Along with a watertight hull and robust steering gear, there’s a third prerequisite for seaworthy sailboats: strong standing rigging.
Before the round-Atlantic voyage we’re now partway through, I worked hard to ensure our Valiant 40 Moon River was up to speed in the first two departments. But I dreaded the expense and difficulty of changing the rigging on her 55-foot mast for a couple of reasons.
First, I had zero experience with wire rigging, but could not afford to bring in a professional rigger at $100-plus an hour. Second, the Morris Yacht Club on City Island, New York, where I kept Moon River didn’t have a crane big enough to pluck out the spar. I’d have to do everything with the mast up.
As it turned out, the answer to both problems was the same: as long as I didn’t rush, I could change a couple of shrouds or stays at a time with the mast up—and learn how everything was done along the way.
First to come out were the chainplates, which were all original on my 1988 boat. Had the mast been down, the cheapest thing would have been to pull every chainplate and send the lot to a metal shop for copying. But instead I phoned the Valiant factory in Texas for a replacement kit—10 enormous slabs of metal with bolt holes already drilled, plus the new bolts themselves. The total came to about $1,000, which is a lot of money, but not too much for something so important and long-lasting.
Extracting the old plates was like pulling teeth. Each chainplate was fixed to bulheads and knees by eight or so large bolts. The bolts themselves were usually easy to remove with wrenches at each end. But getting the chainplates out through the deck sometimes required dismantling cabinetry and, in a couple cases, resorting to brute force. By the time I’d bolted in the new plates—often finding that the supposedly matching bolt holes didn’t always match—I swore I was ready to give up boats forever.
Next came the rigging, and now, more than ever, I wished I could have been working with the mast on trestles at waist height. Then I could simply remove and coil the shrouds, take them to a friendly rigging shop, and return a week later to pick up the brand new replacements. Instead, as in the Johnny Cash song, I was going to have to do it all “one piece at a time.”
With the help of my wife, Adele—one of us winching, the other climbing—we took accurate measurements of every stay. For this you need a big tape measure and a calm day so it doesn’t blow around. Put one end of the tape on the pin at the terminal held in the turnbuckle on deck, then stretch out the tape until you reach the terminal holding the eye to the tang up the mast. Check that everything is straight and true. Write down the number and move on to the next stay. Simple.
Once we had measurements, I went to several rigging outfits for quotes and finally chose Rigging Only in Massachusetts. Their prices were good, and they were generous with advice—something I needed in buckets.
The cheapest option would have been to get Rigging Only to make up 10 new stays to my measurements with swaged fittings at each end. However, despite the care I’d taken, I was concerned that any mistake—even an error of an inch or two—could end up with me receiving a useless new stay. So, to be safe I asked Rigging Only to make up each wire about a foot too long and put a swaged fitting at the top end. I also asked that they provide me with Sta-Lok mechanical fittings to install at the bottom ends.
The entire order, including 370 feet of wire, swaged fittings, Sta-Lok fittings, new turnbuckles and Sta-Lok insulators for the SSB antenna on my backstay, came to a whopping $3,400. Again, that’s a lot of money. But because I was doing the work, the buck stopped there, literally.
Removing two stays from the mast at a time, I laid them out on the ground next to their replacements, measured precisely and, armed with a stack of good hacksaw blades, cut the new ones to length. Now the Sta-Loks were ready to go on.
I have to say that the sheer responsibility of the job scared me at first. Was I being too cheap in not hiring a rigger? Should I chicken out? Would I ever sleep peacefully again, or would I always be wondering whether the mast was about to come down because of my shoddy workmanship?
In the end, though, I reasoned that a lot of other people have used Sta-Loks successfully and, therefore, so could I. You can also find a lot of good advice online, and I got a lot of patient instructions over the phone from Rigging Only. Heart thumping, I got to work.
Actually, once you’ve assembled your first mechanical fitting, you realize it’s not that hard. These gizmos are amazing—they are simple, astoundingly strong, and can be put together by anyone with even a little DIY experience.
After preparing each batch of shrouds, I went back up the mast to pin the wire in place while Adele did an initial tightening on deck. Each time both of us breathed a sigh of relief when we saw that the finished product was, indeed, the correct length. It took a while, and many trips up the mast, but we got there, and by the end, against all odds, I’d turned into something of a rigger.
Still, you never stop learning. As we crossed the Atlantic, I paid no attention to the fact that the upper lifelines (a small-diameter wire with no covering) were pressing hard against the new cap shrouds on each side of the boat. Imagine, then, my surprise when in the Azores I noticed the lifelines had actually chafed right into the beefy shrouds, eating about halfway through two of their 19 strands.
I immediately put a protective plastic sleeve between the lifeline and shrouds to stop the chafing, but the damage that had already been done worried me. Maybe nothing would break, at least not for a long time. But there was no getting around the fact that the integrity of this rigging that I’d worked so hard to assemble and install was no longer 100 percent.
So, when we got to the Canaries, where there are several rigging shops, I bit the bullet. I took down the two cap shrouds and ordered replacements with swaged fittings at the top. Then, using new internal compression cones, I reinstalled my old Sta-Loks on the bottom.
It was an expensive lesson about chafe. But at least this time I knew what I was doing. The main thing is I can once again trust my rig.
1 This is a Sta-Lok terminal disassembled. Sta-Loks are very similar to Norseman terminals. In a Norseman terminal, however, the forming cup (center) is an integral part of the terminal body (left). Otherwise, the two go together in much the same way.
2 Slip the terminal head onto the wire nose first, then carefully unlay the outer strands of the wire with a small screwdriver. The hands doing the job here belong to Loric Weymouth, of Lyman Morse Boatbuilding, and you can see he’s quite good at doing it neatly. Keep a firm grip on the wire a couple of inches down to keep it from unlaying more than you want. Also, be sure you are using wire with a left-hand lay.
3 Next, slip the slotted cone over the wire core, narrow end first. You’ll probably need to tap it a bit with a hammer to get it to slide up the core. When you’ve got the cone all the way on, there should be about 2mm of core sticking out the end, like this. It’s not a bad idea to measure to be sure.
4 Now re-lay the outer wire strands around the cone, and then slide the terminal head down the wire over the cone. The key here is to make very sure that none of the wire strands fall into the slot on the cone. The slot must stay open so the cone can compress around the wire core.
5 Note that it is possible to get the cone on the core without unlaying the wire. If you cut the wire very cleanly, you should be able to carefully work the leading edge of the cone’s narrow end between the core and the outer strands. Then you can slip the cone up the core. Again, you need 2mm of core sticking out the end, and no strands should fall in the slot on the cone.
6 Next, dress the threads on the terminal head with some Loctite, which helps to prevent galling. If the threads gall, the terminal will be ruined and you’ll have to start over again with a new one. With a Sta-Lok terminal, you must also remember to drop the forming cup into the terminal body before threading it onto the head.
7 Now carefully tighten up the terminal with a wrench (or two wrenches if you can’t use a vise). If you feel any hint of galling, immediately stop, open the terminal, and add more Loctite.
8 After you’ve tightened up the terminal all the way, immediately open it again to check that the outer strands of wire have properly formed around the base of the cone, as shown. Again, be sure no strands have fallen in the slot. Here you also see why you must use wire with a left-hand lay—the outer strands must lay around the cone in the same direction as the terminal body screws on the head.
9 The final step is to drop a marble-size dab of sealant into the terminal body. Then screw the body back on the head, tighten it all up nice and snug, and you’re done. Do not tighten it up as hard as you can! Overtightening the terminal will damage the wire and cone inside.
Mechanical Wire Terminals
Swaged terminals are crimped onto rigging wire with a hydraulic press. This makes for a very strong terminal-to-wire join, but cannot be performed by do-it-yourselfers. A mechanical terminal, also called a compression terminal, on the other hand, can be attached to the wire with a couple of wrenches.
Also, unlike swaged fittings, mechanical terminals can be disassembled to inspect wire ends for corrosion.
There are several makes available, all differing in detail but working on the same principle. The outer layer of the 1 x 19 wire is wrapped over a small compression cone, while the inner layers pass through a hole in the middle of the cone.
The cone fits into a socket in the terminal, sealant is applied, and when the two halves of the fitting are screwed together the cone and wires are compressed and gripped between the cone and the terminal body.
It’s a simple and easy system, with the added benefit that fittings can be re-used time and again, with only the cone needing to be replaced.
Sebastian Smith, his wife, Adele,
and their daughters, Looli and Zephyr,
all live and voyage aboard the
Valiant 40 Moon River