Fatty Goodlander: Dealing with Chafe While Cruising

Chafe can be a sailor’s worst nightmare, sometimes chewing like a chainsaw through parts of a boat.
Cap’n Fatty onboard Ganesh
Cap’n Fatty is all too familiar with the realities of chafe on board. Courtesy Fatty Goodlander

Chafe has many sadistic variations. I’ll never forget reaching into my hanging locker after an ocean crossing and taking out my favorite shirt, which had been reduced to lace from the constant swinging. My wife, Carolyn, laughed—until she realized her favorite party dress was now see-through as well. 

From then on, we’ve always put our favorite apparel in the center of the clothes bar and then shock-corded our clothes tightly to the bulkhead. (Better to arrive with wrinkled clothes than holey ones.)

Similarly, we almost never carry jugs on deck. However, if we must, we make sure their contact points have bits of rubber glued to them so that our rough nonslip doesn’t rasp through the plastic in the first week or two of a trans-Pacific passage. 

With the exception of our veggie nets (which allow our veggies to breathe), we have nothing swinging belowdecks. Why? Because my wife finds the motion to be seasickness-inducing, and I hate discovering arcs of ruined varnish on bulkheads where swinging items rub. 

Yes, sailors of yore had to be particularly vigilant against chafe. I can remember being a child aboard the schooner Elizabeth and chanting, “Worm and parcel with the lay, turn and serve the other way” as we protected our three-strand running rigging with this three-step process. 

While wave frequency varies widely, a common belief is that there are eight waves per minute. (Many scientists say six to 12.) At eight per minute, that’s more than 11,000 corkscrewing waves per day. Since most of our circumnavigations have totaled more than a year of being at sea—because we’re slowpokes and don’t cruise in a straight line—that translates to around 4 million waves per circ. That’s a lot of random motion. 

Let’s look at it another way. My wife loves pearls. Each time we pass through Polynesia, we visit pearl farmers so that I can dive her up a few more. Of course, we ask permission, and then open and pay for the resulting cultured pearls. We find it interesting to harvest our own pearls. When giving them as gifts, we like to be able to say, “As I opened the oyster in Kauehi and saw this lovely pearl, I thought of you.” 

However, as lovely as pearls are, they aren’t robust. Thus, when I put my favorite gargantuan eggplant pearl—a dark pearl with a lustrous nacre that flashes green—into a rough wooden container and stowed it for safekeeping—oops. It was ruined by rolling back and forth a zillion times across the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans. 

Why do I mention this? Because, for boaters who spend a lot of time at sea, chafe isn’t something that only occasionally happens to anchor rodes or dock lines. It is anything that results in damage as a result of the vessel’s back-and-forth movement at sea.  

Most modern cruising boats have spreaders, and sails that rub against those spreaders. This is a problem for ocean sailors rolling downwind continuously. On two occasions, we’ve purchased a new mainsail, sailed it across an ocean, and then added chafe patches at all the discolored spots. This allows a mainsail to last longer than a circumnavigation—not get holes rubbed through it during its first ocean crossing. 

Of course, sailors can solve spreader chafe from the opposite direction as well. Often, just gluing a tiny slit hose to the after side of sharp aluminum spreaders can dramatically reduce mainsail chafe. 

I have running backs on my mizzen. Dacron is wonderful stuff, but it doesn’t allow the stitching to “set” into the fabric like the soft Egyptian cotton of my youth. Thus, on my mizzen, I have to guard against thread chafe as much as fabric chafe. 

On my first few boats, I used baggywrinkle. This was fun to make, and it looks ultra-traditional. But, of course, you have to carry that windage upwind as well as down. Baggywrinkle is also heavy when wet. Thus, I’ve discarded my baggywrinkle on the garbage heap of bygone tradition. 

Numerous vessels with permanent staysail stays have their jibs fail early from thread chafe against the stay while tacking or while slatting in the doldrums. And cockpit awnings, while optional in northern climes, are almost mandatory in the tropics. They too suffer from chafe in unexpected forms. Ditto wind scoops, which we carry in different sizes and designs. (Carolyn’s “Big Shoulders” scoop turns the whole boat into a wind tunnel.)

Which brings us to hurricanes, during which chafe plays a major (and sometimes fatal) role. I could write a whole book about chafe at 100-plus knots—and basically did so after Hurricane Hugo in 1989. This is a very complicated subject. What follows is just a taste.

We carry three nylon snubbers for our anchor chain: a 35-foot, ¾-inch snubber, and two slightly shorter ones. All of them are protected by a long plastic hose at the spot where they go over the anchor roller or chock. 

During hurricane season, we also carry a square foot of ¾-inch plywood with four holes and Kevlar attachment lines, in case a chock or bow roller shears off. A nylon rode or snubber can’t bear on anything hard for more than a few minutes while surging. 

Why? Because we don’t want to experience what one boat I know had happen in Culebra, Puerto Rico. This boat’s anchor chain chafed through the bottom of an aluminum chock, mahogany cap rail, fiberglass toe rail and, eventually, the hull and deck. It just kept going until the chain had a straight line from its windlass attachment point to the anchor. The boat ended up with the jagged chain slot a mere 2 inches above the surface of the harbor.

That’s right: Anchor chains can turn into linear chainsaws while surging in winds of Force 12 on the Beaufort scale.

Another hurricane-season must for us is having a tub of cheap automotive grease and a crowbar in our anchor locker. 

The grease is to smear the boat, plywood and line. Isn’t that messy? You’re damn right it is, but a grease-smeared vessel above the water is better than a pristine vessel beneath it. And why the crowbar? To ease the rode or snubber without it escaping or running too far. 

On the homebuilt 36-foot Carlotta, I had two 4-by-4 hardwood bitts that ran from my stem. They were through-bolted up the forward crash bulkhead, and they emerged from the deck with a bronze pin (old prop shaft, actually) driven through both. Super strong.

During Hugo, I went forward every hour or so wearing a mask and a safety harness. Once at the bitts, I’d use my crowbar to work slack into the snubber (from the slack side) until the nylon would re-cinch onto the bitts. This allowed the chafe point to be moved only a couple of inches with no danger of it getting away from me. (Later, I was amazed to see the resulting deep, deep gouges in the hardwood.) 

Temperature plays a part in nylon-rode failure. Heat buildup can be a problem. Thus, some old hands in the Caribbean use a short section of Dacron line at the chafe point, claiming it isn’t as weakened as nylon is by the frictional heat, but I personally don’t have the hard science to recommend this practice. 

Each Caribbean hurricane that a sailor survives, especially if they lose the vessel, has steep learning curves that aren’t forgotten. During Hurricane Hugo, a Category 5 with steady 120-knot winds gusting to 140, a rare storm phenomenon that I’d never even heard of came into play. 

We were anchored in Ensenada Honda, a relatively shallow bay off Puerto Rico. The boats, starting with the full-keel vessels and soon involving the fin-keelers, started turning at odd angles to the wind. Some actually walked to windward against more than 100 knots of breeze.

Impossible? I would have thought so, if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. The result was extreme shock-loading on the anchor gear and anchor rollers, from radically different angles. 

I believe that in the large but shallow bay, the 120 knots of wind caused the surface water to move downwind at a high velocity, ultimately forcing all that water to get back to windward along the bottom (or lower portion) of the bay. Thus, some of the full-keelers were turning almost sideways and appeared to be “leeway-ing” themselves to windward. Really strange.

Of course, the problem with eliminating chafe is often one of unintended consequences. In the Indian Ocean, I was spending so much time double-reefed that my braided Dacron reef lines were severely chafing in the area of the foot cringle. I put ultra-lightweight high-tech blocks at the cringle, eliminating the line chafe—only to have the flailing blocks start to damage the fabric. 

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. And we’ve just barely scratched the surface of chafe, really. 

For example, I installed my M92B Perkins diesel 12 years ago, with more than an inch between my steering sheeves and the 4-inch exhaust hose above it. Unfortunately, this water-filled hose sagged over the decades and began touching the rough-cast whirling bronze sheeves just beneath. I caught the problem in time, but it could have resulted in dangerous exhaust gases getting belowdecks while one of us slept (and, potentially, didn’t wake up). 

While my engine runs smoothly at rpm, it jiggles like a maniac at idle. Thus, three times in the past 64 years of living aboard, I’ve experienced fuel leaks by the hose or copper fuel tubing coming into unexpected contact with the shaking engine. 

We’ve also overheated from a hose sagging or heeling into a fan belt. Chafe, chafe, chafe. We almost never touch a dock. We live at anchor or on a mooring. Thus, our home is almost never stationary. And the truth is that our boat is filled with hoses, wires and plastic bits. This means that even a rolling soup can will become dangerous if the boat is allowed to roll, roll, roll long enough. 

And we haven’t even touched on dinghies and their davits. Or our Para-Tech sea anchor or Jordan Series drogue. They all come with massive chafe issues.

Yes, experienced seamen and seawomen nobly fight back against King Neptune’s and Mother Ocean’s sickest chafe tricks, but often with scant success. My father used to say, with great sadness, “A greenhorn wanting to install a strap eye in his bunk area just stupidly drills through the top of his water tank about half the time, while an experienced sailor knows that the water tank is there and so carefully measures, and drills through the tank nearly 100 percent of the time.”

And yes, the weirdest stuff happens on boats. Two of my friends were sinking off Panama’s San Blas Islands during a severe gale in the ’80s. Everything in the boat was floating and had clogged the three bilge pumps. They were wading around in waist-high bilge water, attempting to hand-bail with buckets, hour after hour. At midnight, totally exhausted, one said to the other: “This is horrible. What the hell could be worse than this?”

Just then, the poly straps keeping the holding tank in its cradle chafed through. The tank broke loose, twisted off its hose, popped to the surface next to them, and spewed its odiferous contents like a white whale with diarrhea. 

“You had to ask, didn’t you?” the other friend screamed.  “You had to ask!”