Features May 15, 2000 Issue

Special Purpose Cleats: Johnson Marine Has The Range

Tare aboard boats those odd jobs, strange requirements and goofy preferences that call for a bit of unusual hardware.

The modern, squarish, all-stainless cleat
brought out several years ago by Nautical
Engineering is non-traditional, handsome.

An example: Special purpose cleats.

A cleat to park the flag halyard didn’t come with the boat. Cleats were not installed to tie down the teenager’s Windsurfer. There’s no place to quickly tie off the dinghy alongside. Lashing things to the handrails, lifelines, toerails and stanchions gets tiresome; it’s not a good practice to begin with.

Most particularly, few boats come with midship or “breast” cleats, the greatest docking aids ever invented. Practical Sailor has been pushing midship cleats for years, to no avail—but watch now how many boat manufacturers write in to boast of “standard equipment midship cleats” on their boats.

Although useful for a variety of tasks, a good midship cleat (port or starboard), to which is attached a pair of spring lines, often is the one that holds the boat in place…fore and aft as well as athwartships. The bow and stern lines control the ends of the boat and keep it parallel to the dock. If the midship cleat can be moved forward or aft, its utility increases.

The cleat can have several docking lines wound on it, as well as a short line to pull the boat into the dock for boarding. It’s also a natural place for a fender or two. The cleat gets crowded. Therefore, it should be big, preferably what is called a hollow cleat.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at what’s available in cleats that can be easily added, placed where necessary, maybe even be movable and, with one exception, don’t involve drilling a single additional hole.

The Types
This collection of cleats, from six manufacturers, can be divided into three groups.

First are those that are track-mounted. As would be expected, the four cleats in this group are by far the strongest—as well they should be if they’re to be used as midship cleats usually employed when tied up at a dock.

In the second category are the so-called rail-mounts—those that clamp to tubing, the pulpit, the pushpit or the stanchions. Because of what they’re fastened to, these are light-duty cleats used for flag halyards, to secure equipment that is not too heavy or as tie-downs for non-vital equipment. (They are not, for instance, suitable for a whisker pole downhaul; used on a stanchion of a MORC boat on which we once sailed, the downhaul line simply overcame the set screws, lifted not one but three stanchions out of their bases and made for a nasty mess of flailing wire, stainless tubing, etc.)

The third category, for even lighter duty, are cleats that clamp to shrouds and stays.

The Track-Mounted Cleats
Of the four track-mounted cleats in this report, the Schaefer appears clearly to be the most powerful.

The Schaefer is 7-1/2" long, nicely polished and is meant for line up to 5/8" in diameter. The “hollow” will handle a couple of turns of 5/8" line or even more if the line is smaller.

It has thick “legs” of about 3/4" diameter, which offer gentle radii to whatever line is piled on the cleat. Made of investment cast 316 stainless, this “beefy” hollow cleat has a .355" plunger-type pin attached to a shackle that hides in a recess in the top of the cleat. If used frequently, you’d want to fit a little lanyard to the shackle. An annual dose of WD40 down the pin hole should keep it working forever.

In the Schaefer tradition, it’s a simple (only four pieces in all), and conservatively engineered piece of equipment that Schaefer rates for a 2,500-lb. safe working load. It is, at $65, the third most expensive cleat.

The most expensive, at $80, is also the most innovative. It’s the C. Sherman Johnson Company’s clever folding midship cleat, which folds flat when not needed.

It’s made primarily of 5/8" 316 stainless rod bent to shape; the marks made by the machine used to bend it are pronounced but occur mostly on the inside of the 8"-long “loop.” Using a SS saddle and two bolts, the loop is mounted on a slug welded to a 1-1/4" car with a knurled screw pin to lock it down. Its profile when folded is still higher than the Schaefer. However, it has an advantage: When folded, it’s almost snag proof.

The Johnson has Teflon-fiber inserts in both the folding part and the base to make it easier to adjust and to make it noiseless. That’s a fine touch.

They’ve given some thought to this cleat and it’s surprising, considering how much more complicated it is than the simple Schaefer, that it doesn’t cost even more.

The Johnson folding cleat also comes in a toerail version. Being less work to make, it costs less: $48. There’s also a padeye version. All three are shown in the photos.

The Johnson cleats are not polished as well as the Schaefer; they both could take lessons from Wichard, the French stainless steel forging firm. The finish on stainless steel is not just cosmetic; the better the surface, the better it resists corrosion…and crevice corrosion is the bane of stainless steel.

The third cleat in this assessment is the British-made Barton.

It’s a polished, clear anodized 8" cleat mounted on a gray-anodized car. The cleat is modern in appearance, meaning that it’s almost flat. It’s fastened to the car with two fat SS machine screws.

Although an “open base” cleat by definition, the black nylon knob on the 3/8" stainless locking pin takes up most of the room where line might be fed. There’s little room for anything other than perhaps 1/4" line.

To its credit, the Barton is the easiest to adjust. It can be done with one hand. However, the upright legs are squarish, with not very generous radii that would not be as gentle as it could be on line.

The Barton cleat comes in two sizes—for 1" and 1-1/4" T-track. The 1" track version, with a black nylon horn on an aluminum car, has a more traditional shape and costs $32; the 1-1/4" all-aluminum version discussed above costs more than twice as much. Barton also makes two sizes of clamp-on cleats; this cleat has a base assembly that hinges open to fit over a track so that it can be put quickly in place anywhere along the track. The two sizes list for $124 and $138.

Nautical Engineering, a Michigan firm that makes good quality stainless hardware, was the originator a few years ago of the movable cleat. It now offers several sizes and several varieties.

The most popular is a 6" black epoxy-coated aluminum cleat on a 316 stainless car secured with a screw pin. Strongly designed with a lot of steel where it counts, these modern-looking cleats come in two sizes for 1" and 1-1/4" track, and cost $44 and $47.

In 1998, NE started producing the same cleats in 316 stainless steel. They list for $65 and $69, and there’s an 8"-long stainless model that lists for $87.

Rail-Mount Cleats
Two of the four rail-mount cleats encircle the tubing with nylon, the other two use metal clamps.

Although virtually all of the Johnson Company’s hardware is admirable, the “Add-A-Cleat” isn’t. It’s a coated aluminum bar machine screwed to a stainless saddle, which attaches to a stanchion or rail with a hose clamp made of 300 stainless. Even though the hose clamp can be tucked up inside the saddle (photo above right), it has too many sharp edges—both for fingers and for line. Further, it looks awful…even before the inevitable corrosion. It’s only real virtue (other than costing just $14) is that the cleat is in line with whatever rail on which it is mounted.

Not much better is Moonlite Marine’s Aladdin Cleat, which is available for either 7/8" or 1" tubing ($14 each). A cast aluminum cleat is drilled and tapped for four threaded holes. Two are to attach the stainless steel saddle which encircles the rail or stanchion. The other two holes are for set screws, with which the cleat is secured and leveled. Moonlite recommends Loctite #222 or #242 on all threads to keep the nuts from unthreading. The excessive rocker on the cleat’s two arms can snag other lines and inadvertently turn either arm into a jam cleat for 7/16" or 1/2" sheets.

Much better are the nylon versions, made by Barton and Helm. They better fit the rail or stanchion, with less likelihood of damaging the tubing. They do, however, make the cleat perpendicular to the rail.

A bit more than 4" long, the Barton ($13) and Helm ($12) are similar. They encircle a 1" rail or stanchion with two black nylon castings joined with two long #10-32 bolts, whose nuts fit in depressions in the bottom nylon pieces. The Barton uses a wide “V” cavity to clamp onto 7/8" or 1" tube; the Helm is round and ribbed, fits snugly and has thin ribbed inserts to go down to 7/8".

Without specifying what “intended use” means, Helm warns buyers, “This holder is designed solely for its intended use only. DO NOT use to tie up to when fending off your boat, for towing or any similar purpose.” Nevertheless, it’s good commonsense advice.

Wire-Mount Cleats
There are but two wire-mount cleats. Both sell for about $12.

Johnson Marine’s all-stainless version has a nicely shaped horn punched out of 1/8" stainless plate. It has a handy hole in one end. Slightly bent, the horn attaches to a shroud or stay with a small U-bolt. It comes with 10 washers to adapt to various sizes of wire and two acorn nuts, which are nice because they’re no threat to fingers. It is effective, almost inconspicuous and is unlikely to snag sheets.

For its wire-mount cleat, Barton goes with two pieces of cast black nylon, drawn together with stainless bolts and nuts. The small slot in the base of the horn matches a similar slot in the other nylon piece to encircle a shroud or stay. It’s a nice design, but the horn has severe angles that are unnecessary for any line that might be attached and also greatly increases the chances of snagging lines of larger diameters, such as flailing sheets.

We like the Barton’s nylon-on-wire clamping contact better than the metal-on-metal of the Johnson. The latter seems more likely to weaken a shroud, especially if the nuts are tightened down too hard. Although it might be tempting to tape the shroud before mounting the Johnson, don’t. It would encourage corrosion.

The Bottom Line
For very light duty wire-mount cleats, if there’s an edge, it goes to Johnson…mostly because hardware that snags lines falls, in our view, between vexing and downright dangerous.

Rail-mount cleats aren’t good for much (they tend to twist on the stainless tubing). But if they solve a problem, the Helm models seem preferable because they fit well. If you want the cleat lined up with the rail or stanchion on which it is mounted, it’s between Moonlite’s Aladdin and the all-stainless Johnson…with the nod to Johnson.

For track-mounted cleats, if you have your boat on a strict diet and want no avoidable weight, the NE or Barton would be the logical choice. Both cleats in the 1-1/4" track versions weigh 12 ounces, vs. the equivalent Johnson at 1 lb., 7 ounces and the Schaefer at 1 lb., 8 ounces.

If your track makes it difficult to slide on or position a track-mount cleat, you can, if you’re willing to pay well over $100 each, buy Barton’s clamp-on versions.

If you like a modern design, Nautical Engineering’s stainless models are nicely done and not badly priced. (Nautical Engineering also makes very simple, very strong movable track stops with either screw or spring pins. Their use is recommended if the cleat is going to be very heavily loaded. A genoa car could lock one end.)

If it’s a clever cleat on which you could pile a lot of equipment and yet fold the cleat to a non-snag position when not needed, the Johnson should be considered—especially because Johnson has made sound efforts to avoid rattles.

But if you want both brute strength and good traditional appearance, the heavy, low-profile Schaefer would be the choice. It has the best radii for line. It would be even better if it had Johnson’s Teflon-fiber strip.


Contacts- Barton, Imtra Corp., 30 Samuel Barnet Blvd., New Bedford, MA 02745; 508/995-7000. Helm, Helm Products, 481 Inmen Dr., Addison, IL 60101; 708/543-1651. Johnson, C. Sherman Johnson Co., Industrial Park, E. Haddam, CT 06423; 860/873-8697. Moonlite, Moonlite Marine, 776 W. 17th St., Costa Mesa, CA 92627; 949/645-0130. Nautical Engineering, 700 Doheny Dr., Northville, MI 48167; 248/349-1034. Schaefer, Schaefer Marine, 158 Duchaine Blvd., New Bedford, MA 02745; 508/995-9511.

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