The two levels of vinyl-coated wire lifelines on Britannia were well past their prime. Sections of the vinyl-coating had faded into a dull brown, with parts chafed and cracked, exposing the wire, and many of the chrome fittings had lost their luster. If I accidentally ran my hand along an exposed section, it often resulted in blood. They simply had to be replaced, not only for safety and to restore a smooth surface, but also for the appearance.
Lifelines are intended to stop someone falling overboard, so that is the primary consideration in any replacement. But this does raise another important question, how does a person who does fall overboard get back on board through, or over the lifelines? Thinking about this brought back memories of an incident when I was chartering my boat in the Mediterranian..
I once actually had to perform a man overboard/retrieval operation, (actually it was a woman), but thankfully not in real emergency conditions, because we were at anchor. A charter guest foolishly climbed down our boarding ladder with a wool poncho over her costume, because she was embarrassed at her obesity. It didn’t take but a few minutes for the poncho to become waterlogged and the lady was in trouble. She was unable to get a foot even on the first rung of the boarding ladder, never mind climb back up. She jettisoned the weighty poncho and clung to the ladder while I thought about how to get her back aboard. I should state here that the boat had a flat hourglass transom, not a sugar-scoop like many new hulls that frequently also have a swim-ladder, which makes getting back on board much easier. When rescue is from alongside however, dropping the lifelines makes the operation easier. The lady was much too big to physically pull up the side of the boat, so I rigged the main boom with a snatch-block and a line with a loop big enough to pass around her back and under her arms. The inboard end was led to the windlass warping drum. As I set this up, my wife released the pelican hooks on both wire lifelines and we were able to lower them between two stanchions. The hapless lady was quickly hoisted over both lowered lines, to plop on the deck like a landed fish. The only thing she suffered, apart from her dignity, was temporary bruising on her arms and back caused by the rope.
This incident showed me how difficult it can be to get someone back on board, yet it could hardly be classed as a life-threatening emergency.
Another real emergency that might require lowering lifelines is, not to bring someone back on board, but to launch a heavy liferaft from the deck. Britannia has an eight-man ocean raft which weighs over 140 Lbs, in a canister on chocks in the center of the deck. I have great difficulty moving it on my own whenever I want to scrub the deck, and the canister is too big to slide between the lifelines. The lifelines would definitely need to be released or cut, to allow the container to be shoved over the bulwarks. The same problem might occur in man-handling a heavy dinghy stowed on deck, that needed to be launched in a hurry.
The permutations for confusion if someone actually does go overboard are considerable and hardly predictable. It is therefore only sensible to take as many precautions as possible to prevent it and make retrieval easier. It is to be hoped that under conditions where a man-overboard might be likely, everyone would be wearing lifejackets and tethers. That would make the chances of hoisting someone back aboard much easier if a line could be tied to the harness safety ring, but lowering the lifelines would make any rescue much easier.
Most boat lifelines have pelican hooks at one end, that can be released to lower the lines. Britannia’s were the old style, with a locking ring over the release lever. When the wires were tight it was very difficult to pry the ring back over the latch by hand, and pliers were necessary to squeeze the latch. A new type of pelican hook from CS Johnson Inc. has a pin, like a snap-shackle, that releases the hook even with the lines in maximum tension. Lines can also be released by unwinding the tensioning turnbuckle toggle at the other end, but if the line is tight, it too can be difficult to unwind the turnbuckle by hand. I found a neat little adjustment tool at CS Johnson's website which fits in the center small hole of a tubular turnbuckle and much better than pliers or a bit of old wire which I have been using for years. I also removed all the locking nuts on my turnbuckles, because they also need pliers or wrenches to release them, and in a dire emergency speed may be critical.
If for any reason lines cannot be released, a final option would be to cut the wire, which requires long-handled wire cutters for 3/16”inch thick wire. But what if the lifelines were rope, that would be easy to cut, but would rope be strong enough?
Since I was going to replace the wires anyway, I decided to look at the pros and cons of wire and rope. Maybe there was now a better way than old fashioned wire?
Like nearly everything on boats, people have their preferences and opinions - including about boats themselves. There is certainly more than one way to replace lifelines and the opinions expressed here are entirely my own, and since we are considering life-lines, no responsibility is accepted for any adverse consequences.
Regarding strength; I couldn't find any manufacturer who gave the strength of their material when used specifically as lifelines. All I could find for both wire and rope is tensile strength, or working load, no account is taken for stanchions either, which are integral to any boats lifeline system. How stanchions hold up depends on their deck fastenings, length, and tube thickness.
Whatever I decided to use to replace my worn lifelines, it had to be no thicker than 3/8”inch (10mm) diameter, to pass through the 7/16”inch (11mm) holes through the stanchions.
CHOICES OF LIFELINES:
My choices were between.
WIRE: Uncoated wire can become untouchable with bare hands in the hot Florida summer, and I don't like gripping thin wire with bare hands anyway, so I didn't want to consider that. Vinyl coated wire is very commonly fitted by manufacturers and sold through after-market suppliers. It looks smart when it's new, but over time water can enter at the ends and wherever chafe has exposed the wire. Eventually this causes corrosion that may not be visible under the covering. Wire is however very strong and 3/16”inch 7x7 strand wire has a working load of 3700 lbs., (1678 kg).
ROPE: Dyneema rope is stronger, size-for-size, than stainless wire. The possibility of substituting rope for lifelines therefore becomes a viable possibility. I found Miami Cordage Inc., a rope maker, hidden in the industrial depths of Miami, Florida. Most recreational boaters will not have heard of this wonderful Aladdin's cave of rope because nearly all of their product goes to the United States Navy and Coast Guard, along with other industrial outlets. Yet they make every conceivable type of rope from old style three strand, to 12 strand Dyneema, which they call Ironlite. Their prices are considerably less than the regular retail outlets most boaters, including me, use. Their 1/4”inch (6mm) single braided 12 strand has an amazing tensile strength of 8,000 Lbs (3528 kg).
7x7 3/16”inch vinyl-coated wire: $1.79 per foot from Defender
1/4”inch 12 strand Dyneema Ironlite in blue: $0.60 per foot from Miami cordage.
INSTALLING NEW LIFELINES:
WIRE: I needed roughly 150’ feet (46m) of wire and 16 threaded ends to replace my old wire, along with at least three new turnbuckles to replace the jammed rusty old ones. The conventional method of attaching threaded ends to wire is to compress the fitting to the wire. This can be done using a hand-swager tool offered by most rigging suppliers, but it is tedious if you have a lot to do. First the vinyl coating has to be cut back a couple of inches, exposing the wire, which in itself is not easy and best done in a sturdy vice with a sharp box cutter blade. Then, using a wrench to tighten the bolts on the swager tool, five crimps are recommended on each fitting. I needed 16 fittings each with five swages, that's 80 crimps! Even if each swage only took five minutes, it will still take nearly seven hours! Defender has a long handled crimping tool which makes short-work of swaging multiple fittings, but unfortunately the price is $279. Also, hand-swaging only produces 65% of the strength of the wire, but a crimping tool increases this to 85%.
An alternative method, which does not require swaging or any special tools, are wire ”Sta-lock” fittings by CS Johnson. These are easily assembled on wire using regular wrenches and actually provide 100% of the strength of the wire, and approved by Lloyds of London for lifeline fittings.
With this reality of hand-swaging, I decided to ask for a quote from West Marine rigging services for vinyl-covered wire with end fittings professionally attached. I needed 4 x 30’ foot lengths and 4 x 6’ foot lengths. The price was $784 just for the wire! I therefore decided to look seriously at rope! Boats with wire lifelines should preferably also have a good quality wire cutter on board to chop the wire in an emergency, another extra cost
Rope can be attached to existing toggle end fittings with either a splice or even a knot, but CS Johnson have special rope end attachments, called ”Splicline” fittings, to attach Dyneema to all types of fittings like turnbuckles and pelican hooks. The rope is spliced directly around the honed fitting without a thimble, and chafe is reduced to a minimum. Single braid Dyneema is hollow, with no center core and much easier to eye-splice than double braided line. The twelve-strand rope is first tapered by removing four pairs of strands, then the end is buried deep inside the standing part and lock-stitched. This is an easy operation with a special 14”inch long splicing wand from Brion Toss rigging. This fid enables the tapered end to be gripped by the wand, then pulled through the core, instead of pushing it with a conventional fid. With sixteen splices to make I was very thankful to have one, which can also be used for other rope work.
I would need about 200 feet (61m) of rope, allowing enough for sixteen eye splices. I estimated it would still take about three hours to do them all. Miami Cordage make Ironlite in many colors, including solid blue, which nicely matched Britannia’s royal blue color scheme.
ADVANTAGES OF ROPE AGAINST WIRE.
1 1/4” inch Dyneema is much stronger than 3/16”inch wire. Dyneema 8000lbs, wire 3700 Lbs.
2. Dyneema is not subject to corrosion or affected by rain or seawater and is easily inspected for chafe.
3. Any section of a rope lifeline can easily be lowered between stanchions, because the line slides through the stanchions and bends easily, wire does not
4. If necessary, rope lifelines can be cut with a sharp knife. Wire needs a long-handled wire cutter.
5. Rope lifelines can be replaced without tools or fittings, even on a passage.
6. A spare 50’ foot length of 1/4”inch Dyneema is much easier to store than the same length of wire.
7. Dyneema is very much lighter than wire rope. My complete wire lines weighed 13 Lbs. The same length of Dyneema rope weighed only 2.4 Lbs. This started me to imagine the weight saving in my schooner’s 750; feet of 3/8” inch stainless steel standing rigging?
A TEST OF STRENGTH.
Before I decided on using rope, I wanted to answer one final important question. Never mind that different manufacturers specify their ropes with different poundages, what would be the actual failing poundage of my particular Dyneema lifeline setup?
Miami Cordage have a 40’ foot long hydraulic rope testing machine called “The rack,” which is frequently Government inspected since they sell to the US Navy. I made a 10’ foot long 1/4”inch Dyneema test rope, with eye splices at both ends. This was attached to the static end and the hydraulic ram and I watched as the digital dial of the machine stretched the line past 2,000 lbs., and expected to see a splice break any moment. At 4,000 lbs., the rope looked as stiff as iron bar. Then finally, at an incredible 7596 lbs the actual rope snapped with a dull thud, yet both my splices held. That’s 3.8 US tons! and I have an official certificate for the test to prove it..
This was good enough for me, and after I had fitted the lifelines, there was one final thing I decided to do: Since the only thing which can weaken Dyneema lines is chafe, I decided to enclose the upper lines with plastic covers, which clip completely over the rope and act as chafe guards. These are 6’ feet long and only $2.12 each from West Marine. One of the areas where chafe is likely is where it passes through stanchions and the 5/16” inch plastic pipe will fit through Britannia’s stanchion holes making a smooth passage, yet still allow the rope to move freely inside. If any of the guards show signs of chafe from ropes or other sources it will be a simple matter to replace one section, before it wears the lifeline itself. The covers also increase the line thickness to nearly 1/2”inch, which makes holding the lines much more comfortable.
150’ feet of 3/16” inch vinyl-coated wire, +16 threaded swage ends, + hand swager tool and wire cutter: Total $652
200’ feet of 1/4” inch Dyneema, plus a splicing wand and three new turnbuckles. Total $292.
These prices were based on using my existing pelican hooks, turnbuckles and other fittings, but I finally decided to do the job properly with new parts. I used CS Johnson Spliceline rope fittings, including new turnbuckles and beautifully crafted quick-release pelican hooks. I used Miami Cordage 1/4”inch Ironlite Dyneema in blue for my new lines. The whole installation took two weekends to replace all the old lifelines, and I eventually got down to ten minutes for each Dyneema splice. Practice makes perfect.
Britannia’s finished lines now look very stylish and purposeful, and I am confident that in the event of a real man-overboard emergency I will have the least possible obstructions to get the person back up the side of the boat, past the lines. I just hope it's not me who is the first guinea-pig to test the system for real.
Miami Cordage Inc.1/4”inch Ironlite Dyneema, www.miamicordage.com
CS Johnson Inc. has a very comprehensive catalog of lifeline fittings for both wire and rope. Flipbook (csjohnson.com)
Brion Toss Rigging for the splice wand. email@example.com