When some things break

Posted on 20th October 2021

There is a lot of kit that we rely on for our everyday comfort and safety that is no longer manufactured in a way that allows mere mortals to repair it when it goes wrong. Long gone are the days of changing a blown valve in a television or radio, dismantling the toaster or taking a car carburettor apart to get it working.

On boats some key equipment remains sufficiently mechanical and industrial to allow for regular maintenance that prevents or limits surprises. Other equipment, and notably electronics, is reliable for ages, but then knocks off watch without warning, usually at the most inconvenient moment.

Today, it is not unusual for people who are new to sailing or any kind of boating to buy a brand new or second-hand boat, and after limited instruction, press the necessary buttons to make her go and head out to sea. Hopefully, with caution and luck, they return safely and build on their experience and knowledge without any major incidents.

What has been lost in this process however is ingrained practice and knowledge. The sort that comes from growing up around boats, and from the grumpy old skippers (fathers or grandfathers), who would make it their business to pass on lessons learned over the years, to a young novice yachtsman. As a result, there are many yacht owners out there who are either unaware of the need to check or renew certain equipment, or uncertain of how often to do so. Possibly also being misled by others who are equally ill-informed, but who sound knowledgeable and experienced.

Getting your yacht surveyed by a suitably qualified and experienced surveyor every few years (especially if you do not have a lifetime of experience) is a really good idea. You could also mention that you want advice on what to keep a regular eye on whilst the boat is being inspected - you might get charged for an extra hour, but the surveyor will likely be only too happy to impart their expert knowledge to help keep you safe.

(More on Surveys another day …)

On a yacht there is much to check and monitor, but for now we will highlight three critical yet simple and visible areas to take very seriously:

1. Lifelines / Guard Rail:

Most are stainless steel twisted strand wire. They last a long time but depending on how they are fitted there can be unseen weaknesses caused by kinks, corrosion or failure of fastenings that will only become evident when they fail as a body is thrown against them during a storm or an unplanned broach. Clean them, check them. If in doubt have an experienced Rigger check them, and replace them as soon as you have doubts. It can be a life or death decision.

2. Standing Rigging, Mast and deck fitting:

A surprising number of people say they never or rarely check their standing rigging themselves, are not willing to pay for an experienced Rigger to carry out an inspection every few years, and also reckon it will last much longer than guidance and manufacturers advise.

  • If the mast is not coming out of the boat, go up the mast in a bosun’s chair or send someone up to eyeball inspect, clean and lubricate the rigging wire, terminals, tangs and mast entry points, and around these reinforced areas. Any crack or deformity seen, mark it and take a photo, and get advice. Do this at least once every season.
  • Every 3 years get a professional experienced Rigger to go up and inspect the rigging and Dye Test the fittings – looking for hairline cracks or fractures that are otherwise invisible to the eye.
  • Depending on the quality of the rigging, maintenance, use, and climatic conditions - assume the Standing rigging (wire and rod) and terminals need to be replaced after 7 years and prior to 10 years – even if it looks ok. While doing that also check the deck fittings it is attached to. Rigging is expensive but so is the mast, and so is the cost of losing it all in heavy weather. This can be life threatening.

3. Through Hull Fittings (Valves): – hopefully TruDesign Composite or good quality Bronze

A moderately sized yacht can easily have 10 – 12 holes in the hull with only these fittings keeping the ‘blue’ out of the boat. They vary in size and also in the regularity of use (i.e. being opened and closed). They need to be monitored regularly and serviced / greased properly whenever the boat is out of the water.

They also have a limited lifespan – and need replacing depending once again on quality of the fitting, maintenance, use, and climatic conditions from after 7 years and prior to 10 years. If we had a show of hands to see how many people had not replaced their through hull fittings in this period you would be surprised and we should all be worried. When these fittings fail boats can sink – and possibly fail in heavy weather when you really do not need that additional problem.


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