Lessons Learned – by Pat Carson
Ropes On A Boat
On a recent yacht delivery to Los Cabos, one of our crew happened to be an avid sailor and we had many hours to discuss all things nautical. Although I have enjoyed my time sailing and am a competent sailor, having mastered the basics, I am by no means as well versed in sailing as I am with motor yachts. At one point the topic of rope and line came up and what followed was an hour-long session of “stump the captain” on proper terminology, use of ropes on a boat and the proper type of rope to be used for the various applications. It is common for new boat owners, and some old timers, to refer to the lines on their boat as ropes. I was educated early that there is only one rope on a boat and everything else is line. However, that is not entirely correct as I am aware of four ropes on a boat. I have now learned there are eight ropes on a boat, with most of these on sailing yachts. I do not feel too bad that I did not know all the ropes. Keep reading and I will reveal all that I have learned about ropes on a boat.
Traditionally, in the world of yachting, rope is the product that we purchase to make a line. Once the line is brought on board our boat and utilized it now has a name. Every single line that has a job to do on the boat has its own specific name and these precise names are used to clarify and avoid any ambiguity. The expression “Know the Ropes” is derived from the need of sailors to know how to tie knots and to learn the function and proper name of each rope on a boat.
Rope is a group of yarns, plies or strands that are either twisted or braided together to become stronger and larger in diameter. In general, we have fiber rope that is made from either natural or synthetic fiber, and wire rope which is made from steel or other metal alloys. Rope made from common synthetic fibers such as Nylon, Polypropylene, Polyester, Polyethylene, Aramids and Acrylics is stronger than natural fiber rope that is commonly made from Manila, Cotton, Linen, Jute and Sisal. The twist of the strands in a twisted or braided rope serves not only to keep a rope together but enables the rope to evenly distribute tension among the individual strands. Without any twist in the rope, the shortest strands would always be supporting a much higher proportion of the total load.
Twisted rope, referred to as “laid rope,” consists of three or more strands and is manufactured in three steps. Fibers are gathered and spun into yarns, then several yarns are gathered and twisted together to form a strand and finally three or more strands are twisted to form the rope. The direction of the twist is opposite with each successive operation and it is this counter twisting with each subsequent operation that holds the final rope together. Most twisted rope we see today has three strands with a final right hand twist, referred to as right-laid. Right-laid rope twists clockwise as you look down at it. Three-strand twisted rope is called “plain-laid,” whereas a four-strand rope is called “shroud-laid” and a larger rope made from twisting three or more multi-strand ropes together is referred to as “cable-laid.” Twisted rope has several drawbacks that include partial untwisting when used, therefore causing spinning of the connected load, a high percentage of stretching and its propensity of kinking. Additionally, twisted construction exposes every fiber along the length to internal abrasion, degrading the rope into numerous fiber fragments not easily seen visually. When coiling a twisted line, coil it in the direction of the lay to prevent kinking. Coil a right-laid line clockwise.
Braided rope consists of a tubular braided jacket that may or may not cover strands of fiber and that may be braided, twisted or untwisted. Single braid rope usually consists of eight or 12 strands braided into a circular pattern with half of the strands going clockwise and the other half going counterclockwise and interlocked with either a twill or plain weave. Rope with a hollow core is a single braid. Samson invented the double braid, sometimes referred to as braid on braid in the late 1950’s. This construction incorporates a braided core within a braided cover, each carrying an equal percentage of the total load. In addition to carrying up to one-half of the load, the cover serves to protect the core from abrasion or ultraviolet degradation, to provide grip on winches or in clutches and stoppers, and to provide protection from friction-generated heat.
One large advantage of the double braided line is that the inner and outer core material has a specific purpose. For example, the inner core material could be selected for strength and the outer core material selected for ultraviolet light and abrasion resistance. Each core technique has its advantages for the application. For example, an untwisted inner core will not impart any twisting force to a suspended load. This is important for a rope used in rappelling or climbing. Braided rope has no inherent lay or twist and it generally is coiled in figure-eight coils, where the twist reverses regularly and essentially cancels out.
A plaited rope consists of braiding an even number of twisted strands. The rope is not as round as the braided or twisted ropes and takes on a square shape, hence plaited rope often is referred to as “square braid.” Among the advantages of the square braid is that the rope is very flexible and easy to handle, making it a good choice for anchor rodes.
With solid braid, the strands all travel the same direction, clockwise or counterclockwise, and alternate between forming the outside of the rope and the interior of the rope. One of my favorite mooring lines is the 12-strand mega braid from New England Ropes. This line is easy to handle, will not kink, feels good on the hand and looks good. The downside is that it is relatively difficult to splice, but I just have the experts at my rigging shop make the eyes and splices for me.
Now that we know what rope is, let’s take a look at what rope is actually used on a boat.
The ship’s bell is a symbol that is linked to the historical maritime world. On board ships, the bell was traditionally used to ring the change of watch and more importantly to warn other ships in foggy weather. The strikes of a ship’s bell do not accord to the number of the hour, instead there are eight bells, one for each half-hour of a four-hour watch. Back in the day, watches were timed with a 30-minute hourglass and bells would be struck every time the glass was turned, and in a pattern of pairs for easier counting. Today a bell is only required on vessels over 20 meters (65 feet) and is still used in conditions of restricted visibility. If this is not clear, it is time to review rule 35 – Sound Signals in Restricted Visibility.
Subpart g: A vessel at anchor shall at intervals of not more than 1 minute ring the bell rapidly for about 5 seconds. In a vessel of 100 meters or more in length the bell shall be sounded in the forepart of the vessel and immediately after the ringing of the bell the gong shall be sounded rapidly for about 5 seconds in the after part of the vessel. A vessel at anchor may in addition sound three blasts in succession, namely, one short, one prolonged and one short blast, to give warning of her position and of the possibility of collision to an approaching vessel.
Subpart h: A vessel aground shall give the bell signal and if required the gong signal prescribed in paragraph (g) of this Rule and shall, in addition, give three separate and distinct strokes on the bell immediately before and after the rapid ringing of the bell. A vessel aground may in addition sound an appropriate whistle signal.
Subpart i: A vessel of 12 meters or more but less than 20 meters in length shall not be obliged to give the bell signals prescribed in paragraphs (g) and (h) of this Rule. However, if she does not, she shall make some other efficient sound signal at intervals of not more than 2 minutes.
Although your boat may not be over 20 meters in length, other boats on the water are and you should know what these sound signals are indicating. The Bell Rope smacks the clapper against the bell to make the bell sound.
Should you decide to use a rope ladder to embark or disembark your vessel you will drop a rope on either side of the ladder to assist the mariner. These ropes are called Man Ropes.
Have you had the need to be towed by another boat. If so, be sure to use a longer vs. shorter Tow Rope. A short rope will snatch and is in danger of breaking whatever it is tied to. The longer tow rope is gentler on both the towing vessel as well as the vessel being towed.
Those were the easy ones.
A yacht can be tied up to a dock by using dock lines. Each of these dock lines has its own name; for example, we have a stern line, bow line, spring line or breast line, depending on where on the yacht the line is attached to. If you have a small tender, the piece of rope that is attached to the bow of a dinghy to secure it when you take it ashore is known as a painter.
On sailing vessels, rope is used for halyards, sheets, brails, vangs, tricing lines, warps, whips and jackstays just to mention but a few categories. Within each category there are an abundance of specific titles like jib, topsail sheet, peak halyard, bunt lines and so on. There is also standing rigging on your sailing yacht as well, which refers to all the lines that support the stationary objects on board like the mast. The rope used for these tasks is often made from steel cable known as wire rope and will be called either shrouds or stays. The cable that runs from the mast to the bow of your yacht is called the forestay, and the lines that run to the stern of the yacht are often known as backstays. The rope that runs up the mast to pull up the mainsail is called the halyard, and the one that brings the sail down the line is called the downhaul. The lines that are used when sailing are called sheets and each sheet will refer to the sail that it controls such as the main or jib sheet. While there are several ropes on a sailing yacht, many of these are not used on today’s modern vessels.
Now For the Ropes That Stumped Me
After the Bell Rope, the next most used is the rope that is hidden in the front of a headsail by being covered over by a fold of canvas. The purpose of this rope is for a sail that is not fitted to a stay to create a straight front edge or luff of the sail. Sailmakers use a rope to help keep the position of maximum draft stable. They place the rope in the sleeve, stretch it and then sew the rope to the sleeve at the head and foot of the sail. The name relates to the fact that the canvas is folded over the rope and a fold of cloth is known as a bolt, hence Bolt Rope. On modern vessels, the roller furling sails have a bolt rope that slides into the luff groove of the aluminum extrusion.
If you have ever been around a square-rigged ship, you will see lines everywhere, but each has a purpose and all of them have a name. Each yard arm on a square or gaff rigged sailing ship is equipped with a Foot Rope for sailors to stand on while setting or stowing the sails. Today our sailing vessels have booms, and therefore no footropes are needed.
Another set of ropes that are unique to a square-rigged sailing ship are used to raise and lower the top mast or the topgallant mast. On large ships the masts have three sub-masts: the lower mast, the top mast and the topgallant mast. To raise the top mast or the topgallant mast we use the Top Rope, and to lower the top and topgallant masts we use the Heel Rope.
On your small sailing vessels that use a tiller to steer when the sails are balanced and the tiller can be left in one position, rather than stand at the tiller to keep it in the same position, all you need to do is tie the tiller off using a Tiller Rope.
Choosing The Best Line for The Job
Today we rarely consider a rope made from natural fibers. You can select from dozens of materials and construction variations of rope made from synthetic material that has been designed for specific purposes. Nylon was the first synthetic fiber widely used in ropes. It is much stronger than the natural fibers it replaced and is still a good choice for mooring and anchor lines where its excellent elasticity allows it to absorb shock loads. Polyester is a strong and extremely durable material well suited for controlled lifting and rigging operations where high strength, low stretch and excellent abrasion resistance are required. Double Braided Polyester has excellent abrasion resistance and strength retention over time in wet/dry environments, particularly under cyclic loading conditions and has excellent resistance to most common chemicals and UV exposure. Modern Polyester fiber rope has much less stretch and less wet strength loss than nylon rope and is now the standard for most boating applications.
For specific applications, there is a wide selection of modern High-Modulus fibers, each with a unique set of characteristics. Dyneema® from Samson is a polyethylene fiber that is very high in strength but lightweight, has low stretch and has excellent abrasion and UV resistance. Dyneema® line is the same diameter as wire rope, has the same strength and is just 15% of the weight. Cost however is another issue. Other High-Modulus fibers from Samson include Technora® , an aramid fiber that blends very high strength, low stretch and abrasion resistance with extreme heat resistance; Vectran® , a liquid crystal polymer (LCP) fiber that has very high strength and very good heat resistance; Zylon®, or PBO fiber offers the highest strength of all the high-modulus fibers however it must be protected from UV light. Technora®, Vectran® and Zylon® are all exceptionally low-creep fibers. Other rope manufacturers such as Yale Cordage and New England Rope have similar modern high-performance ropes with equally difficult to remember names.
In some cases, Samson, and the other rope manufacturers, blend fibers to take advantage of the relative properties of each of the components. Lightning Rope is a good example. The lightweight characteristic of Dyneema®, a high-strength fiber blended with the strength and exceptionally low-creep characteristics of Vectran® fiber. The result is a rope that is lighter than Validator-12, an all Vectran® 12-strand, while sacrificing only 5% of the strength of AmSteel®-Blue, an all Dyneema®-fiber 12-strand line.
You get the idea, selecting the right line for the job is more than the simple question of do I want three-strand or braided, white or black.
The proper care for your lines is to wash them frequently with fresh water or if dirty soak them overnight with warm water and a mild detergent. You will be surprised how much dirt and contaminants are hiding inside the lines causing premature wear inside the rope where you cannot see it. After a thorough cleaning, rinse the lines completely and hang them up to dry.
What ropes are there on a boat? More than you might think. If you know of others, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and provide the names and uses. I expect to have the same crew on a future boat delivery and would like to have more information in my rope bag. I think it is time to pour a glass of port, get out a fine cigar and practice making eye splices for my new custom dock lines. That 12-strand mega braid requires a lot of practice.