Halyards are the most important part of the running rigging on board. If a halyard breaks at sea, not only could your sail drop, but there is the added risk that the broken rope could fall inside the mast! Running a new halyard in the mast is a terribly difficult task at sea, unless you have a messenger line ready in place. For this reason, it is advisable to check all halyards regularly for damage. Depending on the load, halyards should be replaced after no more than eight years max.
Also pay attention to breaking load. Here not only should you consider the force asserted on the line. With a spinnaker halyard, for example, the forces of a sudden gust are distributed equally between the sheet, guy and halyard. The corresponding forces from a jolt also act on the blocks, halyard cleat or winch on deck. These must therefore match the diameter of the yacht's rigging. Otherwise, sheaves that are too narrow will cause rapid rope wear. Also, avoid using knots to attach the halyard to the shackle at the head of the sail: a simple bowline halves the breaking load of a halyard rig. If pre-spliced halyards with loop or eye-splice are used instead, the reduction in breaking load at the attachment point is minimal.
In terms of maintenance, a quick blast of freshwater should be more than enough to keep your halliards clean. This will remove sharp salt crystals from the core and sheath. Obviously, halyards shouldn't rub against any fixed part of the boat. Lines will stretch by the movement of the sails, and friction can quickly damage them.
Today's halliards are made of multi-layered material. A core, usually made of Dyneema, bears the main load and determines the central properties of the halyard rope. This core is protected by sheath layers made of a softer and particularly UV-resistant synthetic fibre. This increases grip in the hand, on sheets and winches. Dyneema cores are also sensitive to UV light, so the sheath also protects the core from this.
On older yachts, you will often find a wire line spliced to a short line. Until the 1980s, wire halyards made in this way were the only effective way of producing halyards that did not stretch. Nowadays, however, modern synthetic fibres such as polypropylene have replaced this method. As soon as the first strands of this type of line begin to protrude, it is time to replace the halyard. However, since the diameter of wire lines is often small it is not always easy to replace them with modern rope halyards: usually, the masthead sheaves have to be adapted to the diameter of the running halyards. Where this cannot be done, a single braid uncovered Dyneema line of the same diameter can be used.
Not only does halyard length depend on mast height, but also the route the line takes on deck through blocks to the cleat and winch in the cockpit. A good rule of thumb for most boats is to calculate twice the mast height plus two thirds of the boat length. But don't be afraid to add extra length! A few metres longer will pay off in the long run: the halyard ropes of a furling jib are pushed hard at the beginning of the season, but since they are rarely lowered until autumn, force acts in the same places on the blocks and halyard cleat for months. As the rope tends to get worn on the sheave at the mast head, if you buy a halyard that is much longer than required, you can shorten the rope and move the most stressed areas a little further away. Load will be distributed more evenly and the halyards will last longer.
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