Know how: Learning the Ropes

Your ropes and lines are a very important part of your boat’s inventory. Mark Corke offers some advice on cleaning and care.
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Your ropes and lines are a very important part of your boat’s inventory. Mark Corke offers some advice on cleaning and care.

Overworked and often overlooked ropes and lines need as much care as other onboard equipment. Rope is expensive, so it makes good sense to get the best and longest use possible out of it. Without proper care, any rope is more subject to failure. Remember that your dream is attached to your mooring or dock with just a few lengths of nylon.

Dirt and salt shorten the life of ropes; both are abrasive and will wear away at the fibers, weakening the rope making it stiff and unpleasant to handle. Salt is hydrophilic, so a rope that contains a lot of salt will always feel damp to the touch and will attract even more dirt. To prolong the life of your onboard ropes, clean them at the end of the season. Wash them, dry them, and hang them up in a dry place—not in a damp locker—during the off-season. Most ropes on the average cruising boat are made from either nylon or polyester (Dacron) and are easy to care for. If you have any high-tech ropes, consult with the manufacturer before subjecting them to a dunking in the washing machine.

Tip: To further prolong the life of your ropes, make sure that anything the rope is likely to come into contact with is in good condition. Blocks, sheaves and winches should be free of sharp edges. Tape all cotter pins and other objects that could snag ropes and lines.

NOTE: There was some heated debate here at BW as to whether the correct term is "ropes" or "lines." The verdict? Unless it's performing a specific job, it's a rope. So there.


This jumble of rope came off a small daysailer and is about half of the total inventory of ropes and lines used aboard. The amount of rope used on a larger boat represents a considerable investment.


Check each rope for chafe and general wear and tear, and untie all knots. This braided rope is well worn and will probably be discarded.


I like to wash my ropes in string bags. Use a bag that can be closed tightly to prevent the ropes from becoming tangled in the washing machine. Small zippered lingerie bags are ideal; for large rope, use a pillowcase.


Wash in cool water, and set the machine for an extra rinse cycle if possible. Use a little mild detergent—about a third of the normal amount for a load of this size.

Ropes can be air-dried or dried in a machine on low heat. Remove the ropes from the bags first to cut down on drying time.


One or two ropes can be washed in a bucket. Change the water frequently after the soapy wash until all traces of detergent have vanished.

Chafe Protection


Protecting ropes from wear caused by chafe is probably one of the best things that you can do to extend their lifespan. For permanent mooring pennants, a length of canvas stitched to the rope works well.


Another favorite for chafe protection is a length of plastic pipe slipped over the rope. This is simple and cheap but prevents the rope from bending and can cause hard spots.

Modern chocks are often undersized and may have sharp edges that can shred a rope in a matter of hours. Three-strand nylon rope has good stretch and is ideal for mooring lines and anchor rodes.



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