Choose Your Running Rigging Colors Logically

When we purchased Summer Dance, she had an odd assortment of line colors, mostly the original equipment, run of the mill white with blue tracer. But the main sheet was white with a red tracer, the jib sheet too, and the genoa sheet was white with a black tracer. None of the colors gave you a clue as to what a line was used for. The halyards in particular were difficult to tell apart unless they were in their proper places.

After you know your sailboat so well that you can sail her in the dark, colors don’t matter, of course. But when you have crew onboard that don’t know your sailboat so well, they need all the help they can get to identify your lines.

When I set about to replace all the running rigging, I wanted the line colors to be useful. The research I did only vaguely helped. There seem to be as many standards for line colors as there are sailor’s opinions. Beyond red for port and green for starboard, there doesn’t seem to be much consensus, which is odd considering how specific most sailing rules are. So I made up my own color scheme. Heck, if you can’t join ’em, beat ’em.

But black looks cool

I wound up with a color scheme that, together with the different line sizes, makes it relatively easy to identify each line at a glance. At least it seems logical to me but I’m a left-brain person. My hope is that it will also make sense to my right-brain readers.

The general rules of my line color scheme are simple:

  • The colors identify which sail the line directly affects: red on the port side (headsail), green on the starboard side (mainsail), blue for everything else. This also helps newbies remember port from starboard just by looking at the lines hanging on the cockpit bulkhead.
  • The amount of color identifies the line’s importance: solid colors for dynamic control lines (sail position, for example, sheets), white with colored tracer for static control lines (sail shape and rigging management, for example, halyards).
  • The size of the line identifies its load: 1/4″ lines for light loads (jib downhaul, mainsail reefing, tiller lock, etc.), 8mm or 5/16″ for heavy loads (halyards, vang, traveler, etc.), and 3/8″ lines for the most often handled lines (sheets). Obviously, the sizes are more dictated by the loads than by preference.

Here are some practical examples of how this scheme helps when sailing with my wife, the first mate:

What I want to sayWhat I would otherwise have to say
“Honey, could you please release the jib downhaul?”“Loosen the little line with the red stripes that looks like a candy cane.”
“Prepare to come about.”“Get ready to pull up on the fat red line that looks like a cherry Twizzler twisted around a silver salt shaker.”
“Ease the main before we broach!”“Pull the fat green line out of that clamp thingy, let out some of the line until the boat leans back up, and then put it back into the clamp!”

In reality, it hasn’t made that big of a difference to her, but a guy’s gotta try, right?


Using the three color scheme rules above, can you guess the purpose of each line in the picture?

(Answers: jib downhaul, jib halyard, jib sheet, boom vang, miscellaneous, main sheet, main halyard)


8 Comments Add yours

  1. I have used color coded lines on my 23′ Venture of Newport cutter Chiquita ever since I got her some 35 years ago. I use red for the jib, blue for the staysail, and green for the main. Solid colors for the sheets and striped for everything else. 3/8″ diameter sheets, 5/16″ halyards, and 1/4″ or 3/16″ for everything else.

    I have dual mainsheets, 2 jib sheets, 2 staysail sheets, 2 spinnaker/drifter sheets (1/4″), 2 downhauls for jib and staysail, 2 tack downhauls for jib and staysail, 1 boom vang, 1 Cunningham, 1 internal main outhaul, 2 main clew reef lines, 1 backstay adjuster, and 2 running backstays, all going to the cockpit or easily accessible on the boom. That’s a total of 20 lines! I keep the tails as short as possible so the cockpit is not at all cluttered and the color coding makes each line instantly recognizable..

    My grandkids often ask to stop at one of several lakeside parks to go swimming whenever we are out. They had been too young to help with docking at the park so I usually did this single handed. I keep the dock lines coiled but permanently attached to their cleats. That’s 1 bow, 2 midship and 2 stern lines.

    Henry Rodriguez

    1. kbilling says:

      Thanks for your comment.

      I looked at some of your pictures. That’s a beautiful boat (except for the sinking!). Looks larger than 23′. And some adorable grandkids.

  2. Pump says:

    Well done, a good standard! They say even a bad standard is better than none.
    I think white for your halyards white main blue for the kite red and green for the jib and yellow for toppers.
    I like the use of fleck and solid colour is a good one I will be using that idea if I can. No matter what I plan it will depend on availability and cost in the end.

  3. Billy says:

    Hi, I am a wanna be sailor /weekend warrior on a small catamaran that we capsize often (over ambitious -great fun)
    I real enjoyed you table about instructions to your wife while sailing Priceless … enjoyable informative read . Thank you

  4. Popeye says:

    “Using the three color scheme rules above, can you guess the purpose of each line in the picture?” No, I can’t guess them. I don’t even know what any of the answers mean. I only found you because you had a project on trailer brakes, I signed up because you have other projects and tips that pertain to more than sailboats.

  5. Tedd Blankenship says:

    Dear Stingy Sailor,
    I’ve read and re-read your posts on installing a bimini top… studied the photos over and over… and now I find myself somewhat in the same boat as you did. My wife would sail with me a lot more if we had some shade, so… I bought a Carver bimini. Now I need to install it and I’m a bit chicken to drill holes in my boat. Could you please send me a few specific measurements relative to where you placed your adjustable track and maybe even your tie off positions for the straps. I know each Catalina 22 is a bit different, but I need a good starting point – I don’t have the mast up now and probably won’t until spring.
    If beer money would help, or otherwise, let me know. I would be more than happy to oblige!
    * I built your motor stand, followed your instructions on your hatch board resurrection, wiring advice, etc. etc. Thanks. It’s all great and has helped me a lot. The bimini is a bit intimidating. I don’t want to get it wrong. Yikes.
    Thanks again, Tedd Blankenship in Kansas
    On Sat, Jan 29, 2022 at 10:01 AM The $tingy Sailor wrote:
    > $tingy Sailor posted: ” When we purchased Summer Dance, she had an odd > assortment of line colors, mostly the original equipment, run of the mill > white with blue tracer. But the main sheet was white with a red tracer, the > jib sheet too, and the genoa sheet was white with a black” >

  6. bigsnit says:

    15 years ago when I bought my boat i was all over this. But comes the but. I do totally agree with you, BUT. I like nothing better than a deal – a discount – a sale. My colour choices are now completely governed by what I could get on sale. I generally tell guests on board to ‘follow the line’ so they see what it controls. But ‘grab the blue line next to the blue line closest to the green line” also works. 😉

    1. I’m right there with you on sales. Getting color coordinated either takes time and patience or you have to do it all at once. I chose the latter but did it when everything I needed was on sale at the same time.

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