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 Rig Maintenance Made Simple!


 Text and photos by Petrea Heathwood

A strong, seaworthy rig is an integral part of any cruising boat, but maintenance of the rig is often overlooked. This is more likely due to lack of knowledge than intentional neglect.

Like anything to do with boats, it's worth learning to do some things yourself. Maybe you might save some money; maybe you might save your rig. At the least you'll be in a better position to evaluate advice given by your rigger.

This is a practical routine you can implement as part of your annual maintenance. It's meant as a guide only. The aim is for a pretty comprehensive owner inspection to establish whether the rig is in good general shape. If in any doubt, please seek a professional opinion.

 Of course, the easiest way to have a look at your rig is when the mast is down, but I've written this for the majority who'll be doing it with the mast standing.

Most boats have aluminium spars and stainless steel rigging, so that's what I'll concentrate on. For the purpose of this article we'll assume the rig is correctly specified and constructed with appropriate materials.

Apart from neglect the main threats to rig integrity are wear and tear, fatigue, corrosion and U.V. degradation. In the tropics the last two, corrosion and sun damage figure more prominently than for boats in cooler latitudes. It's important to keep the effects of hot weather in mind if you intend basing your boat in the north for any length of time.

 Tools you need

 You don't need specialized tools, gauges or equipment, but the following items will make the job easier-
1. Venetian blind cord long enough to reach to the top of the mast and back again.
2. A plastic fishing spool to wind the cord on to. (fasten the end of the cord to it)
3. A craft-worker's rug hook (get one from a craft or sewing shop. See above at left)
4. A small hollow splicing fid
5. Paper masking tape (or PVC electrical tape)

You should already have on board
1. spanners to fit the rigging screws
2. pliers or multi-grips
3. waterproof grease
4. WD40 or other spray lubricant with a small delivery tube fitted to the nozzle
5. light household machine oil such as Singer oil or 2in1 oil
6. rags
7. bosun's chair

 Let's take a look at the running rigging first
Running rigging is all the parts that move, as opposed to standing rigging which is not supposed to.

All running rigging is prone to wear and chafe. It should be inspected regularly and the reasons for chafe eliminated. Chafe is caused by movement and will occur wherever a line rubs against something. Lines should lead fair and run over adequate sized, free-running sheaves. It helps if you get into the habit of checking all visible components whenever you're sailing. Train yourself to notice if anything is amiss,  a line

leading badly, twisted block, sheet caught up and so on.

End for end your lines
To maximize the life of running rigging it's worth end-for-ending each line at least once to even out the wear. This is easy with sheets and furling lines but it's also fairly simple to end for end both internal and external halyards and reefing lines.

Use the rug hook to thread the end of the v.b. cord through the end of the line you're working with. Tie it with a secure knot like a bowline, and then tape the join so it won't catch on anything. (see below)

 Hint: If you tape towards the direction of the pull, the overlaps on the tape will cover each other, rather like the way you install roofing material from the bottom up to allow the overlaps to shed water. This helps to prevent the tape catching as it's pulled through.

Carefully pull the line out, leaving the v.b. cord in its place. Swap the v.b. cord to the other end of the line and reverse the process. If you have a spliced eye on your halyard it will have to be re-done at the other end so you'll need some extra length available.

Caution Always keep tension on both line and v.b. cord to prevent snagging. This is especially important with halyards as the weight of the heavier line will drag the v.b. cord away from you too fast and this could cause it to catch somewhere.

All- wire and rope-to-wire spliced halyards.
Check carefully for “meat hooks”, or broken strands in the wire. Run a rag along the wire rather than risk injury to your bare hand. It's worth flexing the wire sharply in the wear areas. This will pop any hidden breaks out into view. These hooks are an indication that the wire needs replacement. The areas most prone to fatigue are
1.Where the wire sits over the masthead sheave in the hoisted position.
2.Right above the swage sleeve.
3.At the apex of the thimble.
If the wire is still supple it will return to shape when you straighten the bend. If it remains kinked it has reached the end of its useful life and should be replaced. You can actually feel the difference between “dead” and supple wire.

Rope-to-wire spliced halyards obviously can't be turned end for end but if the rope is still good it's possible to splice new wire to its tail.

Providing they have enough extra length you can end for end all-wire halyards. The end on the winch will have permanent kinks and flat spots from being wound round the winch drum. These kinks won't run past the masthead sheave so you'll need to cut back to good wire.

To cut wire, use proper cable cutters if you can. Alternatively, tape the wire tightly at the point of the cut, hold it in a vice or vice-grips and cut with a hacksaw using a fine-tooth blade. (About 24 teeth to the inch) Do this clear of your deck as fine steel particles from the saw blade will turn to rust spots wherever they fall. (Steer clear of the domestic bolt cutters you can buy at the hardware store, they'll mangle the wire.) If the wire strands spring apart when the tape is removed and resist being re-formed to shape, the wire is fatigued and should be replaced.

Thread the v.b. cord into the wire using the hollow splicing fid. Tape it securely into a neat parcel that won't snag on its journey through the mast. Pull the wire through as described above. The swaged eye will have to be cut off and re-made on the other end of the wire.

To replace the swaged eye, be sure to use the correct type and size of swage sleeve. Sleeves for stainless steel wire should be copper or plated copper. (If your halyard is galvanized wire use an aluminium sleeve) Sleeves for use with a hydraulic swage press are oval. With a hand swager, the sleeves should be a figure-eight shape. I'd recommend having swages done with a hydraulic machine to ensure their strength.

Halyard end fittings vary from the bare end of a rope to spliced or swaged-on shackles or snapshackles. Now is a good time to check whatever fitting you have. Ensure it is undamaged and working smoothly. Snapshackles may benefit from a drop of light machine oil applied to the spring mechanism. Be frugal here, you don't want your snapshackle flying open because it's over lubricated.

Standing Rigging
This is all the fixed components, usually 1-19 wire (means 1 strand of 19 individual wires), which hold the mast(s) in place. Standing rigging generally fails first at the lower ends so this is the logical place to begin your inspection. If the lower ends are in good shape it is normally safe to assume the rest is OK also. This doesn't let you off from inspecting aloft, but unless you are about to set off on an extended voyage you don't need to remove each piece of rigging for inspection if the bottom ends are satisfactory.


  Correctly opened split pins. The left one should be inserted further and opened a bit more.

  Single example of a correctly opened split pin.

 Split rings can work loose and shouldn't be trusted in a rigging application. The clevis pin attaching the rigging screw to the chainplate is way too long.

  Another split ring working loose on the same boat, this time on the forestay. Will the owner notice before the split ring and clevis pin fall out?

 Editors note; After cleaning with a metal brush as described in Petrea’s text below, and if possible a light abrasive blasting, you might try the POR 15 paint for a primer to restore the paint system and then bed with Duralac or other Barium Chromate paste.

 Working on one piece of rigging at a time, release the lock nuts or pins on the rigging screws. Mark the rigging screw thread with tape or cable ties so you can replicate this setting after checking the wire. Turning the barrel or adjusting nut clockwise will loosen the tension. Unscrew them until you can release the wire from the rigging screw. Rigging screws tend to seize if not lubricated regularly so if there is resistance, apply penetrating oil or WD40 to the threads and allow time for it to work.

Caution; Do not loosen any piece of rigging off completely unless you are certain there is something else holding the mast in its place.

Having visually checked the wire for rusty or broken strands, make a sharp bend at the lower end just above the terminal fitting. This may reveal broken strands hiding just within the end fitting. Straighten the wire again. Supple wire in good condition will return to its former shape while fatigued wire which needs replacement will retain the kink.

Next, inspect the terminal fitting on the wire. It may be a roll swaged end, Norseman or Sta-Lok fitting, spliced or a talurit eye made around a thimble. Check for cracks in the fitting, rusting, uneven wire strands or, in the case of an eye around a thimble, broken strands of wire at the bottom of the eye.

Any rigging wire with broken strands should be replaced, and so should its opposite number. The rigging on yachts is usually a uniform age, so if one bit is suspect, it's probably time to ditch the lot.

The rigging screw assembly should turn freely and the threaded part should be perfectly straight. This is a problem area on trailer boats where rigging screws get caught and bent while raising the mast. Check all clevis pins and replace any that show signs of wear or corrosion.

While the rigging is disconnected, have a look at the chain plate it was attached to. Signs of trouble here include cracking, rust stains, and elongated clevis pin holes. Any of these warrant further inspection of the chain plate, both above deck and internally, especially if there have been leaks in this area.

When re-assembling the rigging screw, lubricate the threads with marine grease. A little goes a long way and is only useful where the threaded part contacts the rigging screw barrel. Split pins which have been correctly installed can be re-used but since their cost is infinitesimal in the scheme of things you could replace them with new ones.


Black or red stains
These tell-tale signs are hard to miss. Black stains emanating from any part of your rig indicate metal grinding away, usually a working part like the gooseneck or sheave boxes. Rust stains show stainless steel breaking down in some way. Check for cracks in the fitting. Even international brands sometimes use inappropriate grades of stainless in parts of their fittings. Rigging screw clevis pins are a common culprit. Be wary also of inferior brand name copies. I've seen Asian sourced copies of a major U.S. brand rigging screw which failed in less than a year.

Mast and boom
Once you've worked your way round all the rigging, have a close look at the spars. Check the drain holes at the mast base are not blocked with debris and the mast base itself is clear of accumulated detritus. (Does it even have a drain hole? It should) If the mast is keel-stepped remove the mast boot and check the spar for signs of cracking and corrosion.

 Aluminium mast and boom sections should be free of corrosion. Corrosion is mostly found where there are dissimilar metals, in this case stainless steel fittings on aluminium. Once pitting has occurred it's difficult to repair, and beyond the scope of this article.

Remedial treatment to prevent worsening of the problem is within the ability of most owners but major corrosion significantly weakens the spar and should be attended to professionally.

To prevent further corrosion

1. Remove the offending fitting and brush off the corrosion using a stainless steel or brass wire brush. Never use an ordinary steel wire brush as it will shed small particles which will rust and stain your deck.

2.You may need to use a revolving s.s. or brass wire brush attached to an electric drill to remove corrosion in areas of pitting. The idea is to get as close to shiny metal as you can.

3.If the fastening holes in the aluminium are enlarged from corrosion you'll need professional help to rebuild the area.

4.As long as the pitting is minor, go ahead and re-bed the fitting using either a physical barrier like thin rubber sheeting, or Duralac anti-corrosion compound, or a combination of the two. Use Duralac or an equivalent barium chromate paste on the thread of all stainless steel fastenings.

Hint To remove frozen machine screws. If the fitting has caused corrosion you will usually find the fastening screws are seized in place. Instead of forcing them free, which results in damaging the head or breaking the thread, try a generous application of WD40. Allow time for it to soak in maybe overnight. If this doesn't work then judiciously applied heat should do the trick. (ed’s note; transmission fluid also works well as a penetrating lubricant)

Depending on the size and position of the fastening this can be done with the tip of a soldering iron or small butane burner. You need the concentrated heat of these tools as the idea is to heat the fastening and break it free from the surrounding corrosion. A combination of heat and WD40 can be very effective. Be careful not to melt internal halyards or concealed electrical wiring. Another tool worth trying is an impact screwdriver. With any of these methods, the first step is to soak with WD40.

Paint and corrosion
On painted spars it's common to see corrosion under the paint. It manifests as chalky bubbles in the paint which will continue to promote corrosion until removed. This type of corrosion is usually found in conjunction with fittings of dissimilar metal to the spar, or where the aluminium has been inadequately prepared for painting. See photo “A” above.

The short term remedy is to scrape the paint away from affected areas. It looks unsightly but cosmetics are less important than preventing further corrosion. Eventually the corrosion must be cleaned up, its cause removed and the spar repainted.

The Verdict
Once you've gone over your rig the way I've suggested you will have a good idea of its condition. At this point you may decide to enlist professional help but what you've learnt from this guide will help to evaluate the advice of your rigger.

To complete a thorough check of your rig you'll need to go aloft. The next issue of TCP covers working above deck. The thrills, the spills, the FEAR! Don’t miss it..

 About the author (Just so people know who is telling them all this stuff) -
I've been sailing since 1967. Racing and cruising. In the mid 1970's I worked for a Brisbane yacht rigging and boat sales company. In 1979 I went to Sydney to work for a marine importing company and sail ocean racers on the Sydney circuit and beyond. In the early 80's I returned to Queensland and worked for Almasts, the oldest yacht rigging business in Queensland. I left to start my own rigging business, which I operated until I decided to go cruising full time.