Revised by BoatUS editors in June 2012
Credit: Tom Ward
Rigging Care & Maintenance
A lot of sailors feel that if their rig is at the cutting edge of technology, then it's a "sealed for life" system. Don't be fooled! Having a high-tech rigging system on your boat doesn't mean that it will look after itself. The whole rig needs to be inspected regularly, since very fine tolerances are involved and many of the lightweight materials used to improve a boat's performance are deceptively brittle.
Hauling your boat out of the water for the winter provides the perfect opportunity for inspecting standing rigging. The stays, shrouds, terminals and turnbuckles bear the total load of the mast and are under considerable strain at all times. It is suggested that the rig be inspected once a year to avoid a possible failure the following season. This can range from minor gear failure, which is inconvenient, to a dismasting, which can be dangerous. Normally, there will be warning signs before failure occurs. These take many forms, including broken wires, heavy stains or corrosion, or small cracks in the fittings. Unstepping the mast obviously helps greatly in the inspection process, but it's not absolutely necessary. Using a bosun's chair is another option, making sure that enough very experienced help is on the deck if you intend to do your own climbing. Also, always make sure that you use good line with ratings many times in excess of the load to lift yourself, a similar backup line and a harness that you can fasten to the mast and other safe holds every time you stop. Be very careful not to drop any tools or other gear when you are up. Not only will this likely damage the boat, it could severely injure someone on deck if they are hit. Warn people on deck about standing directly under you. If you are at all unsure of what to look for, your gear, or how to do it, we recommend that you call in a professional surveyor or rigger to do the inspection for you.
Unstepping the Mast
Unstepping the mast requires proper care and preparation in order to avoid unnecessary damage to hardware. If your boat is trailered, frequent unstepping is going to be needed. Set up a system of regular and safe procedures. If the mast is light enough and if it is safe to do so, hold it upright by hand while releasing the shrouds and stays. This avoids kinking, bending, crushing, nicking, or any other damage before the mast is lowered. It's a good idea to make up some small pads of carpet with pieces of shock cord to wrap around the mast before securing the halyards and running rigging. This helps prevent additional wear and tear, as well as keeps some tension in the rig to stop any flapping while trailering.
Never use wire or adhesive tape to secure anything! Wire can cut through rope and permanently mark metal fittings, while tape will leave most of its adhesive behind. Twine or rope is your best bet. The best place to store standing rigging is in a dry basement or attic, protected from the elements. Just make sure that everything is rinsed off with freshwater before it is stored. It may sound obvious, but check all running lights, wiring, and plugs and fitting before restepping the mast. After all, it's much easier to check these things while on the ground, rather than trying it swinging about in the breeze. Remember to always look for electric lines that your mast or boat may touch. Never assume that an electric line is insulated. Take extreme caution here, fatalities may result if you don’t.
Many boats will require qualified professional help and even a crane to unstep a mast. Because of potential damage and danger to you and others, always err on the side of caution. Get qualified professional help if there’s any question.
What to Look For
Even if you don't unstep your mast, you should still inspect your rigging. The turnbuckles and chainplates have to be angled in such a way that they are in a direct line with the shrouds and stays. If this is not the case, the chainplate can bend slightly, causing metal fatigue that could eventually lead to failure. Cracking and distortion on the deck around the chainplate could be caused by misalignment with the shrouds and turnbuckles. Alternatively, it could be evidence of a deck leak. If this is the case, it needs to be dealt with immediately, since water leaking around the chainplates normally enters the deck's core, leading to structural problems. If the leaking chainplate is attached to a wooden bulkhead beneath the deck, then the structural repercussions can be severe. Water seeping into the wood will ultimately cause rot, weakening the bulkhead to such an extent that it is no longer able to support the chainplate and, consequently, the heavy demands of the rig. Look for dark areas in the wood, delamination and a dull sound when the bulkhead is tapped. Consult a repair specialist if you suspect a problem. Also, water down in areas such as this, where there isn’t oxygen, can cause crevice corrosion in stainless.
Caring for Stainless Steel
The best thing for stainless steel fittings is to make sure that they're always clean. When you're hosing down the decks after a day's sail, wash the rigging as well. Using a water-soluble detergent and a mixer nozzle makes the operation simple, and will help to clean areas under the standing rigging. If there are any unusual stains or corrosion spots, you should inspect them before, during, and after cleaning. They should come out with polishing. Use a soft cloth; under no circumstances should you use steel wool, since it leaves minute particles of metal embedded in the rigging which rust. Avoid all other abrasive scrubbing pads as well. If a heavy stain or rust spot cannot be removed by using a cloth and polish, replace the item immediately. If you're unsure of any suspicious corrosion, stress fractures or cracks in the terminals, contact a rigger immediately. If it's cracked, a fitting should be replaced immediately, before it fails and causes severe damage and, worse, hurts someone! For protection from chafing and snagging, use commercial spreader boots and turnbuckle covers. Again, unless you know what to look for, get a qualified professional to look. Rigging failure can be disastrous.
Plastic-coated cables, while they're a good idea, require special care. These wire lines with a hard coating of white vinyl are commonly used for lifelines. The cables are designed to be durable when exposed to saltwater. The better brands also feature ultraviolet stabilizers to prevent solar degradation. Despite this, they still require cleaning. You should never use chemical cleaners unless you are absolutely sure that they won't react with the plastic coating. Kerosene is also a bad idea, since it dilutes and spreads stains rather than removing them. Look for rust seeping through the coating. This is probably an indicator of crevice corrosion down inside. And this could result in the line parting, with someone going overboard.
As with the modern high-tech standing rigging that is now the norm, today's running rigging systems often breed complacency. This is potentially dangerous. You should not forget that halyards, sheets, guys and vangs and other gear are often under tremendous pressure. They are subjected to extreme loads and used in applications where cyclic loading is necessary. For these reasons it is very important to inspect them regularly and to replace them if they look suspect. When trailering your boat, make sure that all of your lines are neatly coiled and secured against the high winds you’ll create as you move down the highway. You should realize that whenever two different materials are joined, such as a wire-to-rope splice, there is a potential weakness. It is therefore necessary to inspect these splices whenever the opportunity arises. Try not to put your running rigging away soaking wet.
Blocks should also be looked at regularly. Look for slow-running sheaves, shackle elongation, rust, metal stretching and stress cracks in the metal or plastic cheeks. Cleaning your block thoroughly will prevent most problems. As with your running rigging, avoid leaving your blocks damp with saltwater. Using lubricants such as Teflon or dry silicone will help to keep dirt out of the mechanical workings. Note that tropical sailing conditions require more conscientious maintenance than the colder climates.
And Finally . . .
Following these basic maintenance guidelines should mean that your sailing is exciting for all the right reasons. Nobody likes gear failure and these suggestions are not a guarantee that it will be avoided. However, it should keep the chances of failure to a minimum, as well as helping your rig perform to its full potential. Happy sailing!