Lifelines tend to be neglected systems on most boats; if they’re brought into the shop it’s usually because something has broken, or the white vinyl covering has surpassed the disgusting-threshold. They should be inspected and replaced as part of a boats preventative maintenance just like other bits of rigging, and the good news is that they’re cheap insurance and also a good place to improve safety and function.
The lifelines in the picture above are from a small cruising boat, and were part of the owners service schedule when he bought the boat several years ago (as a sidenote, one of the best life-easifying tricks ever is to asses a new (or current) boat’s systems and develop a multi year plan of repair: you know what to expect in terms of spending and can spread out the projects) They are 1/8″ wire inside a white vinyl coating, with pelican hooks at the aft end, little steel clamps to form the gate (a gate is a section of lifeline that can be released at one end without dropping tension across all the entire run of wire) and lifeline adjusters forward. The wire was original, and the adjusters had been tightened until they had no thread left on one side.
Since they were past due for replacement, obviously new wire was in order. Since it was getting replaced, this was a great time to investigate improvements that could be made.
The first thing to consider with lifelines is the wire itself. Coated wire was popular for a very long time, as it was more comfortable to touch, and looked nice (For about a season in the sun) The picture above demonstrates the big issue with coated wire. It is prone to cracking when flexed, and when water gets under the coating it rusts the wire. Even in fresh water this happens quickly: stainless steel needs to be exposed to air in order to resist corrosion. You can also see that the gate clamp is an imperfect solution when you want a lifeline gate. In addition to the clamp sliding away under load, it also makes the wire itself the means of articulation.
Replacing covered wire with bare 1×19 wire is one of the few issues you’ll get pressure from me on. The good news is that it usually doesn’t need much convincing: bare wire is cheaper, stronger and will last much longer. The downside is that it’s less flexible, and you don’t get the zen experience of watching white turn to yellow turn to brown turn to dust over the years.
The picture above shows the old hardware (bottom left) and new hardware (top.) The clamp has been replaced with interlocking gate eyes, which are nice because they allow for more articulation of the gate, and don’t stress the wire. The lifelines originally had 3/16″ thread adjusters in place. The boatowner is a technically minded guy and enjoys rigging, so we made the swap from adjusters to a Dyneema lashing. The lashing gives more range of adjustment and is less prone to damage/snagging. Of course, the line should be inspected and replaced regularly.
Using a lashing to attach lifelines also has an important safety benefit, especially for race boats. A turnbuckle or toggle attaches to a welded eye on the pulpit/pushpit. When using a lashing, the line can be passed through that eye and around the stanchion tube itself. This means that instead of relying on the strength of the weld, you can put all the load onto the stainless tube. I have been on a boat where the welded eye on a lower lifline has come free while the crew was hiking, but luckily it was only a partial failure of one weld. The line went slack suddenly, and everyone leaned back while we figured out the issue so there was no swimming!
The last place to make improvements was at the gate fastening itself. This boat-and many of it’s vintage-has a snap hook that is released by sliding a catch and then pulling the arm of the hook out of the body. They’re reasonably secure unless the arm is bent. Or the catch it loose. Or the detent on the hook body is worn away. The newer style of pelican hook (right) works just like a snap shackle, where you pull the ring to release the pin. It’s even easier to re-fasten, as you just close the hook and it latches automatically.
It’s worth taking a look at your boats lifelines to see where they are in their safe lifespan, and whether there are improvements to be made. Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or just send them in for more info and a quote.