updated 9/11/16

A few Lines on Rope

Line rope standing rigging running rigging hmb endeavour
A Few Lines on Rope by Chuck Rose

21st century sailors are faced with a bewildering array of choices when it comes to rope*.  You will have to decide between laid or braided, double or single braid, nylon, Perlon, polyester, Dacron, Terylene, polypropylene HMPE, Dyneema, Spectra; aramid, Kevlar, Technora, Twaron, LCP, Vectran and, in the interest of inclusiveness, hemp, manila and cotton.


Modern synthetic materials have long since replaced the hemp and manila that for hundreds of years were the only choices.  Hemp for standing rigging, manila for running rigging; from the days of Lord Nelson until after World War II these were the only materials considered suitable.  Cotton was, and is still, used aboard yachts in decorative applications such as bell ropes and lanyards but has no practical application in rigging.  Hemp and manila rope are almost impossible to find these days and their use on modern yachts is not practical for a number of reasons.  They are inferior to modern synthetics by a large margin so I mention them only in historical context.  The 21st century sailor will be choosing from among the wide selection of synthetics.  Let’s see if we can simplify the choice a bit.


Perlon is a trade name for nylon.  Dacron and Terylene are polyester.  Kevlar and Twaron are aramid.  HMPE, or High Modulus Polyester, is also known as Dyneema and Spectra.  Vectran is a liquid crystal aromatic polyester fiber or LCP.  Hybrids and mixed fiber trade names could extend the list to several pages but such exotics are beyond the scope of this article.  Sailors with unlimited racing budgets can do their own research.


The first widely available synthetic rope to come out of World War II in the mid 20th century was Nylon.  Vastly superior to any natural fiber for any application aboard a yacht it is much stronger, easier on the hands, has good UV resistance, is stretchy and elastic and is impervious to rot.  Nylon is the ideal choice for mooring lines, dock lines and anchor rodes.  Nylon rope is available in traditional laid, single and double braid construction as well as in combination with other fibers such as polypropylene or polyester for specialized applications.


Soon after, Polyester, also known by the trade names Dacron and Terylene, was introduced.  Polyester is a good choice for running rigging and is the most practical for the average sailor.  Polyester double braid is the most common rope found on modern yachts for all running rigging applications.  Like Nylon, polyester rope is available in traditional laid, single and double braid construction as well as in combination with other fibers.  Combinations of a braided polyester cover over a core of HMPE or LCP are often recommended as halyard material for their extremely low stretch and high strength.


Polypropylene rope is often found on boats.  It has low strength, high stretch, but is not elastic, and has poor UV resistance.  Polypropylene does have two virtues however:  It is cheap and it floats making it a good choice for dingy painters, crab pot buoy lines etc.  It is also very light weight so it is sometimes used for spinnaker sheets.  I have one length off polypropylene that I use when towing the dingy because it will stay out of the prop.


The dedicated racer with a generous budget may opt for extreme low stretch rope for halyards and control lines of HMPE or LCP but these are very expensive and offer no substantial advantage to the cruiser or recreational sailor.


The advent of high tech, high strength, low stretch fibers may presage a return to rope standing rigging.  Size for size it is stronger than stainless steel wire rope and much lighter.  It is also impervious to corrosion.  A friend of ours recently consulted with rigger Brion Toss on re-rigging his Ranger 33 cruiser. Brion recommended Dyneema for the shrouds and backstay.  Expense is still a consideration however and long term durability has yet to be established.  The use of HMPE for standing rigging is intriguing though. I plan to carry a length for possible emergency repairs as it is lighter and easier to coil and use in this application than stainless steel wire rope.


Simple and economical, in my view, are preferable to complex and expensive, in my opinion.  Here are my solutions:

For my Vega 27, I prefer half inch or five eighths inch three strand nylon for mooring and anchoring applications.  If replacing all, I would buy a 600 foot spool to get the best price, make up four dock lines, each the length of the boat with an eye splice in one end, a mooring pendant with a snap shackle spliced on and two anchor rodes to which I would attach fifty feet of chain each.


For running rigging, because of the size of the masthead sheaves, sheet blocks and cleats on the Vega, three eighths inch (10mm) double braid polyester is my choice.  You can spend more but I do not consider the benefits cost effective for a cruiser or recreational sailor.  Again, I would buy a 600 foot spool and make up halyards, sheets, topping lifts, boom vang, preventers and downhauls.  You may have a little left over for lashings etc. but not much.


Steve Birch of the VAGB (Who ought to know) gives the following specifications for the Vega:


Main Halyard 22 meters (10mm Braid on Braid pre-stretched polyester)
Genoa Halyard 24 meters (10mm Braid on Braid pre-stretched polyester)
Mainsheet 18 meters (10mm Braid on Braid pre-stretched polyester)
Genoa Sheets 9 meters (10mm Braid on Braid pre-stretched polyester) x 2
Topping lift 25 meters (6 or 8mm Braid on Braid pre-stretched polyester)
Spinnaker Halyard 25 meters (8mm Braid on Braid pre-stretched polyester)


That is a total of 132 meters or 433 feet of rope.  Note that Steve does not include rope to reeve a boom vang or to rig downhauls or preventers.  Neither is the topping lift for the spinnaker pole included.  Also notice that Steve recommends different diameter rope for the topping lift and spinnaker halyard.  In truth, I prefer larger diameter rope, seven sixteenths or half inch, for sheets because the larger diameter line is easier to handle than the smaller three eighths inch stuff.  For simplicity and economy, however I think it is best to use one size and buy a full spool whenever possible.  The size being determined by the width of the masthead sheaves, sheet blocks and cleats fitted.  Never use rope too big for the fittings.  It will cause excessive chafe and lead to a shorter service life.  On a Vega, the mooring cleats are sized for approximately half inch rope, the sheet and halyard cleats, sheet blocks and masthead sheaves for 10mm (three eighths inch) rope.  If you opt for larger diameter rope in these applications you should fit larger cleats and blocks.  The masthead of the Vega will not accommodate larger sheaves so, unless you replace the mast or hang blocks, you will be limited to three eighths inch halyards.  The Vega originally was rigged with wire/rope halyards, the hot setup forty years ago.  If your boat is still rigged with wire/rope halyards it is time to get rid of them and go with all rope halyards.  If you are all that concerned about stretch go with HMPE or LCP cored, polyester covered, halyards.


I think that one 600 foot spool of half or five eighths inch three strand nylon and one of three eighths inch double braid polyester will take care of all the major cordage needs of any boat in the thirty foot or under class.  That is not to say that you will not need any other cordage however.  In addition to the twelve hundred feet of rope accounted for above, I keep a one hundred foot heaving line, a couple of fifty foot lengths of half inch three strand nylon, a spool of three sixteenths inch single braid polyester rope, a few hanks of one eighths inch flag halyard stuff and a couple of spools of tarred seine twine for small lashings and decorative rope work.


Finally, you will need a ditty bag or box containing, at minimum, a sail makers palm, several sail needles and a spool of waxed sail twine and a sharp knife; not the serrated kind as they tear the rope, but plain edged and sharp.  Put on permanent whippings before you cut the rope.  Yes, you can use a lighter to melt the ends of synthetic rope but, in my experience, the traditional twine whipping is superior.  If you want to make your own eye splices you will also need a marlinespike and fids, but that is getting beyond the scope of this article.


If you want to learn more about working with rope, visit the Book Locker and check out “Ashleys Book of Knots”, Hervey Garrett Smiths “Art’s of the Sailor” and “Marlinspike Seamanship” and Roger C. Taylors “Knowing the Ropes”.  For insights on rigging, consult Brion Toss “The Riggers Apprentice”


*Rope is the raw material from which lines are made.  If it is on a spool or in a coil, it is rope.  If it is attached to a sail or spar, or performing a specific function, it is a line.