PBO fiber not ready for prime-time voyaging?

In my opinion, the recent article on high-tech ropes (With bits of string Issue 134 Nov./Dec. 2003) does cruising sailors something a disservice by over-promoting PBO rope. New England Ropes was the first rope maker in the United States to use PBO fiber. The fiber alone costs about $90 per pound (about six times the price of Vectran). The fiber does not last in UV more than a few months. It just does not handle a marine environment well (it has issues with hydrolysis, chafe, radius and lasts only months in the sun). I feel the article tends to be steering cruisers to the merits of PBO, but I feel this a complete waste for any cruiser. (Stars and Stripes had one rope made of PBO during their 2002 campaign — an afterguy.)

I would be the first person in line to ask for, recommend and support any article providing sailors information on ropes and cordage for the advancement of their sailing pursuit. I just cannot justify any cruiser using the highest-priced and most unpredictable fiber available in marine cordage.

Matt Allingham

Manager, Technical Sales and Service

New England Ropes

Bill Biewenga replies:

As a point of clarification, I’d like to mention again that various high-tensile fibers have their uses and misuses aboard a boat. Some are better suited to some things than others, and some are totally unsuitable for a variety of applications. I’m sure that you understand that, and I attempted to make that clear in the article. PBO is a fiber that is now showing up in limited applications aboard some avant-garde cruising boats. That is a fact. Destination Fox Harb’r has a PBO headstay with a carbon furler over the top; Magic Carpet has a PBO Code-0 luff rope, and their aft and side rigging are PBO; and Peter Johnstone’s new Gunboat 45 will have PBO diagonals and may also have PBO cap shrouds. I’m sure there are other examples out there. These are pretty cutting-edge applications — especially aboard cruising boats, and as such are not immediately recommended for everyone or every use.

Personally, I think it’s good that there are those who are willing to put the time, expense and effort into trying new technologies. Whether it was Kialoa IV trying a Kevlar No. 3 headsail in 1980 or Stars and Stripes trying a PBO afterguy in 2002, only with their efforts can the suitable applications and limitations of the technologies be determined. In both of those cases, problems were encountered. Aboard Kialoa sheet lead tracks were pulled up off the deck, and halyard blocks were pushed beyond their limits.

Kevlar, it was found, had its appropriate uses and misuses. The fiber wasn’t wrong. The application was wrong in the sense that attachment points needed more attention to accommodate the increased loads. I’m sure you’ll find Kevlar aboard cruising boats today, but it probably won’t be used in the same way — more often as runners than sails, given further advances in fabric technologies, chafe problems with Kevlar and other considerations.

PBO is definitely a specialty item at this point, being used only in certain high-end applications. But it is being used. As users and companies like Aramid Rigging get to understand PBO’s uses and misuses, it, too, has met with an increasing amount of success. And thanks to the efforts of the folks with Stars and Stripes, it may not be used as an afterguy again.

By Ocean Navigator