How do I know when it's time to replace my white vinyl-coated lifelines?
Which material is best for new lifelines - white vinyl-coated 7x7 316 stainless steel wire, bare 1x19 316 stainless steel wire, or Dyneema?
As white vinyl-coated lifelines age, UV and weather exposure causes the white vinyl to shrink a bit, pulling away from the swaged ends of the wire. Cracks also begin appearing in the coating. This can allow water to seep into the wire strands and swage sleeves where, sitting stagnant, it begins to corrode the metal. The visible indication of this corrosion is rust stains around the cracks in the cover and at the swages. The lifelines grow weaker as the metal breaks down. Meanwhile, as corrosion builds up inside a swage sleeve, the extra bulk compounded by the expansion of freezing moisture, can cause the swage to crack. If your white vinyl-coated lifelines are brittle, cracked, and bleeding rust, it's time to replace them.
Just like in standing rigging, additional hardware provides additional points for risk of failure. The springs in pelican hooks can bend and break; the pull rings, which secure the piston mechanism, can get snagged and pulled out, freeing the clasp. Lock/jam nuts can loosen and allow turnbuckles and pelican hooks to slowly unwind. Cotter pins and rings can be yanked out accidentally by sheets, leaving gravity in charge of the clevis pins. That being said, all these potential hardware failures are easily preventable with regular inspection and maintenance.
Lifelines can only be as strong as their weakest link, which could be the stanchions, stanchion bases, pulpits, or how these are attached to the hull. Be sure to include them in your annual inspection and repair or replace any that are suspect. A hard bend in tubing is considered a failure, as is a cracked base - look carefully at the set screw and fastener holes, a common spot for cracks to start. Make sure all bases have set screws tightened down. With local resource Miller Marine Fabrication and online shops at Garhauer, Catalina Direct, West Marine and Fawcett Boat Supplies, we have many options for repairing and replacing stanchions.
First, address any stanchion and pulpit repairs; then, invest in good lifelines and maintain the hardware so that you can enjoy beauty and functionality for years to come.
Now...which material for new lifelines?
White Vinyl-Coated 7x7 316 Stainless Steel
For many years, white-vinyl coated stainless steel wire was the industry standard in lifeline material. That's changing now, encouraged in part due to racing inspection requirements, with several companies building new boats with bare 1x19 stainless steel wire. Why choose the coated stuff over bare wire? There are a number of reasons to consider.
- White vinyl-coated wire may be more comfortable against your legs. You can choose a larger coating OD - up to 1/8" thicker than the actual wire diameter in some cases. This also saves money compared to the cost of a larger wire diameter, as well as weight.
- 7x7 wire construction makes it semi-flexible - you can lean against it or tie a fender to it (though we'd prefer you attached that fender elsewhere) and it won't take a permanent bend like 1x19 wire might.
- Because it's both stretchier and has a lower working load, it can be tensioned taut with less risk of bending stanchions.
While both 304 and 316 stainless steel are used in white-vinyl coated wire construction, we use only KOS 7x7 316 stainless steel white vinyl-coated wire for maximum corrosion resistance and durability. 1/8" wire can be coated to either 3/16" or 7/32"; 5/32" wire to 1/4", and 3/16" wire to 1/4" or 5/16". We specify the highest quality fittings by C.S. Johnson, Alexander-Roberts (ARCO), and Hayn. Our supplier utilizes a Kearney swaging machine for lifelines; rotary swaging is available upon request.
Bare 1x19 316 Stainless Steel
One of the safety requirements of a yacht in order to receive an Ocean, Coastal, or Chesapeake Bay rating under the PHRF (Performance Handicap Racing Fleet) of the Chesapeake is that a boat's "lifelines may be either uncoated stainless steel wire or high molecular weight polyethylene (HMPE) line with spliced terminations or terminals specifically intended for the purpose." The reason for disallowing white vinyl-coated lifelines is that it's impossible to visibly inspect the condition of the wire under the coating, and the wire is where the integrity lies. What's not to like about bare wire? There are a couple things to consider.
- While you could opt for wire as small as 1/8" diameter, it wouldn't be very comfortable on your body. Typically, bare wire lifelines are 3/16" or 1/4" in diameter. This adds roughly 35% more to the cost and 75% more weight over white vinyl-coated wire.
- Hardware. 1/4" bare lifeline wire uses, in many cases, larger turnbuckles, toggles, and gate eyes than 3/16" wire coated to 5/16". Will the larger hardware fit the stanchion holes and attachment points at the pulpits? Also, it can cost up to roughly 50% more than hardware for 3/16" wire.
- 1x19 wire is very stiff. If you tie a fender to it, and the fender sees a load, the wire might develop a kink in that spot. When the lifeline gates are open, it could be more challenging to stow the loose sections out of the way because they will bend only moderately and really prefer to remain straight.
- 1x19 wire has a significantly higher working load than wire coated in white vinyl to the same diameter. This is great for safety! The drawback is that it takes a lot more tension to set the lifeline taut, and that tension is transferred to your pulpits and stanchions. If they're not set taut, it's easier to shock load and break the wire.
Depending on your racing or cruising situation, bare 1x19 wire may be the right choice for you. It won't wear from sheets running over it, and it can be easily inspected for damage. Walden Rigging can help you to plan new lifelines that limit additional modifications and meet your needs. We use only KOS 1x19 316 stainless steel wire for maximum corrosion resistance and durability, and we specify the highest quality fittings by C.S. Johnson, Alexander-Roberts (ARCO), and Hayn. Our supplier utilizes a Kearney swaging machine for lifelines; rotary swaging is available upon request.
High strength-to-weight ratio, low stretch, and impressive maximum working loads; in fact, stronger than 1x19 316 stainless steel wire of identical diameter, Dyneema has been establishing its superiority over stainless steel in everything from halyards to shackles to lifelines. Racers embraced it as a lashing rope years ago - lighter weight than a turnbuckle or a bail, it can be used to create a sturdy and removable attachment almost anywhere. We'll admit, we were skeptical of its durability. In 2011, we tried it as a centerboard cable for our 22' trailer-sailor's 500lb. centerboard. And it didn't wear out, despite plenty of use. In 2015, we installed Dyneema lifelines on our 31' sailboat. We've sailed at least 5000 miles since then and they show impressively little wear even where the sheets run over them. We are sold. Like the other options, there are some things to know before making a decision:
- Dyneema does not absorb water. It doesn't rust because it's not metal!
- Because it's slippery, lightweight and extremely flexible, it can be tensioned taut with less load than bare 1x19 wire. This makes it gentler on your stanchions and pulpits. It is important, however, that the stanchion holes be smooth to prevent chafe to the Dyneema fibers.
- It will wear, slowly, over time. There are inspection criteria that can help you to determine remaining strength.
- The cost of Dyneema rope is similar to the cost of white vinyl-coated 7x7 lifelines. The charge for splicing is roughly 33% higher than the charge for swaging, but you could opt to learn how to do the splicing required (Dobbs can teach you) and build the lifelines yourself. The splice terminals cost about twice as much as terminals for swaging, but you can re-use them. Also, some hardware can be replaced with simple lashings.
- Dyneema does not melt tidily, so whipping raw ends is essential. It also doesn't hold a knot well, and knots significantly reduce its strength, so terminations should be spliced.
- After initial construction and installation, Dyneema lifelines will need to be re-tensioned occasionally as the rope fibers and strands settle into the load.
Walden Rigging can help you plan new lifelines that functionally meet your needs and maintain your yacht's aesthetic. There are a number of choices in HMPE available, including various color options. For gate and end terminals, we use the highest quality fittings by C.S. Johnson, Alexander-Roberts (ARCO), and Hayn.