In general, I am quite a fan of archaic sailing arts. Some of them I can even justify under the heading of safety, like knowing how to use a sextant. But for practical reasons, I hesitate to recommend splicing braided line. I realize that synthetic braided lines are not really ancient; but splicing is.
The argument for an eye splice versus a bowline often revolves around breaking strength. The bowline may reduce the line’s strength by 50%, the splice, say 25%. But let’s get real. We never choose running rigging based on breaking strength. What we want is low stretch. A polyester halyard that we might finish with an eye splice will have a tensile strength of around 10,000 pounds on a 40-foot boat. A splice will reduce this to somewhere around 7,500 pounds, and a bowline to 5,000 pounds. A common safety factor is 5/1 although let’s go to 10/1 to be conservative. My wife will surely be telling me to cut back on the beer well before I reach 500 pounds, so a trip up the mast in the bosun’s chair causes little fear, even hanging by a bowline. If you’re paranoid about that knot holding your life in the balance, then put a couple of hitches in the tail or seize it to the standing part. But if you’re really that worried about whether a bowline will hold, perhaps it’s time you learn how to tie one.
There is another issue with putting an eye splice at the working end of your halyards. It’s a good idea to switch your halyards end for end once in awhile to avoid all the strain at masthead sheave being in one place forever, which shortens their useful life. Great, so now with the eye splice you have a knobby bit at the hauling end. And of course you have to spend a half hour finding a fid and remembering how to do a splice for the headboard shackle. I have always used a bowline here. You untie the bowline and switch ends, no problema.
Maybe a braided line has parted and you want to splice it back together. This can happen for three reasons I can think of: 1) The line is too small. This is very unlikely. All but extreme sailboats carry running rigging that is quite a bit over-sized. Regular old utilitarian 1/4-inch Sta-Set has a tensile strength of 2350 pounds, which is enough to lift an entire Catalina 22 right out of the water. That is one-quarter-inch line. We use larger lines for sheets and halyards so they’ll be low-stretch and nice on the hands. 2) Chafe. Forget fixing the line; deal with the chafe, or it will break again. 3) It is old. Use it for art projects, like macramé flower pot hangers. It needs to be taken out of service, not repaired.
3-strand laid nylon is used for docklines and anchor rodes for the opposite reason that braided polyester is used for running rigging—because it does stretch, which lessens the shock when wind or waves cause strain. A better case can be made for splicing laid line. Its only a matter of taste, but to me it’s more traditional looking and prettier. There are some places you’ll almost certainly want to use an eye splice on laid line. One is on the thimble for the ground tackle shackle, which rhymes. Another is on the rope-to-chain splice that permits nylon rope to smoothly transition to chain when running through the type of windlass gypsy that accommodates both. Good idea to inspect and refresh these occasionally. Eye splices are also useful on dedicated docklines, as we do on our Tradewinds boats. But I can do anything with a knot that you can with a splice, and then untie it to use for something else. The splice, on the other hand, lives at the end of the rope, making it unsuitable for reeving through a block or padeye, or tying knots.
Now consider the practicalities of repairing laid line with a splice. Say you want to put a splice in an anchor rode after it has chafed through at the bow. Don’t you have bigger problems here? The rest of the line is on the bottom with your anchor where you can’t retrieve it. And your boat is on the rocks. If you think this could happen but because you’re an optimist, you’re confident that you’ll be alert enough to notice the wear before the line parts, then by all means learn the long and short splice to repair the damaged line. But tend to your chafing gear, refresh your rode every, say, fifteen years, and you’ll never need this skill.
On our circumnavigation, we sailed 30,000 miles. I have done the math, and it turns out that it would take 125 years for the typical recreational sailor to do that distance on San Francisco Bay. Since all rope eventually deteriorates in sunlight, you’ll no doubt need to replace your running rigging before then, along with your hips, knees, teeth, and friends. But we left home with Sta-Set sheets and guys and pole topping lifts, and Sta-Set-X halyards, none of which were even new. We came back 27 months later with the same running rigging. I was a bit miffed that I never got to use those brand new spares I carried all the way around the world.
All it takes is a little attention to chafe, and you’ll never have to rummage around in your bosun’s bag for a fid.
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