Ropes on a Boat

They say that there are no ropes on a sailboat. Ropes exist in spools at a chandlery and magically transformed into line the moment it comes onto the sailboat.

The truth is, not all ropes turn into lines! There are actually four ropes that exist on a sailboat:

  1. Bolt Rope
  2. Foot Rope
  3. Tiller Rope
  4. Bell Rope

A bolt rope is a rope sewn into the luff and foot of the sail to aid in securing the sail to the spars. Bolt ropes help reinforce and strengthen the sail, giving it a very firm attachment to the spar that will help it set much better.

A foot rope is a rope that runs the length of a yard (those horizontal spars on square riggers) that sailors stand on while they raise, reef, or lower the sails. These ropes are very important because the crew will be standing on these ropes while they work high up in the rigging.

A tiller rope is a rope used to tie off the tiller. This is used when the sails are balanced and the tiller can be left in one position. Rather than stand at the tiller to keep it in the same position, all you need to do is tie the tiller off. A tiller rope is run arthwartship from one side of the cockpit to the other. As the tiller rope goes by the tiller, it will be wrapped around the tiller a few times and then over to a cleat on the other side of the cockpit. The wraps on the tiller should be set close to the end of the tiller, that way if you need to take the helm in a hurry, all you need to do is slide the loops off the tip of the tiller, giving you the helm in a hurry.

A bell rope is a lanyard that is attached to the bell's clapper. The bell rope is used to sound the bell by pulling on the rope repeatedly. 

When you look at the list, you can see why many sailors feel confident is saying that there are no ropes on a boat. With the decay of square riggers and tall ships, yards have been replaced by booms with no foot ropes. This has led to the mental decay of the existence of foot ropes in the rigging.

Sailors don't work on their own sails anymore, so they probably don't realize that their roller furling sails have a bolt rope that slides into the luff groove of the aluminum extrusion. If they did notice the bolt rope, they would probably forget about its existence in a few years since most sailors never lower their furling sails until something breaks. The forgotten bolt rope has made its way onto the most modern and luxurious yachts since roller furling is the wave of the luxurious future.

Tiller ropes are a thing of the forgotten past since pretty much all cruising yachts come equipped with wheel steering. Tillers used to be found on all vessels of any size. The larger the vessel, the longer the tiller to provide the leverage needed to control the rudder. Vasa, a Swedish warship build in the 1620's was 226 feet long and steered with a tiller! In the early 1900's, the New York 40, a 65 foot yacht was steered with a tiller. Yet, by modern standards, a tiller should only be used on yachts under 30 feet in length.

The reason cited for the switch to wheels on all yachts over 30 feet in length is that weather helm will tire the crew that needs to hold the tiller and that the force to control the rudder is too great. Using a wheel will remove a lot of the strain on the crew thanks to the mechanical advantage of the wheel mechanism. Tiredness from weather helm should not be a reason to move away from tillers, tiredness from weather helm should be used as a reason to properly balance the sails!

Regardless of size or sail balance, the move to wheels makes it easier to sell a yacht. When a land lubber first steps onto a yacht with a tiller, they may wonder how you steer this thing? Conversely, a wheel will make the yacht controls appear more apparent since they can relate to a wheel. Tillers also cause a lot of confusion since the tiller is moved in the opposite direction you want to turn the bow because a tiller/rudder system is a Class I lever. Wheels, on the other hand, are steered just like a car where you turn the wheel in the direction you want to move. 

The move away from tillers has also left the tiller rope behind in the past. Wheels are standard equipment on yachts and older yachts with tillers are converting over to the wheels, all the while the tiller rope is being lost to the past.

The last forgotten rope is the bell rope. Bells are a traditional sound producing device that used to be fitted on all cruising boats as a way to signal their presence. The horn and whistle replaced the bell on small yachts, but was still required on all yachts of 40 feet and larger.  This was the begging of the end for the bell rope in the realm of common knowledge. In the first half of the 20th century, most cruising yachts were well under 40 feet in length. These small yachts were made out of wood and production of a larger yacht would require much more material and associated cost to build and maintain. The transition to fiberglass allowed an explosion in length. As time moved on, the size of these yachts continued to grow. In 1961, Hatteras Yachts produced a 34 foot model and a 41 foot model. In 2017, the smallest Hatteras produced is 45 feet in length and extends up to 102 feet in length.

As the size of yachts has increased, you would think that the bell and its bell rope would become more commonplace. The thing is, as yacht size increased, the United States Coast Guard has actually become more relaxed about their bell requirement. Around 2010, the USCG revised their requirements and decided that vessels between 40 and 65 feet no longer need to carry a bell. As the size of yachts increased, the rules surrounding them became more relaxed which has cast the bell rope has fallen into disuse. Yes, larger vessels are being produced and they need to carry a bell with a bell rope, but these massive yachts make up a small percentage of the boating population. Most boats in the United States are under 18 feet long and powered by an outboard motor. This means that most boat owners do not need a bell and therefore do not know about a bell rope.

Ropes typically transform into lines when they come on board, but now you know the four ropes that stay as a rope on a boat: bolt rope, foot rope, tiller rope, bell rope.