The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Spoiling The Ship For a Ha’penny Worth of Tar

Before any long passage I conduct a careful examination of all of our standing and running rigging, checking particularly for chafe and any sign of corrosion – better to do it well in advance than wait until the last minute when there’s no time to effect repairs. So before we left the Canaries I went through my usual routine, and even had a pro rigger check my check – something I do every year or two, just to make sure I haven’t missed anything. Result? A-OK.

The leg from the Canaries down to West Africa is almost guaranteed to be a downhill sleighride, so we had all of our downwind gear set up in advance, blocks, sheets, guys, etc. We use a tackle system for our pole downhaul, so that we can really strap the pole in place, which attaches at strong points on deck via a snap shackle. As this set-up came with the boat it happens that the snap shackle was one of the few on board that didn’t come from Wichard. But as it seemed big and solid, and had done duty for several years now, all it got was the usual examination (looked fine) and a squirt of lubricant.

Check and Check Again

But if I’d been a little more careful and not so revved-up on the high of departure, I’d have taken more notice of the warning sign of staining on the body of the shackle, and looked at it more closely with a magnifying glass (which we keep for just such use). Then I wouldn’t have ended up on my backside when it failed spectacularly the second I put some load on it!

Luckily no harm was done, as I was just setting the pole up – but if it had failed when the sail was set, with the occasional shock loadings that occur when the sail collapses and fills, some real damage might have occurred. And not just to the pole, but perhaps to one of us while trying to tame the beast.

Further examination and recovery of the pieces showed that the shackle had failed where it articulates around the pin, probably through crevice corrosion having got a hold. And the locking eye of the pin had cracked, too, so if the first failure hadn’t got us, the second would have very soon. And although I couldn’t see the former, I should have seen the latter – must do better next time…

You Pays Your Money…

I’ve often heard people comment that gear from the likes of Harken or Wichard is too expensive, and that it isn’t worth paying the premium – a shackle is a shackle. I’ve never bought that argument, trusting in the fact that both outfits forge their shackles from best quality materials, and test them. That way you know what they can take, and believe in it. And in the overall cost of running a boat for offshore cruising, is it worth skimping on such vital gear, when the cost penalty is so relatively slight?

The failure of this cheap cast shackle could have ended up costing us a serious amount of money, and even jeopardized our cruising plans. So I’m going through all of our gear again, and throwing out anything that either looks even vaguely suspect, or isn’t Wichard or Harken.

I’ve also altered our downhaul system to take a solid shackle at deck level instead of a snap shackle, as I’m not sure that this is a place where they are best, or most importantly, safely utilized.

The old adage of ‘spoiling the ship for a ha’penny worth of tar’ keeps running through my mind – it won’t happen on our boat again. And I’d recommend that we all should be wary of cheap gear from lands unknown, which may well fail when it’s most needed. It might look the same, but I’ll bet you it ain’t.


Have you had a piece of rigging fail on you? Was it from a no-name manufacturer, or one of the big guys? Please leave a comment and tell us about it.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Paul Mills

True, true ….. sadly I recognise just what you are saying, Colin.

My boat (same make as Colin’s) has had a couple of similar things happen. For me it’s the pelican hooks that secure the side-gates of the guard rails. They are spring loaded, and the springs simply rust. I have slowed this down by taking the pins out and smothering the springs with vaseline, and have replaced 5 of the 6 (they area cheap brand and £7 each….) but they still do not last. The result is that they can come undone, usually after a hefty flick from the genoa sheets. This summer I did a temporary fix by taking the pelican hooks off the guard rails and sliding a piece of clear tubing over the closure (cost 2p each), which has worked well, however, this winter it will be, after only 3 years use, new guardrails all round as the swaged terminals are also bleeding rust….

My lesson is that next time I buy a new boat I will be more choosey of gear at the outset and resist the urge to see it as factory fitted item, and assume that the makers will choose the sort of kit that is compatible with the robust reputation of their boats.

The good news is that Christmas is coming, and nice shiny shackles etc make good stocking fillers….. hint to wife who follows this forum 🙂

Enjoy Africa


John Harries

Hi Paul,

You highlight a very common and extremely dangerous problem. I have yet to find a really secure life line pelican hook. Ours are very high quality, but they have still contrived to open unexpectedly, I think by a flapping sheet, on a couple of occasions—not cool at all.

There used to be a small New Zealand company that made a hook with a concave knurled nut that screwed down on the end of the hook, thereby locking it off, but I have not seen one in 25 years.

However, your comment got me thinking and I may have a solution. Stay tuned for a post in a few days.

Scott Kuhner

John, On the single-handed race Newport to Bermuda, they required us to have life lines with NO gates. I have found this to be great, except when very short or young kids are invited aboard. Oh Yes, I also raised my life lines to 30 inches high so they don’t get me right in the back of the knee if I fall backwards against the life lines, but rather above the knees in the back of my legs.

John Harries

Hi Scott,

I agree that no gate at all can be a good solution, as I said before, simple is often best. On the other hand, we really like to invite local people aboard at the destinations we visit and it is amazing how often those non-mariners find getting aboard a sailboat quite intimidating. Adding the requirement to climb over the lifeline would result in an amazing number not visiting at all, which would be sad.

And yes, I agree completely, 24″ life lines are nothing but a trip wire. I can’t remember exactly how high ours are, but it is at least 30 inches since the catch me at mid-thigh.

RDE (Richard Elder)

Hi Scott,
I’ve always thought that the standard lifeline installation was an accident waiting to happen— almost worse than none at all.
—Stanchions mounted thru deck with inadequate back up plates, guaranteed to work loose with the eventual result of water ingress into a balsa deck core.
— Low enough to serve as trip wires rather than life lines, and stanchions weak enough to bend if you are really thrown against them.
— Rigged with PVC coated wire guaranteed to create crevice corrosion and keep it hidden until you test it by falling against it.
—Undersized pelican hooks on the gates that may or may not stay closed.

My favorite solution:
—1/4″ diameter 7×7 stainless wire terminated by nicopress sleeves and thimbles, and tensioned by lashings that are replaced every three years. A little bit of rigging tape to cover the nicopress sleeves. The result is twice as strong and 1/3 as expensive as a standard lifeline arrangement, and everything is visible so there are no hidden surprises.
—Each stanchion strong enough so that a 240# man can lever himself aboard using it without damage. Preferably thru-bolted through bulwarks rather than thru-deck.
—If you are not able to swing your leg over a lifeline with the aid of a very solid stanchion and a shroud you probably are not in physical condition to go to sea anyway. So eliminate the gates.
— Most contemporary designs have stern boarding transoms which certainly eliminates the need for side gates. A real cruiser will have some provision for med mooring, and this platform can be designed to mount on the transom as well as the bow for convenient boarding when docked.

Scott Kuhner

Richard, one thing I forgot to mention was that on my stanchions I have a second piece coming off the stanchion about 3/4s of the way up that is rounded at the top and then goes down to the toe rail where it is through bolted. In that way the stanchion is strong enough that some really big guy can grab it and pull himself aboard without bending it.

Dick Stevenson

Colin, The more I use metal, the more I like lashings. Dick


i can not agree more with Dick,i replace all the metal with dyneema stroops

John Harries

Hi Dick and Giancarlo,

We too have discovered the joys of Dyneema (Spectra) strops and lashing stuff down with a few turns of Amsteel. Not only strong and simple, but quite too.

Off course lashings are no good where something must be quickly attached and removed. Although the strops can sometimes work in this case just by cow hitching them around the deck eye—makes them a bit long though.

Scott Kuhner


I agree with Dick on the use of lines etc. On my downwind rig, I attach both a foreguy and an afterguy along with a topping lift to the end of my poles. All are spliced around eyes and are attached to the ends on the poles. The other ends are lashed to the deck via cleats in the case of the two guys and to the mast in the case of the topping lift. In over 120,000 miles, I have never had a problem with this rig.

John Harries

Hi Scott,

Sounds good, simple is often best, but I’m confused. How are the guys attached to the pole end. Are you saying that there are permanently spliced to the bails on the pole without snapshackles?

We do the same on deck, just lead to cleats. Although in our case the pole after guy needs a winch.

Scott Kuhner

Actually I have the pole ends attached to eyes on the end of the poles with stainless shackles.

John Harries

Hi All,

Once again, Colin is at sea, so I am pinch hittiing in the comments to this post too.

Lee Jacobsen

Another good old quote come to mind:

No sham survives the sea.

— Rudyard Kipling

John Harries

Hi Lee,

Lovely quote, thanks.

Colin Farrar

We experienced a similar failure with a new Ronstan snap shackle, spliced to our jib halyard. Sorry, I forget the model, but it was supplied by Hall Rigging with a new halyard, and I am confident it was not obviously undersized. It failed at the hinge in the first strong breeze, after a few tacks. We replaced both the jib and main halyard shackles with Dyneema ones. For two years they’ve been great: massively strong, easy to manipulate with cold hands compared with a pin shackle, and we can monitor for chafe.

John Harries

Hi Colin,

Thanks for the heads up on that. Also, for the recommendation on the Dyneema soft shackles. We have not tried those yet, but they look very interesting.

Colin Farrar

I should have added that our snap shackle failed at the opposite side of the hinge: the forks snapped just below the hinge pin. Colin, I’m glad to hear you like Wichard fittings; that’s our preferred brand, too.


Thank you Colin Farrar on the tip on the Dyneema soft shackles. This has opened up a whole new world for me. I am headed up to Seattle to buy all new hardware for the new boat this week and would love more info on Dyneema soft shackles and soft blocks. What I like to know are serious cruisers replacing old style above water shackles and blocks in this fashion? For the blocks are they using the aluminum roller or the poly carbon material.
Love to hear any ones thoughts on using this equipment. The soft shackles look like fun to make also.



Ciao Steve,
in this period i m working quite alot with dyneema loops and schakles,for my boat ,you can check on my blog the differts way to use and build these devices.


Thank you Giancarlo, I will take a good look. What a beautiful SV you have. Looking foreward to reading your blog.


Bill Balme

Are Harken and Wichard really the only shackle makers you would consider? Not Shaeffer? Not Tylaska?

I was about to move to Tylasker shackles on all my halyards – I love that they can be undone when loaded and they appear to be of super quality. Am I missing something?

John Harries

Hi Bill,

Wow, what a coincidence. I posted this last night. All I can say is great minds think alike!

On Schaefer, I simply don’t know. When we bought Morgan’s Cloud some twenty years ago she was almost completely fitted out with Schaefer gear, and it was all pretty poor quality. After a couple of failures we replaced everything, mostly with Harken, and had no more trouble. But that was twenty years ago and Schaefer has, I believe, since changed ownership and management. And I have heard second hand that the quality is much better.

Having said that, here at AAC we only make gear recommendations based on extensive first hand experience.

Has anyone out there got recent and relevant first hand experience with Schaefer gear?

Colin Speedie

Hi All

Thanks for all of the really useful comments – lots to think about for anyone looking to equip or re-fit their boat.

For what it’s worth, we’re steadily disposing of all of our metal shackles and going over to all dyneema – I’ve got a good couple of days of splicing to do while we’re here in the Cape Verdes!

This is not only because they are easier to handle, stronger and more dependable – all of which they are – but also because any of you who have experience of aluminium boats will know how any noise (metal to metal) will transmit its way through the hull, making night watches below sometimes sound like the drum section of an orchestra tuning up.

And I only mentioned Harken and Wichard as examples – I’ve nothing against other quality manufacturers like Tylaska etc. But If it isn’t brand named and doesn’t have its tested rating stamped on it, then I’d prefer not to use it myself.

Best wishes