Lines Led Aft

There is a trend these days to lead all lines aft to the cockpit. I think we should look at the pros and cons of leading lines to the cockpit vs keeping them at the mast.

The Pros are:

You never need to leave the cockpit
You need less winches

Never needing to leave the cockpit is nice! I sailed on a ketch with roller main and mizzen, and was so excited to tell Maddie that I was able to reef all the sails without stepping foot out of the cockpit and it was completed really fast! 

The other advantage is there are less winches needed to manage the vessel. On board Wisdom, we have 6 winches in the cockpit, 3 winches at the mast, and 1 winch on the boom. That's 10 winches to work all the lines involved in running the boat! If I needed to replace them, it would certainly be an expensive endeavor!

On sailboats with the lines led aft, they can run on much fewer winches. In theory, all the halyards and mainsheet could be managed by a single winch! This is because they work on a bank of clutches that lead to a single winch. Clutches are much less expensive as compared to a two speed self tailing winch! Clutches hold the lines in place, allowing you to take it off the winch to then put another line on the winch. This frees up the winch, allowing it to work all the lines led to it one at a time!

I have a friend who is up in years and still able to cruise singlehanded because his winch on the cockpit combing is electric. For the cost of one electric winch, he can easily manage his entire vessel! He doesn't have to climb up on deck in the dark during a storm to bring the sails in. Instead he stands behind the dodger and pushes a button to trim, set, or reduce his sails.

The Cons are:

Cockpit spaghetti
Increased line resistance
More deck hardware and turning blocks
Additional length of all lines
Upward stress on deck
Trouble shooting jams

 A creative way to organize the cockpit spaghetti

 A creative way to organize the cockpit spaghetti

When all the lines are led into the cockpit, all the tail ends of the lines end up in the cockpit. This can lead to what is known as Spaghetti. On a very simple sloop rig, you would have:

Main Halyard
Jib Halyard
Vang
Spinnaker Halyard
Mainsheet
Outhaul
Cunningham
Jib Furling Line
Reefing Tack Line
Reefing Clew Line

Imagine all of these lines led to a single winch through a massive clutch bank, then dumping into the cockpit! This is why they sell organization bags along with many other systems to try and tame the mess that forms in the cockpit. If you do not manage these lines well, knots and kinks can form which would then impair the operation of all of these lines! My older friend who cruises is very methodical and keeps his lines in pristine organization! He never lets a mess develop so he never has to worry about a mess impairing his ability to control his vessel. If you are not organized like that, this could quickly become a problem!

Increased resistance is another problem with leading the lines aft. Each turn the line makes adds resistance to the system. When you think about the turns involved to run a halyard, or worse, an outhaul; resistance quickly escalates! A line that could be easily manhandled now needs a winch due to all the turn induced resistance!

In addition to the resistance, you need to have all of the hardware to cause these turns. All of these turning blocks and shivs need to be maintained, which adds to the work involved in keeping a cruising boat operational. There is already enough work and cost involved in keeping a sailboat in working order, why add more to the equation?

In order to reach the cockpit, each and every line needs the distance from the area of work to the cockpit added to it. When the lines cost several dollars per foot, adding several yards of rope to each line can become a very expensive addition. This makes the cost of replacing the running rigging significantly higher. In our example of 10 lines led aft, if the distance from the cockpit to the mast were 10 feet and the lines cost $1 per foot, that would be an additional $100 added to the cost of the running rigging.

All of these lines pull upwards at their turning blocks near the mast. Deck stepped boats have the force of the mast pushing down to help counteract this upward pull, but keel stepped boats do not. Properly engineered keel stepped boats will have a turnbuckle mounted inside the cabin attaching the deck to the mast. This fitting will help transfer some of the upward pull on the deck to the mast. If this fitting were to part, the deck would be ripped up by the force of the turning blocks. If you do have one of these fittings, be sure to inspect it regularly.

The last issue with leading lines aft is in the case of trouble shooting. If a line gets stuck, there are many potential offenders that could have caused the problem. The line could be stuck in the clutch, or stuck in any of the many turning blocks on the deck, as well as the normal locations for a jam located on the mast. When trying to trouble shoot, you need someone in the cockpit at the winch to pull or slack the line and another person up at the mast to figure out what went wrong. 

Some boat manufactures don't like the look of all the lines running aft on the deck and have encased the lines in a fiberglass tunnel. While this clears the decks for lounging, it makes them much harder to inspect and maintain the lines. If a jam occurs inside the tunnel, an extra level of complexity just got added to the problem.

I personally feel that lines led to the cockpit are wonderful on coastal cruisers with in-mast furling and make sailing much easier as all the lines are within close reach. They work great for coastal sailors who will be doing day trips and maybe a weekend sail. For longer voyages, I feel that it presents more instances for failures to occur and makes fixing the gear failures more complex. With all the winches I have in my cockpit, I have sometimes wanted an extra winch to pull on the random line that needs to be pulled. Imagine having a situation like this with a very limited number of winches. 

How do you feel about the modern trend of all the lines being led to the cockpit?

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