Sailboat Do-it-Yourself Rig Survey

Sailboat Rig Inspection Tips

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Several subscribers who read my recent blog post regarding stainless steel corrosion, “Detecting and Dealing with Stainless Steel Corrosion” asked if we had any guidance for someone who wanted to do a preliminary survey of their own rig, or the rig on a boat they would like to purchase. First of all, there is no substitute for a professional inspection. A good rigger has seen it all, and will recognize problems that the layperson will not.

For an offshore cruising boat, Practical Sailor would recommend a routine survey of the rig by a professional at every three-to-five years, or anytime trouble pops up. A good surveyor will walk you through the potential trouble spots, and a confident cruiser will be able to carry out the subsequent surveys on his own. Be pro-active and conservative. What appears to be minor corrosion can be a sign of more serious weaknesses.

The following DIY survey described by PS contributor and surveyor Frank Lanier should, as much as possible, be conducted at least once a year and before every long passage. If you have an older boat with known trouble spots like hidden chainplate corrosion, set aside time during the off-season to probe deeper.

Standing Rigging

Most sailors immediately think wire when they hear the term standing rigging, but that’s only one part of the story. Your pre-survey inspection should encompass several different components, from chainplates and turnbuckles to cotter pins and terminal ends. Here are three primary standing rigging components along with possible issues to watch out for.

Wire

Broken yarns or strands (aka fishhooks) are a clear indication that rigging wire is nearing the end of its service life, even if the other strands appear good. You can check for broken strands by wrapping toilet paper around the wire and carefully running it up and down while looking for snags or shredding of the paper.

Nicks and scratches that affect multiple strands or one strand deeply should also be noted as possible cause for replacement, as should kinks, flat spots, proud strands and corrosion, particularly where the wire enters a swage fitting.

Floppy shrouds or stays should also be inspected to determine the cause of the looseness, which can indicate anything from a much needed rig tune-up to a failed mast step.

Terminal Fittings

Of the various wire terminal fittings found on sailboats, swage fittings are the most common source of terminal failures.

Each should be checked carefully for signs of fatigue, proud strands (a common indication of broken strands in the swage), cracks, and corrosion. A small, handheld magnifying glass can be very helpful during this inspection. Pay close attention to lower terminals, which are particularly susceptible to corrosion as a result of salt-laden water running down the wire and inside the fitting.

Bent or banana-shaped fittings (the result of improper compression of the fitting onto the wire) are also items of concern that will need to be addressed.

Chainplates

Chainplates should be checked carefully for issues such as movement, rust, cracks, deformation of the clevis pin hole, and improper lead angle. Chainplates that penetrate the deck will often leak (due to movement and/or caulking failure), and the damage this causes, both to the interior of the vessel and the chainplate itself, can be significant.

Where chainplates are bolted to a bulkhead or other interior structure, look for discoloration, delamination, and rot due to water intrusion. Chainplates can also be compromised due to crevice corrosion, even though the metal above and below the deck appears to be in excellent condition. Crevice corrosion occurs when stainless steel is continually exposed to stagnant, anaerobic water, such as that found in a saturated wood or cored deck. This is one reason why chainplates that are glassed in or otherwise inaccessible for routine inspection are undesirable.

Bottom Line

While the life expectancy of wire rigging is determined by a myriad of factors (where the vessel is located, type of stainless, amount of use, etc.), the general rule of thumb is that it should be replaced every eight to 10 years, sooner if extenuating circumstances such as offshore passages, extended cruising, racing, etc, are in the mix. While an owner may offer assurances or hazy recollections of rigging replacement, unless these improvements are properly documented, the best policy is to assume the rigging is original and plan your purchase strategy accordingly.

For more on rig inspection see my previous blog post “What’s Hiding in Your Rig?” Informed by the wisdom of expert rigger Brion Toss, the post contains multiple links to related Practical Sailor reports.

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Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.

8 COMMENTS

  1. A really helpful article I have just bought a 40 year old boat still looking good for her age and I of course got a full survey but having thoese points in mind to look out for and to get the new rigging accredited if it is DIY or by a professional. Thank you

  2. Note: Brian Toss is mentioned at the end of this article. Unfortunately the sailing community just lost this sweet man who worked so diligently to assist so many sailors with rigging advice. He passed away a few days ago after a year long battle with cancer.

    • So sad to hear this. I remember him from a video instruction series about sailing back in the 80’s and tried to follow him since then. Condolences to the family.

  3. Great article! At my local club, we are replacing old stainless steel turnbuckles with alloy. We have had failures of the old stainless.

  4. Mary,
    Thank you for informing me of the passing of Brion Toss, a most remarkable educator, humanist, who freely shared wisdom with wonderfully insightful humor. Indeed, a lovely person.

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