Understanding Running Rigging

Standing rigging keeps the mast in place, but it’s the running rigging that handles all the action aboard a boat under sail.

January 22, 2020
sheets, outhauls, vang control, halyards
The many components in a modern running rigging ­system—sheets, outhauls, vang control, halyards—work in conjunction with wide range of blocks to keep friction to a minimum. Ralph Naranjo

Regardless of ­whether you sail a modern, ­fractional-rigged sloop or a wishbone-rigged staysail schooner, it’s the running rigging that sets, trims, reefs and furls the sails. In the bad old days, decks were full of wobbly, sheaved high-friction blocks and essentially one kind of cordage. Today, running rigging has attained full-system status, with its primary goal being friction abatement.

Various types of synthetic- fiber cordage, with specific strength, stretch and creep characteristics, run through ultraslippery blocks and fairleads. Each line is aimed at the exact spot a team of ergonomics experts determined it should go. Even the halyard hardware that attaches the line to the head of a sail has been ­computer-modeled and scrutinized with finite element analysis. Soft shackles and strops, made from Dyneema fiber rope, are showing up in high-load locations. In short, we are in the midst of a ­running-rigging revolution, and much of the new stuff offers real value to the cruising sailor.

What’s My Line?

Just as pistons and cylinders play a primary role in a diesel auxiliary, rope and blocks are the guts of every sail-handling system. A few decades ago, Dacron (polyester cordage) ruled the roost. It remains a key player, but stronger, lighter, and less-stretchy options are gaining ground. Racers have embraced Dyneema, Vectran, Torlon, Zylon and a growing list of other odd-sounding esoteric fibers. The old enemy stretch has been tamed, but the big remaining question is whether a running-rigging makeover is worth the expense. It takes a little cost-benefit analysis to answer that question.


There’s consensus among sailors, riggers and yacht ­designers that there are cost-effective crossover points, where performance and value intersect. Take, for example, a mainsail halyard upgrade. Polyester has proved to be too stretchy, but PBO (Zylon) cored rope, sometimes called liquid crystal, is way too costly. But for cruisers, a midrange medium-tech upgrade makes a lot of sense. The line of choice is often a double braid with a high-modulus Dyneema core and a conventional polyester cover. This midrange combo results in a halyard with much lower stretch and good handling characteristics, plus it retains a chafe- and ­ultraviolet-resistant cover.

Going higher-tech in fiber selection for sheets on a cruising boat might not be as desirable. This is because a good-quality double-braid polyester remains a sensible solution, at least on cruising boats under 40 or so feet. Its stretchy nature might even add a little shock-absorber effect, lessening the fatigue cycle on mast, boom and line. However, higher-modulus (less-stretchy) line is a superior halyard material, and it also makes sense for use in running backstays, topping lifts, tack and head pennants, and ­boom-vang tackles.

Continuous-line furlers are becoming must-have kit for taming downwind sails. Ralph Naranjo

When choosing the right high-modulus line, make sure it’s rated for tight turns around small-radius blocks and masthead sheaves. In the early days of synthetic fibers, many ultra-low-stretch lines stiffened with time, making line handling more like wrapping a tree branch around a winch drum. Today, Samson, Yale, New England Ropes and others have tamed this problem, and offer a wide range of products that meet the needs of cruisers and racers. Do some research, talk with a local rigger, and pick the right rope for your boat and your specific sailing requirements.


Around the Blocks

Every ball- and roller-bearing block spins like a roulette wheel when there’s no load on the sheave. But when you add hundreds, even thousands, of pounds of tension to a halyard or sheet, it’s only the better-built blocks that hold friction at bay. Usually these blocks have well-engineered frames and bearing races that resist deformation under heavy loads.

Ironically, cruisers don’t need the highest-tech line, but we certainly do benefit from the best-built blocks. These not only run smoothly under load, but they also continue to do so despite the test of time.


Over the years, as ­ingested salt spray is baked into grit by the unrelenting sun, bearing abrasion becomes a big problem. Keep in mind that if you can see the ­high-molecular-weight Delrin, Torlon or other plastic bearings, so can the sun, and this means that UV degradation will become an issue.

It’s also important to recognize that choosing the smallest, lightest block for a given line size makes little sense. A better approach is to pick a one-size-larger block that’s still appropriate for the given line diameter. It will deliver a higher safe working load, and therefore, the normal load will be a smaller percentage of the SWL. Such blocks will also have a larger bearing surface and will operate with less friction. Add to this the fact that lower loading also equates to longer hardware life, and you have another good reason to opt for a size uptick.

Power to the Winches

I think that the hand-crank winch is one of sailing’s most elegant inventions. And the good news is this piece of hardware continues to evolve. New designs come packed with better bearings, improved self-tailers and multiple gear ratios, making them even better muscle-power multipliers.

Line clutches
Line clutches take the place of the venerable cleat on many a cabin top, allowing a winch to be used for multiple purposes. Ralph Naranjo

Modern winches are more ergonomic, and there’s even a model that lets you trim in and ease out via opposite rotations of the winch handle. The shorthanded cruiser has more trimming tools from which to choose—even a push-button electric winch that eliminates the old question: “Where’s the winch handle?”

However, when it comes to power winching, it’s important to rethink the way you handle a sheet or halyard. With the old hand-cranking approach, arm and shoulder strength provided both torque and feedback. Unfortunately, this feedback loop is absent when using an electric winch. As the tension increases, the button doesn’t get any harder to push. Therefore, we need to look more closely at the luff and head of the sail to make sure the halyard or sheet is not being overtensioned.

In the early days of power winches, I watched the crew of a 60-foot sloop set sail with the aid of electric winches. As the mainsail was being unfurled, the furling line hung up, causing the tension on the outhaul to reach full force in the matter of a second or two. A loud bang announced the separation of the clew from the mainsail. It was an attention-grabbing demonstration of the brute force delivered by a power winch—and a costly lesson in how high-modulus, low-stretch materials endure minimal elongation prior to failure. The takeaway from this episode was that careful attention must be paid to the line being tensioned and what’s happening to the sail. Beware of dodgers and Biminis that hide the sails from view and leave the person operating a power winch without any direct visual feedback.

Clutch Plays

Some see the self-tailing winch as the ultimate answer to handling a line under load. But there are other opinions that continue to hold sway. The oldest belongs to traditionalists who swear by horn cleats, just the way Nat Herreshoff intended. It’s a functional ­approach, especially if the deck is festooned with non-self-tailing winches that remain in good working order.

But we are in a rope-clutch revolution that’s realigned deck layouts and changed the approach to line handling. These lever-operated, clamplike devices allow one winch to cope with several lines, but not all at once. With badgerlike jaws, rope clutches lock lines in place, immobilizing the line under full load. Some clutches allow a sailor to release the fully tensioned line, but lines under load behave more sedately if, prior to releasing, they are wrapped on the winch and re-tensioned prior to releasing the clutch. The line is then eased from the winch drum.

There’s a fine art to making the right rope-clutch ­commitment. The “too much of a good thing” rule once again prevails, and surrounding a winch with four or five clutched lines can cause more problems than it solves. This is especially true if two or more heavily loaded lines are involved in the same sail-­handling evolution. I’ve sailed on boats where a main halyard and mainsheet are clutched off at the same winch. The assumption is that once the sail is set, the halyard will remain locked in the clutch and the winch can be used to handle the sheet. All is copacetic up until it’s time to reef, and the mainsheet and halyard have to be handled with only one winch. Add darkness, a significant seaway and a crew just rousted from a deep sleep, and the value of an extra winch, rather than too many rope clutches, becomes very clear.

Roll It Up

Furling systems are center stage aboard modern cruising sailboats. They make sail handling easier and safer because the majority of maneuvers can take place in the cockpit.

Headstay-mounted headsail furlers adorn almost every sailboat seen at in-water boat shows. They come in two distinct generic designs. Both types are comprised of a slotted alloy extrusion that fits over the headstay. A jib or genoa is initially hoisted via a rope halyard, then torque to wind in the sail is provided by a drum affixed to the bottom end of the foil. The difference between the two systems is that one relies on a mast-mounted sheave that leads a jib halyard to a sliding swivel that rides up and down the foil. The other system, usually found on smaller boats, has a sheave assembly affixed to the top foil section and the halyard(s) is not run to the mast. Owners with the latter system often continually fight the stretchiness of the small-diameter polyester line used for the halyard. Switching to a higher-modulus (less-stretchy) line lessens the stretch and is worth the investment.

Self-tailing winch
Self-tailing winches provide plenty of power for handling big loads. They should be ­serviced annually to keep them ready to perform their critical tasks. Ralph Naranjo

Both systems rely on a spooled line to deliver the furling and reefing torque. This “in-haul” line endures years of UV and chafe damage, but at some point, failure becomes inevitable. It’s more likely to occur when the sail is reefed and the inhaul line is under significant load. For some reason, such failures seem to occur on a dark, rainy night at about 0300. And when a reefing line parts, the deeply reefed jib becomes a full genoa flogging like a flag in the breeze. Even worse, the line to haul it in is no longer usable. That’s why it makes sense to check for chafe and grow skeptical of a furling line that has been exposed to sunlight for more than a decade.

Endless or continuous line furlers are designed to tame large drifter/reachers and nylon asymmetric spinnakers. There are bottom-up and top-down versions, and each is designated by where the sail first begins to furl. Bottom-up furlers are used for light air, lightweight genoa-like sails (codes and reaching sails). Instead of furling with a fishing-reel-like drum arrangement, these endless line furlers rely on a continuous loop. Line tension turns into torque at the disk-shaped drum that holds only a partial turn of line. The twin leads of the elongated loop can be led aft to the cockpit via multiple sets of double blocks ­mounted on lifeline stanchions.

Asymmetric spinnakers utilize a top-down furling rotation that is telegraphed from the drum to the head of the sail using a torsion line. The splices on these endless-loop furling lines should be regularly checked, and so should the points where the torsion rope enters the hardware.

Cordage—like the ­hardware that leads and locks running rigging in place—has been vastly improved, and it makes sense for sailors to tap into what it has to offer. This can be done in a full-scale makeover or in a bit-at-a-time tuneup. With the latter, start with halyards, add some new blocks, and check or replace the mast sheaves. If winches and clutches are part of the redo, make sure the deck structure can handle the load, or have some extra ­reinforcement added.

Whatever the scale of the rigging refit, keep in mind that on a cruising boat, saving ounces isn’t the issue. Our goal is to add efficiency and reliability, and that involves picking hardware and cordage with the right specs, and using them in a layout that keeps the rigging running as friction-free as possible.

Technical expert Ralph Naranjo is a veteran circumnavigator and ocean racer, and author of The Art of Seamanship.


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