Simple Ways to Optimize Running Rigging

Erik Shampain explains how to select the right line for the right job with a few pro tips on shackles and tapers.

wall of cordage
The wall of cordage at your local rigger can be intimidating, but showing up with an understanding of your needs will help your friendly rigger guide you in the right direction. There’s always the right line for the right application. Courtesy Erik Shampain

It’s easy to underestimate the benefits of good running rigging. There are many rope products on the market, and there is a time and a place for most of them. Let’s take a look at lines that need the most attention and why, as well as basic rules for using low-stretch line, using lightweight or tapered line where most beneficial and using rope that is easy to work with.

Let’s start up front with the headsail halyard. Luff tension greatly affects shape and thus performance of the jib or genoa, so having a halyard that is as low-stretch as possible is paramount.  Saving a little weight aloft is also key, so find a lightweight rope as well. It’s a little against the norm, but for club racing boats that aren’t tapering their halyards, I really like some of the Vectran-cored ropes. Products like Samson’s Validator and New England Ropes V-100 are easy on the hands and easy to splice.  For a little more grand-prixed tapered halyard, talk to our local rigger about using a DUX core, or other heat-set Dyneema, with a Technora-based cover. Lately, I’ve been using a lot of Marlow’s D12 MAX 78 and 99. Tapering the halyard saves weight aloft as well. I like soft shackles for jib halyards. There, weight savings aloft generally outweighs the little extra time a bowman needs to attach the sail. This is especially true in sprit boats where the jib is rarely removed from the headstay. 

Pro Tip: When not racing, use a halyard leader to pull the halyards to the top of the mast, getting the tapered section out of the sun. For extra protection, put all the halyard tails into an old duffle bag at the base of the mast when not in use.

For jib sheets, I follow the same low-stretch rule as the jib halyard. I don’t want the jib sheet to stretch at all when a puff hits. On boats with overlapping genoas, I don’t generally recommend tapering the line because by the time the genoa is trimmed all the way in, the clew is really close to the block. On boats with non-overlapping jibs, tapering is an easy way to save a little weigh.  Plus, the smaller core size runs through across the boat more easily in tacks. I’ve been using soft shackles on the jib or genoa sheets for a while now, mostly because they don’t beat the mast up during tacks. There also a bit “softer” when they hit you. 

What about jib lead adjusters? There are a couple of approaches here. Some believe a little stretch is okay, as it allows the lead to rock aft a couple of millimeters in puffs, which twists the top of the jib off slightly. This can be fast as it helps the boat transition through puffs and lulls. I am a fan of this as long as it isn’t too stretchy. I use low-stretch Dyneema for the gross part of the purchase and then a friendlier-on-the-hands rope for the fine tune side, the part that is being handled.  Samson Warpspeed or New England Enduro Braid work well.

Spinnaker sheets are a fun one. They should be relatively low-stretch but not necessarily the lowest stretch. I’ve found that near-zero stretch lines can wreak havoc on people and hardware when flogging or when the chute is collapsing. They have to be easy on the hands, as they are the most moved sheets on the boat, and they should be tapered as far as you can get away with. Tapering saves weigh, which is very important in keeping the spinnaker clew lifting up, especially in light air when sails want to droop. Again, Samson Warpseed and New England Enduro braid are good. For boats with grinders or even small boats with no winches, a cover that is a little grippier or stronger is good. Most Technora-based covers work well for this purpose.

Pro Tip No. 2: On boats with asymmetric spinnakers I like to connect the ‘Y’ sheet with a soft shackle that also goes to the spinnaker. This saves weight. I sew a Velcro strip around one part of the shackle (see picture) so that the soft shackle stays with the ‘Y’ sheet when open. This is beneficial when you have to quickly disconnect or re-run a sheet, replace one sheet, or even quickly replace a soft shackle. On most boats I will keep one spare spinnaker sheet with soft shackle down below as a spare side, changing sheet, or code zero sheet. On boats with a symmetric spinnaker, we’ll splice the spinnaker sheet to the afterguy shackle to save weight in the clew.

soft shackle
A velcro closure sewn into the soft shackle is a good and easy way to ensure spinnaker or jib sheets stay attached. Courtesy Erik Shampain

The spinnaker halyard has a couple of more options. For halyards supporting code zeros, zero stretch is important. The same principals we used when talking about the jib halyard apply here. For boats without code zeros, I like a little softer halyard with a touch of give. Those tend to run though sheaves better without kinking. Enduro and Warpseed are good for these applications. Most bowmen prefer a shackle that is quick and easy to open. Since a happy bowman is a good thing, I will generally use an appropriately sized Tylaska shackle or dogbone style shackle for those halyards

For symmetric spinnaker boats, the afterguy must be very low stretch line. I go back to products like covered Vectran for club-level sheets. I also find that afterguys generally last longer if I don’t taper them.  When the pole is squared back, the afterguys often run pretty hard across the lifelines, producing a fair amount of chafe. Covered lines help minimize that. 

For tack lines on asymmetric boats, I like matching spinnaker halyard material on club-level boats and using low-stretch heat-set Dyneema cores with a chafe resistant cover for grand prix and sportboats.

Like the headsail halyard, a near-zero stretch main halyard is also important. For me the same line applications apply. Keep the mainsail head at full hoist at all costs. I will often match the material I use for main and jib halyards.

It is most important that the main sheet sit in the winch jaws well and tail perfectly. This is a strict combination of sizing and pliability. I’ve found that the New England Ropes Enduro braid and the Samson Warpspeed II work well for club-level boats with and without winches. For a slightly longer lasting product with some chafe resistance, try any manufacturer’s Technora-based covered line.

The most under-appreciated and least thought about rope on a boat always seems to be the outhaul. The last thing you want when the wind comes up is for your mainsail to get fuller. Spend some time here and use very low-stretch rope. Most heat-set Dyneemas will work great for the gross tune side of the purchase.

Pro Tip No. 3: Minimizing the last purchase of an outhaul greatly increases the ease with which it can be pulled on or eased out. For example, you could have a 6-to-1 to one pulling a 2-to-1, pulling a 2-to-1 and then to the sail for a 24-to-1. Or, better yet, you could have a 4-to-1 pulling a 3-to-1, pulling a 2-to-1 for a 24-to-1 as well. The latter example will work better. Trust me. I’m a doctor . . . sort of. We built an outhaul like this on a SC50. I can pull it on upwind in heavy air with little problem. On the flip side, in light air downwind, it eases just as well.  In fact, if memory serves me right, we did a 3-to-1 in the end rather than the 4-to-1 for a total of 18-to-1 and it worked well.

Runners and backstays should have extremely low stretch. A pumping mast and sagging forestay in breeze isn’t fast. Runner tails, like the mainsheet, should perfectly fit the winch and tail easily without kinking.

With so many options readily on the market now, it can be very confusing. I always recommend contacting your local rigger if you have any questions at all about what rope is right for you. They’ll get you pulling in the right direction.