New lifelines and solar panel rails

One thing’s for sure; sailboat lifelines have a finite life span, and ours have definitely out-lived theirs.  Thankfully, they haven’t parted under load yet, but it’s only a matter of time…

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Sometime last year we were talking about changing our lifelines.  The old ones (original to the boat, I assume) were PVC coated, the coating was cracked, and the wire was showing signs of rust.  They looked pretty bad when we bought the boat, and they’ve only gotten worse over time.  I saw some pictures of other boats on the Tayana Owners Group projects page that had aftermarket rails installed from the pushpit to the first stanchion forward each side.  Not only does it add a small sense of security in the cockpit, it’s also a great place to mount solar panels for our future battery charging needs.  So with a couple of quick measurements and a “laundry list” for Port Supply I ordered all the parts I needed to do the project.  And there it sat, in the shed, for over a year before I finally got around to doing it this weekend.

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For the lifelines, I ordered the Suncor kits without wire.  The price of the wire separately per foot is waaaaaaay cheaper than ordering it in a kit, and if you measure correctly, you can get a custom length without a lot of waste compared to the “kit”.  We went with 1-19 3/16″ uncoated wire since coated wire tends to rust from the inside out once moisture gets in.  I also ordered the kits without gates because I’m not a big fan of gates, or all the bullshit fittings and hooks that come with them.  Usually, you’re limited to one access point on either side of the boat and it’s typically only about 24″ wide.  I figure that if we end up needing a gate, I’ll install one pelican hook on each line, each side so that the entire line drops to the deck and we can load and unload wherever is convenient.  For now, I’ll stick with no gates.  But that’s the beauty of the Suncor kit; it’s modular, and you can cut and modify as needed.

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Our T-37 stanchions have welded rings at the top and middle for the lifelines.  Those rings are approximately 7/8″ inside diameter, perfect for 7/8″ rail tubing.  Almost a perfect fit, but did require a bit of grinding on the inside for the tube to slide through.  I used 6′ long, 7/8″ diameter rail tubing and 7/8″ external eye-ends, and that was the most complicated part of the install.  Each eye end fitting comes with an allen set screw, and I wanted to drill and through-bolt for an added sense of security. I’ve witnessed set screw rail hardware separate under extreme load on other boats, and didn’t want to loose a solar panel overboard on my boat.  Also, each rail has a slight curve to follow the lines of the boat, and I carefully bent the tube by flexing it across the cockpit well without kinking it.  While I had the lines down working on the rails, Jeni polished the existing end fittings and stanchions with Flitz metal polish.

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I saw a $50 tube drilling jig somewhere on the internet and copied it with a $6 part from Home Depot to through-drill the tube for the end fittings.  The Suncor toggles use a 5/16″ pin, and I had to over drill the existing 1/4″ hole in each forward eye-end fitting to fit the pin.  For all the drilling of stainless steel, I used Cobalt bits and cutting oil.  Once I had the aft-end fittings installed, I test fit the tube in the stanchions, marked the length, cut off the excess, and drilled for the forward eye-end fitting.

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Once the rails were installed, the Suncor kits went together like butter.  It couldn’t be easier for the DIY’er.  They use a 3-piece compression jaw similar to a Norseman or Sta-Lok swageless type wire fitting.  The only problem I experienced in the process was when I dropped one of the bronze compression washers overboard and had to make a new one with parts from the local Ace Hardware.  Stringing the wire was a bit of a trick because we had to weave it through the netting that we use to keep Suki on the boat, but once it was up and tensioned with the provided turnbuckles, it came out pretty sweet.  The old lifelines were saggy and unreliable, and the new ones are nice and tight.  All said and done, total project price came in at somewhere around $750.  Lifelines only without rails would have been about $500.

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If you have coated lifelines, you may want to consider replacing them, or at least inspecting them.  Stainless steel is NOT rust-proof.  Take the two parts of the word and say them slowly and separately.  Stain  Less.  Doesn’t mean it won’t “stain”, just means it will stain “less” than other metals.  Scientific fact: stainless steel exposed to moisture in the absence of oxygen WILL rust and corrode.  Here’s a brilliant idea: wrap stainless wire in a PVC coating, cut away a portion of that coating, swage a terminal fitting on the end of that wire, and pray moisture doesn’t get inside.

Just for fun, I dissected a portion of our old lifelines to see what they looked like inside.  It wasn’t good.  First picture is of the middle section where cracks had appeared in the jacket.  The second picture is of a cut-off end at a swaged terminal fitting.  You can see where moisture has infiltrated the coating and the wire has begun to rust.  I’m not a big fan of swaged fittings to begin with, and these lifelines are a strong argument for why we plan to replace all our standing rig with mechanical terminals.  Anything “stainless” on a sailboat in a saltwater environment should have the ability to be disassembled and inspected periodically.  Mechanical terminals, be it lifelines or standing rigging allow you to do so.

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Flush and fill
Got clamps? (bowsprit part 1)
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