Practical Sailor’s Guide to Choosing Cost-Efficient Halyard Materials
Practical Sailor testers evaluate the many cordage choices available for both furling sail halyards and conventional sail halyards, with a look at the different rope fibers out there and a specific focus on cost vs. line stretch.
Sail performance is directly affected by the type and condition of your halyards. Upgrading your halyards to a low-stretch fiber helps ensure youíre getting the sailsí full power, and it can add life your sails. After testing a sampling of lines from New England Ropes, Novatech Braids, Samson Rope, and Yale Cordage, Practical Sailor found that line stretch decreases significantly as cost increases. And while the very-low- to no-stretch high-tech lines often come with through-the-roof prices, there are low-stretch halyard options available for the budget-minded sailor. This article offers a line cost vs. line stretch analysis and an overview of the fibers available. UV resistance and other factors like abrasion resistance and ease of splicing will be the subject of future tests on these halyard materials.
While considerable development continues in the realm of high-tech, high-budget halyards, cruising sailors and club racers face a variety of choices but few new products since our last comprehensive halyard comparison ("For All-Rope Halyards, Itís Hard to Beat New England Ropesí Sta-Set," December 1997). One recent addition to the range is VPC, from New England Ropes, which brings the low-stretch, low-creep characteristics of Vectran into an affordable upgrade from polyester double braid. Creep is a fiberís taffy-like gradual elongation over time while under a static tensile load, and given how most sailors today are relying on at least one permanently hoisted sail, this factor will likely come into play.
Over the last decade or so, the large production-boat builders have found that more than 80 percent of new-boat buyers are choosing in-mast furling mainsails on boats 30 feet and longer. These boats all have roller-furling headsails, too, so the selection of halyard material is simplified somewhat: The halyards for these sails are rarely handled, so "hand" becomes a less-important quality to consider.
Another attribute, though, becomes more important: durability under load. The working end of the halyard spends its life under tension, bent around a sheave at the masthead. Because the sail remains aloft indefinitely, the halyard is rarely inspected, and must be trusted to perform without supervision throughout a season, or longer, if the boat is sailed year-round. All of these lines, except the Amsteel, have polyester covers, so one can expect similar service lives.
For sailors who have conventional sails and use the halyards on a regular basis, hand remains important. So too does the lineís willingness to run free without snagging. And these sailors have plenty of opportunities to inspect the line for wear at its critical points.
Clutch slippage is also a factor. In last yearís rope clutch test ("Clutch Play," April 2006), we used three of the halyards featured in this comparison. Subjected to 400-pound loads in two of our preferred clutches, the Lewmar D2 (the easiest to bleed) and the Spinlock XAS (the best gripping), Yaleís Vizzion proved to hold the best (average slippage 3/8-inch), followed by Samson Warpspeed (13/32-inch) and New England Ropes Sta-Set (7/16-inch). We will be looking at all these halyardsí clutch performance in a future test.
Regardless of sail type or deck gear, one factor always affects the choice of line for any halyard, and that is stretch. When the goal is to get the best performance out of a sail, its halyard should stretch as little as possible when it comes under additional load from a freshening breeze or sailing closer to the wind. When a halyard stretches, it allows the sail fabric to move aft. The draft of the sail moves with it. This results in the driving force rotating aft, creating more heeling moment and more weather helm. The boat is sailing less efficiently than it could, and you may be forced to reef earlier than you otherwise would.
As its fabric pulls aft, a sail on a mast track will scallop between the slides, and horizontal wrinkles will form at the slides. Apart from looking unseamanlike and making life less pleasant aboard, this also puts uneven stress on the sail fabric, which could&emdash;depending on how much sailing you do under these conditions&emdash;shorten its useful life.
So, hereís another reason to renew your halyards, and perhaps even upgrade them: to save wear and tear on your sails.
Ironically, a cruising-boat ownerís budget is often expended on comforts and electronics, while the sails, which one would suppose are the boatís reason for existing in the first place, get short shrift. When it finally comes time to specify the halyards and running rigging, the pot is empty. Ultimately, for the sake of a hundred dollars saved on a halyard, the owner never sees the full performance he paid for in his new sail.
For an average boat in the mid-30-foot range, a new mainsail can cost from $2,000 upward, and the premium for a "performance" mainsail over a basic Dacron model starts at about $500. Anyone investing that much would be well advised to hoist it on a halyard that does it justice. For about $100 over the cost of a basic polyester double braid, halyard stretch can be reduced by 75 percent, and the sail will be better able to deliver its promised performance.
By the same token, if you have an aging sail thatís rather stretchy along the luff, you could eke another season or two out of it while you save up for a new one by spending a couple of hundred dollars on a less stretchy halyard. The halyard you bought will still be good for the new sail a few years down the road.
Another benefit of a low-stretch halyard is that it reduces effort in the cockpit. Trim-conscious sailors will find they have to make fewer adjustments to the halyard to keep the draft where they want it.
How We Tested
For this article, we looked exclusively at the cost/stretch aspect of new halyards. The Stretch to Cost Table on page 14 shows quite dramatically how great the benefit is for an additional investment that is really quite small, relative to the cost of a new sail. While we specifically looked at a main halyard, the results apply equally to a jib halyard for the same reasons.
For our comparison, to keep the math simple, our hypothetical test boat was somewhere around 35 feet, with a mainsail luff length of 40 feet. Running the halyard back to the cockpit, we assumed 50 feet of line between the winch and the head of the fully hoisted sail. Again for simplicity, we assumed a halyard load of 1,000 pounds, which is a reasonable maximum to expect the mainsail to exert on it&emdash;after that, itís time to reef. (Once reefed, stretch resistance becomes even more important on a conventional sail, because the exposed halyard is now longer by the depth of the reef. When a luff-furling sail is reefed, adjusting halyard tension is pointless.)
For each sample of cordage we examined, we took the manufacturer-supplied stretch characteristics and calculated the stretch in inches that would result from our 1,000-pound load acting on the 50-foot standing part of the halyard. To simplify the pricing, we assumed buying 100 feet of line to provide an ample tail in the cockpit and enough extra length to allow "freshening the nip" a few times over the halyardís life.
Our baseline rope was double-braid polyester, 7/16-inch in diameter. This kept our assumed 1,000-pound load at no more than 15 percent of the lineís average breaking strength. A smaller diameter would probably suffice in the real world, but it would stretch more, precisely the opposite of what weíre trying to achieve.
The resulting graph of inches of stretch plotted against cost produced a dramatic curve, from which itís quite obvious that the first $100 you spend over the basic polyester double-braid halyard buys a significant reduction in stretch. We should note that the values used for stretch are interpolated from data provided by the manufacturers in their literature or on their websites. While they may not be precise, we are confident that they reliably illustrate the argument. We intend to do our own testing on all of these lines, including stretch, to be reported on in a future issue.
The prices used in the graph are the lowest prices we found for each product. While researching these, we were reminded of how important it is to shop around. The price sources we used, and they are by no means exhaustive, appear in the "PS Value Guide Halyards" at left.
Learning the Ropes
The fibers commonly used in the products we studied are polyester, ultra-high-molecular weight polyethyline (UHMPE, sometimes written UHMWPE), para-aramids, and liquid-crystal polyester polyarylate (LCP). Polyolefin (polypropylene) is also used to add bulk to some fiber combinations.
This side of the Atlantic, polyester is usually known by its Dupont trade name, Dacron. It is inexpensive (relatively), has good tensile strength, and resists degradation by UV light, but it has a low Youngís Modulus (meaning, itís stretchy). Compared to 7x19 stainless-steel wire, which was commonly used in the past for halyards, itís very stretchy.
UHMPE comes under two common brand names, Spectra and Dyneema. Each of these has variants, but thatís beyond the scope of this article. UHMPE has high strength and low stretch, which in combination with its generally good resistance to UV makes it well suited to halyards.
Para-aramids include Kevlar, Technora, and Twaron, variations on a molecular theme from different manufacturers. They exhibit similar strength to UHMPE at a lower price, but the trade-off is theyíre not totally happy bending, they donít perform well under abrasion, and they donít stand up to sunlight as well. In sailing applications, they are usually found protected by a covering of some sort, except when they are the protection&emdash;against the heat generated when highly loaded lines are blown off a winch.
Vectran is the only LCP found in marine rope. It has high strength, low stretch, and better abrasion resistance than the para-aramids. It is far less susceptible to creep that UHMPE, and for that reason, it is useful when under standing loads. It, too, needs protection from UV.
Polyolefin, sometimes listed as MFP, is an inexpensive fiber used to bulk up small volumes of high-tech fibers to increase diameter and improve "hand." It is basically polypropylene, and used by itself, appears in ski-tow ropes and on life-saving equipment. Itís light, and it floats, but it doesnít stand up to UV light.
Plotting Price vs. Stretch
Plotting cost against stretch using the same 1,000-pound load on a range of ropes produces a very clear picture of what youíre buying. (For loads other than our 1,000 pounds, scaling up or down should produce the same relationship between stretch and cost.) You can almost halve the stretch by simply upgrading from 7/16-inch Sta-Set to the same size in Sta-Set X. Going up another level (see rope list) halves the stretch again, even with a reduction to 3/8-inch diameter to reduce cost. As stretch approaches zero, cost goes through the roof, but thatís of little consequence even to the serious club racer, because several choices lie within a reasonable price point.
One way to use the graph would be to pick a maximum cost youíd be comfortable with and look at the individual plots to the left of that number. Youíll find that some of them are higher-tenacity material at smaller diameters. We figured 5/16-inch (8 millimeters) is as small as is comfortable to handle. Depending on your boatís current winches, rope clutches, and sheaves, these may not work for you.
We included one single-braid line, Amsteel, simply for comparison. If youíre tempted to go that route, you should consult a rigger about covering it so that it can lock properly in stoppers.
UV resistance and other factors like abrasion resistance and ease of splicing will be the subject of future tests on these halyard materials.
When it comes to making your decision, you will have to take into account factors beyond dollars and stretch&emdash;nothingís simple. And until we do further testing, any definitive recommendations would be premature. Nonetheless, using the accompanying tables you should be able to find a good halyard that best meets your requirements and budget.
First: What size and type of line do you currently have? If this is original equipment, the entire halyard system may have been designed around it, from the masthead sheaves to the turning blocks at the base of the mast, to the clutch on the cabin top. Before electing to go down a size, or even two, in line diameter, you need to be sure this wonít trigger a cascade of modifications necessary to accommodate it.
If you had wire, you will have to change the masthead sheaves to suit any synthetic line (and those sheaves are probably due for replacement anyway). Sheaves grooved for wire will make short work of a synthetic replacement. The higher high-tech lines, such as the 12-strand, single-braid Dyneema or Spectra (Amsteel, for example), work best under high loads in a sheave with a flatter-profile groove. The line flattens, reducing the difference in tension between the inner and outer fibers. Double-braid lines, which are the most suited to cruisers and casual racers anyway, are less fussy.
Going down a size in diameter will help your halyard systemís efficiency by reducing internal friction as it turns around the now relatively larger sheaves. Most rope manufacturers specify a sheave-to-line-diameter ratio of 8:1 for optimal performance, but you rarely see this in many production-boat setups.
Going down two sizes, from 7/16-inch to 5/16-inch, will certainly get you into the high-tech material within your budget, but you may not get the stretch savings you hoped for. Also, you may find your stoppers wonít accommodate the line.
Check the range of sizes your clutch or stopper will handle. If it will accommodate a size smaller than your present halyard, you can move up to a higher tenacity fiber core for better performance and down in diameter, and still gain the low-stretch advantage.
If you have permanently hoisted sails, you might want to look at a low-creep fiber for the halyards. This usually means a Vectran blend, and therefore more expense, but you wonít suffer from gradual loss in luff tension as the season goes by. Because your sail is either all the way up or off the boat, the fall of the halyard, the part that would be hung on the mast or wherever when the sail is up, doesnít have to be high-tech. A good rigger will be able to combine a single-braid standing part with a cover-only tail, saving both weight aloft and money.
Make sure you make both the tail and standing part long enough to permit freshening the nip a few times. Where the halyard sits on the masthead sheave, it will wear, and it will be exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light. Regular inspection, and cutting off and replacing the splice once in a while should prevent an untimely failure.
All of the lines discussed here can be spliced, but their differing constructions will dictate just what type of splice to use. Splice required is listed in the Value Guide, with additional information available on the manufacturersí websites. Most of the suppliers also offer splicing services, and depending on line size and splice complexity, $15 to $30 seems like a bargain when measured against frustration most of us part-time riggers will suffer should we attempt the job ourselves.