Whence Thou Comest, Highfield?

While the origin of the Highfield Lever is obscure, these handy devices for quickly releasing inner forestays live on, in various permutations. We evaluate levers and adjusters from ABI, Wichard, Harken and Johnson.


Because increasing numbers of serious sailors have become interested in retrofitting inner forestays for heavy weather headsails, a look at quick-detach hardware is in order. (See also page 16.)

The project also was suggested by discussions, in several 1998 issues, about how to stow the inner forestay when not in use. The stay is long enough to be a problem. Interesting solutions from Practical Sailor readers were illustrated in the March 1998 issue.

We rounded up from ABI, Harken, Johnson, Wichard and a Belgian shipyard a collection of gear that included Highfield levers, wheel- or handle-operated adjusters (one with a ratchet; another with a winch handle), and a devilishly clever Dutch sliphaken, which means sliphook.

All of the devices are sized either by the clevis pins (if shackles or jaws are used) or by the size of wire to which they will be swaged.

ABIs Highfield Levers
At the powerhouse end of the range are the true Highfield levers from ABI.

The ABI Highfields are manganese bronze, available polished or chromed. They have swage sockets at the upper ends and shackles at the base. They come in four basic sizes. Two models, both with 1/2″ pins, cover 3/16″, 7/32″, 1/4″ and 9/32″ wire. Two larger versions, one with a 5/8″ pin and the other with a 3/4″ pin, handle wire that is 5/16″, 3/8″, 7/16″ or 1/2″. The wide range means that there is one for virtually any boat.

The articulated arrangement at the base has a shackle with a handy fastpin of the spring-loaded stainless ball type. The pin even has an extra hole for a cotter pin to lock the pin in place if you want extra security. The clever pins range in price from $21 to $36, which is partly why ABI supplies a bit of chain to attach the pin to the base.

The actual lever is locked with a simple slip-ring.

The slack created by the four basic models is 3″, 3-1/2″, 3-3/4″ and 6″. To tune the stay, an integral turnbuckle with knurled barrel and lock nuts provides about 3″ of adjustment.

The massive ABI levers range in list price from $313 to $553.

ABIs excellent forestay release lever bases range from $59 to $120. The bases not only have two properly sized holes for the stay and for the tack of the sail, they also have a threaded socket for a tie rod on the underdeck side.

Because the ABI Highfield levers are heavy and bulky, they are somewhat difficult to stow when detached.

Harken Adjusters
Also in the Big Boy league are the rugged Harken stay adjusters that operate either with thread-drive, fold-down handles or worm gears turned with winch handles.

Intended for backstays, baby stays and forestays, Harkens two styles of adjusters lack the quick-release nature of Highfield levers. However, a good crew can shorten and stow a stay very quickly with either of these sterling examples of Harken engineering.

Made of polished stainless and chromed bronze with unplated bronze in the drive mechanisms to prevent galling under load, the two versions (six models) are matched to wire sizes from 3/32″ to 1/2″, for boats from about 27′ to 50′. The drive mechanisms contain, of course, the roller bearings for which Harken is well noted.

The two smallest of the six adjusters-for 7/16″ and 1/2″ pins- are operated with fold-down handles that seem a bit clumsy to use until one develops either a two-handed 180 rhythm or a full-turn, reach-around motion.

All four larger models, for 3/4″ to 9/16″ pins, have worm gears and are driven with a standard socket winch handle-preferably the Harken B8ASGLP, which stands for 8″ Aluminum Speed Grip Low Profile. By turning through a smaller circle, the short handle ($77 list) makes it quicker to extend or retract the adjuster. Using an 8″ rather than a standard 10″ handle means a 20% loss of power, but with the powerful worm gear the loss is insignificant. It is the handle shown in the photo and has, of course, ball bearings in the base of the knob handle.

The small and large Harken adjusters with fold-down handles list for $637 and $728 respectively. The two winch-handle operated versions are $1,007 and $1,601.

Wichards Range
For quick-release forestay hardware, Wichard offers three basic types, defined by how they are tightened and slacked. Most popular is the wheel-adjusted version. The other two have single fold-down handles, one with a ratchet hub. All are thread-drive devices.

To provide the length needed to allow them to fold up and stow the stay against the mast or outboard of it, these French-made adjusters have strong, forged shackles or pelican hooks on the bottom and T-shackles with clevis pins on the top.

The sole wheel-operated adjuster, for 3/16″ to 9/32″ wire and a 1/2″ pin, has 2-3/8″ of adjustment and a breaking strength of 11,700 pounds. The carbon fiber wheel is, like the two-handle models, a bit awkward to use. However, only a bit of slack is needed to free the huge pelican hook from the pad eye. The adjuster lists for $378; West Marine sells it for $343.

Also somewhat awkward is the single-handle version, in the same wire and pin sizes. The handle must be lifted and held up, engaging its 1′ jaws on a large collared nut that drives the gear extension. Getting the handle in position requires attention, exactly like using a wrench. This model, with an adjustment of 2-1/4″, has a very long stud which, when folded, shortens the stay 17-1/2″ and makes it easy to stow against the mast. Simple and foolproof, this model lists for $428.

The best of the Wichards is the lift-up handle, ratcheting model. Extraordinarily strong, it comes in three sizes-for wire from 7 mm to 3/8″ with pins measuring 1/2″, 9/16″ and 5/8″. Breaking strengths are 13,200, 14,750 and 19,800 pounds. The adjustment ranges are 6-5/16″ for two of the models and 7-29/32″ for the large one. With a thumb switch marked + or -, this adjuster is quick and easy to use. The body has a channel to expose the threaded rod, which has a red button in case you wish to mark a given position. Its a soundly, thoughtfully done piece of hardware. The prices range from $755 to $1,287.

Unique is Wichards new 5/16″ pin model, with a breaking strength of 5,400 pounds. For boats about 24′ in length, it was introduced, according to Wichard, because of some requirement in France that all boats larger than 24′ must have inner forestays.

Wichard also offers an excellent line of mast and deck hardware (see photo), which includes two sizes of double-folding padeyes (with four bolt holes), a matching backing eye strap (with two bolt holes) and a threaded tie rod, in four sizes.

Johnsons Highfield Levers
The C. Sherman Johnson Co. in Connecticut knows about Highfield levers. Among its newer products is a well-designed anchor chain tensioner/stopper. Light and easy to operate, it secures and locks down a chain anchor rode.

Equally light are the companys ingenious Highfield lever-type quick release levers and two-handed forestay turnbuckles. Both permit easy disconnects.

The quick release levers, in two basic sizes, are seen most frequently on boats that are trailered.

The smaller 1/4″ pin version (about $50) has a breaking strength of 3,500 pounds and is for 1/8″ and 5/32″ wire. It provides a throw of 2-1/4″. It is attached with clevis pins.

The larger Johnson lever ($53 to $72) will take 4,700 pounds and is for 1/8″, 5/32″ and 3/16″ wire, and has a 5/16″ pin. Its throw is 2-5/8″. The swage terminals threads are engaged by a bronze insert to prevent galling.

In either size, the Johnson lever has a body cut from a single piece of heavy stainless plate, drilled, shaped and bent to accept another piece of drilled, shaped and bent plate (in which is mounted the swage stud) that forms the throw lever. Theres a locked pin to secure the lever. The small one has a clever push-button to kick out the push-pull pad to operate the lever. The larger model has a flared-out finger tab to release the lever. The only welding in the entire assemblies are four tiny spots to affix the push-pull pad on the small lever.

For bigger boats and huskier forestays, Johnson has other adjusters operated with either double or single handles. They have forged bronze, chromed bodies and cover wire from 1/8″ to 3/8″ with pin sizes from 1/4″ to 1/2″. They come in jaw/jaw or jaw/swage styles.

One group has breaking strengths of 3,300 to 8,200 pounds. The big tubular versions, which have bronze rods with bronze T terminals, go up to 17,500 pounds.

They range in price from $70 for a small, one-handle version to $220 for the largest.

Finally…From Belgium
We come now to the sliphaken, a very old Dutch device. It was explained last year by a reader named Somerhausen in the aforementioned article on how to stow an inner forestay and also shown on page 689 of the recently published second edition of Steve Dashews Offshore Cruising Encyclopedia.

Strange but startlingly simple, the slip hook acts like a Highfield lever in that it produces just a bit of slack when half opened. The slack is enough to permit the handle, when opened further to 90, to pass through the pad eye, freeing the stay. When tensioned, the handle is secured with a ring.

The sliphook comes in five sizes, for pins from 6 mm to 14 mm. The big one is nearly a foot long. The price ranges from $9.50 to $63.

For a deck fitting to which to attach a sliphook, Spartan makes several excellent manganese bronze two-eye padeyes intended not only for chainplates but also for inner forestays. The 3/8″ clevis pin version attaches with 5/16″ flathead machine screws and has 10,900-pound breaking strength. The 3/8″ clevis model will take 20,000 pounds. You might need two, one on deck, the other below for a tie rod or chain plate.

The Bottom Line
There is in these clever devices a very wide choice-in weight, price and operating convenience.

For a cruising boat that cares little about weight and wants something foolproof to release the inner forestay, the ABI Highfields are premiere equipment. They stand alone at the top and are, we think, very reasonably priced.

However, for something almost ridiculously simple that will save you three or four hundred dollar bills, the Dutch sliphook might suffice.

For lighter weight equipment on medium to smaller cruising boats, the Johnson Highfield levers make good economic sense. The engineering, design and fabrication of the Johnson levers are admirable.

Of the devices that use thread or worm drives, the bigger fold-out-handle Johnsons are the best buy. Wichards easy-to-operate ratcheting versions occupy the middle ground. The two Harken styles (especially the big winch handle-operated model) are, as usual, the smoothest, at, as usual, peak prices.

Contacts- ABI, 1160-A Industrial Ave., Petaluma, CA 94952, 800/422-1301. Johnson Marine, Industrial Park, East Haddam, CT 06423, 860/873-8697. Harken, 1251 E. Wisconsin Ave., Pewaukee, WI 53072, 414/691-3320. Sliphook, West-Diep Yachting Center, Louisweg 2, B-8620 Nieuwpoort, Belgium, 011/32/58-23 40 61 or fax 011/32/58-23 92 48. Spartan Marine, Robinhood Marine Center, Robinhood, Maine, 04530. 800/325-3287. Wichard, 507 Hopmeadow, Simsbury, CT 06070, 860/658-2201.

Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 45 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida.


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