Features September 2001 Issue

Market Scan: Running Rigging

Finding the right rope for the job used to be easy: polyester braid served almost every purpose on board, except for anchor rode. For most of us, it still does. But it's worth having a close look at some of the fancier rope. It does have its uses.

Do you occasionally contemplate replacing the frayed, stiff, dirty running rigging on your boat with some of the beautiful new stuff that hangs in reels on the wall of your chandlery? 

A good-sized chandlery, like the West Marine
store pictured above, will have a standard
variety of spooled rope that will serve all the
purposes of most sailors.

Unlike having the luxury to replace all the furniture in your house at one time, which few of us ever can afford to do, replacing running rigging is within the realm of most nautical wallets.

As a guide to how close you can come to reality, this Practical Sailor market scan takes a look at cheap, medium-priced, and expensive approaches to fitting out a 32-foot sloop. For a different boat size, you can ratchet the figures up or down proportionally and still get close to the actual cost to do that glorious renewal of the lines that hoist, trim, lower or control the sails aboard your boat.

For actual tests for abrasion, splicing, and ease of handling, you can consult the many reports in Practical Sailor on rope intended for halyards, sheets, anchor rodes, etc. If you keep back issues, consult the annual indexes (published in the last issue of each year) or call PS for a steer to whatever interests you. (The Customer Service number is 800/424-7887.)

You can call it rope, line, braid, cable, plait, cordage—they're all correct, although some purists like to use "rope" to refer to the stuff in a generic sense, and "line" when referring to rope that has an identified purpose; e.g. a jib sheet is a line made of rope. The main exception is the anchor rode, which is occasionally called a line, or even a cable, but never a rope.

The names of the lines themselves are of course based on function. To the unanointed, it may seem like jargon or overblown nonsense, but when a sailor asks for some action to be taken with a halyard, sheet, rode, pendant, topping lift, lazy guy, or after-spring, it may make a considerable difference in what happens next to you and everyone aboard the boat.

The little cords that landlubbers call string or twine? Sailors call it "small stuff," or "sennet" if it's braided. If it's marled in bundles, it's called "selvagee." Aboard big sailing ships, it was anything less than about 5/16" in diameter.

Whatever you call it, rope was one of mankind's first tools. Long before learning how to spin or weave, man created rope of leather, vines, sinews, grass, hair… anything long and stringy.

Papyrus rope found in the Great Pyramid in Egypt and dating from 4000 BC has exactly the same twist and "lay" as modern rope.

In what might be regarded as a "middle" period, rope was made of natural fibers—Abaca (a member of the banana family), sisal (also known as henequen), jute (it's that soft stuff of which fuzzy, brown twine still is made), hemp (Cannabis sativa, and you know what else they get from that...), flax (a.k.a. linen) and even cotton (as in ordinary clothesline).

Abaca was for several hundred years the most often used to make what was commonly called "Manila." The Philippine Islands produced 90% of the world's supply. Manila is murderous on the hands, as in splicing, because it extracts all the skin's oil and leaves the skin dry and vulnerable to manila's sharp-edged fibers.

In that era, rope was made on 600-foot ropewalks—long, low narrow buildings in which the rope maker, a bundle of stuff round his waist, walked backwards while twisting up strands in his hands. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow described it in his poem "The Ropewalk."

In 1793, about 40 years into the Industrial Revolution, an Englishman, Joseph Huddart, invented the first rope-laying machine. John Tolman, of Boston, came up with a braiding machine in 1854. John Good, in New York City in the late 1800s, made practical improvements and patented his machines. By 1900, most of the world's rope was made (and still is) on machines based on Good's work.

Rope's next metamorphosis came with nylon, which was developed by DuPont to reinforce automobile tires. Without the need for better automobile tires, sailors wouldn't have had this marvelous new rope.

For sailors and their boats, nylon did to manila what rayon, the first man-made fiber, did to silk.

With the genie out of the bottle, the chemists quickly produced a string of thermoplastic (meaning flexible) filaments with bewildering names. (There are 17 official classes of such long-chain arrangements, one of which is called spandex, without which rockstars and health-clubbers might as well head home.)

Four Basic Types
So, for a boat, which ones are best for what jobs?

Basically, there are four varieties.

Good old nylon is a long-chain polyamide. In other countries, nylon is called polyamide, Perlon, Lilion, Brinylon or Enkalon.

Traditional-appearing, three-strand, laid nylon is readily available. It's still heavily favored for anchor rodes; its stretch makes it an ideal shock absorber.

Dacron, a name owned by DuPont but slowly slipping into common usage (we'll probably get a letter from DuPont's lawyers about taking this liberty) is polyester. In other countries, you might find it called Terylene, Tergal, Trevira, Wistel, Diolen or Fortrel.

Basic Dacron (polyester) is available in braid and in three-strand. In three-strand it's smoother and slipperier than nylon, which calls for an extra tuck when splicing or another half-hitch on your clove hitch.

Whether nylon or Dacron, any of this traditional "twisted" rope is easiest to splice.

Olefin, a family that includes polypropylene and its near cousin polyethylene, was once rather scorned for marine usage, but is increasingly being worked into very high-tech line. Despite the fact that it's lousy for lines (it's slippery, difficult to knot or splice, and deteriorates in sunlight), its light weight pleases the dedicated racers. Polypropylene is the lighter and more buoyant cousin, used mainly for water skier towropes and as rescue lines on some throwable devices.

Finally—and that's a poor choice of a word in this magic new world of manhandling the atoms—there are high-performance fibers, lots of them, a new one every year or so. Their generic names have fancy handles like HM (high modulus), polyester-polyarylate, para-aramid, PBO, or UHMWPE (ultra high molecular weight polyethylene).

They're more commonly known by trade names like Kevlar, Technora, Spectra, Dyneema, Twaron, Vectran and Zylon, which get used in rope with proprietary names like Vizzion, Z-Tech, Crystalyne, V-12, Tech-12, Aracom, Spectron 12, Ultra-Tech, T-900, Spectron 12 Plus, Vectrus, SM Ultra-Lite, Warpspeed, Spectrum, HRC, Marstron.

For some reason, it's popular right now to include "12" in a trademarked name. Hyphens are hot, too.

Progress never stops. The United States Army has a high-security laboratory in Massachusetts that is spinning atoms into something it calls "Spider Silk" that is twice as strong as Kevlar. Go fish.

How Much It Costs
Rope prices vary radically. For example, for 1/4" line you can pay as little as 8¢ a foot for stranded polypropylene made by Crowe Rope Industries, or 20 times as much, well past $1.50 a foot, for the exotic stuff.

For general comparison purposes, here are some basic, easy-to-remember figures:

For 1/2" line, the best three-strand nylon is about a half a buck a foot. Good Dacron double-braid is about twice as much—75¢ to $1 a foot. The exotic stuff can be five times as much as Dacron, right up around $5 a foot.

Whatever line you like, Practical Sailor long has considered 1/2" or 7/16" a good all-around size for bare hands. When some pulling is called for, the smaller the line diameter, the tougher it is on the hands. A piece of quarter-inch Yale Vectrus Single Braid ($1.60 a foot) has a breaking strength of 8,000 pounds, but bare hands couldn't tolerate a hundredth of that load.

About Breaking Strength
In the rope industry, there's an international move underway to clarify what "breaking strength" means. In the United States, it means "spliced breaking strength." Rope is tested with the ends fixed with eye splices. In other countries breaking strength is a calculated figure based on individual yarn strength times the number of yarns; it yields a good comparative figure but it doesn't hold up when a line is clamped, knotted or spliced. Use of the "spliced breaking strength" figure would deflate somewhat the foreign manufacturers' claims.

The exotic lines, in those sizes that make it easy to handle, present different problems. They're far stronger than is usually needed for sheets and halyards. With a 1/2" piece of really fancy line, something like New England Ropes’ Z-Tech PBO Zylon ($10.50 a foot), you could pick up your whole 32-footer—plus the one next to it. (If you have a curious chemical bent, you might like to know that PBO is poly-paraphenylene-2 6 benzobisoxazole fiber made by polymerizing diaminoresocinol dichloride and trephthalic acid in polyphosphoric acid. With this chemical stuff, maybe it’s better not to ask.)

However, because it might help you in the selection of line, an accompanying chart displays the properties of seven of the chemical fibers used in marine rope.

The fancy lines made from these fibers have made a big difference to hardware manufacturers. Gear like blocks, padeyes, sheaves, cam cleats, track, and clutches rarely used to fail—and then usually only when hit with a huge shock load. More often, excessive loads resulted in parted lines. Now, with such strong line, it's the hardware that’s at risk. Blocks with nylon ball bearings are found with ground-up remnants. Far more expensive Torlon balls are better. Solid metal bushings often are needed.

Because some new fibers don't like to go around sharp bends (Kevlar, in fact, is so bad at it that most ropemakers have given up using it), sheaves have tended to become larger. To get long service from these lines, one must heed the sheave size recommendations.

Most of this powerful, modern line is made as braid. The braids first appeared as "double braids," which were a loosely-braided core contained in a more tightly-woven cover. They could be hard or soft, stiff or pliable, fuzzy or shiny. They could rely completely on their cores for strength, or share the loads between core and cover . Such characteristics were controlled in the manufacturing process.

Nowadays, braid comes as not only double-braid (sometimes the core isn’t braided but is laid in "parallel" strands); it can be single braid, a.k.a. plait, multi-plait, eight-plait, 16-plait, or even (and we consider this one a misnomer) plait with a three-strand core. It could be called “strand/plait," but try saying that fast three times.

By the way, if you're of a curious mind, don't ever pass up a chance to see ropemaking machines in action. It all happens in the open, right before your very eyes, but the high-speed machines are perhaps the most perplexing and noisiest devices known to man.

How are the high-tech braids to splice? From "not easy" to "very difficult." Some are almost impossible to cut. A hot knife is useless. The common approach used by riggers is to use an old knife, sharpen it, hack away at the line, then sharpen the knife again.

Because most of the really exotic braids do not take kindly to ordinarily-reliable knots (see our story on page 14 for some eye-opening figures), it's best to learn to make eye splices.

The Players
Samson was the bellwether in this technology, and for a couple of decades had most of the yacht business. As part of something called The American Group, it still is the biggest rope maker in the Western Hemisphere.

Other big manufacturers are Columbian (which used to give Samson some competition), Crowe and Wellington. Wellington very recently bought the 132-year-old premium rope maker named Hooven Allison in Xenia, Ohio, also owns U.S. Rope and Gladding Braided Products (more widely known for fishing line) and claims to be the biggest US manufacturer.

In the halcyon days in the 1970s and 1980s, when pleasure boating ballooned, two smaller companies (New England Ropes and Yale) appeared and worked their way to the head of the parade. They were aided by Samson, which for some reason, decided to downplay its recreational line and concentrate on industrial business. (Most rope made is used by utilities, commercial fishing, and the construction business.) Several years ago, Samson decided to get back in the recreational fray.

There are some small makers—like Pelican in California and Novatec in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia—who turn out beautiful line, some of it favored by mountain climbers. There's a company, Pigeon Mountain Industries in Lafayette, Georgia, that specializes in safety ropes and another, Whitehall in Lima, Pennsylvania, that makes line up to 11" in diameter—with breaking strengths up to 2,200,000 pounds!

Good line also is made in Germany by Gleistein, in France by Lancelin, and in Britain by Marlow and Bridon.

However, the most conspicuous suppliers of rope for pleasure boaters in the U.S. currently are New England Ropes, Yale, and Samson.

The Processes
All modern line is engineered to a fare-thee-well. The filament usually is coated not only to give it color and protect it from sun, water, and wear but to equalize the loads during the manufacturing process. The tension on each filament should be as nearly equal as possible.

As little as a quarter century ago, low-stretch line merely meant that a line had been stretched crudely and perhaps heated to make it less elastic. Rope-making has become intensely technical, with many different sorts of material and many designed-in characteristics.

It can be made hard (meaning tight and dense), soft (meaning flexible and easy on the hands), or stiff (a cowboy’s lariat is difficult to bend). The design can concentrate on straight-line strength, flexibility, durability or abrasion resistance—and, of course, the so-far impossible dream is to make a single line that is tops in all categories.

Again, there are problems attendant upon any such specialization—bending around sheaves and resisting the degradations of sunlight, to name two. As we found in our rope test this month (see page 14), not only are some of the high-tech ropes devilishly slippery, but they weaken considerably when knotted. And, as mentioned earlier, some line is almost impossible to cut with a knife, hot knife, hacksaw, or anything else, and so would not be a good choice for a life harness or liferaft tether.

Mix and Match Options
Now, let's return to the original proposition, which was a complete replacement—on three different cost levels—of basic running rigging for a 32' sloop. Included are halyards, main sheet, headsail sheets, and topping lift. Not included is an anchor rode (a subject all in itself) and short lines used as outhauls, downhauls, barber haulers, reef pendants, cunninghams, preventers, vangs, etc.

The sailboat profile shown at left contains suggestions for the kinds and sizes of line that might be used and the approximate costs that are involved in cheap, medium, and expensive refits. If you wish to mix and match—expensive halyards but inexpensive sheets, for instance—a bit of arithmetic is in order.

For the three-level estimates, only the three major manufacturers of recreational marine line will be used. They are New England Ropes (NER), Yale and Samson. They are the rope makers favored, respectively in the order listed, in the discount catalogs of West Marine, BoatU.S. and Defender.

What’s involved here is more than 600 feet of line. That's a heap of expensive spaghetti. To make price comparisons reasonable, lines from each manufacturer were chosen according to the makers' recommendations or the lines' rated breaking strengths. In some cases, the strength match-up was about 10% off. Many of these lines come in a choice of white with a bit of color coding or solid colors; for pricing purposes the lower-priced white always was selected.

Even with only three manufacturers, the choices, although logical, must be considered quite arbitrary; the lines were chosen primarily to illustrate three cost levels available to a boat owner interested in renewing running rigging. The totaled figures for New England Ropes, Yale, and Samson are intended only to show the price range.

If you wanted to keep things very simple you could, for $343 (55¢ a foot), rig the whole boat with the original Samson double-braid. Once called Parallay, it’s now called LS. Twenty years ago, many racing and cruising sailors were delighted to be rigged with Parallay (or perhaps Columbian's Intrepid). Because you need 624' of line, you might even get a special price on a 600-foot reel.

As shown on the sailboat diagram, the price to replace the running rigging with some good-to-beautiful line can be as little as $299 or as much as $1,552—a five-fold difference.

Every rope manufacturer listed below offers printed material describing its offerings, and most have excellent websites, some of these have rigging guides showing what kinds and sizes of line they suggest for various purposes.

Also With This Article
Click here to view "Man-Made Fibers Used in Ropemaking."
Click here to view a cost comparison.
Click here to view "English-MetricConversion Chart."

 

Contacts— Aamstrand Ropes (Intrend), 629 Grove, Manteno, IL 60950, 800/338-0557. Buccaneer Rope, 22319 AL Hwy. 79, Scottsboro, AL 35768, 800/358-7673, www.aamstrand.com. Columbian Rope, 145 Towery, Guntown, MS 38849-0270, 800/821-4391, www.columbianrope.com. Crowe Rope Industries, Box 600, Waterville, ME 04901, 888/848-4405. G&B Ropes, 2921 Oro Ctr., Oro, ON LOL 2X0, Canada, 800/643-6350. Gladding Braided Products, Box 164, South Oselic, NY 13155, 315/653-7211. Marlow, 7600 Bryan Dairy Rd., Largo, FL 33777, 727/545-1911, www.marlowropes.com. New England Ropes Inc., 848 Airport, Fall River, MA 02720, 800/333-6679, www.neropes.com. Novatec Braids, 234 Water, Yarmouth, NS B5A 4P8, Canada, 800/856-6259, www.novatecbraids.com or R&W Enterprises, 404 Nash Rd., New Bedford, MA 02746, 800/260-8599. Pelican Products, 23215 Early, Torrance, CA 90505, 800/473-5422, www.pelican.com. Samson, The American Group, 2090 Thornton, Ferndale, WA 98248, 800/227-7673, www.samsonrope.com. Sunshine Ropes, 7520 N.W. 41st St. Miami, FL 331666799, 305/592-3750. Unicord, 12010 Paulina, Calumet Park, IL 60827, 800/929-3110. Wellington Puritan Marine, 1140 Monticello, Madison, GA 30650, 800/221-5054, www.wellingtoninc.com. Yale Cordage, 6 Morin, Biddleford, ME 04005, 207/282-3396, www.yalecordage.com.

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