Rigging—at last

Rigging is the final and, for me, one of the most confusing steps in the boat building process. Each day I go to the garage and make a little bit of progress, but it’s hard going. There are dozens of bolts, pulley, turnbuckles and chains–and yards and yards of nylon line. I feel like I am both the spider and the fly—catching myself in a web of my own making.

Just a small sample of the hardware used to rig the boat. Note the pulleys, turnbuckles, clips and role of wire rope.

For an experienced sailor, the work might be easy. But for me, every step is a voyage of discovery. “Oh, so that’s how I raise the sail,” I exclaim as I examine the various pulleys and lines that link the gaff to the mainmast. “Well, that makes sense,” I think as I study how the mast is secured with wire rope and clamps. I am learning to sail simply by learning how my boat is rigged.

Along the way, I had a small revelation. Rigging is really the most important part of the boat. Without a thoughtfully rigged boat, you don’t really have a workable craft. Are you laughing at this obvious insight? Go ahead, but look at it from my perspective: I have spent two years building the hull and cabin, worrying every day about its shape and whether or not it would float or sink. In terms of time and materials, the hull felt like the main act. Of course, the sail and mast were exciting additions—they made a sailboat sail—but I didn’t appreciate their complexity and importance. Until recently, I viewed them as oversized curtains.

But as I begin assembling the pieces—attaching the boom, hanging the sails, sliding the gaff over the mast—I realize that everything above the cabin is part of complex,  interconnected machine. Every piece has a functional purpose, and each piece must relate to all other pieces in a harmonious way. A sailboat with poorly designed or incorrectly built rigging would be like a car with an untrustworthy engine. It doesn’t matter how cool you look if you break down or can’t maintain control.

I also realize that my inexperience with building and sailing means that I am probably making countless small mistakes that will certainly cause countless small frustrations when I finally drop the boat in the water and raise the sails. Already, I can tell that I don’t like my tabernacle and that my mast hoops are too small. But I am reassured by comments from fellow boat builders who tell me that rigging is not a one time effort, but an ongoing project—tinkering and refining is simply part of the process. My goal for the moment is to assemble something that is workable, not flawless.

Steel bars, quick links, turnbuckles, and chain attach the bowsprit to the hull.

The fully attached bowsprit.

I began with the bowsprit, which looked fairly straightforward and self contained. As you might recall, I cut the actual bowsprit a couple of months ago from a piece of 2×3, but   not until week or so ago did I finally attach it to the boat with chains. In theory, this was a simple project but, like everything else, it took much longer than expected. To attach the three lengths of chain, I needed an impressive assort of hardware, including eyebolts, steel bars, quick links, and turnbuckles. Until recently I had never heard of a “quick link” and had never used a turnbuckle, but by the time I had made my third trip to the hardware store, I was fully acquainted with the turnbuckle/quick link/eyebolt aisle. Remarkably, my local Ace Hardware affiliate had everything I needed. I complemented the salesman on his store’s attention to the needs of boat builders, but he didn’t get the joke.

It seemed like a lot of work for a small addition to the boat, but as work progressed, I came appreciate the importance of the bowsprit. For a long time, I considered it a decorative addition and the chains mere jewelry, but I began to realize that strong chains are needed to secure the bowsprit so it can support both the jib (the small forward sail) and the forestay (wire rope used to securely hold the mainmast upright). Again, the point was reinforced: Every part serves a purpose.

Various double and single pulleys are attached to the top of the mast.

Next, I turned to the mast. Here I had an opportunity to hang several double and single pulleys that will, in time, help me hoist and drop the mainsail. I had never used pulley before and I was thrilled that I finally had a use for this elegant and ancient technology.

In the coming days, I will run the lines through the pulleys and finish lashing the sail to the boom and gaff. With the stays attached to mainsail, I look forward to the next and possibly final milestone in the building process: raising the sail. I can’t think of anything to do after that. It must be nearly time to hit the water.


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