If you want complete control of the sails of your yacht, you need the right rope. Of course, configurations will vary from vessel to vessel, but generally, you’ll use rope or halyards to control the main sail, the jib (or genoa), and the spinnaker.
Along with sheets, these are collectively termed the running rigging on your boat. They are used to raise and lower sails. Both sheets and halyards were previously made of wire, but technological advancements have made them lighter, more durable, and more cost-effective. Opting for newer varieties can provide a performance edge for anyone running in regattas or competitive cruising.
Most of the confusion around halyards and yacht rope in general comes from the simple fact that different lines are seen in different use cases and on different vessels. Lines used in leisurely sailing and cruising will differ from those used in regattas and competition racing.
Additionally, loads vary, so choosing something durable, with little to no elongation, and resistant to UV rays will see you through most sailing scenarios. But if you start getting picky and want an upgraded rope for that performance benefit, things start getting tricky.
Here’s what to look for in your next halyards:
- Tensile strength, or load capacity, is the ability of lines with higher tensile strength to hold larger sails in stronger winds. This ultimately depends on the construction and materials, as well as the overall diameter of the rope. While you want to rope with sufficient strength, if you’re looking for a performance edge, then opting for lines with higher max breaking points should deliver, provide a larger safety window, and have a longer service life.
- Elongation, or stretch, is what will eat into the performance more than anything else. You’ll be looking at two types of stretch, the inherent stretch in the material, with less expensive options such as Polyester displaying more stretch than something like Dyneema, and structural stretch, with strands and braids needing some running in before they perform at their optimum. Keep in mind that lines with minimal stretch are what you’d want in Regattas, while for cruising, you can pass with lower rates of stretch on less costly lines.
- Abrasion and UV resistance: lines passing through sheaves, blocks, and clutches need decent abrasion resistance. The occasional contact with decks or other areas can also cause rope chafing, scuffing, and further wear. Stronger build and materials mean rope that will last, often past the average of 3 to 5 years in moderate use. Durability is also dependent on UV resistance, as longer sailing bouts will expose lines to the harmful effects of the sun’s rays. Accumulating salt can also be a problem. Periodic washing helps remove salt and debris and extend rope life.
- Diameters: Newer and more robust materials mean lines can be sourced thinner than before. As a rule, higher-end materials can be 1-2mm thinner than less costly options. Different halyards and sheets will have different diameters. Main halyards in vessels under 7 metres, like most dinghies, can be purchased in 8mm, and the same goes for spinnaker and Genoa halyards. Bigger vessels, averaging 12 metres, can have 12mm yacht rope all around, while 18 m+ vessels usually use 14mm rope.
- Weight: While cruisers and recreational sailors won’t mind heavier rope, this, and all other variables add up in racing. Going for something lighter, though, also incurs a higher cost.
Materials and build are the determining factors for most sailors. The right material will vary between cruisers and racing vessels.
Yacht ropes are constructed of two major parts – the rope core and the cover. The cover is what determines tensile strength and stretch rates, while the cover dictates details like grip levels and how the rope handles when passing through cleats, clutches, and blocks. Covers impact abrasion and UV resistance.
The different combos of cover and core material also impact the end price. Most smaller cruisers are fine with a full-polyester core, as newer versions have enough strength and will work in most sailing situations. But if you want more variety and yacht rope that also performs under more demanding conditions, look to composite and synthetic fibres, especially in the rope core.
This is the most common material in both cores and covers. It has good resistance to stretching, holds its ground against rough use and harsher weather, and in covers, offers good grip and heat resistance. Look for double braided (or ‘braid on braid) with higher strength and durability in the core and jacket alike.
This is a patented and modified Polyethylene fibre with one of the highest tensile strengths among known yacht rope materials. Often used in rope cores, it has very minimal elongation, is lighter and ideal in lines securing larger sails, has exceptionally high load capacities (5 times that of standard polyester), and is very good against UV rays, heat, and general wear.
Lighter and more resistant versions can be optioned with polyester or composite covers. The higher cost may put off most sailors thinking of upgrading their standard lines, but for a racing and performance edge, you can’t do better.
Liquid crystal polymer, or Vectran, has the lowest stretch rate, is lightweight, and has a very high breaking point. Moreover, it is a good, if somewhat more costly, alternative to Dyneema, though it lags in UV resistance.
Aramids such as Kevlar gained ground in the late 1980s due to their low stretch, high strength, and decent heat resistance, but like Vectran, they lack outright durability and UV resistance. Lastly, a great option for halyards and sheets alike is Stirotex, which outperforms polyester for stretch, strength, and durability while not costing much more for the same length and diameter.
Halyards, sheets, and lines all need to be properly maintained. This means regular inspection for damage, cleaning lines with warm water and soap after longer races or journeys, and occasional lubrication to prevent wear and friction when running through clutches and other boating hardware.
Lines that have visible damage need prompt attention. Look for signs of fraying, kinking, and lines that stretch more than usual. Covers and jackets can also accumulate deeper cuts and burns and expose the core material. And when this fails, you’re in trouble.
While all lines are easy to splice and repair, if the damage is localised or minimal, get the work done by a pro. This means the lines will last longer. When you do decide to replace or upgrade rope, consider materials, diameters, strength, lower stretch, and higher durability to ensure that your vessel, whatever that may be, performs to your expectations.