Offshore Sailing Demands High-Quality Rigging

A successful ocean cruise depends highly on having standing and running rigging in top-notch condition.
A successful ocean cruise depends highly on having standing and running rigging in top-notch condition.
A successful ocean cruise depends highly on having standing and running rigging in top-notch condition.

A few years back in the Pacific Northwest, a very well-regarded rigging shop put the finishing touches on a brand-new rig for a boat we were commissioning. The lead rigger installed bronze cotter pins instead of stainless ones, as the bronze pins would supposedly make the fine-tuning process easier because they could be removed by bare hands—no tools required.    

After tuning the rig on the hard, we went back into the water and began the dynamic tuning of the lowers under sail with the lead rigger aboard. The wind blew only 10 knots that day, and we needed more wind to complete the tuning. Wind conditions and schedules never aligned before our planned departure, so I ended up doing the final tune without the rigger. We used the Selden rig tuning guide, Hints and Advice on Rigging and Tuning of Your Selden Mast, which has comprehensive instructions for most common rigs and a simple-to-understand procedure for tuning. Satisfied with the tune, I re-used the bronze pins placed in the turnbuckles by the rigging shop. Sure enough, I could pull them out with my bare hands.  

Fast forward a few weeks. Racing in the Spinnaker Cup along the California coast overnight, we were struggling in light air. We felt a patch of light wind on the stern, but the new racing mainsail was fully battened and creating a terrible shudder.  Each time a wave rode under our stern, the sail would be physically forced to luff by the battens, which would spring against the batten pockets, always with a shuddering bang. It was a problem I chased the whole season and another topic entirely. (Ultimately, that sail was replaced with an unbattened main that sailed beautifully in all conditions.)    

As we were racing, we were obliged to fly the mainsail—snap, bang and all. By morning, the entire rig was loose as a goose. The weather was still calm, so I was able to jump on the problem. It’s a good thing I did. I harnessed up and went to the lowers. There I found the V-2 turnbuckles were completely loosened all the way to the bronze pins. Or what was left of them. The turnbuckle barrels had simply knocked over the pins and rotated all the way out to the pin holes. The pins themselves were wrapped around the threads like taffy, useless against preventing rotation but useful enough to keep the turnbuckles from parting completely. 

I re-tuned the rig the best I could, then and there at sea, replacing the cotter pins with stainless ones from our spares. When we got into port, I bought a sack of stainless pins and re-tuned the whole rig starting from scratch. By now, I was getting decent at tuning that rig.

Get to know your rig.
If you are an offshore sailor, or aspire to be, you probably already know how critical it is to have a working knowledge of your own rig. You can’t imagine away rigging problems. They will only worsen if you do. These problems need addressing and solutions, and unless your rigger comes onboard along with you, YOU are the rigger.  No matter how squared away your rigging is when you leave port, it will need attention if you are a voyaging sailor. Most of us try to get around this by hiring a professional to tune the rig and go over it before we depart. But this is only a short-term bill of health. Ultimately, we must take over this role.  

There exists a stigma around standing rigging—that it cannot be touched by mere mortals. That only a specialist with a logo-embroidered jacket, canvas tool bags and secret slide rule calculations can pull the sword from the stone and make the rake just so. This is simply not true.  

Any owner could, and in my opinion, should be the one handling their standing rigging care and maintenance. Is there a lot to learn? Yes. Many have studied it for a lifetime. A professional rigger, like an auto shop, must be prepared to work on any make and model. They are exposed to the full gamut. If you’re a voyager with one boat, you have only one rig to learn. This is absolutely attainable, like changing your own oil and replacing the spark plugs in your car. You will need some tools and some learning—all cheaper and more effective than relying on shoreside services that cannot reach you. 

Sometimes it seems much simpler to leave it to the pros, but that arrangement works only for day sailing. When you leave the dock, no matter what the problem is, you own it. Learning the rig on your own boat is worth the effort. One of the best ways to do this is by shadowing a good rigger. Or three. Take the best of what they have. Ask questions and pay them for their time. A one-hour consultation with a rigger may cost a couple hundred bucks, but if you have an organized list of questions and an enthusiastic rigger, it will be worth thousands. 

A key question your rigger can answer is how to safely climb your own rig and what equipment you need to do so. Ask how to tension and tune your particular standing rigging correctly for various conditions. Find out what weaknesses or key failure points are common with your type and model of boat.  

When selecting riggers to learn from, ask about their offshore experience. I wish I had done that with the “Bronze Pin Bandit.” He had no offshore experience, just local day sailing and racing. I wrongfully assumed his standard practices were sufficient for any sea. At the end of your rigging interviews, heap it all on your shoulders, get your tools and go to work. It’s going to be fun. It’s just the center pole of a circus tent—a very important circus tent, but the same principles apply. 

How to Eat an Elephant 

My personal priority list for boat operation: 

1. Fix what will kill you.

2. Fix what will hurt you.

3. Fix what will make you more comfortable. 

4. Always last: make it pretty.

These are good rules, and I don’t bother splitting hairs about them. Obviously, good work on something that can kill you should be pretty because good work usually looks good. The idea here is how we focus. For instance: bright work or fix the bilge pump? Answer: bilge pump. You get it. 

I always go back to my priorities when learning something new. To apply them to the rigging, the questions look like this: 

  1. What in the rig will kill me, and how can I avoid that? 

2. What in the rig will hurt me, and how can I avoid that? 

3. What will help me get the most out of this rig and make it last? 

4. Do I have the first three priorities sorted? Yes. Then I have time to make things pretty. 

Take these priorities and study your particular rig. Is it rod or wire? Galvanized or stainless? How old are the chain plates? Should you pull them and inspect them? How is the mast step constructed? Go down the rabbit hole. Many boats have known issues. While I am not a forum type of guy, because I’ve mostly had custom boats, finding the online group for your production boat, if you have one, will save time troubleshooting a rig’s weaknesses. 

Draw your rig on paper. Circle concern areas and areas to learn. Study turnbuckles before you even touch them. They need to be clean, salt-free and lubed before you move them even a hair. Lanolin is the most widely used rig lubrication. Keep in mind the body of knowledge required to restore an old, damaged rig is much greater than the one it takes to keep a serviceable rig in working order. Regardless, your vessel’s rig condition today is your starting point.  You are going to eat that elephant, one bite at a time. When you are frustrated and speculating on the answer, go back to your favorite rigger and pay for their time.    

Take these questions and make your list of things to tackle on your standing rigging. You should have the tools for the job. If you borrowed those tools, return them and buy your own. You’ll be thankful to have them when the need arises. A typical list of tools and rigging spares that I take on any boat I operate looks like this: 

  1. Pins. Lots of stainless steel cotter pins. As a nice alternative, about a dozen sticks of stainless tig welding rod works well. It can be cut and bent to numerous pin configurations. Make sure the rod completely fills the pin hole. 

2. KNIPEX brand pliers. These are smooth-jaw adjustable pliers that can be manipulated easily with one hand. Large ones hold the barrel, and smaller ones will grip the flat spot on the bolt of your turnbuckles. The handles are dipped in rubber so you can leverage the handles inside the barrel without marring it. Tie a wrist tether to each one when working aloft. Prevent injury, deck damage and loss of the tool if dropped. A set of three is about $125 on Amazon. Worth it. 

3.Lanolin—the ultimate rig lube  

4. Toothbrush to clean the threads and apply lanolin 

5. Tool bag, deep and narrow, so things will not tip out. Keep it small and tethered to your harness when you climb the rig.  

6. Sharpie for marking bolt threads  

7. Lineman’s pliers with a spring opening jaw for one-handed function 

Here are some examples of what I carry as spares for two different boats that I have sailed extensively.

50-Foot Gaff Yawl
My yawl was originally rigged with stainless wire. I bought the boat when it was 20 years old. The wire was beginning to unravel at the terminal ends and needed replacement. I was on a tight budget and really searched out my options. With a big voyage ahead, I decided to re-rig with galvanized 7×19 wire as opposed to stainless steel wire. Cost, product availability, strength (galvanized wire is stronger than stainless) and failure mode—galvanized wire will show that it will fail as opposed to stainless steel wire, which can hide corrosion until it fails—were all considerations. The cost factor alone made the difference for me, and the rig performed very well from Alaska to Ireland.  

When building this rig, I could find no useful reference material in the sailing world, so I used an industrial rigging handbook instead. Tuning a gaff rig is straightforward, and the rig itself is low pressure. The project was more of a chore than a brain bender. 

The spares I carried for the standing rigging included: 

  1. One pre-made cable to fit the longest wire in the rig, submerged in boiled linseed oil, wiped clean, coiled and covered in plastic. 

2. Crimp sleeves immersed in boiled linseed oil 

3. Crimp tool 

4. Vise bolted to a storage compartment lid (used for forming the eye) 

5. Thimbles (used to form an eye when making new shrouds) 

6. Extra Dyneema for the running backstays   

7. Made in USA ½-inch shackles, saturated in boiled linseed oil, stowed in a plastic tub 

8. Anti-chafe material, including leather and marlin, for wrapping the lowers prevents snags at the wire crimp intersection. 

9. Stainless tie wire for mousing shackles 

10. Turnbuckle pins 

11. Tape for the turnbuckles (to protect sheets, sails and people from snagging a pin) 

12. Boiled linseed oil (used for annual treatment of the lowers as high as I can reach)

Stevens 47
The second vessel was a Stevens 47, which we refit in Washington. The new rig was Dyneema, and once it was tuned (and pinned properly!) it performed with zero issues, crossing the Pacific twice.  

Dyneema, or any soft rigging, requires special attention, namely chafe protection. On the Stevens 47, some areas, such as the lower ends of the staysail and the jib stays, could not be protected. However, due to the universal end fittings top and bottom, those stays could be inverted before chafe became an issue.  We had no issues over 12,000 miles of hard sailing. 

The lowers were leathered to head height to prevent chafe at the splice. Dyneema rigging splices are longer than standard splices to maintain strength and provide a more gradual taper. All this should be leathered if possible. Because Dyneema is so easily stowed, we were able to carry a complete, pre-spliced rig onboard. Pretty handy. 

  1. Handmade soft shackles (innumerable uses) 

2. Full spool of ½-inch Dyneema. You can make just about anything with it. 

3. Stainless rigging pins 

4. Lanolin for treating turnbuckles 

5. Replacement leather for the lowers and needle, palm and thread to sew them on 

6. Comprehensive splicing kit and instructions  

7. Rig tape. We also used hockey tape as a useful substitute.  

8. Selden rig-tuning guide (excellent)

Though I would not call myself a professional rigger, I can speak to these two rigs, as I went down the rabbit hole on both of them. I learned, tuned, maintained and repaired these rigs. Looking back, I cannot think of a single repair I made where I had the option to call a rigger. Things do not break in convenient places! 

Take the time to get to know your rig by climbing, inspecting, tuning and maintaining it. You’ll be ready for rigging emergencies with a set of spares onboard customized for your boat. And I’d advise against bronze pins in all circumstances. 

Jesse Osborn was transferred by his employer in 2005 to Ketchikan, Alaska, a small town on a large island. Having no highway access, a boat was a must. He bought Empiricus, a 50-foot gaff-rigged yawl and learned to sail. Seven years later, he sailed that boat through the Northwest Passage. He now owns and manages Seven Seas Sailing Logistics, which provides captain services, consulting, teaching and re-fit project management for sail boats. Jesse won the Celestial Navigation prize in last year’s Transpacific Yacht Race to Hawaii, captaining Mikmaks, a Stevens 47. When he’s not on the ocean, Jesse and his wife, Samantha, ride their four Arabian horses in western New Mexico.