While many of today’s cutting-edge improvements in deck hardware are primarily designed for state-of-the-art racing boats, prudent use of the new deck hardware technology can have a significant impact on sail handling for voyagers. The primary benefits are enhanced efficiency, improved safety, and product longevity.
Although the latest generation of blocks, cam cleats, and clutches offers savings in weight and size, the most definitive saving for the voyager is in effort. Properly configured systems can make tasks that used to require a winch (or winches, or two crew plus a winch) into one that is manageable by a single crewmember working without a winch. The voyager who used to move his mainsheet traveler by resetting the pin stop, tacking, and kicking the car until it skidded into position can now flip a traveler control line out of its cam cleat and ease a ball-bearing car along its track.
Increased efficiency can be reflected in various ways. In a four-part, block-and-tackle mainsheet system, simply changing the blocks from axle-and-bushing-style blocks to ball- or roller-bearing blocks can have a distinct effect. In these blocks numerous ball or roller bearings in races transfer the load to the axle, rather than having the entire bearing surface of the sheave in contact with the axle or bushing. Decreasing the surface areas in contact between the moving and static parts of the block minimizes friction. Under moderate loads the blocks can turn much more freely. The elimination of most of the friction in a genoa furling system makes reefing a one-man task. Gear that can be handled with one hand frees up the other for another job, or just a firm hold on the boat.A variety of specific innovations make sail handling easier. Harken’s snatch blocks introduced true one-handed operation in a side-opening block. Firmly grasping the block and depressing the release button on the sideplate pops the block open.
Ratchet blocks are used to induce drag on a line; drag that muscle would otherwise provide. For example, in the 3:1 purchase I use to hoist myself aloft, the lower block’s ratchet mechanism provides a 15:1 holding powerpower that I no longer have to constantly provide while climbing. Harken’s Ratchamatic blocks turn freely in both directions under low loads, but an increased load engages the drag-imposing ratchet. Harken accomplished this by allowing the sheave to move between the side plates. When the load increases, the sheave is pulled toward the load, engaging the ratchet.
Cam cleats take much of the time and effort out of cleating lines. Constant design improvements have led to teeth that are gentler on the rope, yet with increased holding power. Easier line engagement, and the ability to cast off a line quickly (like the vang in an imminent broach), ensure a place for cam cleats on any sailboat.
Improved clutches Rope clutches have been under similar constant improvement. The ability of a clutch to be released under load contributes to the voyager’s ability to react quickly to adverse conditions. Antal and Spinlock each employ a cam mechanism that rolls forward as the handle releases the grip on the line, allowing the load to be bled off. Lewmar’s handle orientation makes release of the clutch especially easyan ergonomically correct lift and pull of the handle, instead of the typical lift and push forward. Lewmar’s “domino” gripping mechanism also allows controlled release. Older clutches required that one tension the tail of the line on a winch before the clutch could be released. Placed ahead of a properly sized winch, a series of clutches can allow a single winch to perform several functions without ever losing tension on the working lines.
Over the course of a blue-water cruise, less energy expended in sail handling can mean more energy available for other tasks. The ability to singlehandedly reef a genoa, adjust the sheet lead, and retrim the sail can help ensure the offwatch gets uninterrupted sleep. Leading reef lines and halyards aft to the cockpit through a series of deck organizers to a battery of rope clutches can eliminate the weight and confusion of several winches and keep the crew in the safety of the cockpit for more of the sail handling tasks.
Low-friction deck organizers, stanchion-mounted blocks, and rope clutches can help to clear cluttered decks. Lines kept low and away from trafficked areas make decks safer and simpler.
As builders employ more sophisticated materials throughout the boats’ construction, deck hardware is forced to keep pace with the increased loads it handles. Stiffer hulls, carbon fiber spars, solid rod rigging, composite sail laminates, and near-zero-stretch running rigging make the harness we are using on the wind less forgiving. As the energy from wind speed is translated more completely to boat speed, the force that may have dissipated through the stretch of dacron sail cloth, three-strand rope, and multistrand wire standing rigging or through the flex of wooden spars and hulls is translated nearly entirely to the deck hardware.
Materials and hardware design have evolved rapidly to achieve longer life. The Delrin sheave, axle, and bushing blocks of the last generation will not stand up to the higher demands of the new generation’s boats. Blocks are now designed for specific applications. The introduction of ball bearings led to their use across the board. Now it is widely accepted that, in applications where the blocks experience high static loads, ball bearings are not the best design.
High static loads like those imposed by halyards and running backstays are translated to a small working arc of the sheave and bearing race. Point-loading ball bearings can deform the balls. Schaefer Marine employs a Nomex/Teflon bushing to reduce friction in their large blocks (Series 8 and above). Other leading manufacturers have switched to roller bearings (also called needle bearings) instead of balls so that greater independent surface areas support the load. Torlon seems to be the composite of choice for roller bearings taking high loads. To ensure low friction in a turning block, ball bearings are used on the sides of the sheaves to overcome something called side loading.
Harken is introducing ultraviolet (UV)-stabilized carbon-filled balls in their 1997 hardware. Carbon-filled balls reportedly offer higher strength, while the black color gives the best UV screen.
Sheaves themselves are usually made of UV-stabilized Delrin for rope or anodized aluminum for wire. Manufacturers typically improve the performance and longevity of sheaves using techniques like Teflon impregnation and hardcoating. Corrosion from the marine environment can decimate a block’s low friction coefficient, making it harder to work. Hardcoating (anodizing) involves laying down a protective skin that increases aluminum’s corrosion resistance. In Teflon impregnation the super-slick material is infused into the component. A small amount of the material weeps out of the part and onto the contact surfaces under load and enhances friction-free rolling.
As cordage has increased in strength and low-stretch characteristics, the load transferred to deck hardwareparticularly to cam cleats and rope clutcheshas skyrocketed. Very little energy is dissipated through stretch in composite ropes, so the dynamic loading (for example, of a collapsed spinnaker suddenly filling with 30 knots of breeze) passes nearly entirely to the clutch. The increased strength-to-weight ratios of cordage materials allow rope diameters to decreasegiving the cleats or clutches less surface area to grip.
Cam cleats of hardcoat aluminum or stainless steel have been developed with the dual goals of lasting long without losing gripping ability and being gentle on the rope they are holding. Tooth configuration and shape contribute to their performance. In clutches, as well, the grip mechanisms have evolved to hold the line without damaging it.
How long will the new gear last? Examination of the longevity issue should also consider the longevity of the line that the hardware is handling. Though the improved performance of today’s cordage is indisputable, price is commensurate with the improvement. The life of the running rigging can be extended by proper selection of the new hardware. Harken developed its line of centerless Airblocks in the search for a block that would provide a larger-diameter sheave (and, therefore, larger turning radius) for high-tech line, but that would also keep the weight of such a large-diameter block low. Leading manufacturers have taken the extra step of carefully sculpting the cheeks of their blocks to provide smooth entry and exit for the lines.
Ultimate value The ultimate value of the new generation of deck hardware to the performance-oriented voyager is its overall contribution to the efficiency and safety of the boat and the longevity of the gear. Just looking at the individual characteristics of the new hardware will probably not convince the voyaging sailor of its value. Weight savings alone will have a nominal effect, though factoring in the elimination of winches through good deck layout design and use of rope clutches will broaden the impact of lower-weight components. Reduced friction may not convince the sailor on its merits alone, but when extended to account for enhanced efficiency and reduced human effort, lowering the friction coefficient in whole systems becomes invaluable. The increased life expectancy of a single block due to better materials and design may not seem significant over the course of the life of the boat, but, when the blocks, sheaves, and clutches acting together to manage the running rigging can also increase the longevity of the cordage, then the saving is dramatic.
As the performance-voyaging boat evolves, deck hardware has also improved to handle the new demands. As cordage incorporates materials and design that allow smaller diameters to carry higher loads with less stretch, deck hardware improves to manage the line better and hold it securely. Today’s hardware in well-designed deck layouts maximizes the efficiency of running rigging systems and ensures optimum safety aboard.
J.W. Maloney, Jr., owns a rigging company in West Southport, Maine.