Written by Steve Madden, M Yachts

The standing rigging is what keeps the mast in place, and thus requires particular attention. How do you know when it’s time to re-rig? There are some obvious answers to this one — for instance, if your wire rigging has broken strands or if it’s suffering from “candy-striping,” i.e., rust-colored streaks swirling down the wire. The latter may indicate two things: one, that it’s simply surface rust, which you should be able to polish off, or two, that as the wire was being manufactured, a strand might have picked up some contamination during the process and is compromised, which is cause for concern. A third visual indicator is cracks in swaged fittings, some of the most common end fittings for wire. Cracks are hard to see (use a magnifying glass), and sometimes marks that look like cracks can be left by the machine used to create the swage. Then there’s just age, and this factor as a reason to re-rig is more subject to a boat’s history than anything else.

The rule of thumb is to replace your sailboat’s standing rigging every 10 to 15 years. But this time frame also is variable, depending on the boat’s purpose and use. For instance, for an offshore bluewater boat, 10 years is recommended, and for a serious coastal cruiser, more like 12. Some insurance companies will require a re-rig if you’re purchasing a used boat that has standing rigging older than 15 years.

Sticking to the 10-year rule means that for the most part, any corrosion or failure points will be eliminated with a re-rig.

How the rigging has been tuned has a huge effect on its longevity; stainless steel wire has a finite number of cycles — essentially, movements, whether fore and aft or side to side. The theory is that it can take 10 to 15 years of cycling, but this continual motion when it’s unloaded is what fatigues the wire. There’s no real way of measuring that. Die testing won’t pick it up, and it’s rare that a wire will give you warning before breaking.

When your sailboat’s standing rigging approaches 15 years old, it’s a good time to consider replacing it.

Wire or Rod Sailboat Rigging?

if your boat already has rod rigging, with all of the end fittings to terminate the rods both on deck and in or on the mast, then sticking with rod will ultimately be less expensive than making the switch to wire. Likewise, if you already have wire with fittings that accommodate your boat and mast, stick with wire. Aside from the relative cost differences between rod and wire (rod is more expensive), what also makes a switch pricey is having to significantly modify the mast to accept the different rigging.

Although rod rigging is more common on racing boats, many well-known cruising-boat builders, such as Valiant, Bristol, J/Boats and Hinckley, have rod-rigged models. The benefits of rod are less stretch, less weight, less windage, and arguably longer life than wire, because there’s less possibility for corrosion of the rod itself.

Wire, on the other hand, is easier to fix in remote places and on your own. With a spare mechanical end fitting, wire and the proper tools, you can replace a stay pretty much anywhere. Similarly, it’s easier to find usable replacement parts far from busy ports. Wire rigging is generally less expensive and easier to handle. Finally, rod rigging requires a particular type of terminus — called a cold head — that can be fabricated only with a purpose-built machine, which only a rigging shop will have. You cannot use a mechanical fitting on rod rigging.

In the past, long-distance cruisers typically chose wire rigging with mechanical fittings for all of these reasons. They also would carry a piece of wire as long as the longest stay on the boat — coiled and stowed, which undeniably was sometimes easier said than done — as well as spare end fittings and the tools needed to replace a broken shroud or stay. Today, with the advent of super-strong synthetic line such as AmSteel and Dyneema, the need for that extra wire and gear is eliminated.

Very few sailors re-rig from wire to rod or the reverse, but if switching is on your mind, have a professional make a full assessment first.

There are so many variables in the system — types of end fittings, masts and attachment points — that each boat will have its own specific requirements that can affect cost. For that reason, it’s difficult to give an accurate estimate of the cost of making the switch, even for an average 40-footer.

End Fittings for Sailboat Rigging

All standing rigging, whether rod or wire, has to end in a fitting that attaches to the deck and mast. The three most commonly used types of attachments are swaged and mechanical fittings for wire, and cold heads for rod. Generally, end fittings fall into a few classes: studs, eyes, T-balls, each of which comes in a dizzying array of sizes and configurations. There are multiple combinations and variations: For instance, if your mast has double tangs, most likely the end fitting will be an eye — although it can be a marine eye or an aircraft eye, which differ primarily in shape. All rod rigging terminates in a cold head, which accommodates the end fitting or is encapsulated by the end fitting.

A swaged fitting is a terminus that’s attached using a machine called a swager. It rolls the end fitting through two opposing dies and compresses the fitting on the wire so tightly that it can’t pull out. The theory is that you’ve crushed it so tightly that all the wires inside have just merged into one solid piece of stainless. Swaging must be professionally done, and the result is extremely strong and generally has a long life.

Mechanical fittings can be applied using a few common hand tools by the mechanically handy DIY sailor, which is one reason they’re popular. The two primary manufacturers of mechanical fittings presently are Sta-Lok and Hi-MOD. Both are located in the U.K., and the products are distributed in the U.S.

Should You Replace Your Sailboat’s Rigging Yourself?

So you’ve determined your sailboat’s standing rigging needs work.  Yes, doing it yourself will theoretically save money but this number depends on how much is involved: Are there furlers?  What kind of end fittings?  Are the chainplates sound?  Depending on the answers to those questions and others, a professionally done re-rig for a 40-footer could be close to $6,000 or more.

If you go DIY, you will be limited to mechanical end fittings unless you hire a rigger to swage your end fittings.  A DIY sailor needs to do plenty of research, particularly when it comes to wire quality, which is something professional sailboat rigging companies watch like hawks.

Although anyone can walk into a local chandlery and buy wire, that doesn’t mean the wire is of the highest quality. Marine-suitable stainless wire is called 316 grade, but even that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily getting high-quality wire.

Stainless steel needs oxygen to create a fine film of oxidation that protects the metal. The fastest route to crevice corrosion is to cover the metal with plastic or leather turnbuckle covers or to coat the fittings in tape. Enough tape to cover a cotter pin suffices; otherwise, leave the metal open to the air. Likewise, if you are re-rigging your sailboat, use the opportunity to check your chainplates, since that’s one of the most common points of rigging failure.

Contact Steve Madden:  

Phone: 443 871 5101