Ask any sailor, “What’s this rope used for,” and they will promptly correct you and tell you in the most condescending voice they can muster, “it's a line.”
There are no ropes on a sailboat. A rope is a line without a purpose. The second it is cut off the bolt it becomes a line regardless of its type or function. So before we say another word about “rope” let’s get our verbiage straight- its a line.
Now that we have that figured out, the question of which line is good for which application and which line is best for sailing becomes clear as mud.
The truth is, a novice sailor can step on a dinghy and become overwhelmed by the number and types of lines used to make a sailboat move.
And that is exactly what they do. They make a boat move.
Without a halyard, the main would flop lifelessly to the deck. Without a jib sheet, the jib would flail wildly on the forestay.
But lines on a sailboat go so much farther than sheets and halyards, and in some cases it can get so complicated that one must label each block and cleat with color coded stickers so as to not get confused.
A worn out, frayed line can make the prettiest of sailboats look like a hoopty. Lines should be crisp and bright and give a boat pop and function.
Shoddy lines and worse yet, shoddy line handling, can expose a weekend warrior from a seasoned salt without so much as uttering a word.
The Flemish Flake
While one’s mind immediately flashes to big colorful spinnakers and pristine white sails set on an azure blue sea, some of the most important lines for any boat, but the most important for a sailboat, are dock lines.
They come in three flavors, “three-strand”, “braided” and polypropylene, though you prove yourself to be a true dolt if anyone catches you using a polypropylene line on your sailboat.
The Polypropylene is the goto for tow boats and wake boarders alike, because it is low stretch, floats and is cheap to buy.
Most sailboaters would rather be caught dead than use a polyline on their boat, but some of the best floating mooring pennants are made of poly and they are decidedly not cheap at all. But for our purposes, let's focus on three strand and braided.
Three strand is the standard for anchoring or docking because it stretches quite well or more to the point it “bounces”. The three strands give it the ability to stretch as much as 60% of its length before breaking and because of that it is a good shock absorber to tie to non-pliable objects like the dock and the ground.
Braided line is also very common for dock lines and it gets its strength from the fact that it has many strands all braided together. I prefer three-strand to braided for the simple fact that even fumbling DIYers like me can weave a sturdy eye splice into three-strand. Braided line is spliceable but requires a much more committed approach to splicing and unusually must be spliced by machine, something that is beyond me.
But whether you are a braided guy or a three strand girl, here's the one thing that will show you to be a tourist in the boating world before you ever get to say a word. “The Flemish flake.”
Go down any dock in America and you will see at least one flemish flake neatly spun into a coil at the foot of someone’s boat. The truth is, it is entirely gauche and quite frankly bad for the line. Unless your line is flaked neatly on top of a spic and span newly varnished deck sitting in the middle of the Annapolis Sailboat Show, it shouldn’t be flemish flaked.
The line will not dry out and all too often leaves stains wherever it is flaked. Whether on your foredeck or your dock, it acquires dirt and regardless of how bad it is for your line, it is also bad form. So don’t do it.
Is it really just a line?
Lines and line work put sailboats into a higher echelon than working boats or power boats. They are very functional when sailing, but they also are the thing that makes your eye jump and your mind get mentally erect when looking at a pretty vessel. Even a landlubber who has never seen a main unfurled can walk down a dock and say, “my that’s a pretty sailboat” I would argue like properly accessorised bling on a young ladies neck, so to do lines adorn a pretty boat.
Lines, neatly coiled, hanging authoritatively from the mast or boom have always made my heart flutter and that was before I ever knew the difference between an outhaul and a cunningham. The many colors they come in, the different sizes and the many uses make the boat seem like a high tech Christmas tree to the untrained eye. But once you know what each and every line does on a boat, I assure, it gets even better.
There are two functions for lines on a sailboat, halyards and sheets. Halyards raise and lower sails while sheets haul them in and trim them for navigational purposes. These two functions are universal from the tiny little Opti to the USS Constitution. All sailboats, regardless of size, have sheets and halyards. But for our purposes let us stop there with one main halyard and one jib halyard. One main sheet and one jib sheet.
If you bought a sailboat from a manufacturer, they will likely have already picked out the right size and color lines for your boat, but if you buy a second hand version, you will likely have to buy new ones at some point. They should be different colors to avoid confusion, blue fleck for the main halyard, green fleck for the jib sheets, blue with white fleck for the mainsheet and white with green fleck for the jib sheets. But you can get whatever you like. You just have to make sure it jives with mast blocks, jam cleats and any other tackle you might have on your boat. The big thing is to get lines that feel good in your hand. Skinny lines can chaffe a tender paw in seconds and a bigger line, while more expensive, is worth it when you are beating your way to windward and have to make a sail change.
But oh that is where the lines just begin. Outhauls and downhauls, roller furlers and reefing lines. Topsail lifts and boom stays. There are literally hundreds of kinds of lines you can have on a sailboat and that doesn’t even include the spinnaker gear. And they all cost lots of money because they are sailing lines. That means they are low stretch and designed by professionals to pull on stuff in a really cool way and look good doing it.
If you want to check out all the options that are out there, go to New England Ropes and shop their website. They literally have every kind of line you could need for your boat from dock lines to spectra and would be more than happy to sell you a whole bunch of it.
The GoodWill of Sailing
If you want to put diamonds on your best girl, then who am I to judge. But just in case your sailboat is more of the cubic zirconia type of girl, there are options.
Used lines are to be found everywhere. Dumpster diving at the yacht club or bin digging at the boat consignment shop. Many a great deal can be found by digging through old garage sails by the sea and you never know what you can find. Old dock lines, used halyards even the odd semi consumed bolt of spectra has been found by the industrious yard saler sailors.
But if dumpster diving isn’t your thing, there is always the internet. Ebay, Amazon and other online marketplaces have tons of used lines and line remnants for sail. Just make sure that the line you are buying is the same size and will replace the length you need replaced. You can also get all kinds of blocks, tackle and other boat parts, but lines can be really expensive so save what you can where you can, right?
How do I care for the line?
Lines get dirty, salty, sandy, moldy and otherwise very yucky. Every season you should make it your policy to clean your lines thoroughly with lots of fresh water and a very gentle soap like “Dawn”.
Just like your sails, (if you missed that article check it out here), you should never put anything on your lines that you would not put on your child’s hands. Bleach, harsh marine chemicals and solvents can break down the lines and make them brittle and melted.
Also let them dry in the sun after you wash them and never stow a wet line below decks. It’ll mold in a matter of hours.
And speaking of melted, if you notice the bitter end of your lines coming loose or fraying, get on that immediately to save the rest of your line. I like to wrap the end with duct tape, (the crazier the color the better so everyone knows it's your line) and melt the end with a line gun or a lighter. This works on braided, three strand and spectra and if you catch it quick you can save the line. But once it starts to unravel, it’s like putting ketchup back in the bottle. You could also use liquid whipping to finish the end of your line or use an actual whipping line and sail palm to finish your ends. Whatever you choose to do, just make sure that your ends are tight. Spectra loses its sheathing and exposes its coring very easily and three strand unravels just as bad.
How to replace a halyard
If you do decide to replace your lines, halyards can be quite a challenge. I hate heights and while I have climbed my mast to fix a flown halyard, it is not very fun. It gets even harder when you have an internal halyard in your mast or a boat that is a bit too small to climb. This yet another application where a sail palm can be helpful.
Put your old halyard end to end with your new halyard. Take a sailing needle and 3 feet of whipping line and sew the two ends together a few times with loops though the bitter end of each line a few times. Then tighten those loops with a half dozen wraps and tie the line off. That should hold the two lines together so you can pull the new halyard through the mast head without it breaking apart and you flying the halyard.
Another strategy you can try that doesn’t involve dropping the mast or climbing it with a bosun's chair, is moving your boat to a dock or bridge that is high enough where you can tip the boat and reach the mast. In my home town we had the benefit of a six foot tide and some really high docks at the low tide. I used to bring my fleet of idea 18s and my other small keelboats into the dock at low tide to do masthead work on them because there was no way I was going to let my well-fed carcass get hauled up those masts. We had to wait for a low tide and a calm morning, (this was hell to pull off on a choppy afternoon with boat traffic), but a quick tip of the boat was a ton easier than dropping the mast for a skied halyard.
And one more note on wire line splices. For a period there in the last century it was all the rage to use wire line spliced halyards on keel boats. The idea was that if you had wire, it wouldn’t stretch and would keep you sails tighter for racing conditions. The problem with them is as they got older, the rope part got dry rotted and cruddy and the wire frayed into fish hooks that could rip right through a sailing glove. The new spectra has made wire line splices a thing of the past, but if you have an older boat and still have wire line splices you really should consider changing them out. Odds are you will have to change the sheaves in the blocks of your mast head but that's a lot better than taking a fish hook to the palm of your hand or unexpectedly dropping the mainsail.
So that’s a wrap (a line joke). Lines can be a thing of beauty or a pain in the neck. Keep them clean and make sure you dry them thoroughly before stowing them or (God forbid) flemish flaking them on your boat. There are lots of options if you can’t afford to buy a full suit of brand news lines for your favorite lady, but there are great deals to be found online and at tag sales. The good folks at New England Ropes can talk you through most of your line questions and I would recommend chatting with your local sailing retailer if you are thinking about investing in some new lines. And please, never forget, a rope has no purpose, but a new line can dress up the ugliest of old boats. Thanks for reading and remember, do good, have fun and sail far.