The Backstay

up the mast in a bosun's chair

We’re going places again and it’s rig-check time. Matt normally runs me up the mast, and from the top down I’ll look at every single part of the rig; from wind instruments and electrical components to stay/shroud connection points to the mast itself. There’s a lot going on when it comes to a boat’s rigging, and a lot of places where failure can happen. You have to look closely and be thorough to catch things like hairline cracks, pitting, kinks, corrosion. But, sometimes, a failure is obvious. Like our broken backstay. That was obvious.

Matt noticed it a few days before we were going to do our check. Up near the top of the backstay, right where the upper insulator for the SSB antenna is swaged to the last section of cable, three cable strands had broken and unwound themselves. Actually five were broken, but three of them were just a-blowin’ in the wind, not doing their very valuable job of holding the mast up. Poop.
broken backstay

All of the connections for our stays and shrouds are swaged. They’ve been great up until now, but they require specific tools to install (tools that we don’t have and apparently don’t exist here) and cannot be reused (we need new parts). Fortunately there’s more than one way to rig a boat and we’ve been introduced to the wonderful world of Sta-Lock fittings!

This is where a seemingly nightmarish situation transformed into an easy, educational, and dare I say almost fun morning task. Well, after the two weeks it took to get the parts shipped. The postal service in the Marshall Islands is a dark, twisted version of USPS where any promise of timely delivery or tracking is promptly abandoned and whatever you’ve ordered from the States is likely to go hang out in Guam for a couple days… anyway. This is also where our friend Cary came through. He’s a long-time boat resident of Majuro and was able to offer us the tools, space, and know-how we needed to get the job done. Turns out all you need is a way to cut cable, a couple wrenches, and some tubes of goopey stuff.

We’d taken the jib down to do some stitching so we repurposed the halyard and used it as a temporary backstay. Matt tied off the top swage and we lowered the cable, and we finally detached it from the stern and coiled it up into a neat and oddly insignificant-looking bundle of wire. On shore we cut the stay at the upper insulator’s lower swage, and with our handy new Sta-Lock fittings attached a new insulator, a new section of cable to replace what had failed, and the connection piece for where it meets the masthead. I think it took an hour. Putting the stay back in place would’ve taken all of twenty minutes, but the opportunity to take apart, scrub and polish the turnbuckle end was too tempting and I stretched it closer to another hour. We were done before lunchtime and I still can’t believe it was that easy.

Even with the confidence we have in the new fittings, however, the rigging still failed. It was all redone back in 2012, and rigging has a general life expectancy of ten years; the fact that it has started to go in half the time is unsettling and now we find ourselves doubting the integrity of the remaining swages. While we’ve tentatively scheduled a haul-out in Australia to address other large projects, it might be time to consider replacing the rigging entirely. If it comes to that, I think we know what route we’ll be taking.

So, how do these Sta-Lock fittings work? It’s pretty clever and easy enough to where just about anyone could do it themselves.

Easy, right? Rigging doesn’t have to be scary, just do a little research and talk to someone who’s done it before. That said, we accept no responsibility for however you may muck it up. Maybe we mucked it up. We’re about to go sailing so I guess we’ll find out…

5 Comments

  1. Wow that’s really impressive and informative. And scary that the rigging failed after only five years. Thank goodness you were in Majuro and could get stuff shipped.
    We are in glorious Savusavu in Fiji.
    Cheers
    Janet
    Navire

  2. Our rigging is 15 years old and we are thinking about replacing although we haven’t been up the mast to check it yet. We are thinking the Sta- lock route also. Thanks for the encouraging post guys.

    Hi Janet and David on Navire!

    Kat
    Acrux (we still in Aussie)

  3. Don’t panic. Metal fatigue is less of a time issue, but more of a stress and corrosion issue. If you baby the hell out of metal it’ll last forever. The Brooklyn bridge is made up of 3/16 wires from the 1880’s, still going strong.

    Have you been going down wind for a very long time? 😛
    That would explain the backstay giving out first. A little bit of rust plus constant pounding continually weakens the metal until it just gives out. Nerds call it ‘cyclic loading’. Like bending a paperclip until it becomes brittle, but in this case the rusting makes it brittle and the stress lets the rust in.

    The other stays might be fine, but watch out for brown rust stains and not just physical damage. Lower terminals are great saltwater traps. That’s what goop helps to prevent, just not the gwenyth paltrow kind.

    -nick

  4. Wise, you are. We do our fair share of bashing upwind (pretty much all we’ve done in the past six months), but for the most part like to keep it on the beam or just aft. We do our best to keep up with the rigging, but you’re right about those lower terminals and they’re probably the parts I spend the most time maintaining. Oye, I’m going to go grab the Mother’s and a toothbrush right now…

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