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Windjammer Wire Rope vs "Natural" Rope??

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I have a query about wire rope employed on big steel windjammers vs (I'll call it) ordinary rope.


Would the crew ever handle wire rope manually? Would wire rope ever be belayed to a pin? I ask because, for example, lower brace lines led (at least on non-British ships) from a deck-mounted Jarvis winch through leading blocks to the yard's brace block on its pendant, then back down through bulwark-mounted sister blocks to be tied off at a pin to enable fine tweaking of each yard's brace by hand; albeit pretty rarely I would assume. Was this brace line shackled to plain rope somewhere between the brace block and the bulwark so if handling became necessary at the pin the crew would be dealing with plain rope?


I can't find this level of detail in Underhill's ocean carrier rigging book. I do have a Time-Life Seafarers book that mentions the "ends" of wire ropes were attached to ordinary rope where handled by the crew's hands; any one have detailed knowledge?



Edited by Ian_Grant
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Ian, rigging detail varied enormously on the later wind ships.  If you carefully study good photos of the last of the big square riggers you'll see that some even used wire rope for clew lines and bunt lines (this is evident from the kinks in slack ropes that show in the photos).  Steel wire was also used on some ships for the lower braces with the brace being secured on a small bollard on the main rail rather than on a pin.


As far as Jarvis brace winches were concerned, the wire brace led from the winch up to the yard arm then through a block back to a natural rope tackle that was secured as usual to pins on the rail.  In effect, the brace was handled by the winch while the natural rope rope was end secured on the rail; any minor adjustments could then be made with the natural rope tackle after the winch had been locked.  There is a very good illustration of this system in the AOTS series book 'Lawhill'.



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Yes. No seaman would ever try to pull on a wire rope. Handling wire rope, which is really fairly flexible cable made up of a greater number of strands than the more rigid cable used for standing rigging, has a tendency when worn or damaged to have broken individual strands that spring out away from the cable. Understandably, these are called "meat hooks" and if one runs their hands carelessly down a cable and is caught by a "meat hook," at best, it's time to tell the sawbones to get out his sewing basket.


Wire rope is not flexible enough to be tied off to anything and lacks the friction to hold any sort of knot. Wire rope which is used for halyards or sheets, when not permanently wound on a winch, will have a suitable length of fiber line spliced to its end with a "wire to rope splice" so that the "working end" of the wire rope is that length of fiber cordage.


Image result for wire to rope splice



Image result for wire to rope splice





A perfect connection! We splice rope on wire according to your specifications.




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If Underhill's very detailed "Masting and Rigging" doesn't say how the wire running rigging was secured, who would?


Actually, he does tell something about this in an off-hand way. Chapter IX "Use of Tables and Formulae" describes the dimensions of wire running rigging, so it is clear he is talking about wire rope. Then in Appendix III and Appendix IV he lists the rigging for a full rigged ship, with line numbers corresponding to the folding plate No. 51 Belaying Pin Layout for a Full Rigged Ship. Most of the lines run to pin rails and are labeled "BP" (belaying pin).


So at least we know that the wire rope was secured to belaying pins in some manner. I hope someone knows for certain how this was done!




EDIT: Bob and Jim posted while I was making my reply. Thanks!


Bob is certainly right about the broken wire ends and how you don't handle wire rope with your bare hands! The same is true for spring-lay nylon ropes wound with some metal strands and other nylon strands. They are easier to handle, and the wire prevents the nylon from stretching. But the "meat hooks" can still get you!

Edited by Dr PR
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In the last 30 years, the introduction and perfection of Ultra High Molecular weight Polyethylene ("HMPE") braided fiber cordage has revolutionized the metal and fiber cordage industry. HMPE line has begun to replace wire rope for many applications. This rope is sold under the brand names Dyneema and Spectra fiber line. The two have slightly different performance parameters. Spectra has greater tensile strength in larger diameters and wears slightly better than Dyneema, but is more elastic than Dyneema, which is favored for standing rigging. Another type of HPME line is called Plasma rope, which has the greatest strength of all for its weight.  Amsteel rope by Samson Rope, a Plasma rope, is as strong as steel, but has only 1/7 the weight of steel and is specifically marketed as a replacement for wire rope. 


These new light weight synthetics are much more flexible than wire rope and cable and are replacing metal rope across the board in many applications.


375 ton Amsteel-Blue Dyneema recovery tow rope:





Sailing vessels have begun to adopt HMPE line for standing rigging as well, often serving HMPE shrouds to mimic the appearance of traditional fiber and metal rope and cable.  The service also provides protection from UV degradation and chafe, which are problematic. UV resistance when left bare is 8 to 10 years, nearly the same lifespan of stainless steel. Reportedly, served and "tarred" or painted, the lifespan of HMPE cordage is nearly infinite. At a seventh the weight of steel, the reduction of weight aloft lowers the vessel's center of gravity and makes the vessel much stiffer, yielding better sailing performance. HMPE has been widely adopted by the racing fraternity for this reason. I don't think there's an America's Cup contender that isn't using it at this point.


Below: a gang of Dyneema standing rigging with leathered hound eyes for a traditional wooden yacht. See: http://forum.woodenboat.com/showthread.php?227538-A-New-Rig-for-Julia-Parcelled-and-Served-Dyneema&highlight=Dyneema a description of the process and more photos.









Edited by Bob Cleek
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Underhill's Masting and Rigging the Clipper Ship and Ocean Carrier describes most of the wire running rigging terminating  with a block shackled in to take a simple whip of rope or whatever tackle was required.


For example: sheets for the square sails were chain shackled into the clew of the sail and rove through a sheave in the yardarm then through fairleads beneath the yard terminating at a point just beyond the cloverleaf sheet block where they were shackled to wire rope which lead down towards the deck.  The wire rope was then spliced into a double or triple block rove with rope to the lower block shackled to the deck.



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I am building a model of a ship launched in 1855 in which extensive use was made of wire and chain.  The Rigging Warrant for the ship confirms much of what has been discussed by other posters above.


In the Rigging Warrant it clearly lists when wire rope or chain rigging was to be 'tailed' with a hemp rope.  In this ship all standing rigging was wire rope and terminated by being turned on metal thimbles and seized back on themselves, so they could be shackled, hooked, set-up to rigging screws or rigmaiden lanyards (replaced deadeyes).  Those elements of the running rigging that were wirerope or chain, such as halliards, sheets etc, were all tailed with rope where they went to belaying pins, cleats etc.  The topmast yard halliards were made of chain tailed with wire rope that went direct to to purchase winches.


As John points out, more extensive use was made of wire with the passage of time in clipper ships  but I cannot comment on how these  wire ropes were terminated or belayed as I simply do not have that knowledge or experience.





Edited by BANYAN
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Wow! I was not expecting so many replies so quickly. I figured wire rope wouldn't reach belaying pins to be handled. So in the case of my braces grey thread will run from the winch through the yardarm pendant block then become tan thread to go to deck level, perhaps in a whip. We're just coming out of lockdown again so I'll be able to shop for thread, finally.


Thank you to all for your replies. What a great forum!

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Probably the most comprehensive source on rigging the last large sea-going ships is this (albeit in German):


MIDDENDORF, F.L. (1903): Bemastung und Takelung der Schiffe.- 401 p., Kassel (reprint 1977 by Horst Hamecher).


Middendorf did design the rigging for some Flying-P-Liners, notably the five-masted ship PREUSSEN. I believe this book as also used by ship-designers and riggers in other countries. I am not aware of any contemporary English-language book (Kipping was reprinted then, but the contents is much older).


Indeed, every piece of rope to be man-handled would be natural fibre. Otherwise wire would be used, or chain. Chain was used in halliards, sheets of square sails and many other places. As the quality of wire became better, chains were often replaced by wire. However, whenever it had to go through tight bends, chain would be preferred.


Sailing-ship seamen did not use gloves or mittens in general, because the grip in the rig would be less secure. However, Dana describes in his book how they made themselves mittens from raw-hide diverted from their cargo in order to better survive the icy conditions around Cape Hoorn. Leather gloves or mittens would be essential to handle wire-rope.




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When I was at sea we were taught not to wear gloves when handling wire.  A cut hand was preferable to a wire catching in a glove and potentially doing a mass of damage if the glove didn't pull off.  Most of our cargo gear was wire rope (as well as mooring springs) however I don't recall anyone ever being injured by a broken wire rope strand.



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