Running Rigging for Offshore Sailing

Schwab, Bruce

By Bruce Schwab

As you prepare for the West Marine Pacific Cup, you’ll hear this over and over: “This (fill in the blank) is really, really important, don’t skimp on the bucks on this one or you’ll be screwed.” I wish I could say it is a different situation with the ropes on your boat, but alas, it is not. On a long ocean race, problems with halyards and running rigging are among the most common of failures. Here are some suggestions:

#1: PULL THE RIG. You are nuts if you don’t, unless you’ve done it recently or want to spend a lot of time pulling yourself up and down.

#2: SWITCH TO ALL LINE HALYARDS. Wire is becoming a thing of the past. Spectra, Technora, or Vectran fiber all have about the same stretch as wire and are lighter and more flex resistant. Wire is still more economical than high tech line but I would only use it on the main and jib halyards if you need to pinch $. For a non-surfing boat plain dacron line may be ok for the spinnaker halyards but not for much else. The high tech fiber lines give the very best strength to weight ratio when the “single braid” (12-strand) style is used with dacron sleeving added where you need to hang onto it. These assemblies look pretty much like a wire/rope halyard except the wire is single braid line. The only drawback with these as halyards is that they are so light that if you let go of the end of the halyard it blows far away from the boat.

SPINNAKER GEAR: Probably the most common problems are with spinnaker halyards and afterguys. These lines take tremendous flex and wear in a downwind race. What often works for a whole season on the Bay gets wasted surprisingly fast in heavy ocean reaching and running.

MASTHEAD: The 2 most common masthead setups for spin halyards are externally hung blocks off of U-bolts, or a “Tri-sec” type where the halyards exit straight off the sheaves over chafe bars or rollers.

If you have externally hung blocks, make sure the bracket that extends them out from the masthead goes far enough to allow the blocks to swing well clear of the headstay or anything else. Also check the wear at the interface of the U-bolt and the block shackle. These often tend to saw through each other. It is becoming very popular to use spectra webbing or lashing here instead of shackles. Many wraps of spectra can be incredibly strong, light, and can flex forever. Make sure that there are no sharp metal edges touching the line.

For a tri-sec style masthead, if you had wire halyards get rid of them (more on this later). These mastheads are fine as long as the chafe bars or rollers have enough smooth surface area for the rope to bend around and spread the load out. Install new rollers if needed.

Make sure you have 2 spin halyards. It is customary to run at least one spin halyard external for these downwind races. The extra windage won’t hurt off the wind. I prefer not to run more than one external to avoid having too much line flopping around.

AFTERGUYS: The afterguys take a lot of wear at the pole tip so one thing to check is the pole ends. For boats over 35’ or so I highly recommend an offshore style pole end with a lot of bearing area for the rope. For the guy itself it is hard to beat single braid spectra for its wear and flex life. Use a heavy “donut” to keep the shackle from messing the pole end or getting stuck. On larger boats you may need an aluminum donut that won’t split under high load. Svendsens makes a high load aluminum donut that I designed for boats over 50’.

SHACKLES: For both the spin sheet and the guys use large bail shackles. These bear on the donuts better and allow enough room to hook the guy into the sheet shackle bail. Use “internal release” style shackles that can be spiked open under load and also have less of a tendency to “flog off”.

Consult with a rigger on how to properly prepare the spinnaker lines for chafe. There are now very effective urethane coatings that really help. There is also good ol beeswax and leather, which are sometimes hard to beat.

If you have a jib furler, remember to keep the spin halyards out of the way. Flip them behind the shrouds when not in use. One good “halyard wrap” and a halyard can be messed up good.

JIBSHEETS: Go for a line with a high tech core. Dacron is too stretchy for jibsheets unless you want to constantly adjust them for every puff and wave. For Bay racing jibsheet shackles are nice for tacking, but for ocean sailing knots are fine.

Quick overview of line fiber types

SPECTRA: Best flex life. Very slippery so also great for chafe. Very low stretch under oscillating loads. Problem: Under steady high loads, spectra “creeps” or gets slowly longer. Usually not the greatest for main and jib halyards.

TECHNORA: Very strong and low stretch, with little or no creep. Does not have the flex life of spectra and should be protected from the sun. Great for main and jib halyards.

VECTRAN: Also very strong and low stretch, with little or no creep. A little better flex life than technora but not near that of spectra. Great for main, jib and universal (combo jib & spin) halyards. Rather expensive.

There is a lot more to look for, but I’ll have to write a book later. Whatever you do, at least be sure to have a reputable pro check out what you are doing well before you leave!

Good Luck!

Bruce Schwab won the Singlehanded Transpac in 1996 aboard “Rumbleseat”, his highly- modified 1930 “30 Square Meter”. In 1998 he and fellow rigger Jim Plumley took first in Doublehanded Division 2 aboard the 31’ prototype sportboat “Azzura” with an elapsed time of 10 days flat. Bruce has won his division in the Doublehanded Farallones 7 or 8 times but can’t remember. In 1999 he and crew member Joakim Jonsson were awarded the Arthur B. Hansen Rescue Medal by US Sailing for the rescue of fellow racer Gary Helms in the 1999 Doublehanded Farallones Race. Mr. Helms had capsized near the Farallones Island in heavy conditions.

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