Bets on how much longer that would have lasted?

Get five sailors together to figure out a problem and you’ll get eight exclusively correct solutions.  Fighter pilots are no different.

This has helped me realize that if I am going to work on my boat myself, I need to do some research and collect all of the facts & opinions before going a certain route, and I need to be able to justify my course of action.

This was the process I faced while trying to decide how to replace the lifelines on my sailboat – those strands of wire designed to keep you from falling off the boat.

The old lifelines sagging through the stanchions

Purpose of Lifelines

First of all, let’s be honest with ourselves.   If the seas are rough, lifelines are not going to keep me onboard.  I’ll be getting a harness and rigging some “jacklines” to keep me tethered to the boat.

Nevertheless, lifelines are still a requirement to have (not by law, but by common sense & insurance companies).  The lifelines on Saoirse were of the plastic-covered type and rusted to the point of certain failure.  They also had enough slack in them to almost form a loop with the wire, and the hardware couldn’t be tightened further without re-rigging.  So…time to replace the lifelines…but how?

More rust problems

Coated vs Uncoated Lifelines

I don’t like being inhibited from inspecting things.  That’s why I don’t really like plastic-covered lifelines.  A lot of bad stuff can be going on underneath the plastic but you’ll never know until it’s too late.

Oh and by the way, this plastic covering also promotes rust and corrosion.

So I went with uncoated stainless steel.  Some people said “but the plastic is so nice on your hands and it keeps your clothes from getting rust stains when you hang them over the lifelines to dry”.  Then I said “good, I’d hate to have rust stains on my clothes while I’m floating in the ocean after falling through faulty lifelines.”

As a matter of fact, the Offshore Racing Congress has banned coated lifelines for the above reasons.

DIY Sailboat Lifelines Replacement

Cable.  I went with 1 x 19 type 316 stainless, using 3/16″ on the lower lines and 1/4″ on the upper lines  (normal coated lifelines are 3/16″ inner diameter and the coating gives them an outer diameter of 1/4″).  This gives my upper lines a breaking strength of 6,900lbs and 4,000lbs on my lower lines, slightly stronger than most sailboat lifeline cable using 7 x 19.  They can serve as emergency rigging too if I need it.

Gates.  You might be picking up a theme…I’m paranoid about safety and want as few points-of-failure as possible.  Boarding gates offer more points where the lines can fail.  My new lifelines are one continuous length from the bow pulpit to the stern pulpit.  I installed the toggles at the bow and the turnbuckles at the stern so that I can drop the lifelines with just a few twists if I need to, for easier boarding.

Hardware.  Now how to rig all of this and connect the wire to the end terminals…there were a few choices for sailboat lifeline parts.  I won’t bore you with the details, but I ended up going with Suncor mechanical terminals.  Hand-crimping wasn’t really an option since they can’t stand up to a load, and I wanted something robust and potentially reusable if I needed to replace a wire.  And they better be reusable for the price I was paying for them ($72 for one 1/4″ turnbuckle; the 3/16″ was cheaper).  These fittings inherit the strength of the wire when installed correctly and only took a few minutes to install, without needing heavy machines or professional assistance – two things I won’t always have access to while out on my adventures.  They work on the simple principle of placing a toothed clamp around the wire, and then squeezing the clamp with the pressure of a threaded end forcing it into a conical fitting.  Replacing lifelines and hardware is easy and safe with this system.

The quick & reversible installation process

Robust terminals! Now to just replace where it’s welded to the pulpit…


Next.  Don’t hang clothes to dry on rusting exposed steel wire.  Or better yet, when it starts rusting, replace it!  Most boats use small welded loops to attach the end fittings of the lifelines to the bow & stern pulpit.  The weld point is another point of failure.  In the future, I’ll be welding a stainless steel ‘U’ around the pulpits, drilling holes in the ends of the U, and attaching the terminals through that.


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