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Lifelines, the lines or cables that run around a boat’s perimeter, are one of the great nautical misnomers. We were coached early on to not trust our life to them by leaning heavily or hanging off them. They are important though and add to the security when moving about the boat. I can attest to this now as walking around on our cat these days while the deck is high above solid ground is a tiny bit disconcerting. For this reason I decided that a good thing to get done would be to reinstall the lifelines on the boat. We had removed them after we hauled the boat in the fall and have had them stored warm and dry over the winter in our apartment. When we pulled them out two days ago we were shocked (is shocked too strong of a word?) to see that a very large percentage of them had turned brown. Brown like the colour of someone’s teeth who had been smoking 3 packs a day for 35 years! Not cool.

I happened to be going by the chandlery that day and mentioned what I had found. The owner didn’t have a good explanation of why the discoloration had occurred but did say that the vinyl-coated stainless wire lifelines that we have are not the preferred type these days. One reason why is that apparently, stainless steel does not like to be removed from oxygen, which the vinyl coating does. Additionally, any corrosion or damage that does occur under the coating can’t easily be observed, making them less safe. Regardless, coated stainless wire is what we have, and at the present time, they’re looking pretty ugly.

So, what are our options?

1. Live with the ugliness. Um, no, not an option really.
2. Clean them, but with what?
3. Replace them, but with what?

We did a bit of digging and found a few suggestions on what to clean them with. Acetone, Vim and vinyl cleaner, with a LOT of elbow grease, were all recommended. I gave an abbreviated test with both the acetone and Vim. Results? Less than impressive. 🙁

As for replacing them, that could be big bucks, and not money we want to spend. If we were going to do it we wouldn’t replace them with the same material. The recommended options these days vary from uncoated stainless steel wire to one of the new high-tech lines (ropes) such as Spectra, Amsteel or Dynex Dux. The advantage of the former is the obvious durability of steel. The advantages of the latter are very high strength-to-weight ratio (important on a cat), relative ease of repair and although I haven’t checked this myself, I think they may even be cheaper. Disadvantages of synthetics are that they are more prone to UV degradation and chafe.

Rest assured that we will not be running out and replacing all of the lifelines on our boat today! As mentioned, that is not in the budget.

Two other options:

1. Have the vinyl coating replaced.
2. Have the coating removed and leave it off.

I found a mention on the web somewhere that you can have the vinyl coating replaced at West Marine for something like $1.50 for 6 feet. If that’s the case it would hardly even be worth trying to clean them I think. Number two above is just me thinking out loud. If uncoated stainless wire is the preferred system these days, how would that be any different than what we would have if we just carefully cut the (ugly) coating off the ones that we have now?

15 Comments

  1. Random thoughts:
    If they are brown on the outside what do they look like under the vinyl cover? When you remove a cover, you may find you need to replace the wire. If you plan to cut the vinyl, you can easily score the stainless wire, accelerating its demise. If you plan to keep the existing lines and are only worried about aesthetics, maybe you could install larger diameter vinyl cable covers like the split shroud covers over top of the existing. Not sure if it is available in proper lengths and it won’t improve the ability of the stainless to access oxygen but it shouldn’t make it worse. Try Davis Instruments.
    http://www.davisnet.com/marine/products/list_marine.asp?grp=m22-1
    Maybe they can help you with lengths longer than 6′ if you need it.

    • I think maybe the shroud covers must have been what that guy was referring to when he said the wires could be recovered for 1.50 for 6 feet.

      Yes, taking off the coating would have to be done very delicately. Not sure how easy that would be. I am betting that it would be tricky.

      I called the local guys to ask about removing the coating and they said that yes, I could do it. They said that sometimes with this small of wire though little pieces could stick up leading to chafe. They also suggested the shroud covers to deal with that.

      Problems, problems, problems. 🙁

      • I believe that Taylor Made has foam covers, as well. They are more for mono’s where one needs to lean back against the lifelines while healing.
        How about bleach and set them out in the sun?

  2. Mike –

    I can’t tell for sure from the picture, but it looks like it is the vinyl covering on the lifelines that has deteriorated – not the stainless. Well, not necessarily the stainless – you can’t tell unless you expose it for examination. But you can get a peek at the condition at the swages on the ends – is there rust weeping out of the swages? Is there rust weeping out from under the ends of the vinyl cover?

    The deterioration of vinyl (aka PVC) is common – you will see it also on your power cord, your water hose, and on any flexible plastic ventilators. It is caused by sunlight – the same UV degradation you are concerned about with the high-tech line option (although the high-tech lines won’t get this dark and sometimes sticky residue on the surface). Except that here it is only cosmetic. With the high-tech lines, UV degradation is a structural issue.

    The dark residue on the vinyl surface is not going to be soluble in any water-based formulation, and you are not going to want to use any solvent that is capable of removing it. The best approach we have found for cleaning degraded vinyl is soft abrasives – Soft Scrub, 3M rubbing compound, etc. and elbow grease. Lots of elbow grease.

    As others above have noted, with the 7×19 construction of the lifeline wires, cutting the vinyl off is likely to result in cut strands which will turn into “meat hooks”. Probably not a good answer.

    If you are going to replace the lines, I’d go with bare stainless – although there is no worry-free, maintenance-free solution, bare stainless is as close as you are going to get.

    Has anyone reading this tried removing the vinyl by melting it? Or perhaps by just warming it to make it easier to strip off?

    bob
    s/v Eolian
    Seattle

    • Thank you Bob!

      I took some time and cut some of the coating off today. The wire underneath looks not bad to me. The chandler/rigger is pretty close to the boat so I dropped by there on my way home to let him look at them. He pointed out a fair amount of corrosion at the end of the wire where it goes into the pelican hooks (that little area was not covered by the coating). He took the lifeline that I had with me and worked out a quote for me to replace them all with 1×19 stainless. Reusing some of the hooks, fittings, etc. the quote, taxes and labor included, was 600 bucks. 🙁

  3. You can spend some serious money on Amsteel and similar lines,so replacing the lines with stainless uncoated may not be that much more.
    Some of your hardware can be reused(pelican hooks).
    Here’s a link to a supplier in Connecticut,and they are our preferred supplier. (Going to their big sale next week,armed with my “grocery list”) They can give you a quote to make new lines. I have always found their prices reasonable.
    http://www.defender.com/html/lifeline.html

  4. FWIW – Carol remembers Brion Toss as saying (in his rigging workshop) that the new synthetic rigging had excellent UV resistance and that the sheath takes the brunt protecting the core.

  5. Mildew – bleach, with some Spic-n-Span (not detergent – the detergent partly deactivates the bleach). Won’t hurt anything the sun won’t hurt, as a rule. Good as a once-per-year deck cleaner.

    Rust stains – an acid-based cleaner like Shower Power (something with phosphoric acid). It won’t hurt the stainless or the PVC.

    Yes, it can corrode badly under the cover (I had a reacher bridle blow suddenly on my Stiletto – after 29 years of hard use and under far greater load than a lifeline would ever bear. So, my paranoia has limits. I figure I’ll replace my life lines when they hit 20… but you read my “Captain Safety” post, so you have been warned!

    I might go with Amsteel. Might be more comfortable. I had Kevlar halyards and I have Kevlar sheets now. The stuff is SO strong you can afford some loss. No doubt you have noticed that the stanchion holes are large and could pass an over-size line. I would have to address the heavy chafe from the genoa sheets.

    Do you have a genoa, or just the self-tacker? If no, THAT is the greatest performance enhancement.

    Another thought; if you have to do something to calm the soul, just replace the top line. Then replace both in another 10 years.

    • Replacing just the top one is not a bad idea. Or… we could just live with it for now.

      We do have a 150% genoa. The boat came with two main sails (one Dacron and one Mylar), the jib, a 150% genoa and an asymmetrical spinnaker. We used only the self-tacker last year as we were trying to make our lives easy learning how to sail her. We’ll put the Genoa on this season along with the better main sail. Maybe we’ll even give the spinnaker a try too! That should hopefully give us a bit more horsepower. 🙂

      • Yes, that will add horsepower! You will find the genoa will over power the boat at about 25 knots apparent, and the chute at as little as 12 knots apparent, if it’s in tight. You will be in double-digit speeds, most likely.

        I actually use the self-tacker all winter, to save UV wear on the genoa and because there’s more wind in the winter.

  6. Just recently found your site and am also transitioning to full-time cruising. We’re just starting so about a year behind ya’ll. Hope to “set sail” in 2011 and will be watching and learning from ya’ll! Hello from New Orleans!

    • Hi Cheryl. What’s really funny is that I JUST saw the link to your website in our blog’s stats page. I went to your blog and was just in the process of sending you two a comment to say hi when I got distracted with some new emails. So, you beat me to it. Looking forward to following along on your adventure too!

      Mike

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