Any skipper of an ocean-going yacht should have practical knowledge of every onboard system relied upon at sea. Aside from keeping the water out of the boat, a yacht’s rig is its single most important system.
Much is written about seamanship, though often only after something troubling happens at sea, or when a yacht is handled bravely in lousy weather. But good seamanship starts long before a voyage ever leaves the dock, and it should start with the rig. The best seamanship is boring, routine and purposefully un-dramatic, and is therefore usually not written about.
Rig inspection starts the instant you step aboard, and begins with a question – when was the rig last refit? If the answer is more than ten years ago, it is probably time. At the least, the inspection ought to be more thorough. And it includes all the lines, sails, blocks and winches used to sail the boat.
I start by having a casual look around on deck. I can tell immediately what to expect simply by noticing subtle details. Are there cotter pins in the turnbuckles? Do the sheets and halyards appear frayed? Does the furling drum look ‘right?’ Are the spreaders bisecting the shroud angle and not ‘drooping?’ Are there rust streaks below decks on chainplate bulkheads? If those things are more or less correct, it is usually an indication that the rig will be in good shape, and likewise the rest of the boat. A neglected rig – no cotter pins, bad stitching on a jib clew, moldy running rigging, stiff winches – often means a neglected boat.
Following that initial walkaround, I take a closer look at things, already with an idea of what I might find. Do the swage fittings at deck level show signs of distortion, hairline cracks or rust? Do all the clevis pins fit perfectly in their holes? Is the mast standing straight and true? Sight up the mast track like you would down the barrel of a gun – it is remarkable how accurate the human eye is in detecting discrepancies. Are the shrouds tensioned more or less equally on either side? Test by using the same arm and compare the tension on opposite shrouds – you will notice by feel whether they are close or not, and only a fine-tuned racing boat requires using a Loos gauge.
Go aloft. Much has been written recently about this subject after an accident in Antigua involving a powered winch. There are a couple ways of safely going up a rig (I like to free-climb, while a person on deck takes up slack in the halyard with a few turns round the winch), but just make sure you know what you are doing – and more importantly, that the person belaying you knows what they are doing.
I always start an inspection from the masthead. Check every connection in the standing rigging – recall that rigging acts like a chain, and is only as strong as its weakest link. Again, are swage fittings cracked? Metal fatigue puts longitudinal stress on the swage, and hairline cracks form lengthwise over time, a sure indication of imminent failure. The worst I have seen was on an aging Passport 40 in the Panama Canal – the backstay swage fitting was cracked open at least a full millimeter for its entire length. I came immediately and swiftly down. Are cotter pins securely in place on all clevis pins? Is the shackle on the furling headsail seized or secured with a black cable tie (black resists rotting in the sun far longer than white)? Do the masthead sheaves roll smoothly, and do the halyards fit through them correctly? Are the clevis holes on the mast tangs smooth and round or have they gotten egg-shaped over time? Many times when an owner re-rigs, they neglect to change the tangs and the bolts that hold them in place – again, recall the rigging chain effect and its potential consequences.
Working down the rig, check the spreader connections. Any sign of cracks? At each spreader tip, ensure that the shroud is somehow secured on the end (often with seizing wire). This usually requires removing the spreader covers, which sometimes brings surprises, as they can trap water and accelerate corrosion (likewise with turnbuckle covers). Check also for chafe gear aloft – is there anything the headsails can catch on when coming through a tack?
Back on deck, take a very close look at the chainplates. Precisely where the chainplates penetrate the deck is where crevice corrosion occurs, due to an often-wet environment and a lack of oxygen. Stainless corrodes from the inside out in these instances, and will literally disintegrate over time, often with the only indication of a problem being a catastrophic failure. If the boat is around ten years old and the chainplates have never been replaced or pulled for inspection, now is the time. It is inconvenient to be sure, but a leading cause of rig failure at sea.
Though unlikely with a well-maintained rig, failures do occur. In the next and final installment, we will discuss some of the most common failures and how to handle them at sea.
Andy Schell is a sailor and journalist. He has worked professionally as a yacht rigger at Southbound Cruising Services in Annapolis, MD. He and his wife Maria Karlsson re-designed the rig on their yawl Arcturus before setting out across the Atlantic last summer. Find them online at fathersonsailing.com.