of the cleat open for even faster and easier release under tension. The cam cleat has the same downward and inward facing gripping teeth as the jam cleat, but mounted on two revolving eccentric cams, from which it draws its name. As the line is tensioned, the cams are pulled more tightly together, gripping the rope with ferocious tenacity. And yet the line can be pulled in easily and released by simply flicking it out of the maw of the cams.

Early metal cam cleat models on bushings have been improved by placing the cams on ball bearings. New units are made of plastic or carbon fiber for greater strength without added weight. Many are even color-coded. Several styles of fairleads to hold the line captive are available either in front or on top of the cams. The cleat assemblies may be mounted on swivel bases, have angled pads available, or have swivel mounts with a sheave lead for mounting on a spar.

It's hard to find a boat today without a cam cleat mounted somewhere. Main and jib sheet controls on small boats; traveler lines and furling line on medium-sized boats; pole lift and downhaul on big boats—I've even seen rows of them on the rail of megayachts for hanging the fenders. As always with cleats, observe the line size carefully when purchasing and be aware that cam cleats can tear the cover of some hard, exotic lines in short order.

"I sailed on one boat that had a two-foot length of stainless-steel pipe stored next to the stoppers to place over their handles and pry them opennot an inspiring idea."
Line Stoppers
    These devices are principally a thing of the past though they're still available. In looking through one catalog recently, I didn't find one in sight—a shame since they have some uses. A stopper is effectively one-half of a cam cleat mounted on a base. The cam usually had a short metal handle with which to open the cam and release the line. Line stoppers garnered a fearsome reputation because a line cannot be simply released when it is under a heavy load. The line must be taken to a winch and the load taken off the cam before most mortals have the strength to move the handle. I sailed on one boat that had a two-foot length of stainless pipe stored next to the stoppers to place over their handles and pry them open—not an inspiring idea.

But where height is a problem, a horizontal line stopper is ideal if more than one heavily stressed line must be taken to a single winch. I had one on a cutter I once owned for the spinnaker halyard, which had to share a winch with the staysail halyard. It worked just fine as long as I remembered to take the pressure off the stopper before trying to release the halyard.

A miniature variation of the stopper called the Lance cleat is still in use on many boats. The problem of release is solved by pulling the line out of the cam's teeth sideways where it then rides on a small sheave for adjustment

Rope clutches like those on this cabin top allow multiple lines to be serviced by fewer winches—a time, labor, and money-saving concept.
Rope Clutches     The advent of rope clutches is the real reason that line stoppers are nearly defunct. While we were all cursing the inability to open our line stoppers under load a decade ago, the clever engineers at several companies were making improvements in the inner workings of rope clutches. Early rope clutches had a deserved reputation of slipping under load, tearing the covers off of good cordage, and looking ugly, all at the same time. But incremental improvements have made these problems things of the distant past.

Instead of using a cam action to hold a line fast, a rope clutch squeezes the cordage between a toothed plate and a base, or between a series of semicircular jaws. The main difference is that mechanical advantage is engineered into the release handle so that the clutch can be opened even if the line is under tremendous pressure. The top plate is spring loaded so that the line can be drawn toward the operator, but the line is held from slipping back in the other direction when the handle is closed. So now we have what we were dreaming about—a cleat that will hold the line fast, allow easy trimming in, and yet give us instant release under load.

Rope clutches are available in several sizes and almost all styles are built for one, two, or three lines. A few are even available for horizontal mounting. What rope clutches can do for all sailors is to save the three things we all love to save most— weight, space, and money. By leading three control lines through one three-gang rope clutch and then to a winch, we save the cost, weight, and space of two winches and three cleats. And the newer clutches work so well that we can have confidence that the system will be reliable and easy to use.

Again, when buying rope clutches you must ensure that the line size you are using matches the range of line the clutch can handle—don't guess, measure. While clutches are kinder to most cordage than most jam and cam cleats, slippery line covers may give disappointing results. Certain high-tech double-braided lines with a very firm core and soft cover may present a difficulty with premature line wear. And when the bearings, springs, or teeth on any type of cleat, stopper, or clutch become worn, it's time update with the latest technology—these things were built to make sailing easier and more fun, not harder or more frustrating.

If you dream of better cleats after a day of sailing, it's probably time you looked at newer ways of holding the line on arm fatigue. After all is said and done, we should all have better things to dream about than cleats.

Suggested Reading:

Shaefer Mid-Ship Cleat by Mark Matthews

Leading Sail Control Lines Aft by Sue & Larry

Mounting Deck Hardware by Tom Wood


Buying Guide:  Cam Cleats


Last edited by administrator; 08-01-2006 at 04:38 PM.
Tom Wood is offline  
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