It’s a problem on pleasure boats, too

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Rigging safety alert

The Coast Guard rigging safety alert to commercial operators has brought to light best practices for keeping recreational sailboat rigs in good shape, too.

In the Gulf states, where boats stay in the water year-round, the weather is warm and humid, and masts go unstepped for years at a time, “A qualified rigger should go over the rig once every two years,” says Jay Stormer, a marine surveyor at Dixieland Marine in Kemah, Texas. And it’s important that the inspector go aloft to take a look at less-accessible parts of the rig.
The inspection costs about $150 in Kemah. “That’s not a lot on a two-year schedule,” says Stormer. Yet these guidelines often are honored more in the breach. He surveys 20-year-old sailboats on which “no one has ever gone aloft to look at the rigging.”
Stormer recommends pulling the mast every 5 to 7 years for a thorough inspection of the rig and mast step, and so the inspector can take apart the upper-mast wire terminals to look for corrosion, pitting or cracking. He also recommends frequent inspection of chain plates if they are accessible. “My experience and that of a couple riggers I know is that the majority of dismastings [on recreational sailboats] is due to chain-plate issues,” he says. Even stainless-steel chain plates rust, corrode, crack and weaken.
Stormer says rust stains can be a sign of deeper problems. “Any time you see rust stains on stainless steel, you have to be thinking that there could be crevice corrosion — cracking,” he says. Clean the rust carefully and take a closer look for pitting or cracking, which leaves hardware vulnerable to internal corrosion that may not be immediately obvious from the surface.
Stormer says he rarely sees a wire stay or shroud fail unless it is kinked, twisted or exiting the terminal at an odd angle. More often, terminals or chain plates fail. “Water gets down in the terminal over a period of time,” he says. Then rusting sets in.
Stormer has seen particular problems with swaged terminals — stainless-steel sleeves slipped over the wire that are squeezed under high pressure until they grip the wire strands. He says the process sometimes leaves creases in the sleeve that are prone to rust and cracking. “If you are building a rig for maximum longevity, put mechanical [unswaged] terminals on it,” he says.
Stormer hopes the alert opens some eyes. “It’s a rarity to find owners who have regular mast inspections or even do it themselves,” he says.
Information on maintenance and inspection of sailboat rigging is available at www.dixielandmarine.com (click on the “Yachts/Small Craft” button, then “Our Articles,” then “Sailboat Rig Problems: A surveyor’s view); or www.navtec.net/docs/RiggingService.pdf.

See related article:

- Another dismasting prompts new alert

This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue.