Rope Cleaning Station

Ropes become lines the moment they enter the vicinity of a boat (unless you are the select few ropes that remain a “rope on a boat”). The trouble is, these sheets, halyards, jacklines, and other control lines all get dirty over time. Between the salt that gets into the fibers and the algae that grows on them if they don’t dry out enough, the lines become filthy!

When you remove a line from a boat and turn it back into (dirty) rope, you may want to clean it. Washing machines are not a good idea as all the agitation will form infinite knots in your ropes. Many detergents (especially fabric softeners) will actually weaken the strength of the rope. You are pretty much left with the option of a bucket filled with Dawn Soap and water.

You could simply mix the rope around in the bucket for a while and try to work the dirt out of the rope fibers the best you can, but this will end up with a dirty rope where the only thing that came out in the wash were the good intentions.

The next option is to add a brush to the equation. A good scrub brush will help loosen and remove dirt and other contaminates from the rope and its fibers, but scrubbing a rope can be rather challenging.

A friend of mine made this apparatus to facilitate the cleaning process of his jib sheets. The brushes are simply clamped to a sturdy table, allowing him to work the rope through the brushes with both hands to really clean them up well. The rope that is waiting simply soaks in the soapy water of the bucket, helping to loosen any filth that is on the line.

Photo and idea courtesy of: Scott Erwin

Photo and idea courtesy of: Scott Erwin

As the rope gets cleaner, the water can be changed out to prevent the clean rope from stewing in the old filthy water. The process really makes an impossible task much easier, and the end result is a much cleaner jib sheet once it is returned to it's home on the boat.

Lifting with your Rigging

Sailboats can be viewed as delicate creations that glide across pressure differentials in the air and water. Following this logic, you would be inclined to fear using your spars and rigging for anything other than sailing.

This is where davit companies take over, offering you an easy way to create a crane arm on your yacht that will lift your dinghy and outboard motor.

If you want to hang your dinghy on the stern and you don't have over-extending spars, then yes, you will need davits. If you are willing to place these heavy objects on the deck where they would be within the reach of the spars, then no, you won't need davits.

Davits are merely miniature replicas of what you already have, a mast and boom. The mast provides the vertical fixation point while the boom offers the horizontal fixation point. Using the two of these in tandem will allow you to easily lift and position any object you want onto your deck.

To do this, the first thing you need to do is stop viewing your rigging as a setup for sails and instead view it as a crane. The halyard is your hoist and your boom is simply the lateral positioning.

To carry this out, all you need to do is run a line from your mast out to the end of the boom and back. You will tie a bowline around the halyard in the end of this line after it has returned from the end of the boom.

This line is your outhaul and will position the object you are lifting along the boom.

To raise an object, you simply need to attach your halyard to it and begin cranking on your halyard winch. The outhaul will position it on the boom, so it is best to start with the outhaul all the way at the end of the boom, that way gravity will aid you in bringing it closer to the mast.

You can lift the object as high as the boom, and the boom can be lifted by way of the topping lift, giving you great flexibility in how you will manage your cargo. Once the object is clear of the lifelines by lifting it with the halyard, you can begin to ease the outhaul to bring it closer to the mast. When it is in the position that you desire, simply swing the boom over and it will bring the cargo with it.

Once it is over the area of interest, you can ease the halyard to lower it onto your deck.

Using this method, you can easily and safely remove and reinstall your inboard engine, as well as launch and retrieve your dinghy if you keep it under the boom behind the mast.

I keep a special line with a large thimble spliced into the end for the outhaul. The thimble reduces the friction and chafe between the outhaul and halyard, increasing their longevity. If this is a one time thing though, fire away with a bowline and get the job done!

Converting to Lines Led Aft: Part 2, Drilling the Holes

With the template of the mast cut out, I traced the negative onto a new piece of paper to create a positive cross sectional copy of the mast. This analogue will allow me to visualize where I will be placing the holes in the mast and where the bracket will lay with respect to the mast. Having this information allows me to plan out exactly where I want the holes to end up with no surprises!

With the holes planned out, it was time to drill the holes in the stainless steel bracket that will attach to the mast. Drilling stainless steel is one of my least favorite activities, but following a few simple steps, it can be accomplished with ease and efficiency.

After the holes were drilled, the aluminum bushings and through bolts could be test fitted.

The aluminum pipes will run through the mast and house the stainless steel through bolts. To prevent galvanic corrosion between the stainless steel bolts and aluminum pipes, copious amount of grease will be used to protect the dissimilar metals.

The through bolts are needed to attach the bracket to the mast, but if you simply drilled and bolted the bracket to the mast, you would end up crushing the mast when you tighten the bolts. This would spell the end of that spar as the section right above the deck would be severely buckled! The aluminum pipes serve as compression posts between the head and nut and protect the mast from being crushed. This same setup is used where your stays attach to the mast.

If you look at your mast tangs, it might appear as if the stay simply bolts to the side of the mast. In reality, there is a small aluminum pipe that runs through the mast and sits just proud of the surface of the spar. When you tighten down, this pipe takes the compressive loads while sparing the sides of the spar to this un-necessary stress. 

With the bracket fully drilled and setup, it is time to drill the mast to mount and install the bracket!

The bracket had its holes drilled on a drill press, far away from the mast. The holes were positioned based on the template of the mast that I had created. Now it is time to put holes in the real thing!

Drilling the mast is different from drilling the bracket because if I can always make a new bracket if I mess up. The mast, on the other hand, is not so easy to switch out if I mess up the hole! The bracket was positioned around the mast set up on 2x4's. This placed the bracket at a set 3.5 inches above the deck which is a smidgen past the mast boot collar. To adjust the tilt of the bracket, one block of wood was set at an angle, allowing us to adjust the angulation of the with respect to the mast and the deck.

Once everything was lined up perfectly, it was time to mark the points to drill the holes. This is the most important part of the job is. If you mark the wrong spot, everything from here will be misguided and will not end well. If you mark the right spot, the stress is then transferred over to the drilling step which now carries all the stress!

The hole is larger than the pen I used to mark the mast, so I simply traced the inside of the hole in the frame as it drew a circle on the mast. The pen was held directly arthwartships to make sure that there was no deviation in the direction of the hole. 

While drawing the circle does not provide a specific point to drill your holes, it does give you a circle to drill in. Selecting a drill bit that is the size of the inner part of drawn circle takes all the guesswork out of it. In this case, a 1/16" drill bit was the perfect size. This hole is drilled perpendicular to the mast surface and not directly arthwartships.

Using a small drill bit has another advantage, as it will prevent the drill from walking away from the ideal hole and misguide your work. This hole will now serve to position and center the further drill bits that will be used to create the holes in the mast.

The next step is to position a 1/4 inch drill bit into the 1/16 inch pilot hole. This hole is first drilled directly perpendicular to the mast until the drill bit was buried, then it was rotated a bit to position the drill directly arthwartships. If I started the hole arthwartships, I would run the risk of the drill walking sideways and making the hole off center. By starting it perpendicular to the surface, the hole is guaranteed not to walk. Once there is enough hole to hold the drill bit, it is then safe to straighten everything out.

Once the hole is aligned arthwartships, you can then drill the 1/4 inch hole to completion. Be careful when drilling into the mast though, as you never know what lies on the other side. There is usually a conduit carrying electrical wires to the mast head or spreaders that runs on the forward side of the mast, but you never know if someone simply ran wires loose through the mast. If you drill into wires, you will add hours of work to this simple task! Drilling slowly will allow you to perforate the mast and come to a stop without plunging the drill bit deep into the mast. This is especially important for the next step when we will take a hole saw to the mast!

The four 1/4 inch holes are completed and and perfect, it is now time to drill the big holes!

When drilling large holes, it is preferable to use a hole saw. Regular twist bits have a tendency to create oblong holes in larger sizes, hole saws will keep the hole perfectly round as they have no ability to cut on their sides once it is past the teeth. I'm using a Milwaukee 3/4" Hole Dozer because I have found that the teeth will hold up well to the abuse I give them, be it drilling through aluminum, wood, fiberglass, or random fasteners that were present inside a bulkhead I was drilling through! These hole saws are serious about making holes and holding up to the abuses you can throw at them.

Since you are drilling arthwartships, the hole saw will contact the inner portion of the mast well before it contacts the outer portions of the mast. This is very important because the holes you are drilling are supposed to go directly through the mast, not into the mast's center.

Awesome! The first hole has been made in the mast! Only seven more to go!!

Before getting too far ahead of yourself, it is important to remember what the holes are for. The holes are to pass an aluminum pipe that will run through the mast and spread out the stress loads from the stainless fasteners through bolting the mast and to absorb the compressive loads of the through bolted fasteners. They need to pop in and poke out on the other side of the mast and line up with the hole on the other side of the bracket. This is where things get tricky!

When I marked the holes on the mast with my blue pen, I marked all eight holes. Now that I have the hole drilled on this side of the mast for the pipe, it is time to make sure that I am lined up with the hole on the other side of the mast. To do this, I simply need to sight the tiny pilot hole through the pipe in the mast.

With the pipe in the hole, you want to be certain that it lines up pretty darn centered over the pilot hole on the other side. If you are way off, then you did something really wrong while marking the mast and have a very small mistake hole rather than a massive 3/4 inch mistake! Luckily, all our looking, sighting, and marking paid off and we are lined up with the pilot hole on the other side.

Success! The holes lined up and everything is perfect! Time for the truest test of it all, will the bolt pass through and all the holes line up?

Woohoo! One through bolt completed, now all we need to do is drill and bolt the other three.

You might think the stress has passed after the first one worked beautifully, but that is sadly not the case. The same roller coaster of emotions and stress occurred with each and every hole I made in this persons mast! Thankfully, everything lined up perfectly and the job was able to be completed in a timely manner. 

If you are wondering why the bracket is not bolted in place at this moment, that is because we are far from ready to bolt the bracket to the mast. The holes with their pipes are merely there to fasten the bracket to the mast. We still have to drill the holes for the turning blocks that will lead the lines aft to the cockpit.

Converting to Lines Led Aft: Part 1, The Bracket

The client wants to convert his ketch from lines left at the mast to lines led aft. His mast is keel stepped, so we couldn't attach any turning blocks to the deck. Instead, we need to build a bracket that will attach to the mast and serve as a mounting point for all the turning blocks.

The lines that will be led aft are going to be the main halyard, along with the clew and tack lines for the two reefs. Rather than bolting each of these turning blocks to the mast, I chose to make a bracket that attaches to the mast with 4 through bolts and all the related components can attach to this bracket. Each hole you make in the mast will weaken the spar. 4 through bolts will require 8 holes. If we bolted each fitting to the mast, we would be looking at 20 holes!

The mast is elliptical while the bracket is square. This is because I could not easily get a curved bracket fabricated, so instead, we had 3mm thick 316 Stainless Steel plate welded together and reinforced with 6 gussets in the corners. This makes for a pretty strong bracket, but it still doesn't attach to the mast!

I cut a template out of a file folder to match the mast contour. This template will then be used to transfer the information over at my work bench, allowing me to see how the bracket would fit around the mast without being at the clients boat. With this template, I can properly visualize where we want to place the through bolts that will hold it all together without the spar being in my view and blocking my visualization. I will be able to carefully measure and calculate the best location for the through bolts and then transfer that information back over to his boat when the time comes.

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.