Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Rigging: Part I

The euphoria accompanying our trip up the Delaware from Essington to Penn's Landing in central Philadelphia is well and truly behind now, and the serious business of turning the motor vessel Lagniappe into a living, breathing sailboat is underway. I am completely out of my depth with these tasks. I am, after all, a carpenter and not a sailor.  Therefore I am more than grateful to be able to lean on my friends and colleagues at the Independence Seaport Museum's Workshop on the Water. Between them, there is not a sailboat rigging subject on which a simple question cannot elicit multiple occasionally contradictory answers. The great thing is that all those answers are correct! As a novice sailboat rigger, it is nice to know that there really are many, many ways to skin this cat.

My first rigging task was the sizing and installation of the shrouds and headstay.  Jeff helped me set the mast in the hinge, and using dacron fishing line (minimal stretch) pre-fastened to the appropriate mast band, we determined the final length of each stay. We then brought the mast back into the shop, and swedged the top ends of each stay, using the fishing line as our measure.  

Shrouds and headstay taped to base of mast.

The upper end of stays swedged and fastened to mast ring with shackles.

Next, I made up the upper portion of the running backstays. The Oughtred plan calls for 7 x 19 wire rope for these, but it was strongly recommended by my advisory panel that I use low stretch polyester rope, the brand names Spectra and Dynema offering the best strength to diameter ratio. Actually, I found out that with either, you can safely go one size up and have at least equivalent strength to wire rope. The splicing is much easier, and the abrasion of the sails will be minimal.  I settled on Amsteel Blue 3/16" single braid Dyneema, which was available from Jamestown Distributors at a very reasonable price.  

I learned to splice single braid Dyneema from a really nice video I found on Youtube. I find that the Youtube videos are much easier for me to follow than diagrams in a book like Brion Toss's "The Complete Riggers Apprentice." The book is very informative, and fun to read, but when I sit down with a piece of rope and a fid, I am just confused without a Youtube video.

Dyneema eye-spliced running backstays  held in place by thumb cleats

You can see in the picture above that all halyard blocks have been fastened already, and that I ran a loop of lightweight rope through each of them and down to the base of the mast so I could rig the halyards from the deck by pulling them up with the lightweight rope.  The thought of going aloft in a boatswain's chair is at once charming and intimidating to my way of thinking. It will be avoided.

Ultimately, the mast became a jumble of wire, string, tape, and wood, and was ready for the attempted "final" stepping.

A long stretch of spaghetti
As you can see, I have decided to add a traditional touch by using steam bent white oak mast hoops to fasten the sail to the mast. These needed to be put in place before lines were attached and the mast was stepped for obvious reasons.  I think they look great.  I hope they work.

Finally, I assembled a crew of willing boatshop friends, and we carried the mast out to the boat on the dock. I had built a gin pole to lever the mast up using the headstay and a block and tackle ala the Grey Seal "Saturday Morning" as seen in this Youtube video.  However, because we were four big, burly, albeit elderly men, we decided to give it a go and raise the mast by brute strength alone.  Fortunately, things worked out.  We had a few oopses; the pin in the headstay turnbuckle was slightly too large for the hole I had drilled in the chainplate, for example.  This was soon fixed, and the mast was raised and fastened.

John and Larry hold the mast in place while I try to fasten the headstay.
Hmm. I thought that hole would be big enough.

The mast installation team: Larry, Jeff, John, and Joe.


  1. Congratulations and best wishes for Rigging Part 2, Charles.

    I too felt I was way out of my depth when it came time to rig my Devlin Winter Wren (22' LOA, gaff sloop). I told Sam Devlin so, and said I was thinking of taking it to Brion Toss himself to do the work. Devlin mentioned an amazing and terrifying figure—what he estimated Toss would charge—and said, simply, "You can figure it out." So I did. I bought Tom Cunliffe's book on gaff rigs, and more usefully, spent a couple of days prowling several marinas in the Seattle area studying small sloops, making photos and sketches.

    It took a few months of sailing to get all the rig's problems sorted out, and a neighbor who is both an aeronautical engineer and lifelong sailor provided some valuable advice, but the rig now seems to be working nicely. I am a native of El Paso, Texas, in the middle of the most godforsaken desert in North America, and I now claim to be the only kid from El Paso who ever grew up to rig a gaff-rigged sailboat. No one has challenged this.

    1. Larry,
      Many years ago I learned that when a problem seems insurmountable in its complexity the best thing to do is to take it apart and deal with it in segments. It's sort of like eating the elephant. Unfortunately, I tend to forget this approach and have to re-learn it from time to time. It has always worked for me, and it seems to be working with the enormous problem of how to rig Lagniappe. I have begun to face it line by line, deciding where to route the throat halyard to bring it back to the cockpit; then moving on to the peak halyard, etc. Once separated, each of these problems is actually quite simple. While that approach might result in having to redo a task already completed, at least it allows me to continue to move forward rather than be paralyzed by the complexity of the whole.

      I am envious of your distinction as preeminent (only) rigger of a gaff rigged sailboat in El Paso, and wish I could claim a status as unique as yours, but alas, New Jersey is full of sailors, some of whom could probably rig a boat if a gun were held to their heads, and a few who have actually done it.

      Unfortunately, it is a bit early in our boating season to begin to prowl marinas, but I will definitely have a look at the Cunliffe book before I make any egregious mistakes.

  2. You're absolutely on the right track, Charles: One step (or line, or day) at a time.

    Also, our boats being wooden, nearly all errors in rigging are easily fixable. My boom, for example, is peppered with bungs that fill now-extinct screw holes for mounting blocks and cleats. When a piece of hardware needs to be moved a few inches, you just take it out, fill the old holes, and drill new ones. Some people might wince at the aesthetic toll this takes. I choose to look at it as a chart of self-improvement: the more filled holes there are, the more I have learned about rigging.

    And happily, neither my boat nor I live in El Paso. I left there 40+ years ago; I now live on Whidbey Island, near Seattle. I figure, though, that simply being FROM El Paso makes the building and rigging of a sailboat so unnatural that it qualifies for distinction.

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