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Lifelines And Stanchions

Sailors like to fiddle with their boats. They add new hardware and new electronic gizmos. They walk into West Marine to get one thing and come out with 20 things – mostly useless – for the boat. Well, at least I used to.

One thing we don’t pay much attention to is the lifeline. Lifeline is… not sexy. So we just leave these rusty lifelines with cracked vinyl coating until it breaks. This happens. I personally witnessed lifeline breaking on more than one boats I sailed on.

The original “wire killer” stanchions

Replacing Stanchions

I never had lifeline fail on BlackJack, but the old lifelines have had it. They were old and beat up bad. Rust was clearly showing. They should have been replaced a long time ago.

Worse yet, the original stanchions on J29 are just not good. These stanchions don’t have metal tube insert for the lower lifelines. Instead, they came with these plastic inserts which are long gone. These jagged stanchion holes were literally grating away at the lifelines.

I purchased a new set of stanchions from They were 24″L with 1″OD stanchions made by WhiteWater. The lower lifeline holes have metal tube sleeves.

Tube sleeved lifeline hole. I polished the holes also.

Once the new stanchions arrived, I removed the old stanchions. Some of the old stanchions were stuck in the base due to years worth of accumulated dirt and saltwater. The set screws had no Loctite and some were loose, so I guess it was a good thing the stanchions were stuck.

I also found that most of the old stanchions were bent.

Straight vs Banged Up

Once I got the old stanchions off, I polished the stanchion bases. Close inspection of the now-shiny stanchion bases revealed there may be a hairline crack starting in one or two of them. They are now added to the list of things to replace.

I also polished the bow and stern pulpits. Well, just the part where lifelines attach for now. I’ll polish the whole thing later.

The new stanchions had to be drilled and tapped to accept the set screws. Drilling a hole accurately on a stainless tube without a drill press is not easy, but I managed.

The stanchions were then installed with set screws dabbed with Loctite Blue.

Having no lifeline was… liberating.

Replacing Lifelines

For the lifeline, I wanted to use Dyneema. I understand Dyneema lifelines may not be allowed in PHRF races anymore. Then again, I sail solo these days. There are no PHRF races I can participate in San Diego except perhaps one short buoy race a year.

So to heck with racing rules. Dyneema it is.

I was no expert at splicing, so I first had to learn how. I bought the fids and D-splice. Then I practiced making splices and eyes with Amsteel Blue Dyneema. In particular, I practiced making Brummel Lock Eye Splice over and over again. I also tried making a perfect bury every time. Once I was comfortable splicing, I made up lifelines using 5mm Dyneema.

The bow ends were truck hitched around the pulpits with a long eye. I then put eyes on the stern side on the boat, trying to account for the structure stretch.

Lifelines were then lashed to the Stern Pulpit with 3mm FSB Robline Control, also with Dyneema core. Unfortunately, I ran out of lashing lines so I found some alternative for now.

Lashing. Red is the new Orange.

Install and Forget?

I finally had a new set of lifelines and all seemed well. Going through this exercise, however, made me realize you can’t just install and forget these things.

Dyneema, for example, is supposed to last for years, but it can chafe. It’s not just Dyneema, other things can and do break too. Just going over things closely while replacing stanchions revealed that metal can crack from fatigue and set screws work themselves loose.

In fact, on one of the old lifelines, I was shocked to find it was missing the ring to secure the lifeline end pins. I don’t know how long it’s been this way, the lifeline could have just fallen off when rattled by a flogging headsail.

Things seem to fail more when you are in a bind. Like when having to change a headsail in a bad chop. Or when you broach and the boat is on its side going sideways.

I now think it’s not that things fail when things get rough, things have already failed and we find out at the most inconvenient time.

I’m making a list and a schedule to check and replace these little things on the boat regularly.

In fact, I now run through a quick deck check before I go out, looking for things that are loose, chafed or broken. It’s the same deck check you do when making an offshore passage.

Of course, when you sail just a few miles off the coast, you can limp back to the slip if things break. That’s no excuse to be lazy and complacent, however.

For now, though, I really like my new lifelines.

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