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Mixed Media As Used In Rigging Balclutha

Christopher P. Jannini, Rigger, San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park


As time passes on we find ourselves confronted with a seemingly never ending introduction to new manufactured materials intended make our lives easier and to improve upon the characteristics of the out moded item. Yarn was always made from wool, a shirt was only silk or cotton, sneakers were canvas (and a whole lot cheaper) and the fish we bought at the market was wrapped in an old newspaper. While I will concede that a flounder purchased in a plastic wrap is probably a healthy improvement over yesterdays' Wall Street Journal, I'm not convinced that a polyester leisure suit has any place in my closet

Over the past century or so many of these technological advances have directly affected the maritime industry. Copper and iron replaced trunnels, iron and steel replace wood for frames and hull. Steel becomes the material of choice instead of hemp for standing rigging. No America's Cup syndicate today can entertain the idea of canvas sails or manila running rigging as polyester and kevlar are the only materials strong enough for these boats to remain competitive.

As we know however, there is still a need for these older materials if we want to accurately restore an historic vessel in compliance with the Secretary of the Interior s Standards for Historic Preservation using only the materials which were available to the original builders. The lack of availability of large, old growth timbers for the restoration of wooden vessels is well known but what is often overlooked are the more mundane items, still critical to accurate restoration, which are becoming more scarce. We should also keep in mind that the materials we choose to use dictate the techniques we employ and the importance of skills preservation is as critical as the preservation of historic fabric. Maybe using a Philips head brass screw where a slotted one was originally used on a hinge is no big deal to the general public but the trained eye (and certainly my boss) will surely see it and the overall effect will be that much diminished.

Fortunately, slotted brass screws are still available but many things which are necessary to the riggers' trade and which were common in the even in 1950's are becoming more difficult to find and occasionally have to be replaced by a more modern equivalent. As the needs of industry change some items are simply taken off the market. One would be hard pressed to find a ship chandlery stocking a wood shell 14" treble block today but that really isn't a problem as it could readily be replicated. But what do you do when a piece of 1 1/4 ", 6x7 wire is needed to replace a badly deteriorated and dangerous fore topmast stay and none of the suppliers can get it anymore?

This is not a situation that we have encountered recently on Balclutha but many years ago that particular stay was replaced and wire of 6x19 construction was all that was available. A circumstance such as this will rear its head again at some point in the future as even through the best of our rehabilitation and maintenance efforts, sooner or later, some of this original fabric will fail. We should be careful and engage in serious debate whenever we consider replacing original material. It is absolutely critical to document even the slightest change no matter how insignificant it seems to us. One hundred years from now that documentation will be the only link that our grandchildren have between what they see and what our grandfathers built.

What we, and I am assuming many others, charged with restoring and maintaining rigging have encountered is a rapidly diminishing availability of what was once everyday stuff which by design had a limited lifespan. Manila is still commonplace even if it is of inferior quality and often only comes with brightly colored exterior tracers, but where does one find hemp houseline or hambroline? Good quality tarred marline was almost impossible to find after Randers' stopped manufacturing it a few years ago but is nylon seine twine an acceptable replacement material for use as a wire rope service? If we use seine twine, is our Stockholm tar slush mixture compatible with it? Of course that is assuming that we can even find real Stockholm anymore.

These are just some of the questions which have been raised as sources for traditional material disappear. What we have had to do on Balclutha and other vessels I have worked on is to try to balance historical accuracy with budgetary concerns, the availability and the ability to maintain the chosen material (often with a reduced workforce), and the overall appearance of the completed project. Choices which are acceptable for a staticaly displayed historical vessel are often not appropriate for an actively sailing vessel which will see more hard use. Ships' managers will have to determine which combinations of materials suit the intended use of the vessel best all the while trying to remain in compliance with the Secretary's Standards.

In the area of running rigging on Balclutha, we use three strand line almost exclusively. The only exception being the use of nylon double braid for the top rope when rigging or sending down masts and spars. Special care is taken with this exceptionally strong line to ensure that it stored properly and only used for specific jobs. Three strand dacron is often our choice for safety preventers and we find that polypropelene works well as tag lines. These are sent down after each job so as to protect them from ultra violet sunlight and so that they do not detract from the ambiance of the ship by their unmistakable modern appearance.

On Balcutha we have very little running rigging, mostly halliard falls, and these are rigged with manila. As most manila comes with external tracers, especially in the larger sizes, we have to specify what we want when ordering but this line is available and its' clean look is well worth the time and extra expense. Even though it does not have the long life or strength that a manmade fiber would have, it is the material that would have been used when the ship was actively sailing. To not use it as it is readily available would certainly place the practice in the 'not recommended' column of the Secretary's Standards.

Our gantlines (working lines), which are permanently rigged, are three strand Roblon and sized to be sufficiently strong for the purpose of sending people and gear aloft. The natural look of this line allows us to feel comfortable that it does not detract greatly from the historical appearance of the ship and is in compliance with the Standards as it "matches as closely as Possible in size, color, texture and " appearance . Roblon is stronger than manila of equal size and longer lived too, so by using it we feel safe and are saving money as well. Dacron is a good choice as well for these lines as it is even stronger than Roblon but its' whiter color is not quite as esthetically pleasing.

One place where we place safety issues above strict accuracy is in our choice for using Dacron for our fiber ratlines and foot rope lashings. This is one of those cases where, because of our reduced staff (four people), some items which need regular inspection and maintenance do not get the amount of attention they require to safely protect the public and staff from potential injury. Remember that in the days when this ship was being actively sailed, there was a crew of twenty four available and you can be sure that Jolly Jack cut away and replaced any ratlines that were suspect.

For our ratline seizings we use various materials and techniques. The lower shrouds are rattled down with steel bar stock as she was when launched. These are seized on using three strand, natural fiber, tarred marline, hove down tight with a small heaver and tarred. We use the natural marline on the ten or so lowest bars and then change to synthetic seamens' yarn for all the seizings above. This synthetic marline is much stronger than the natural fiber and not susceptible to rot and thus needs less maintenance. Two drawbacks to using the synthetic marline are that although it has the right look, it does not hold tar very well and will appear light brown next to the black shrouds and it is also prone to ultra violet deterioration. To solve these problems we have found it necessary to blacken it first with Netset, a synthetic tar. One word of warning; if you decide to use synthetic seamens' yarn for this purpose, please take care as it very easy to cut through the shroud service by putting on the synthetic marline too tight. To avoid this we have found it necessary to marl a piece of tarred canvas onto the shroud before applying the seizing.

For over three years we had a difficult time securing a supplier of good quality natural fiber tarred marline and we were preparing to begin major restoration work of the rigging. What we did have was nylon seine twine, jute, soft laid untarred marline, a small quantity of good quality tarred marline (two and three strand), and a large amount of the synthetic seamens' yarn. In order to best use our available supplies we instituted a system so as to maintain a balance of safety, historical accuracy and esthetics.

To begin with we never even entertained the idea of replacing service with either the jute or nylon seine twine. In the case of the jute, it isn't strong enough to be put on under enough tension to be effective even if it does look a bit like true marline after it has been tarred. Nylon seine twine on the other hand definitely does not comply with the Standards in terms of composition and texture and it looks obviously out of place on an historic vessel. It also doesn't hold tar well. The fact that we had, and could get, lots of the synthetic seamens' yarn and that it has the look of natural fiber made a tempting argument to use it exclusively instead of natural marline. Even knowing that if our grandfathers had had access to this material they probably would have used it wasn't enough to cause us to abandon marline altogether as we found that when applied the seamens' yarn is so hard that a fine tipped pricker can't be driven between two legs of a shroud when passing a seizing. Except when a safety issue took precedence, we tried as much as possible to continue to use the natural marline. And besides any self respecting rigger will tell you that there is nothing quite as satisfying as the squeak - squeak - squeak of well spun marline spooling off a serving mallet while every pore of your body exudes the sweet smell of that Eau de Sailor -- Stockholm Tar. Actually maybe that's why so many of us are single.

As silly as this may sound, we designated our three strand marline as platinum as it was the most precious due to the fact that we had the least amount of it. This was used almost exclusively for service under the thimble of new wire splices and over the finished splices themselves. The reasoning was as follows; under the thimble was the least likely to ever be replaced and over the splice we wanted the material that would best absorb and hold in the lubricating tar. We also had to conserve as much of this marline as possible for use as patch service on the shrouds and stays where both the two strand marline and the seamens' yarn would be unsightly.

Our gold reserve was the two strand natural marline. This was used for serving the footropes which are double served. We made this decision based primarily on safety, having found that the seamens' yarn doesn't hold tar very well and we did not want to take the chance of the horses becoming slippery under foot. Where topgallant shrouds were stripped back to wire we also re-served with the two strand marline.

Footrope stirrups were served with our silver standard, seamens' yarn, as were the backstays. The stirrup to footrope lashings were also done with the seamens' yarn as we felt it would be more long lived as it is less prone to rot when wet. This is one place in the rig that probably does not get inspected nearly as often as it should and the potential for this critical lashing to fail due to fiber rot is very real. As mentioned before, care had to be taken when using this material and we had to remember to coat it first with Netset as our slush mixture never made it black by itself. When recoated with pinetar slush it is indistinguishable from the natural fiber marline in the rest of the rig.

Although it is esthetically pleasing and readily available, the biggest arguments we have concerning the switch to seamens' yarn are first that it isn't an historically accurate material in terms of its' composition and second we are not sure that subsequent applications of tar will penetrate through it and the Netset to offer any lubrication to the underlaying wire. We have since found a source of excellent quality natural fiber tarred marline in Britain and will be using it exclusively in the future.

Patching worn or rotten service in the rig as opposed to the rigging loft is a tedious and often difficult proposal. In order to protect the service, we have been using leather chafing patches liberally. We use heavy guage latigo carefully cut to the shape we desire, pre-punched, and sewn on with polyester thread. As nice as waxed linen is we have found that it has a useful life of only two years in our San Francisco climate. As the leather tends to dry out when tarred we apply Neatsfoot Oil to it whenever we are aloft slushing. We hope to be able to replace the heavy rubber hose, which was used around some of the shroud collars during the earlier restorations, with leather in the near future.

These are just some of the choices we have been faced with and the decisions we have made as we prepare Balclutha for her next hundred years . Each of you associated with a traditional vessel have your own unique problems regarding materials, budgets, personnel and climate and, like us, must come up with solutions which will balance your specific needs with what is the most accurate and what is safe, practical and available.

As demand for traditional materials falls, manufacturers will cease to produce them and our grandchildren may be hard pressed to maintain these vessels with even a part of the accuracy that we can. Their answers may have to be far more innovative than ours. Of course there is always the hope that some brilliant producer will realize that hemp, manila, cotton and tar are all natural, recyclable and readily renewable and unlike Kevlar, chemical tar and polypropylene they are more user friendly as well.

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Version 1.01, 7 July 1997