November 15, 2009

Beware of lifelines

I’M NOT A GREAT FAN of lifelines. I suppose they may stop someone going overboard now and then, but mostly they just stand there doing nothing, interfering with the foresail sheets and chafing the mainsheet.

They have to be strung through upright stanchions that landlubbers instinctively grab when they think you’re coming into your berth too fast. And nothing could be better designed than a stanchion to lever the deck loose and open up holes around the fasteners where water can penetrate.

Lifelines inevitably stretch and droop with age because people hang their fenders from them and use them as clotheslines when they’re out cruising. They make it difficult to board the boat without doing a Nazi goose-step unless you add special hardware to make gate openings near the cockpit, and worst of all, they all too often come with a plastic coating that traps moisture inside and hides from view the subsequent corrosion of the wire.

All boats with cabins and sidedecks seem to come with lifelines these days, probably because society is currently so obsessed with the safety of others and so consumed with doubt that ordinary sailors like you and me are capable of sailing a boat without falling overboard. So if you must have lifelines, and it seems you must, even if only to placate the misplaced concern of the do-gooders, then let them be good, honest, plain stainless steel with no plastic covering.

This overweening solicitude for our welfare was not always present. Fifty or a hundred years ago there were lots of boats sailing around the world without lifelines, some of the greatest, such as Slocum and Moitessier, among them. It was obvious, even then, that you couldn’t definitely, positively, rely on lifelines to stop you going overboard, especially when you were working on the cabin top and the boat was heeled well over. They simply couldn’t be made high enough, or sturdy enough. Indeed, many modern lifelines masquerading as safety features are fit only to catapult you overboard. Sensible sailors never trust them, preferring to put their faith in cabin-top handrails, tethers, harnesses, and jacklines.

I seem to remember reading somewhere that the U.S. Coast Guard is experimenting with rope lifelines, although the stuff they use hardly qualifies for the term rope these days, being constructed of exotic fibers that are actually stronger than steel. They won’t rust, of course, but they can’t effectively be spliced, so they need mechanical terminal fittings. They’re lighter than stainless steel, and naturally more expensive, so they’re more likely to be found on flat-out racing boats whose owners don’t mind spending money as long as it makes the boat go faster. (Or on vessels for which the U.S. taxpayer foots the bill, of course.)

I’m told that such lifelines don’t abrade easily, and are tougher to cut than you might think, but I am conservative enough not to want them on my boat, thanks. Not yet. Maybe in 50 years, when I’ve got used to the idea. Meanwhile, I think it would be hard to find anything better for lifelines than good old stainless-steel wire rope. Without the plastic cover, of course.

Today’s Thought
The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.
— Tacitus, Annals XV

“Didn’t you hear me pounding on your wall last night?”
“Yeah, but we didn’t like to complain. We were making quite a bit of noise ourselves.”


Anonymous said...

Morning John,
I was recently watching all the DVDs produced by the Pardeys, and it looks to me like they're using 3 strand (nylon?) for everything. It does sort of makes sense; you have absolute commonality with a 2 or 3 sizes of the same type of rope and you can splice it in 10 minutes or less. But does it make sense to be using this stuff for everything? Like halyards, sheets, topping lifts, lazy jacks, reefing lines, downhaul lines, and life lines? or is there 3 strand rope out there that's made of something a little better than nylon - maybe a little less stretch? or is that even that much of an issue?

John Vigor said...

I imagine the Pardeys are using three-strand Dacron, not nylon. Three-strand nylon stretches approximately 14 percent at 30 percent of its breaking load. But Dacron stretches only 5 or 6 percent.
So three-strand Dacron is fine for lines that are going to be adjusted from time to time anyway, such as headsail sheets and even the mainsheet. It's also fine for topping lifts and lazy jacks.

I would use braided Dacron for halyards and reefing lines, though. You don't want to have to keep adjusting them. Braided stretches less than three-strand.

On cruising boats, a little stretch is not much of an issue, but racing boats are better off with lines that hardly stretch at all. Certain types of Spectra, for example, stretch less than wire rope.

John V.

Aaron Headly said...

I with you on the lifelines; I don't have any. Nick Loy, the fellow who built my boat, said that he couldn't think of a way to rig stanchions that wouldn't lead to leaks, so he crossed them off his list. No worries there, mate.

I've always felt, when on boats that had them, that they are at the perfect height to trip you right into the drink. (And, since they make people over-confident, people will be even be more surprised to find themselves swimming all of a sudden when they trip over them.)

Plus: I hate the way they look (ah, vanity).