Yacht Maintenance & Repair - Part 3: Sails and Rigging
Getting your boat shipshape for the new boating season
The third part of our series on annual yacht maintenance, boat care and repair deals with the "engine" of sailing boats: the rig and the sails. Both should always be well maintained to increase their lifespan, however, both rig and sails are prone to wear and tear and even the best care will not make them last forever.
Most sailboats, that is serial yachts and family cruisers, have aluminium masts and rigging made of stainless steel wire. Wooden masts, still to be found on older boats, are also usually rigged with stainless steel wire. And from this point on opinions diverge. Most experts and insurance companies recommend replacing and renewing stainless steel wire, shrouds and stays every 15 years. After all, it is these wires that keep the rig up even in the harshest weather conditions.
Caution when checking stainless stee rigs With all the advantages of uncomplicated and maintenance-free, beaten stainless steel wires, one serious disadvantage remains: the real condition of a stainless steel wire can only be determined to a very limited extent by looking at it from the outside. A forestay or backstay or shroud that looks flawless from the outside can still be weak deep inside, and may simply break in strong winds or big waves. With the obvious consequences of the mast going overboard in 99 of 100 cases. So, prevention is better than cure. Renew your rigging regularly and rather too soon than late.
Forestay tensioner on the bow
Standing & running rigging
Pure Precaution However, it should also be mentioned that there are cruising yachts that have been sailing for 20 or 30 years without breaking the mast or ever having their standing rigging renewed. The 15-year-recommendation is after all a precautionary limit and some people just take their chances. Depending on the area you are sailing in or the planned voyage, every owner has to consider this issue carefully. Alarm signals However, there are some telltale clues that tell us when there is a real need to replace the wires. Marinus Liebherz, owner of the yacht service company raumschoots.de, says the following: "Before rigging in spring you should have a close look at the standing rig. If the wires are bent, for example due to improper storage, they should be replaced immediately. Other alarm signals are corrosion, rust bubbles, which become visible especially at the terminals, or wires which untwist, which also happens mostly at the terminals". Do not take chances if you see any of these signs.
Rigging a mast on a sailing yacht.
High time to renew the wire.
Sheet block and shroud tensioners.
Halyard blocks at the mast top.
Renew stainless steel wires every 15 years.
Maintenance of running rigging Of course you should also inspect the running rigging, especially the halyards. These often chafe (nautical for unwanted scrubbing of ropes, sails or other equipment that leads to premature wear) at the on the pulleys in the mast or on deck, especially when the pulleys are no longer running smoothly anymore. Such chafing can weaken a halyard, but before you renew it completely, it is often enough to simply "turn it around": Pull it out of the mast - of course only with a thin service line attached first in order to pull it back in afterwards - turn it around and pull it in again. Now the rope will have contact to the pulleys at different areas. This way you can get one or two more seasons out of the ropes before replacing them completely.
Servicing furling systems Today's widely used furling systems for head- or mainsails should be thoroughly cleaned and greased once a year as well. Rinsed it with fresh water and apply some oiled to the furling parts. The recommendations and instructions of the respective manufacturers should of course be adhered to. If you have owned the ship already for some time or bought it second hand and lack documents, that poses no longer any obstacle in times of the internet - you can download the appropriate manuals or service instructions from the Internet from practically every manufacturer. In general, a smooth-running oil (sewing machine oil) should be used for oiling and not grease, unless it is a lubricant supplied or recommended by the manufacturer. Otherwise there is a risk that the balls in the bearing will become"sticky" over time and the drum will become stiffer overall.
Unstepped aluminium mast
Wooden masts require more attention
Fitting on a wooden mast
Servicing the mast At least in theory, the masts and spars themselves last forever – with the exception of mechanical damage. As compared to aluminium masts, wooden poles have to be sanded and varnished annually. Areas creating problems are usually those where fittings are screwed on because moisture can penetrate into the wood and cause rot. Aluminium masts, on the other hand, are completely maintenance-free. They can be polished or painted once in a while, using an appropriate primer. But after all this is for purely cosmetic reasons only. Here too: Check the fittings to see if there is any corrosion at these points.
Checking electrical wiring, pulleys and blocks
Before stepping the mast, take the opportunity to check the electrical wiring of lights and antennas on the mast top and all other fittings at the mast as they are easily accessible now. Clean and tighten all the connections if neccessary. Also check the pulleys in the mast top to ensure smooth running of all halyards, as already mentioned before.
The sails should all be unbended and taken to to the sailmaker for a thorough check in good time, that is already in autumn or winter to make sure all work is finished in time for the beginning of the season in spring. The sailmaker will detect minor wear and tear and repair it immediately. That is much cheaper than "waiting" for a sail to break. The seams, for example, can become weak after several years due to UV radiation. The sailmaker can then simply sew over it, which of course is easier than repairing a sail that may already be torn. Chaffing marks in the cloth can also be reinforced immediately.
Well packed and protected...
...after every tour...
...keeps your sails in good shape
A jib ready for hoisting
Sheets fastened to the foresail.
Handling the sailcloth Dacron sails as well as modern laminated sails have a limited lifespan. After a few years they loose their shape, which really dramatically affects sailing performance. Unfortunately, it is not possible to make an overall accurate statement about the lifespan of sails as it depends on so many factors - the type of cloth, but also the region (intensive UV exposure or not, stronger or weaker wind), actual sailing time and finally, of course, how carefully the sails are treated, when sailing (timely reefing of the head sails, for example) as well as in the harbour (packed under sail covers as protection against sun, rain and dirt). So, your handling of the sails can make all the difference - in terms of cots as well as your sailing performance!