[Excerpts from "One Hand for the Lifeline", Keith's safety article in the February issue of the BVSPS newsletter]
As I pulled myself up by the aluminum toe-rail of the Santa Cruz 27, dripping of saltwater, I knew I had just escaped a worse fate. My crew, noting the broken lifeline dangling in the water, agreed. That was six months ago when I fell overboard while day-sailing on the Monterey Bay. It is a graceless but valuable tale I will awkwardly recount because it reiterates the extreme importance of safe hardware aboard sailing vessels. I was reminded the hard way.
We were wrapping up our day on the bay. The wind was shifting from the strong north-westerlies to the lighter easterlies. Anxious to get our borrowed boat back to the marina I decided to change sails, grabbing the 150% genoa from below and scrambled up the windward deck towards the bow. At that moment, an undetected right-angled wave slapped the starboard side of our hull knocking me slightly to port. I quickly countered, shifting my weight to the right using the starboard’s vinyl-coated lifeline to brace my leg. But the lifeline, rated with an average breaking strength of 3700 pounds, instantly snapped in half. A split second later I found myself hanging on the toe-rail wetting my pants in more ways than one.
The wire or wires that encircle sailing vessels is known, appropriately, as lifelines. They are held up by poles referred to as stanchions. Many lifelines are made of vinyl coated stainless steel wire. Over the years sailors have been swapping the plastic coated lifelines with bare wire. In fact the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) and the Offshore Racing Committee (ORC) prohibits the use of coated wire. Why? Hidden moisture trapped within hairline cracks or around the terminus of the vinyl coating quickly corrodes the stainless steel wire beneath. It isn’t long before the lifeline’s breaking strength is severely compromised, creating a great risk to anyone using it. Replacing your old vinyl-coated wire every couple years is an option . On the other hand, air can circulate thru bare stainless steel wire, drying out the moisture before corrosion occurs. In addition, bare wire can be inspected over its entire length and if corrosion is found the problem can be addressed immediately. What about the comfort level of bare SS wire? Over the last decade I have replaced all my lifelines with oversized, non-coated 1X19 stainless steel wire and I’ve never had any complaints. What about potential “meat-hooks”…those pesky wire strands that have failed and are sticking up, waiting to tear a hole in your hand? One broken little wire is the first sign of certain failure. Immediately wrap sail tape around the “meat-hook” and plan to replace that section of wire ASAP. If you want to spare the cost of a professional rigger look into Suncor's Quick Attach Lifeline Kits. Fittings are precision machined from 316 stainless steel and are certified with a breaking strength greater than the wire itself. You can enjoy a safe lifeline in minutes. The kit is available in white vinyl-coated or polished 1x19 uncoated SS wire. I highly recommend the later. Once you have swapped out your old, coated wire, go sailing in comfort knowing you can safely have one hand for the lifeline and one for yourself. My advice regarding worn, chafed, cracked or corroded lifelines on charter boats…don’t use them.
A UCSC graduate in Marine Biology, Keith holds a 100 ton USCG Capt. License and is an ASA/US sailing certified instructor.