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Simply hoping that your rig is trouble free is not a good strategy, says Chris Lab

You need to keep up to date on the condition of your standing and running rigging, both before you launch in the spring and continually throughout the season. Your rig is an integrated system, and anything that happens to any part of it can quickly turn your sailboat into a slow-moving powerboat.

Rig types
The most common type of standing rigging is 1@19 wire made from either 304- or 316-grade stainless steel with swaged terminals. Type 316 stainless is more corrosion resistant than 304, but 304 is about 15 percent stronger. While swaged terminals function well, many cruising boats instead have reusable mechanical terminals, such as those made by Norseman or Sta-Lok. These are easier on wire than pressed swage fittings, which sometimes may be overpressed when formed and are therefore more likely to fail.

Rod rigging made from noncorrosive Nitronic 50 alloy is now standard on dedicated raceboats, although PBO and Kevlar or carbon-fiber rigging are increasingly common on high-end rigs. Because it is lighter than wire and stretches less, rod rigging is also now more widely used on cruising boats.

Start on deck
Standing rigging does require care. Start by cleaning all the shrouds and backstay and forestay fittings you can reach. Use a soft cloth soaked in WD-40. It may take a little rubbing, but you should try to remove any surface rust and dirt that has accumulated during the off-season.

When the wires are clean (we’ll assume it’s 1X19 wire), inspect each one carefully with a magnifying glass. Look for distortions or cracks in the swaged or mechanical terminals and make sure there are no broken strands in the wire. A cracked swage or even one strand of broken wire means that the entire section of rigging needs to be replaced. It also means other sections of the rig may have problems, since all parts tend to need servicing or replacement at the same time. While conducting your inspection, make a written note of the condition of every wire and end fitting in your maintenance log.

The fact that only one strand of wire in a shroud is broken doesn’t mean the remaining 18 will do the job. Rather, you should be especially careful because this is a sign of potential rigging failure. Replace all worn clevis and cotter pins. I’ve replaced all my cotter pins with cotter rings because they are easier to install, I don’t need pliers to remove them, and I don’t have to use rigging tape to cover them to keep them from cutting or damaging a sail. If you don’t find any problems with your magnifying glass, the next step is to apply a dye to the swages and terminals; I use a blue dye that is sold in welding-supply stores. You can make your own dye by mixing food color with a penetrating oil, such as WD-40. This step is important, particularly if the wire rigging is over five years old. Use an acid brush to paint the swages and fittings, and let the dye dry overnight. If there is a problem, you will see a line in the metal.

Also check that all swages are straight and replace any that are bent. Any deformation is a sure sign that the swage was not pressed properly at the fabrication stage. Use the same procedures to check the terminals and swage fittings on your stainless wire lifelines.

Roller furling
Take the time to inspect the swaged terminal on your forestay, which is usually located inside the roller-furler drum where it is hard to access. You’ll probably have to remove the lower furler drum to get to it; be sure to carefully follow the manufacturer’s instructions for your particular furler. Once the drum is off, you can slide the extruded furler foil up a few inches so you can inspect the lower end of the forestay and the terminal. Clean the area thoroughly and, if possible, dye-test the terminal before reinstalling the furler drum.

The final chore on deck is to closely inspect all turnbuckles and toggles. Make sure they are rust free, with no cracks or deformities, and that all toggles and clevis pins move freely. If you are unsure about any part of your rigging, always have a professional rigger take a second look.

Above the deck
Assuming you have an assistant to help you and have the proper tools in your tool bag, you should go up the mast and work your way down from the top. Check the forestay and backstay terminals, the mast crane, and all halyard sheaves. Use WD-40 to free them up if they are stiff. Once they are working well, apply a dry lubricant, such as McLube, to each one. While you are at the masthead, check the electrical connections for the VHF radio antenna and the anchor and running lights. Also make sure shackles are tight and moused shut with stainless wire.

Check the tangs or T-ball fittings where shrouds are attached to the mast, and be sure the hardware has no corrosion, cracks, or deformities. If your mast is aluminum, you might see some corrosion around stainless-steel fittings that are mounted on the aluminum. If the corrosion seems extensive, take a digital photo and show it to a rigger. He or she can advise you on how to proceed. As you come down the mast, wipe all the shrouds clean with WD-40 and a soft cloth and check all standing rigging for “fishhooks” or snags. Follow the same procedure you followed for the on-deck inspection. Finally, check the spreader tips, particularly where they contact shrouds, for corrosion or damage. If you see something that doesn’t look right, consult a rigging specialist.

The final step is to inspect all halyards, running rigging, and running backstays. Look for chafe, and make sure the shackles are not bent and work without binding up.

Maintenance schedule
It doesn’t take a great deal of work to keep standing rigging in good working order. Give the rig a freshwater rinse after each sail if you can. This isn’t always practical, but a polish with penetrating oil will go a long way toward minimizing surface corrosion.

Tune the rig
Perhaps the most important thing you can do when you’re commissioning your boat is to be sure the rig is properly tuned and isn’t over- or under-tensioned. A poorly tuned rig is far more likely to suffer a failure than one that’s correctly tuned.

Side issues
There are conflicting opinions about the wisdom of putting plastic sleeves on shrouds. Some think sleeves accelerate corrosion because they keep the wire or rod from getting adequate ventilation. Sleeves also prevent you from making a quick visual inspection.

Most riggers agree that the lifespan of standing rigging on a well-cruised boat sailing in moderate wind conditions is about 10 years. If the boat spends a lot of time in the tropics or does a lot of offshore sailing in high winds, its rig life will be shorter. Collisions or groundings can also affect a rig’s lifespan.

The most important things you can do for your rig are to keep it clean and inspect it often. When you’re sailing in a good breeze, the last thing you want to worry about is whether the mast might come down. Regular inspections and maintenance during the season will reduce the chance of an unpleasant surprise.


Checklist
  • Inspect every swage and terminal for corrosion, distortion, or wear.
  • Check all wire stays, shrouds, and halyards for broken strands.
  • Make sure all turnbuckles have cotter pins or rings.
  • Inspect all turnbuckle toggles for cracks, wear, or distortion.
  • Clean shrouds, stays, and halyards with a soft cloth and penetrating oil.
  • Dye-testing swages will show up cracks you may have missed with a magnifying glass.
  • Inspect spreader ends and mast tangs for wear, corrosion, or distortion.
  • Lubricate all masthead sheaves.
  • Make sure all shackles are tightly closed and secured.
  • Tune rig properly.


Safety Aloft
Before going up the mast, take the following precautions.
  • Be sure the boatswain’s chair you are using is in perfect shape. Attach it to two halyards, one a primary halyard, the other a safety backup.
  • Lead each halyard around a winch, and have a knowledgeable assistant handle the grinding duties. Having a second person tailing the primary halyard and tending the backup halyard provides additional security.
  • Make sure tools and other gear you take aloft can’t come adrift and hit someone below.
  • Take a tool line up with you so you can haul something up on the line instead of having to go back down and get it.


Chris and Beth Lab and their daughter, Yvette, are in their fourth year of full-time cruising aboard their Passport 40, Aquamarine II. After leaving Panama, they headed west to French Polynesia. You can follow their adventures on www. svaquamarine.com

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