When we purchased Summer Dance, the standing rigging was one system that I knew that I would need to replace soon. The upper shrouds had been replaced recently with well-made cables, probably from that popular online Catalina parts retailer. The backstay and forestay were in satisfactory condition but were original from 1981. The lower shrouds were a mix of mismatched, poor quality, oversized replacements and failing originals.
At first, I assumed that I would replace the backstay, forestay, and lower shrouds with kits from that same retailer. They make replacement easy with pre-made kits or they can make custom replacements from your original rigging. But their prices are steep and I’d had a bad experience with their technical support.
I tried to get price quotes to compare with the Catalina parts retailer from several other rigging shops that advertise in sailing magazines and online but they were either unresponsive or vague. Next, I considered making the rigging myself from materials bought online. Purchasing the proper tools would dilute the cost savings considerably. Then I remembered that there is an industrial rigging company located in my nearest city. I was familiar with their regular steel wire rope products from a job that I held long ago. I called them to find out if they worked with stainless steel and were experienced in building sailboat rigging. Their answer to both questions was yes and they gave me a very encouraging cost per foot estimate. For about the cost of the bare wire rope to do it myself (not including tools, thimbles, and sleeves), they could do it all. That’s what I call a no-brainer. I needed to go to their shop to describe my requirements with their rigger.
Following are approximate costs per foot (in 2014) for standing rigging from several popular sources compared to the rigging company in my area.
The popular online Catalina parts retailer: $4.00/ft. complete
West Marine: $1.02/ft. cable only
McMaster-Carr: $0.85/ft. cable only
Local industrial rigger: $1.13/ft. complete
I met with Cory at Broadway Industrial Supply and was surprised to learn that they are now filling many more orders for stainless steel wire than ever before due to its popularity for architectural railings. I decided to have the shrouds made out of 316 stainless steel with thimbles and Nicro Press sleeves rather than roller-swaged terminals for two reasons: cost and simplicity.
The newer, roller-swaged style fittings are significantly more expensive than hand-pressed sleeves. The common reasons for using the new fittings are fewer parts to maintain, fail, or chafe sails and their ability to withstand a higher percentage of the breaking strength of the cable. I do admit they look really nice. Proponents make impressive claims about their superiority over the more primitive pressed sleeves. But the fact remains that pressed sleeves have been used successfully for decades, are still an accepted industry practice, and even as bad as my rigging was, they did the job well.
In all of the pictures in this post, the rigging tape was removed from over the swaged fittings to show their condition and workmanship.
A few words about cable types
When working with a rigger, especially an industrial rigger who may not be familiar with sailboat rigging, it’s important that you specify the correct cable type for strength, chafe avoidance, and rust resistance.
Regular steel wire rope like you can find in a home improvement or hardware store will not last long in a marine environment. Fuggedaboutit. Only stainless steel will survive and within stainless steel there are a couple of common choices, 304 grade (slightly stronger but less corrosion resistant) or 316 grade (slightly less strong but more corrosion resistant). The difference between the two grades is due to the chemical composition of the metal. Your choice as to which grade to use should be made with consideration of the type of sailing you usually do (cruising or racing) and the water that you sail in (fresh or salt water).
Besides the material that the cable is made of, the construction is also important. The most common constructions that you will see are 1×19 (1 strand of 19 wires wrapped around the core) and 7×19 (7 strands comprised of 19 wires each wrapped around the core). The two types have different strengths, stiffness, and stretch. For applications where ease of bending and use with blocks is more important and the amount of stretch is not important, such as wire to rope halyards, 7×19 cable is better. In applications where minimum stretch and maximum strength are important and stiffness is not important, like standing rigging, 1×19 is best.
Lastly, there’s the matter of cable diameter. Your sailboat was originally equipped with cables of sufficient diameter for its design and intended use. Seldom is it beneficial to oversize the rigging diameter for racing or to endure abuse or neglect. Doing so just adds to the cost and weight aloft for negligible benefit.
What not to do
Substandard rigging workmanship isn’t hard to spot once you’ve seen the right stuff. The cable should fit tightly around the thimbles, which should not be too small or too large for the cable diameter or the connection pin. The sleeves should be the correct size for the cable and the sleeve seam aligned perpendicular to the eye opening. Each sleeve should have the correct number of evenly spaced crimps that are appropriate for the cable diameter. Two sleeves should be pressed at each end with a space between them equal to one to two cable diameters. The cut end of the cable should extend completely through the second sleeve but not more than one cable diameter farther so as not to create frayed wires that can snag sails and skin.
The old rigging on Summer Dance was a mix of 1/8″ 1×19 wire rope (right, above) and 5/32″ 7×19 wire rope (left, above). The oversize 7×19 cables weren’t even installed in the same locations on opposite sides of the boat, which probably produced uneven loading of the mast from one side to the other.
Now’s the time to customize your rigging
Shortening or lengthening your running rigging is fairly easy and most of us have done at some time to optimize how it works. Once your standing rigging is built, however, except for significantly shortening a cable, any other changes usually require complete replacement, which can be several times the cost per foot of running rigging. So when you order your standing rigging is the time to consider any length changes for things like a different type of backstay (fixed or adjustable), different length turnbuckles, extra mast rake angle, quick release levers, or other modifications that can’t be accomplished with your current rigging.
Remove, replace, retune
To make it easier for Broadway Industrial Supply to build my rigging, I removed the old rigging and dropped it off with them for reference. If you do the same, label each cable so that you know where it came from. If your new rigging arrives without corresponding labels, you can at least match up the lengths with the old rigging to figure out where they go.
About a week later, I picked up the new rigging and was impressed with the quality of workmanship. All of the eyes were consistently and accurately formed. I had given my rigger a supply of white, heavy duty heat shrink tubing similar to what was on the original rigging. I asked him to put two pieces on each cable before making the eyes, enough to cover the crimped sleeves to prevent snagging and chafing the sails and running rigging. A few minutes with a heat gun sealed them all shut. Last, I slid white vinyl cable covers on the lower ends of all of the cables to prevent chafing.
Installing the new standing rigging is simple for a trailer sailor after the mast is unstepped. Remove the clevis pins at each end if you haven’t already, replace the old cable with the new cable, and reinstall the clevis pins. Now is a good time to install all new cotter pins or rings to leave no doubt as to the integrity of your connections.
Step the mast back into position. You might need to first loosen any overly short turnbuckles. Then tune the rigging as you normally would. I own a Loos tension gauge and its been a good investment to get and keep all the stays and shrouds at proper tension. For more about tuning and tension gauges, see Product Review: Loos Tension Gauge.
Open body vs. closed body turnbuckles
If you’ve done this job before, you might be asking, “But what about the turnbuckles, $tingy?” I chose not to replace my turnbuckles at this time and that reflects significantly in the low bottom line cost below. My reasoning wasn’t simply to save money, though. That was secondary. The biggest reason was that my existing closed body turnbuckles are still in good condition and I’m not convinced that open body turnbuckles are absolutely necessary, contrary to what many riggers will tell you to sell you more hardware.
I regularly disassemble, clean, inspect, and lubricate all of my turnbuckles. That alone negates the biggest reason given by the open body proponents. Yes, a tiny bit of water and dirt can get in those tiny holes in closed body turnbuckles. It won’t dry as fast as in an open body turnbuckle. But there’s also much less of it in there to begin with and to work its way down into the threads and corrode them compared to open body turnbuckles. And anybody who familiarizes themselves adequately with their turnbuckles (through regular maintenance is a good way) should have no trouble recognizing whether a turnbuckle is overextended or not. Moreover, my turnbuckles live in fresh water. I’ve also already replaced some of the T bolts that were bent due to incorrectly rotated chain plates so those threads are new. If you’re not sure if your chain plate bolts are turned correctly, read Turn Those Chain Plate Bolts!
Open body turnbuckles are great, especially if you’re going to neglect their maintenance. If I needed to replace my turnbuckles, I’d give more consideration to open body ones. But body style alone isn’t enough reason for me to throw hundreds of dollars of working hardware away for shiny new hardware. Nuf said.
The Bottom Line
Suggested price: $420.83
$tingy Sailor cost: $130.14
Have you replaced your standing rigging through an alternative source?