With the rudder fixed, and the season fast approaching, it was time to tackle the major safety concern on this new bucket of mine... the rotted life lines. I think I've mentioned before, I'm a handy chap, I know wood like the back of my hand, and there is really not much that I can't do with it. No, seriously, I'm a classically trained cabinet maker!! Show me metal however, and I'm lost. I don't know MIG from TIG from lead from tin. Imagine my delight when I find out that my life lines are rotten, and need replacing. I'm willing to take on most things, and try and learn, but I figure with a something as serious and potentially life threatening as this, learning and testing were not good ideas. Off we go to the boat yard to get some quotes. As I've mentioned I have a 25' boat....she's beamy, so a little tubby, but even still, I'm not talking about a lot of stainless steel and fittings here. WRONG!!! You see, life lines have fittings that require labor, one at each end of a single run. For the most part they pass through the stanchions, so the amount of fittings and labor on a 25' boat is not that dissimilar to a much larger vessel...the variable being the amount of stainless steel line in between the fittings. Imagine my delight at the quote. I was really starting to understand why people call boats "Holes in the water one pours money into" Once again, the quote for a repair was more than I paid for the whole boat...did I get the bargain I thought? Not only was this repair going to be very expensive, but also it was very necessary. And I could not afford it.
Back to the internet I went to see if I could figure out a way to save some money on this. I managed to figure out that one needs to swage lifelines. The swage is the joint between the fitting and the stainless steel wire. To do this, one needs a swaging device or machine or tool. Those cost a fortune, and are very seldom available to rent. Unless I wanted to start a swaging business the investment in a swaging machine was out of the question. It would be cheaper just to have the yard do the work!!
There really had to be an easier way to do this, and get reliable results....at the very least, it was worth researching in triplicate before forking over piles of cash. After digging around marine supply stores, youtube, the forums and few other places I started finding out about hand swaging, and this seemed to be a viable option. The manual tools were not crazy expensive, and the turnbuckles, eyes and gate locks where also reasonable. This seemed to be an avenue worth pursuing...as long as the strength of the swage would be sufficient. Looking at the requirements, swaging can be a little tricky. Too loose, and the grip of fitting on the wire will not be strong enough. To tight, and the swage could actually break the wire. Both of these could cause the life lines to fail. Meaning someone could lean on them and end up getting really rather wet. Not good. I started researching hand swaging tools, and many of the more pricy options resembled a large pair of pliers. Whilst being sold as suitable for swaging, these were more akin to crimpers for the end of ductwork. These tools did not offer any options for controlling the strength or tightness of the swage. This would mean that I would have to guess, so that was not going to work. A little more research led me to a company called C.S. Johnson. Like many other companies they offered a range of turnbuckles and fittings, and also a hand swaging tool, but there was a difference...The tool was precisely machined to provide the correct tension for the range of fittings that Johnson sell, and also could accommodate 1/8" and 3/16" wire.
It works by firmly tightening two lug nuts on a parallel plates with a recess for the fitting to sit in. When the nuts are firmly tightened, and the plates meet with no gap, the fitting is correctly swaged. The company recommend that you put 5 crimps per fitting, so it would be a lot of tightening, and loosening, and aligning, and tightening, but it seemed like a viable option. The company also claimed that, if used correctly, the swage would have 70% of the breaking strength of the line! Perfect. I would have loved to play with one, and try it prior to ordering, but this was not an option, so I read all the reviews I could find. The reviews were very positive (give or take the usual proportion of nay-sayers...but you can never keep everyone happy!) so I decided to give it a go. I have double life lines with gates either side, so figured I needed 8 turn buckles, 4 gate eyes and 4 gate hooks. I also needed the tool, and at least 110' of 3/16" wire.
For the gate hooks the company had several options, and I'd love to say that I choose in an educated manor the best hook based on my needs.....but I got the cheapest! I also purchased the cheapest sleeve fitting I could find to use as a practice for figuring out the new tool. I keep bolt cutters on the boat for emergencies, and I figured that these would be just fine for trimming the wire to length.
When everything arrived I was delighted to see some very detailed instructions. As a boy, I hardly ever read instructions. I'm pretty sure that I know a better way to do whatever I'm being instructed on...but for this important safety feature I figured I'd give the experts the benefit of the doubt. The process of creating the swage joint between the fitting and the wire was sickeningly simple. Insert wire into fitting all the way, clamp tool onto fitting and tighten both nuts until there is no gap between the plates, loosen, move down the fitting and repeat. 5 times per fitting. It was so simple it had me worried!! Am I missing something? I used a socket wrench to do the tightening and loosening, and in total, it took me 20 minutes to complete my test joint. Please note that this included a good amount of looking, admiring, and congratulating myself on being the master of all things practical. There was also some walking up and down the yard to see if any one else was around. I was sure everyone would have wanted to see!! The sample is still on the front of the refrigerator marked "First swage, Justin, age 35"
Now, doing the job for real. Swage a turnbuckle, clip it on, measure the wire, cut, swage the opposing end's fitting.....repeat. All in all, the whole job took me three hours, a 6 pack of Coors light, and a family bag of salt and vinegar kettle chips. It looked terrific. The boat went from looking a bit saggy, floppy and unloved, to having crisp clean tight lines....I couldn't believe the difference. Just to be safe, I put tape on the wire at the end of each fitting to make the joint location. I then tried my hardest to pull or shock the wire out of the fittings, and nothing moved at all!! Safe and very pretty! Really affordable too, compared to the quote I received.
I was quoted over $3,000 to do this work, and I completed the job for $220 in materials and tools, and my time...The beer and snacks were a gift!!
Between the life lines and the rudder I had now saved over $6,000. With out doing these jobs myself they would not have been completed. I simply don't have that much cash lying around. It really is amazing what one can achieve if one tries!
A couple of points on this. A professional machine swage is smooth and beautiful thing. The swages with this system have visible crimps. I'm ok with this because of the cost saving, but it might not be everyones taste. Johnson Marine are not paying me for this. I'm only commenting on what I used. I'm sure there are also other options.
Ok, On to the next problem that needs fixing!
Don't forget to check out episode one of the video diary for more information on this project! More on the other tasks next time.
Those of you who know me, know I keep a video diary, and I also run and mediate the "Sail Chicago" Facebook group. Please feel free to join/follow both of these if you wish.