How Tight Should Sailboat Lifelines Be? (Need to Know!)

A lifeline is a safety device frequently found on sailboats and on construction sites. It’s composed of wire and stanchions, which are secured around the ship’s perimeter to prevent passengers from being thrown overboard or accidentally falling. But how tight should they be?

How Do Sails Work? – Boating 101
How Do Sails Work? – Boating 101

Sailboat lifelines should be tight enough so they only stretch about two inches when hit with a force of 11 pounds (4.98 kg). Lifelines must be tight to prevent falls in high wind, violent waves, and stormy weather in general. A lifeline that gives slack is useless and can not prevent falls.

Read on to learn more about sailboat lifelines and how to care for them!

How Tight Should Sailboat Lifelines Be? (Need to Know!)

How To Inspect Sailboat Lifelines

Inspecting your lifeline is an essential part of sailboat safety. Here are a few things you should prioritize in your inspection:

  • Coated lifelines: Check the PVC coating. Chafing, cracks, and wear at the stanchions should be repaired.
  • Lock nuts: Make sure that the lock nuts are in place and aren’t loose.
  • Sailboat fittings: Check for heavy rust and corrosion on the pelican hooks, gate eyes, toggles, and turnbuckles. Clean away any corrosion you find. 
  • Cotter rings or pins: Check that the pins and cotter rings are in place.

Tip: Securing Sailboat Lifelines

Some sailboat lifelines have a gate that will open to allow cargo to be loaded on and off a sailboat. These gates are often secured with a pelican hook. To keep the pelican hook from popping free once the sailboat is underway, secure it with electrical tape. 

Tip: Securing Sailboat Lifelines

Here’s a YouTube video on how to make sailboat lifelines safe and secure: 

In the event that your sailboat needs a replacement pelican hook for its safety rail, here are a few you can replace alongside your lifeline (each link here leads to Amazon.com):

  • Heyous Stainless Pelican Hook: This pelican hook is designed for yachts. The package includes one pelican hook and one swage stud at a reasonable price. The swage stud fits 4mm (0.15 inches) wire, rope, or cable.
  • Marine Part Depot Stainless Pelican Hook: These pelican hooks are for 3/16″ (0.47 cm) wire. The package comes with two pelican hooks with a classic design, and the product page guarantees “strength and security.”
  • Isure Marine Pelican Hook: This pelican hook has a quick-release link. One customer gave it a positive review stating that it was a “real” pelican hook, unlike many of the other hooks marketed as “pelican hooks” on the market.
  • JingYi Pelican Hook: This pelican hook is made of T316 marine grade stainless steel, and its product page boasts of “anti-fatigue strength,” meaning it won’t suddenly pop free while you’re sailing through a storm. It fits 5/32″ (0.39 cm) wire, rope, and cable, and comes with one swage stud.

Replacing Sailboat Lifelines (Wire or Synthetic)

If your sailboat lifelines need replacing, there are many options available. The standard sailboat lifeline is made of wire coated in stainless steel. Boats under 30′ (9.14 meters) take ⅛” (0.31 cm) wire, while longer boats take 3/16″ (0.47 cm) wire.

According to the 2016 Safety Equipment Requirements, coated wire is no longer allowed on ocean racing boats. If you don’t plan on racing your sailboat, however, you may still use coated wire. 

Dyneema synthetic lifelines are the most popular type of coated lifelines to date. They’re stronger and lighter than steel, easy to install, can be spliced, are easy to handle, and don’t rust. 

However, one downside of using Dyneema lifelines is that they’re prone to chafing. It would help if you covered vulnerable areas with tape to prevent chafing if using Dyneema lifelines.

Replacing Sailboat Lifelines (Wire or Synthetic)

The Average Lifespan of Sailboat Lifelines

When properly maintained, the average lifespan of a sailboat lifeline is 15 years. However, the lifespan is typically shorter if your sailboat frequents saltwater versus freshwater. Saltwater boats also have a shorter lifespan due to the damaging effect of sea salt.

As I’ve already mentioned, to extend the lifespan of your lifeline, you’ll need to inspect and maintain it on a regular basis. While the lifespan of lifelines mostly depends on the environment you’re in and how well-maintained the lifelines are, looking at the pros and cons of different lifelines is essential to know how long they would last for you. I’ll go over this in the next section.

Sailboat: Wire Lifelines vs. Rope Lifelines

When choosing lifelines for your boat, you may wonder which type you should purchase. After all, there are many variations of sailboat lifelines, including steel-coated, vinyl-coated, wire, and rope. This section will compare wire lifelines to rope lifelines and explore the pros and cons.

Wire Lifelines For Sailboats

Wire lifelines have their advantages, including being simplistic, relatively cheap to replace, and “reliably sturdy.” This means, that wire has much less stretch than rope lifelines.

However, uncoated wire lifelines can do significant damage to your hands. During the warmer months, they are unbearably hot to the touch. Also, gripping thin wire with your bare hands is painful even when the wire isn’t hot. 

Due to the issues mentioned above, wire lifelines are commonly sold with a vinyl coating. But water tends to enter the ends of the coating over time, which leads to cracking and chafing in the vinyl and the corrosion of the slowly exposed wire. In the end, you will wind up replacing wire lifelines a great deal. 

Rope Lifelines For Sailboats

As explained above, Dyneema lifelines are popular for good reason! They’re more robust than stainless steel wire and they’re sold at a more reasonable price than wire lifelines. This will save you the additional cost it would take when replacing your sailboat’s lifelines.

Other advantages include:

  • Dyneema is immune to corrosion and will not be affected by saltwater as quickly.
  • Dyneema lifelines are much lighter than wire lifelines.
  • Dyneema rope lifelines are easily bent and cut with a knife. Therefore, any section of the rope can be removed at will, whereas wire lifelines require wire cutters. 
  • Dyneema lifelines are easier to store than wire lifelines.
  • Unlike wire lifelines, Dyneema lifelines can be replaced without the hassle of tools or fittings.

The only downside to Dyneema lifelines is that they are subject to chafing.

Watch this sailor replace his sailboat’s lifelines using Dyneema rope.

Conclusion

Sailboat lifelines should be tight enough to withstand 11 pounds (4.98 kg) of weight or more without slack. No matter which lifeline you choose, it’s essential to inspect your lifeline regularly for any damage before sailing. 

Additionally, you should choose your lifelines well when replacing them, for well-maintained lifelines can be the difference between life and death for you and your crewmates!

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