How to Replace Your Sailboat's Lifelines

01
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Inspect Old Lifelines

Inspect Lifelines
© Tom Lochhaas.

Your boat's lifelines serve a crucial safety function, and if they break you could end up in the water. In a nasty situation, sudden immersion could result in death.

Vinyl-coated lifelines are particularly at risk for rusting, losing strength, and risk of breaking under a sudden load. The vinyl may conceal a rusting wire cable beneath, and stainless steel will rust when wet and not exposed to the air. If your lifelines are getting old - as is common on many aging sailboats - you should inspect them carefully the full perimeter of the boat. Look for rust and dark streaks where the wire cable is joined to fittings.

In this photo you can see rust where the wire joins the terminal fitting and at several cracked places in the vinyl cover. This aging lifeline needs replacement.

Continue to the next step to see how easy replacement is to do yourself (and save a bundle).

02
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Gather New Lifeline Supplies

Lifeline Supplies
© Tom Lochhaas.

Begin by measuring your lifelines all around and noting each type of fitting needed, including turnbuckles to tighten the lifelines and gate hooks, if used, to open the lifeline between stanchions for boarding the boat. In most cases you can repeat the same pattern of fittings as used originally.

Decide whether to use swage type fittings, which require buying or renting a swage "crimping" tool to join fittings to the wire cable, or a newer type of swageless fittings such as Sta-lok, Norseman, or the Suncor fitting shown here. Swageless fittings generally cost more but are simple and safe for a do-it-yourself job without running the risk of incorrectly using a swage tool and having lifelines you may not be able to trust. Read this review of the Suncor Lifeline Kit.

The fittings can be purchased individually or, less expensively for a full boat, in a kit such as Suncor's. Offshore sailing associations now generally recommend using bare stainless steel wire, rather than vinyl-coated wire, because it is easier to see if rust is occurring.

Continue to the next step to measure and cut the wire.

03
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Measure and Cut the Wire

Cut Lifeline Wire
© Tom Lochhaas.

You could purchase or rent a tool for making a clean cut in the new lifeline wire, or use this old trick that works well when you're careful and take your time.

First, measure each length of wire between fittings very precisely. Take into account the depth of wire to be inserted into each fitting, following the instructions that come with the fitting. This is definitely a case for Measure Twice, Cut Once.

You can get a clean cut through the wire with a hacksaw if the wire is passed through a hole in a piece of wood exactly the same diameter as the wire. The wire must fit very tightly in the hole to ensure the cut ends do not kink, barb, or spread out with the saw's motion.

Continue to the next step for final assembly.

04
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Assemble the Wire and Fittings

Assemble Lifelines
© Tom Lochhaas.

This is the time to be really slow and cautious. All swageless fittings come with detailed instructions, and you must follow these to the letter for the attachment to stay strong.

This photo shows all the pieces in one wire terminal fitting. The three expansion pieces in the center are placed around the wire, which has passed through the external sleeve section. Once assembled, the two outer pieces are screwed tightly together, forcing the expansion pieces against the wire so forcibly that the wire cannot be pulled out. The system looks complicated but is actually quite easy to use.

Assemble each section of lifeline one at a time, working from bow to stern on each side, and then tighten the turnbuckles to make the lines taut. Now you have lifelines you can depend on for another decade or more.