Dena Hankins shares how to make your running rigging last that little bit longer

Flipping your sheets and halyards, or rather end-for-ending, can be a safe and cautious middle ground between replacing that expensive running rigging too early and waiting for sailboat lines to break, writes Dena Hankins.

Many non-racing sailors resist the advice to just ‘throw money at it’ when gear begins to show signs of wear, and that resistance is perfectly reasonable.

Whether considering the financial drain, the environmental cost, or the time and labour invested in choosing and sourcing a replacement, keeping what you have but making it work longer is, more often than not, the best option.

Why should I end-for-end my sailboat lines?

Sheets and halyards travel along regular paths with bends, chafe points, and stretch areas that age before the rest of the line.

In whatever fashion the bitter end is attached to its fixed point (headsail clew, mainsheet block, etc), swapping the working areas will change the dynamic points all along the line.

A woman working with rope on a boat

Creating an eye splice on brand new soft line. Dena attaches the new yacht braid to the splicing fid and begins to pull it through. Credit: James Lane

A roller-furled jib, for example, will have its sheets attached at the clew, run through a turning block (probably on a track) and made off somehow, usually after wrapping around a winch.

A sheet that is led outside shrouds will bend and chafe against them in wind or surge.

Wear points when not in use include the shrouds, the block, the winch, and the cleat (or self-tailing jaws, though I recommend cleating the line as well for extra security).

A woman making a splice

Forming the eye splice on the new 12-strand yacht braid. Dena pulls the new core through the hollow braid. Credit: James Lane

Under sail, those wear points move to different places on the sheet, but common points of sail will still wear in patterns that become visible over time.

When the mainsail is flaked or furled, the mainsheet has all the expected chafe points plus a significant constant load, unless you have a boom gallows or use lines other than the mainsheet to keep your boom still.

The unending pressure stiffens the mainsheet in exactly the places you want it to run freely: at the blocks between the boom and the traveller or deck.

A block on a boat

Mainsheet lower block showing a chafe point. Note the blocks don’t leave enough room between the rope – a wear point to keep an eye on. Credit: James Lane

Under use, twist is slowly introduced through the system as well and concentrates eventually at this same location, making the mainsheet seem in need of replacement long before the line itself is worn out.

For each of these sheets, the working end is cleated off with the extra line coiled or bagged.

That extra line can seem years younger than the harder-working fixed points, and end-for-ending the line can make it work like new.

Is my line a good candidate?

Deciding whether to end-for-end a line can be a simple matter.

If the concern is stiffness on the bitter end or slight wear at specific chafe points, there is an excellent chance that end-for-ending will be a safe way to delay buying new line.

However, end-for-ending sailboat lines may not be safe if there’s too much chafe in a working section of line that will remain afterwards.

A fraying rope on a boat

Too much chafe! Each skipper needs to decide how much chafe they will accept. This line is considered a bad risk on Cetacea. Credit: James Lane

Some sailboat lines chafe close enough to the bitter end that even a badly chafed line might be a candidate.

For example, a halyard that has been worn near the shackle might have no safe line left where it passes over the sheave but, if it’s long enough, there’s no need to try and retain any of the damaged portion.

If you have significant chafe at halyard sheaves, you should figure out why and fix it.

That might mean finding and filing down a burr on an aluminium sheave, replacing a cracked composite sheave, adding a halyard diverter, or simply attaching the halyard to the shackle differently so that you have a fair lead into the sheave.

A block on the rigging of a sailboat

This mainsheet is getting stiff and resisting paying out in light winds, but the line itself still has a lot of life in it. Time to end-for-end it. Credit: James Lane

Another consideration is the style of attachment.

If the bitter end is attached by a halyard hitch or other removable knot, it will be easy to figure out whether the working end is acceptable. Simply try to knot it!

If both ends of the line are properly whipped, end-for-ending the line will be fast and easy.

Splicing old sailboat lines can require a couple of extra steps and a bit more brute strength, especially with double-braid polyester and even more so with a double-braid that has a high-modulus core.

A woman using a marlin spike to splice rope

Floating dinghy painter repair in progress; these can stiffen up if you tow your dinghy a lot, but sometimes the core can break down so the formerly floating line sinks and creates a prop tangle danger. Credit: James Lane

The most difficult old line I have spliced was a polyester-covered floating dinghy painter, but I managed with patience, fresh water, fabric softener, and strong hands.

Hollow braided ropes are the easiest to splice when aged but achieving the best result still requires softening the rope.

Splices use up length, so be sure that the line will still be long enough after both ends have been manipulated: the old eye cut off and the new eye spliced in.

Continues below…

If end-for-ending your sailboat lines is attractive for the future, buy new running rigging long enough for your future flip.

Example: with halyards, our rule-of-thumb is twice the length of the mast plus 3m.

With genoa sheets, it’s the length of the boat plus 3m.

What’s the process?

Making note of the line’s path is a crucial step.

Is the headsail sheet led inside or outside the shrouds? Where and how does it cross any other lines? What is the halyard’s position in the deck organiser, if installed?

Mainsail sheets are usually reeved through multiple-sheave blocks and recreating the pattern can be more difficult than you might think.

A mousing line running through a winch and cleat on a yacht

If using a line this small for mousing, keep a bit of tension on so that it can’t fall off the various sheaves. It’s recommended to use an 8mm line because it’s such a hassle to have a smaller line jump the sheave. Credit: James Lane

If in doubt, use a mousing line (a small diameter line for pulling the end-for-ended line back through, sometimes called a messenger line) to maintain the path.

Mousing lines are essential for halyards that run inside the mast and, even with an external halyard, will save a trip aloft.

Releasing the sheets

For knotted headsail sheets, slack the line, release the knot on the sail’s clew (a fid or marline spike may be required), and pull the line from the knotted end until the whole line is free.

The knot may have left kinks in the line that won’t pass through all the blocks easily so, using the former working end, start aft and run the line forward, paying strict attention to following the path it took (make it easy and take a picture), then tie it off as usual on the clew.

Wet it if necessary for flexibility.

A mousing line being reeved on a boat

Reeving the mousing line. Credit: James Lane

If the new working end was knotted without having been whipped, save the rope from unravelling by whipping it before you pull.

(Side note: a double overhand stopper knot in the new working end can keep a dropped sheet from flailing right out of its turning block and becoming a terrible hassle to retrieve.)

A knotted mainsheet can be reeved using the new bitter end.

This is usually the shorter trip through the blocks and results in less twist than knotting the bitter end first and then reeving the line from the working end.

If a thin mousing line was used, a rolling hitch and a wrap of tape above and below the hitch will be sufficient to hold the lines together.

A woman sharpening a knife

Make sure your rigging knife is kept sharp for cutting sailboat lines. Credit: James Lane

Since the work is at deck level, keep an eye on that point and it should be fine—the same is not true for halyards unless going aloft is your happy place.

Halyards should have the working end stitched to the mousing line with twine and lightly wrapped in tape.

The two lines will need to pass over the sheave one after another, not together.

Most well-built halyards have a reeving eye, which is a wonderful attachment point made by removing the core from double-braid line and burying the cover.

Run the mousing line through the reeving eye and make a bowline. Secure and easy.

Most of the work can be done at deck level, so you won’t have to go aloft. If you do, PBO recommends you wear a helmet

Most of the work can be done at deck level, so you won’t have to go aloft. If you do, PBO recommends you wear a helmet

Use the shackle end of the halyard to pull the mousing line up into or alongside the mast and then work it through the sheave.

If resistance is encountered, shift both ends a little at a time.

Reeving a smaller line is almost always easier than re-running the large halyard.

With the mousing line maintaining the path up and down the mast, the entire halyard is now available to work with.

A thorough inspection can be carried out, including checking the shackle for bent pins, splits, distortion, etc.

A woman wearing a hat smiling on a yacht

Dena Hankins and James Lane moved aboard their first yacht in Seattle, Washington, in 1999. They’ve sailed both coasts of the USA and Canada from British Columbia’s Strait of Georgia to the San Francisco Bay to Hawaii, from Nova Scotia to the Florida Keys, and across to Bermuda and the Azores. They live and travel on their electric sailboat, a 1984 Baba 30, Cetacea, with their cat, Beluga Greyfinger. Credit: James Lane

If you make sure you have sufficient length and don’t need to change to a halyard hitch, you’ll find it easier to splice the line back on the halyard shackle while it is down.

Splicing can be a pleasure, especially on those early spring days that are no good for sailing but warm enough to make it feel just around the corner.

Consider putting a reeving eye in the new working end while you have your kit out – it’ll feel satisfying and make life easier in the long term.

This entire process is excellent winter work.

For those who remove and store their headsails and spare their halyards a winter’s worth of ageing by replacing them with mousing lines over winter, this is the most accessible those lines will ever be.

The end-for-ending process can be a satisfying way to get your mind and body back into your boating season.

Sailboat lines: End-for-ending a mainsheet with an eye splice

A woman measuring sailboat lines

Credit: James Lane

1. Make a plan for the new splice and calculate how much length will be lost.

If you use the rule-of-thumb, will the line be long enough for another splice and the removal of the old eye?

A woman writing in a notepad

Credit: James Lane

Remember to measure the line.

A woman adjusting sailboat lines

Credit: James Lane

2. Secure the boom with a separate line or two. Please don’t forget this very important step!

Sailboat lines on a boat

Credit: James Lane

3. Slacken the mainsheet and remove it from the mainsheet block’s becket.

A woman working on sailboat lines

Credit: James Lane

4. If you will be using a mousing line, attach it to your mainsheet. A line that barely fits through the blocks will need a low-profile attachment method. With a little more room, a nice tight rolling hitch will do.

 a woman pulling a line through a block

Credit: James Lane

5. Pull the mainsheet free, using a mousing line to maintain the path of the mainsheet (otherwise you’ll have to memorise its route).

A woman splicing rope on a boat

Credit: James Lane

6. Most old lines will be easier to splice if you’ve soaked them in a bucket of fresh water for an hour. Very stiff lines will be well served by an overnight soak in water with vinegar or baking soda added as a fabric softener.

Running rigging on a boat

Credit: James Lane

7. Assess the new working end’s integrity and length. Cut off any badly chafed sections. Cut the old eye off or pull it out and then cut, as required. Now attach the thinned portion of the working end, if you have one or have created one, to your mousing line.

A woman working on running rigging on a sailboat

Credit: James Lane

8. Reeve the mainsheet from the new working end.

A woman working on running rigging on a boat

Credit: James Lane

Then (above) attach the new eye to the becket on the block.

A woman working on the mainsail of a boat

Credit: James Lane

9. Test the length by pushing the boom out to its farthest point. If it is too short after all your efforts, I recommend uttering some profanities – at least it helps prepare you for having to throw money at it after all.

A woman working on rope on a boat

Credit: James Lane

10. Mark the farthest extent of safe travel for the boom with tape. Our safe zone is whipped in contrasting thread at a thickness that is easy to feel in the dark. This ensures we keep the boom off the shrouds. This mark is made with the traveller car centred.

A woman whipping the end of a sailboat lines

Credit: James Lane

11. Whip the new working end to prevent fraying

Sailboat lines wrapped around a winch on a yacht

Credit: James Lane

12. Finally, lightly whip the point you taped in step 10 to make the mark more permanent

Enjoyed reading How to get more life out of sailboat lines: step-by-step?

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