The Rigours of Sailboat Rigging

When we talk about sailboat rigging, we mean all the wires, ropes and lines that support the rig and control the sails. To be more precise, the highly tensioned stays and shrouds that support the mast are known collectively as standing rigging, whilst the rope halyards, sheets and other control lines come under the heading of running rigging.

The complexity of the rigging varies from boat to boat.

The simplest of all will be on those sailboats with unsupported masts, like the junk rig and catboat rigs.

Next will be the sailboat rigging on a sloop with a simple single-spreader rig, with the most complex on ketches and schooners with multi-spreader rigs.

Fairly obviously, the mast on a sailboat is an important bit of kit.

Let's make a start by taking a look at the standing rigging that holds it up...

Standing Rigging

Cruising sailboats will have their mast supported by 1 x 19 stainless steel wire in most cases, but some racing boats may opt for stainless steel rod rigging. Why? Well rod rigging has a stretch coefficient that is some 20% less than wire, but...

  • It's more expensive than wire;
  • It's more difficult to install and adjust;
  • It suffers from metal fatigue, signs of which are difficult to spot;
  • It's less flexible and has a much shorter useful life span

So it's 1 x 19 stainless steel wire for us cruising types.

Cap Shrouds

These are the parts of a sailboat's rigging that hold the mast in place athwartship. They're attached at the masthead and via chainplates to the hull.

Lower Shrouds

Further athwartship support is provided by forward and aft lower shrouds, which are connected to the mast just under the first spreader and at the other end to the hull.


The mast is supported fore and aft by stays - the forestay and backstay to be precise.

Cutter rigs require an inner forestay upon which to hang the staysail, which unlike a removable inner forestay, becomes an element of the overall rig structure.

As this stay exerts a forward component of force on the mast, it must be resisted by an equal and opposite force acting aft - either by swept-back spreaders, aft intermediates or running backstays.

Another stay that deserves a mention is the triatic backstay. This is the stay that is found on some ketches, and it's the stay from the top of the mainmast to the top of the mizzen mast.

It's a convenient alternative to a independent forestay for the mizzen. Although it makes a great antenna for an SSB radio, it does ensure that if you lose one mast, you're likely to lose the other.

Multi-Spreader Rigs

With the lower shrouds supporting the mast athwartship at the lower spreaders, intermediate shrouds do the same thing for any other sets of spreaders. These take the form of a diagonal tie between the inner end of one spreader and the outer end of the spreader below it.

Continuous or Discontinuous Sailboat Rigging

The shrouds on all single-spreader rig and some double-spreader rigs are continuous. With three or more spreaders, this arrangement becomes impractical - discontinuous rigging is the way to go. So what's that?

Well, if you consider the mast rigging as a series of panels, ie:~

  • Lower Panel ~ From the deck to the first set of spreaders;
  • Top panel ~ From top set of spreaders to the masthead;
  • Intermediate Panels ~ Between each set of spreaders

Then discontinuous rigging is when each shroud is terminated at the top and bottom of each panel.

The main benefits of discontinuous sailboat rigging is:~

  • The rig can be more accurately set up, and
  • Weight aloft is substantially reduced;
  • It can be replaced in small doses

Chainplates, Turnbuckles and Toggles

It's through these vitally important sailboat rigging components the shrouds are attached to the hull.

The chainplate is a metal plate bolted to a strongpoint in the hull, often a reinforced section of a bulkhead.

It must be aligned with angle of the shroud attached to it through a toggle, to avoid all but direct tensile loads.

Whilst cap shrouds will be vertical - or close to it - lower shrouds will be angled in both a fore-and-aft direction and athwartship.

Artwork by Andrew Simpson

Toggles are stainless steel fittings whose sole purpose in life is absorb any non-linear loads between the shrouds and the chainplate.

Consequently they must be of a design that enables rotation in both the vertical and horizontal planes.

Note the split pin! These are much more secure than split rings which can gradually work their out of clevis pins - with disastrous results.

Turnbuckles, or rigging screws or bottlescrews, are stainless steel devices that enables the shroud tension to be adjusted.

Running Rigging

Sailboat rigging can be described as being either standing rigging as we've just discussed, or running rigging.

Running rigging includes sheets, halyards, topping lifts, downhauls, outhauls, kicking straps, running backstays and checkstays, mainsail reefing pennants, furling lines and any other rope control lines used for setting and trimming the sails.

The three primary requirements for running rigging are:~

  • High tensile strength;
  • Minimal stretch under load;
  • Good chafe resistance

Not all running rigging is highly stressed of course; lines for headsail roller reefing and mainsail furling systems are only very lightly loaded, as are mainsail jiffy reefing pennants, single-line reefing systems and lazy jacks.

But a fully cranked-up sail puts its halyard under enormous load. Any stretch in the halyard would allow the sail to sag and loose its shape.

It used to be that wire halyards with spliced on rope tails to ease handling were the only way of providing the necessary stress/strain properties for halyards.

Thankfully those days are astern of us - sailboat rigging has moved on a great deal in recent years.

Ropes made from modern hi-tech fibres such as Spectra or Dyneema are as strong as wire, lighter than polyester ropes and are virtually stretch free. It's only the core that is made from the hi-tech material; the outer covering is abrasion and UV resistant braided polyester.

But there are a few issues with them:~

  • They don't like being bent through a tight radius. A bowline or any other knot will reduce their strength significantly;
  • For the same reason, blocks and sheaves must have a diameter of at least eight times the diameter of the line;
  • Splicing securely to shackles or other rigging hardware is difficult to achieve, as it's slippery stuff. Best to get these done by a professional rigger...
  • As you may have guessed, it's expensive stuff!

My approach on Alacazam is to use Dyneema cored line for all applications that are under load for long periods of time - the jib halyard, staysail halyard, main halyard, spinnaker halyard, kicking strap and running backstays - and pre-stretched polyester braid-on-braid line for all other running rigging applications.

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