Replacing Your Lifelines

When we acquired our “new” boat I saw at a glance that the plastic-sheathed lifelines were junk. Not only were they too thin–she had been used only for racing, so I guess the wire was underspecified to save a few pounds – but they were all too obviously old and dangerously corroded. I once saw a friend fall overboard because a rusty lifeline gave way, so I knew I would replace them as soon as
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When we acquired our “new” boat I saw at a glance that the plastic-sheathed lifelines were junk. Not only were they too thin–she had been used only for racing, so I guess the wire was underspecified to save a few pounds – but they were all too obviously old and dangerously corroded. I once saw a friend fall overboard because a rusty lifeline gave way, so I knew I would replace them as soon as possible. You can either have new lifelines made by a rigger, or you can do it yourself. Alongside the machine-swage fittings designed for professional use, Johnson Marine and Hayn Marine offer fittings with hand-crimp terminals suitable for the do-it-yourselfer. How hard could it be? I decided to find out.

First I measured the lifelines to work out how much wire to order. Then I had to decide what kind of wire I wanted. PVC-coated 7x7 stainless steel wire is by the far the most popular choice. You can get it in 1/8 or 3/16 thicknesses—with the coating, the 3/16in wire actually measures 5/16in. It looks good, and it’s easy on hands and ropes. The drawback is, of course, the potential for invisible corrosion if water finds its way under the sheathing, as it inevitably will.

Uncoated 1x19 wire—like that used on shrouds—is increasingly seen on new boats and older ones that have been imported from Europe. It has a nice clean look and is much less likely to corrode than coated wire. On the minus side, it is harder on hands, fingers and ropes. Uncoated 7/7 wire would be even worse—plus its rough finish would attract dirt.

A third option is to use low-stretch in braided rope instead of wire. Modern high-end rope can easily match and in some cases exceed the breaking strain of coated wire and the finished job would look good too. However, it is more expensive than wire, I doubt it would last as long, and the ends would need to be spliced. Since Ostara’s new lifelines ended up with 24 terminations—instead of the original 12—this would have either entailed a solid weekend of splicing at home, or paying someone to do it for me.

In the end I chose covered 3/16in 7X7 wire for its user-friendliness. If I’d been off to the tropics or on the high seas I’d have chosen uncovered 1x19, purely for peace of mind. Even though the covered wire won’t last as long, it will be good for at least five years and maybe as long as ten.

The job was spread out over a couple of weekends, as winter weather allowed, but I estimate it took me a leisurely six hours in total, including fitting the stanchions and braces. It was time well spent. The new lifelines and stanchions look great and have greatly improved my peace of mind.

STEP BY STEP


1. Remove the old lifelines. You can see how rusty the old 1/8 wire has become.


2. Johnson Marine sells two types of hand crimping tool. The small bolt-type tool sells for around $50, while the big lever-action tool costs $215.


3. Time to fit the first terminal. Hold the wire against the terminal and mark the cover at 13/4in.


4. Cut the cover carefully and peel it off. This is the most tedious part of the exercise. By the time I’d done this 24 times, I was regretting not having chosen uncovered wire.


5. Place the terminal into the proper die for the cable thickness and tighten the bolt just enough to grip the fitting. Insert the bare wire, making sure the cover is snug against the end of the terminal. The best way to ensure this is to cut the cover 1/16in short of the 1 3/4in mark.


6. Tighten the bolts alternately until you can’t see daylight between the die blocks.


7. Loosen the bolts and move the terminal 1/8in for the next crimp. Repeat step 6 until you have a total of five crimps.


8. Attach the terminal to the pulpit (or whatever fitting you want to start with). If it’s adjustable, adjust it so it is two-thirds fully extended. Lead the wire through the eyes of the next stanchions.


9. Attach the next fitting into position and pull it and the cable toward each other until both are taut, and only then mark the cable for its cuts. I tried to cheat by not fastening the fitting in place and guesstimating, and had to redo a fitting.


10. I bought a $20 bolt cutter that snipped through the coated wire with ease. Bare stainless wire would have been harder to cut.


11. Repeat steps 3- 10 as required.


12. The bolt-action tool works well but it would have taken forever to complete 24 terminations, so I borrowed a Johnson lever-action tool. You only need three crimps with one of these; it takes about a minute to do each terminal.


13. I used a Johnson caliper tool to measure each crimp as shown.


14. Look at the contrast between the new gate fittings and the old ones (below).

____________________________________________________________________

Approx job time: 4 hours



Skill Level: Novice



Tools you will need:

Cable cutter

Sharp utility knife

Pencil

Tape measure

Bolt type lifeline tool OR Lever type lifeline tool

Note: Swage-It tools must not be used

____________________________________________________________________

A question of strength

Johnson Marine says a properly installed 3/16in hand crimp terminal will handle a straight-line pull of 2,500 pounds—that’s around 65 percent of the wire’s breaking strain. This drops to 1,200 pounds for a 1/8in terminal. I can vouch for the strength of the crimps: a couple of years ago I got a spinnaker guy caught around my propeller. The guy had been clipped to the top lifeline. The pull snapped the 3,000lb-breaking-strength lifeline like a piece of string, while the hand-crimped terminals were completely unscathed.

It is rare for a lifeline terminal or the wire itself to fail, unless the wire has corroded. When a person falls to leeward and is caught by the lifelines, the stanchions are far more likely to bend than the wire is to break. A heavy weight coming suddenly on to the lifelines is also going to place a lot of stress on the lifeline gate fittings and on the bow and stern pulpits, so it is not wise to skimp on the hardware you buy.

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