Features August 2007 Issue

Practical Sailor Reviews Snatch Blocks from Six Makers

Harken, Garhauer, and Lewmar hardware stand out in our evaluation of snatch blocks. Testers rated the deck gear on the amount of friction it allowed, user-friendliness, quality of construction, corrosion resistance, working loads, price, durability, and other features.

The snatch block was developed to be installed and removed from the mid-region of a working line, and it has been loved and cursed by racers and cruisers alike. Most sailors use the hardware to lead spinnaker sheets and guys, function as a temporary turning block for a preventer, or to provide the right angle for an outboard genoa sheet lead. Many cruisers have found that a snatch block can be used as a friction-free fair lead when kedging off an unseen sandbar. Snatch blocks can also be used in sea anchoring: Cruising icons and well-known authors Lin and Larry Pardey.

Snatch Blocks
To capture a line under load in the Garhauer 60SN snatch block (shown here), users must bend the line.

(www.landlpardey.com)describe in their "Storm Tactics Handbook" how they use rugged snatch blocks and a guy to maintain the boat’s attitude to the wind and waves during nasty weather.

In short, this versatile piece of hardware is a welcome addition to any gear locker, and today, there are more interesting variations of the technology than ever before.

Snatch block preferences can vary greatly according to particular needs. Race-oriented sailors will want something strong, light, and efficient, while robust construction and reliability rank high for cruisers.

Practical Sailor’s ideal snatch block will be rugged, serviceable, and made of high-grade materials that won’t fail in demanding saltwater-sailing conditions. The snap shackle and opening mechanism should remain fast under extreme flogging, yet be easy and quick to open by hand. The ideal block will rotate and pivot freely so that it provides a fair lead at a wide range of angles. A becket is a nice feature, particularly on a block meant for light-air sails, since a collapsing sail will likely let the block fall noisily to the deck if it is not supported from a lifeline by a light line or shock cord. Every element, bearings included, should be as maintenance-free as possible, and highly resistant to the sun and seawater.

What We Tested

We asked manufacturers to send us a pair of snatch blocks appropriate for the genoa sheets on a cruising boat in the 35- to 40-foot range. We did not specify line diameter or working load&emdash;or even the use for which the block was intended, something that an ordinary consumer should do.

Ultimately, we were sent blocks from six manufacturers&emdash;Antal, Garhauer, Harken, Lewmar, Schaefer, and Wichard. The blocks’ working loads ranged from 1,980 pounds (Wichard) to 5,000 pounds (Schaefer). Sheave diameter ranged from 2¼ inches (Antal and Wichard) to slightly over 3¼ inches (Garhauer). For historical perspective, we included a collection of similarly sized blocks dating back more than two decades. Not every snatch block manufacturer was represented in this test, but the selection offers a good cross-section of the blocks available today.

All but two of the blocks we tested had hinged cheeks that opened outward. The Antal and Garhauer cheeks rotated on swivel pins, so that they always remained parallel to the sheave. Testers found both types worked well, and their final ratings were based more on performance (See "How We Tested," above), ease of use, and construction quality, than on their opening mechanism.

Antal

Antal’s aluminum snatch block got high marks as a functional design. Its rotating cheek plate offered side loading, and the latch mechanism was simple and straightforward. The block is actually a synthetic rubber-coated aluminum cage block with a composite resin-and-fiber main bushing. Small ball bearings lie between the sheave sides and the cheekplates, but despite innovative design, the block was anything but friction free.

Antal had submitted two different sized blocks for testing, so we initially assumed that the "stickiness" problem might be due to the small diameter (1½ inches) of the 9040/SN sheave. Our solution was to retest with the 9060/SN and substitute the Black Magic bullet block we used as a control. Even with this switch to the most friction-free block as a partner for the larger Antal, the Antal 9060/SN scored the poorest in our friction test. These results clearly indicated that the bearing system of the Antal snatch block is nowhere near as efficient as the free-spinning Harken and Garhauer products. Several of the simple axle and bushing blocks also out-performed the product in the friction test.

Bottom Line:

The Antal side-rotating snatch block gets good marks for design execution and operation, but it demonstrated poor performance in friction abatement and has a limited range of movement.

Garhauer

The 60/SN features a cheek plate rotating opening with a pin stop that makes the latching process a simple, two-handed operation. The friction-free spin of the Torlon ball bearing race enables these blocks to score as well in the tension test as the Harken blocks. Garhauer’s Ronstan trunnion-type snap shackle allowed for a wide universal pivot action. The ball bearing race is slightly exposed to sunlight, and it would make sense to stow these blocks below when they’re not in use. The anodized alloy cheek plates and innovative, pressed-ring sleeve keep the bearings permanently captured, but in dusty, salty areas, a regular routine of fresh water washing will extend the life of the non-replaceable bearings.

When attempting to insert a sheet under load into the open side of the Garhauer block, the configuration of the opening would not allow the line to feed straight into the block. The sheet had to be bent slightly to conform to the block’s architecture.

The Garhauer was the block most affected by the corrosion bath test, actually losing a small amount of aluminum at one of its pointed ends.

Bottom Line:

Although it’s not as easy to load as others in the test, the Garhauer was exceptionally friction-free, light, and priced right. It’s our Budget Buy.

Harken

This one-hand operated, bottom-opening snatch block, was one of the testers’ favorites. Not only is it user-friendly, and the most efficient in our friction testing, but its rugged construction promises years of heavy-duty use. The investment-cast stainless steel body is a chunky piece of metal that adds some extra weight, but it also stabilizes the load handling and provides a secure point to attach the rugged trunnion-action snap shackle.

Harken’s snatch block design is fast and easy to latch as well as release. It provided the most convenient means of capturing or releasing a sheet under load. The geometry of its snap shackle is such that when working with a loaded line, the snap shackle can be easily locked onto a padeye.

The thick rubber padding on the cheeks minimizes gelcoat chipping caused by light-air sheet slackening, and the roller bearing-
supported sheave rotates on a central axle that smoothly latches to the articulating side cheek. Our only concern was the magnetic permeability of its sheave pin. All other blocks had completely non-magnetic sheave axles.

Bottom Line:

The Harken block was a top performer in testing, is quality constructed, and easy to use and maintain. It gets the nod for PS Best Choice.

Lewmar

Elegantly simple, this hefty traditional snatch block would be a wise choice for those looking for ultimate reliability and do-it-yourself repairability. All it takes are two 9/16-inch wrenches or sockets to loosen the sheave axle pin and pull apart the easy-to-assemble block. When the latching operation starts to get sloppy, a new set of dowel-like rubber grommets can be installed to return it to just-like-new status. Those cruising far afield and those who leave their snatch blocks rigged and exposed to the elements won’t go wrong with Lewmar’s rugged design. The bearing system in these blocks is a simple Delrin sheave running on a metal bushing, and the frame, latch, and universal pivoting snap shackle are all stainless steel.

The Lewmar survived the corrosion test fairly well, but showed some oxidation around its latch. It was also only one of two test blocks that is easily disassembled.

Bottom Line:

Well-designed, rugged, and easy to use, the Lewmar block is PS’s Recommended block for off-the-beaten-path cruisers.

Schaefer

Another tried and proven product is Schaefer’s traditional snatch block design, and we looked at its range of three differently size blocks. Our test pair were the large 11-99 and medium 07-99 models. They are identical in all aspects, except size and safe working load, which were 5,000 pounds for the large and 3,750 pounds for the medium.

These blocks cannot be disassembled, but their simple, rugged design promises years of reliability. The large sheaves and rugged cage structure operated smoothly, with fairly low-friction operation, and potential cosmetic deck damage caused by the block’s heft was prevented by the addition of shock absorbing urethane side plates.

Schaefer’s snap shackle was not the trunnion type, limiting articulation to about 15 degrees off the vertical. In certain conditions&emdash;snapping the block to an open toe rail, for example&emdash;this limited range of movement could cause the snatch block snap shackle to hang up, and possibly cause some damage to the block. Such problems are less likely to occur if the block is supported with a shock cord.

Schaefer’s peened over, cold formed, stainless steel main axle pin showed some signs of oxidation after the corrosion test.

Bottom Line:

The Schaefer block is held back by a limited range of movement and high friction readings.

Wichard

The Wichard block’s latch mechanism opens the entire top portion of the block and is pinned closed by a piston-like extension of the main axle. The block handled efficiently during testing, but it was on the small side in comparison to other competitors. When it came to friction testing, it was clear that sheave size, or roller/ball bearings make a difference. The block’s small size and bushing-type bearings, not surprisingly, yielded higher friction readings in our test.

Snatch Blocks
Stainless steel roller bearings reduced friction on the classic Nicro-Fico snatch block (above right). The Antal C. Fibre snatch block (above left) uses lower-friction Delrin ball bearings, but the sheaves’ small diameter put it at a disadvantage compared to the modern snatch blocks PS tested.

Bottom Line:

Like most Wichard hardware, this snatch block is well-engineered and nicely finished. Poor performance in the friction test put this one behind the leaders in our test.

Old Timers

Along with obvious signs of corrosion and physical deterioration, the working antiques we tested scored poorly on friction tests, and the worst examples of corrosion were directly linked to broken axle shafts and cracked snap-shackle pivots. The oldest Gibb tufnol blocks and a silicon-bronze roller-bearing Nicro/Fico product looked pretty bad, but still worked reasonably well. The silicon-bronze chrome plating was all but gone, and a green patina covered the metal, acting as a natural protective coating to hold any further corrosion at bay. In a pinch, disassembling these blocks, cleaning, and lubricating them with a simple lithium grease or higher-tech product can return them to satisfactory usability&emdash;a trait that holds value to long-distance voyagers.

Conclusions

If you’re a performance-oriented sailor, ball- or roller-bearing supported sheaves really count. Harken and Garhauer blocks stole the show when it came to friction-free operation, which will make light-air spinnaker trimmers smile. Cruisers with smaller winches should also check these out.

A trunnion-type snap shackle or universal joint improves attachment&emdash;insuring universal movement. This wider range of bending prevents a snap shackle from being damaged due to variations in sheet lead angles or padeye design. The improved articulation makes odd lead angles tolerable, and allows the snatch block to self align with the loads imposed.

Harken and Garhauer provided trunnion-type snap shackles, while Lewmar and Wichard used a universal toggle-type attachment to achieve a similar range of movement.

Antal’s snap shackle and Schaefer’s modest 15-degree range of movement were less versatile. Antal does offer a lashing option that may appeal to some racers, but one of the advantages of a snatch block is its ability to be moved from one attachment point to another as quickly as possible, and a snap shackle is better suited for this.

Bigger blocks mean larger diameter sheaves, and the benefits include better load distribution on the bearing surface and less point load on the line itself. Our friction test showed a clear trend, revealing that once ball and roller bearings were removed from the equation, bigger blocks run smoother than smaller blocks.

The two-step attachment process to setting up a snatch block ranged from butter-smooth to downright difficult. Once again, Harken topped the charts with its unique clam shell-like, push-button opening process. Of the side-opening types, testers preferred Antal’s approach. However, Garhauer’s use of a Ronstan trunnion-type snap shackle was a big hit, and its large-diameter sheave and roller bearings helped yield excellent friction ratings.

Only the Antal and Lewmar blocks were easily DIY disassemblable, as compared to nearly all of those made a few decades ago. This is likely a market response to today’s sailors who replace rather than repair broken gear, a game plan that’s hard to implement at sea or in remote landfalls.

Harken’s easy-to-operate, friction-free, front-loading snatch block gets the Best Choice kudos. Lewmar’s bulletproof traditional entry was rugged, easy to refit, well-constructed, and our Recommended choice for the long-range cruiser. Our Budget Buy, Garhauer’s proven side loader, is a cost effective competitor.

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