Choosing The Right Rope
Revised by BoatUS editors in June 2012
Like many other boating products, rope is not a static commodity, but is still evolving and improving. When you buy, read the latest product information. Most boaters will use either one form or another of nylon and perhaps also polypropylene. See also “Docklines”.
For most docking and anchor lines, standard nylon is a good choice. It has great strength, “gives” under load to absorb energy, and is relatively inexpensive. It's also easy to handle and resists the harmful effects of sunlight better than other synthetics. It’s the rope of choice for anchoring rode. (See Anchoring) Nylon comes in strands and braided. Three strand is usually used on anchor rodes because of its stretch and resistance to abrasion. Braided, more commonly seen on dock lines and in sailing rigging, will snag easier than stranded line, (a serious detriment when scraping across the bottom of the sea) although it’s usually easier to handle and has great strength. Some types of stranded lines are softer than regular 3 strand and less desirable for boat use. If you see stranded nylon in a hardware store, for example, that’s very inexpensive, beware. Some types of braided lines are stronger and less subject to snagging. Don’t just buy rope. Read the various product descriptions each time you buy to help you make the right choice.
Normal loading should be nowhere near a rope’s breaking strength, certainly no more than 25%. This means your lines will stay on duty even when stressed well beyond the service intended, resisting big wakes, strong winds, and other challenges. Remember that breaking strength decreases with age and wear and knots and kinks in the line will weaken it.
Most people know this as “that yellow rope” that’s commonly used to tow skiers, wake boards and dinghies. Because polypropylene rope floats, it’s handy to have around for multiple purposes such as these. Made of synthetic fibers, polypropylene is almost as strong as nylon but is considerably less resistant to the sun’s UV rays and will normally not last long. You shouldn’t use this type of rope for more than a year, two at the most, depending on usage and degree of exposure to UV. This line will actually begin to visibly disintegrate as it ages. But if you replace it regularly it has its uses.
Your boat’s running rigging is not the place to economize. If you purchase quality rope designed for a specific use, you’ll do more than improve your boat’s performance: quality rope, properly cared for, can be used repeatedly for progressively less demanding jobs, giving it a long and useful life.
With today’s new high-tech synthetic fibers and advanced rope construction, you can buy rope that’s 10 times stronger than steel with extremely low stretch. Many racers and cruisers have switched from wire to all-rope halyards; others have also opted for high-strength, low-stretch, lightweight ropes for their running rigging.
All-rope halyards have several advantages over wire. Wire is hard on your hands and gear. Rope is easier to splice, it won’t scrape paint or anodizing from your mast, and you don’t have to decide whether or not to rely on a worrisome rope-to-wire splice. The primary disadvantages are that rope is thicker, so it has more windage aloft (but around half the weight), and even the ultra-lowstretch fibers elongate more than wire. Quality rope costs more than wire but is easier to install, lasts longer, and can be recycled to a less demanding capacity.
To avoid hassles out on the water, color code your lines so that they are easily identifiable to your crew.
Examples of colors to use are:
- Mainsail sheet and halyard—White
- Spinnaker—Red and green for guys
- Vangs and travelers—Black
Color coding also helps distinguish the different lengths of dock lines.
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