A Careful Survey Can Avoid Big Rigging Problem At Sea

A good percentage of my sailing experience has been in the lower Caribbean, where rigging components are subjected to a severe field test administered by the winter trades and square waves of this tropical region. For fellow sailors who dream of departing for those balmy seas, I’ll try to avoid a discussion of engineering and physics in the following article, and instead give you some tried and true methods to help you keep your masthead pointed skyward.

There is plenty that could go wrong. The cruising sailor has a host of metallic enemies called corrosion, crystallization, elongation, work hardening, and deformation. Remember the old ditty, “Step on a crack and break your mother’s back”? Well, if you see a hairline crack and ignore its presence, you may hear and experience a whack that could not only break a back, but put a large dent in your cruising kitty.

Remember, a bluewater voyage can push your rigging to its limits just as a marathon pushes a runner, and it doesn’t matter if your components are ultra-modern or traditional. The sea doesn’t discriminate. As captain of your vessel, you have the responsibility to keep things in order and ensure the safety of your crew. You won’t get a serviceman to call on you 5 or 500 miles offshore to replace a defective or work-hardened and failed rigging component.

But enough scare! The probability of it all coming down on you and yours will be drastically reduced if you get out your weapons and wage the good fight. The most important weapons in your defense are your eyes, which should be used for frequent inspections of rigging components. Most rigging failures that cause dismasting occur at the deck level, but this fact doesn’t negate the need for inspections aloft.

In my capacity as a marine surveyor, I use a 10 X magnification device for inspections, and there are dye test kits available to the public. But in most cases, the eye and a monocular can detect even the smallest cracks.

Where to begin? The knees of course, where all good rigging examinations begin. So go on deck and get down in the position of the humble inspector. Here is the chain of rigging events; First we have the hull attachment, next the chain plate, clevis pin, toggle, turnbuckle, swage or mechanical fitting, wire to upper swage or mechanical fitting, then clevis pin to tang. In that chain, it will be the weakest link that causes the failure.

Chain plates

Let’s start at the bottom and face our first obstacle, the Catch 22 of rigging inspections — chain plates. Chain plate failures offshore have left me a little more humble and very suspect of stainless steel fittings and components. In most cases you can only inspect one side at best and never the deck penetration point on inboard chain plates.

To worsen matters, unless your builder has required certification of its origin and series, you don’t even know from which continent this miracle metal hails! My best advice is to look for tell-tale cracks above deck and rust bleed below deck. If the chain plates are in the 10- to 15-year-old bracket, and the vessel has seen considerable sea service, jack them out and replace them.

Several good riggers have told me that when cover plates leak, core deck material becomes damp and accelerates the normal degradation process of this miracle material. It can then work-harden and crystallize and look pretty right up the moment it fails.

So if ocean voyaging has a strong call on you, and your rigging components have age coupled with stress, just bless yourself with new ones — and spare yourself the nightmare of failures when off watch on a weather leg.

Clevis pins and turnbuckles

I have not seen that many clevis pin failures, but the heads will crack, and split rings — if used — will often be displaced with sheets or lines. I prefer cotter pins on unprotected turnbuckles, although split rings will allow you to jettison the rig should disaster strike and it all goes over. You won’t need expensive wire cutters, only pliers. If you use split rings, protect them with a boot or tape. When we finish a passage, we take the boots and stay-covers off so that Mother Nature can wash away the damaging salt and sea dirt that comes from Africa and other dusty places.

Toggles, whether cast or strap, can crack through and elongate and should be regularly inspected for defects. Turnbuckles also will crack through. I prefer the old open barrel bronze versions to the modern stainless steel ones, which in many cases have built in water-catchment systems that accelerate problems.

Defects turn up in more than half of the inspections I do on used boats equipped with swaged wire terminals, and usually those are cracked swages. All rigging components, if bleeding, should be cleaned with bronze wool or 3M pad and inspected for cracks. The swage itself is weakened upon conception by work-hardening, especially with role die equipment. Cracks usually erupt from inside, where mill scale dirt, salt, etc., accelerate wastage.

To thoroughly inspect 1-by-19 wire shrouds, they need to be relaxed and hand inspected for deformities and broken strands. The usual point of failure is at connecting points where broken strands and bird caging occur most frequently.

Inspecting aloft

I usually stop at the spreaders and ask to be secured by the winch crew. At the first floor stop, I snap on above the spreaders and begin my visual inspection. As a matter of discipline, I try to start at the terminals, then move to the toggle pins and tangs. Pay special attention to the conditions of tang attachments, where you will often see wastage on bolted-through tang nuts. Those will need to be replaced.

Pay special attention to spreader attachment and alignment. There are many different types of spreader attachments, some of which allow too much movement. I usually suggest wire lifters if I suspect there is so much vertical movement that a spreader could become grossly misaligned in severe seas.

Having accomplished this portion of the inspection, have the deck crew secure the halyard to a cleat and begin the process again. Carefully inspect each component at the head inclusive of shieves and any weld-on members for attachment. Look at all the welds, where cracks can often cause serious failures.

While you’re up there, look at the navigation lights, antenna connections, telltales, and topping lift attachments and fittings. When it’s time to descend, I always tell the deck crew I want to be lowered and not dropped down the deck. So when you get down, compliment the crew for not dropping you!

The mast and boom

As a matter of habit, I now sight the mast up the track and inform the owner which way the head if out, which usually results in a surprised owner. Now inspect the mast and boom attachments, bails, blocks and lines. If any link in the chain has given you cause to worry, retrofit and write it off to the cost of sailing.

Remember the adage, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That’s especially true when it comes to sailboat rigging. This past winter we sailed our 42-foot sloop down the Thorny Path that we call the humility trail. We sailed over 3,000 nautical miles in winter seas and did four complete rigging inspections along the way.

We also did courtesy inspections for our fellow sailors and noted defects that ranged from cracked cast stainless-steel toggles to cracked through half-inch stainless-steel chain plates, broken stainless steel yokes, cracked swages and turnbuckles and other problems – all of which could have caused dismasting.

If you find yourself with a defective part out in the hinterland, one of your neighbors usually has one drifting about in a box or drawer and he is in the same boat you are in.

So do your inspections with discipline on a regular and thorough basis and thank God that he loves sailors.

Happy sailing, and keep your mast head high.

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