A floating base camp

Think of a composition of dissimilar metals upon which your safety depends and what comes to mind? A bronze rack and pinion mounted on a stainless steel shaft? Stainless steel tangs through-bolted on an aluminum mast? How about a bronze tube stack in an aluminum heat exchanger? Then think about stand alone parts you can not afford to let fail. Perhaps a stainless steel chain plate turns brittle from entrapped salt water or an isolated bronze stuffing box is degrading from that constant drip. Galvanic corrosion and oxidization are everywhere on a boat.

It was Jan. 4 as I moved up the overhanging rock façade, 250 feet above the ground. I ran my rope through a stainless steel fastened aluminum carabiner every 10 feet or so to ensure the continuous safety of a fall 20 feet or less. The harness was synched to my waist with a steel buckle and the device through which the safety rope was belayed was a composite of aluminum and stainless steel. My mind was on the contorted positions and complex movement required to make it to the top. In such moments, distracting thoughts on anything outside the required realm can lead to failure and that includes thoughts questioning equipment reliability.

Keeping it clean
Keeping climbing equipment safe on a sailboat is no easy task. Climbing equipment metals include steel, stainless steel, aluminum, copper, and brass. Nylon is the other component attached to most pieces of climbing equipment, so when it comes to preventing corrosion, the use of potentially harsh chemicals is not an option. Unlike most lubricants, silicon grease or paraffin wax will not attract dirt and is sometimes used. However, with the potential of salt or moisture getting trapped against the metals, we tend to avoid this tactic. Most climbing hardware is made out of aluminum and stainless steel, both of which are most stable when allowed to breathe. Therefore we stick with the following:

1. Wash all hardware with any metal in fresh water every two weeks, moving the parts to ensure they move freely.
2. If possible, detach nylon from metal (such as aluminum carabiners) when drying.
3. Store in a location with good airflow between uses.
4. To get to and from the climbs via dinghy we put everything in a dry bag to protect from salt spray.
5. Always remove the climbing gear from the dry bag at the end of the day as just two days of airtight storage with the presence of salt and moisture can allow for aluminum oxidization clear to the naked eye.

For long-term storage we separate all nylon from metal components if possible. We then wash everything in hot water with a little mild dish washing liquid, followed by a rinse in fresh water. After hang drying everything, all metal components, including those with non-removable nylon, are submersed in vegetable oil. Vegetable oil is non-corrosive, inexpensive, easy to remove, and will not damage nylon. While stored in resealable plastic bags in our driest locker, an annual inspection and repeat of the procedure is required. Before using gear, we remove the vegetable oil by washing in warm water with a mild dish soap followed by a freshwater rinse.

Reusing old gear
Of course ultimately there is a time to retire and replace equipment and perhaps to no surprise you will find old equipment such as carabiners and ropes used throughout our boat. Old climbing ropes work great when a bit more stretch is preferred such as a snubber on the anchor chain. We even prefer rock climbing rope for spinnaker halyards, taking the shock out of the rig when a collapsed spinnaker sail refills.

Prang Nga Bay, Thailand, is home to world class rock climbing, attracting thousands of climbers annually. More than 300 million years ago the limestone formations that now jut out at the sky were once part of a sub-oceanic coral reef. A mere 20 years ago, when the first ascents were being made, a few climbers were forewarned by a sailor (drunken at the bar so the story goes) that the new stainless steel bolts in the warm, moist, salt rich limestone was not safe and would not last. This prophecy soon came true and like a chain plate in a moist, low oxygen, salty deck, the bolts began to break after as little as six months. Many climbers have been injured or killed from such corrosion and an ongoing project is underway to replace all stainless steel bolts with new titanium ones.

Prang Nga Bay, in addition to climbing, is also a voyaging haven. It is a cyclone-free zone as well as home to all the services and facilities to keep cruisers content and their boats in proper upkeep. The many islands with sandy beaches, rock outcrops and karst formations give way to lots to explore while the food is rarely complained about.

I’m relaxed when I find myself a few hundred feet up on an overhanging limestone cliff because I know my systems and keep them safe. It is no different than how one might feel at sea. I look down upon our boat, Chandrika, bobbing in the bay, peacefully tugging on her rode. Then I look up. I keep climbing.

Graham Hopkins and Sue Schweinsberg both began rock climbing in 1997. Rock climbing has brought them to four continents and is often the driving force in where their next port of call will be. Having set sail from the U.S. in 2007 aboard Chandrika, a Creekmore 34, they are now based on the west coast of Thailand and Malaysia.  

By Ocean Navigator