Barefoot Gal needed new lifelines. With all our other DIY projects, our original plan was to remove the old lifelines and get new ones made.
Dave had talked about doing them ourselves, but it just seemed like a huge project to me with everything else we had going on. Switching to a composting head had turned into a longer project than expected, and we still had other projects on the list.
To make a long story short, we started to have them made by a rigging shop but some problems in getting them there combined with a friend who offered to loan us his swager to do them ourselves ended up with us saying “oh, okay, why not?”
This turned out to be about the easiest boat project we’ve ever done. Well, outside of figuring out and getting the right parts. But seriously, it was less than two hours of relatively easy work to make all our new lifelines . . . and correct some problems that our old ones had.
On most projects, my big contribution is figuring out the parts list and ordering parts. Here, we had already decided that we wanted 1/8″ 1×19 316 stainless uncovered wire. For those who wonder about our choice:
- The majority of offshore boats use 3/16″ wire, but Geminis have always used 1/8″. We thought about upsizing but some research showed us that even with 1/8″ wire, the Gemini stanchions were almost certain to break before the wire. Why spend the extra money on wire and fittings for no increase in safety? (NOTE: Do not assume this is true about your boat and the breaking point of your stanchions. Research your own configuration.)
- The Gemini’s deck configuration is such that we usually walk on the coach house roof instead of the side decks. If we got thrown from up there, we’d almost certainly go over the lifelines . . . if untethered. As far as we’re concerned, our tethers are a bigger safety factor than our lifelines.
- We wanted 316 stainless as being more corrosion resistent than 304, which is used by many rigging shops as “standard.”
- We wanted uncoated as vinyl coated lifelines have two problems: as salt water is trapped between the cover and the wire, corrosion is more likely to occur and it will be impossible to see inside the cover. Uncoated are easy to rinse off and easy to see.
- Switching to line wasn’t an option. There would have been too much chafe where they pass through the stanchions.
So the wire was easy to figure out. I just had to measure it, add a few feet for good measure, and order. E-rigging had by far the best prices (and super-fast shipping, too, I might add):
Then I started measuring the fittings we intended to reuse. Oh, boy. This is where things got interesting — and where I was really glad we were doing the job ourselves.
It turned out that previous owners had changed some fittings on the lifelines and there were four sizes of fittings in use; some had been cross-threaded as well. Some were missing turnbuckles for adjustment and others had no locking mechanisms. After cataloging what we had and what was missing or bad, I ended up ordering all new parts.
The primary manufacturer for hand swage fittings is C.S. Johnson. Their web site has a downloadable PDF guide to all possible parts (make sure you look at the hand crimp ones and not the machine crimp parts) and from it, I could get the part numbers, then look for them online.
Fisheries Supply is the only place that sold the native 1/8″ fittings (without a converter sleeve, that is) that I wanted. (You can also get Norseman/Sta-Lok type fittings; hand swaging was our choice.) I have to give Fisheries major props for promptly resolving a problem with parts that had been mislabeled and getting the correct ones drop-shipped from the manufacturer to us overnight — with no extra charge despite only having paid for standard ground shipping.
We had our friend’s swager (similar to a crimper for electrical connections, just larger). If you need one, Fisheries Supply has the best price, but yes, they are expensive at about $250.
NOTE: You have to use the proper “matched” swager for the fittings. Don’t mix brands unless they say they’re compatible. Nicopress oval swagers won’t work on the round lifeline fittings.
ANOTHER NOTE: You can also get and use a “bolt-type” swager for under $50. They do a good job, but take a LOT longer to do each swage. If you can borrow or rent the lever type, it’s a much easier job.
We also needed a wire cutter. A good wire cutter. Good ones cut the wire cleanly with cutting surfaces completely encircling the wire, so it’s easy to get the new fittings on; small ones that may work perfectly for “normal” 12 volt wiring simply smash things up and make it impossible to put the fittings on. We made a test cut on the old lifelines with our old wire cutter and quickly realized we needed to get a proper one for the job.
We could have gotten by with a cutter sized for 1/8″ wire, but we decided that if we were investing in a cutter, we’d go up one size and have one that could cut our stays if we ever lost the mast.
So there we sat with all the parts. Time to get to work!
On each one, we began by running the wire through the stanchions, if needed.
Then we swaged the fixed (non-adjusting) end and attached it. You could do the swaging single-handedly, but it’s easier with two people (the second person does not have to be strong but they need attention to detail; many kids would make great helpers). I held the wire and the fitting (one in each hand), making sure that the wire was all the way into the fitting, and lined up the swager on the fitting (you make three crimps per fitting).
When all was correct, I’d tell Dave “good” and he’d make the crimp as I held it. Then I’d help adjust the swager to move over a bit, he’d do the second crimp, and the same for the third.
Dave is considerably stronger than I and had a reasonably easy time with the swager. I did a couple, just to see if I could — I had to put one handle on a solid surface and then push the other handle to it. Yes, I could have done all the swages if I’d had to, but strength is definitely a factor in this project.
Then we’d go to the other end of the lifeline we were working on — the adjustable end. We’d adjust the fitting according to its instructions and attach it to the stanchion. Then we’d measure the wire by Dave holding it up against the fitting, and I’d put a piece of tape one the wire with one edge where we needed to cut.
IMPORTANT: Put another piece of tape on the other side of the cut to keep the end nicely together. It’ll be much easier to put into the fitting for the next swage (we didn’t do this on the first cut we made and learned the hard way).
TIP: It’s tougher to cut the wire than to make the swage. It takes muscle, but isn’t impossible. Putting one handle on something solid helps.
Take the fitting off, carefully take the tape off the wire so the strands don’t separate, put the wire in the fitting and swage it on, then put it back in place. There! One lifeline done.
We had 8 lifeline sections to do, with a total of 16 swages. It took us less than 2 hours to do it all, including a break for a cold drink and showing a couple of fellow cruisers what we were doing. Later, Dave spent about a half hour tensioning each section and tightening down the jam nuts.
The hardest part of the job? Corralling the wire on the spool as we cut it. If you do not hold it and tape it down very securely every time you make a cut, it will uncoil and spring around like a demented Jack-in-the-box.
Seriously, this whole job was SO much easier than I expected! Our total cost — reusing none of our existing parts but borrowing a swager — was $635. And now we have a wire cutters that will cut our stays if need be.