General Information on Ropes & Lines

Ropes are an indispensable part of sailing – be it for the control of the sails, to secure the boat or lift an anchor, you won’t get around ropes as a sailor. In this article, I try to give an introduction to ropes, relevant terminology and materials.

Since ropes are an integral part to every sailor’s boating experience, it is worth learning a bit more about how they are made, the materials used and what purposes they are used for. This article will help you to understand the basics of ropes and learn how to choose the right one for specific tasks. Ideally you would read this article before you head for learning knots, but even more experienced sailors might find a general introduction useful as a reference.

Rope used to be made from natural fabrics for centuries. To start with a little history anecdote: Europe’s second largest red-light district is – of course – in a port town, namely Germany’s major port in Hamburg. To be more specific, it is in the “Reeperbahn” Street.

The “reepers” were rope makers who supplied ships with this valuable and important item. This doesn’t have too much to do with contemporary rope issues, but I really like the story and it demonstrates how close the connections of sailors, rope makers and…other services used to be.

These days, only ropes for historical vessels are made from natural fabrics. Modern ropes are made from a variety of materials. These materials define how the rope will finally behave and what it can be used for – and what it can’t. Important are mostly the properties in terms of strength and flexibility. Ropes are manufactured in two main types, but they can also be classified by the material they are made of.

Types of Sailing Ropes

1.) Braided Ropes: They contain a core of braided fibres that is coiled in a protective sheath.

2.) Three-Strand Rope: This is more a type of rope rather than a specific material. It is the most traditional type of rope with individual bundles of fibres being twisted into strands. These strands are then twisted into groups of three in the other direction. This results in a strong rope that also provides flexibility.

Materials used in Rope Manufacturing

1.) Polyester: We all know this fabric from our cheap T-shirts made in China. This fibre gives ropes that come either as braided (in combination with another material) or as a three-strand rope that is rather strong than flexible. It doesn’t float, but is cheap and often used.

2.) Nylon: A more classic material that is very strong, but also pretty elastic. It is often used for anchorlines and docklines. It sinks and becomes weaker if wet.

3.) Kevlar: This modern material doesn’t have a lot of flexibility and is therefore used for “stable” purposes, such as halyards. It is fairly expensive, but generally durable.

4.) Dacron: Another modern addition to the toolkit of the ropemakers. Similar things apply to Dacron as to Kevlar: It gives ropes ideal for stable conditions that don’t require it to be elastic or flexible. And Dacron, too, is rather expensive.

5.) Polypropylene: This is the stuff that yoghurt cups are made of. It is normally twisted into three-strand ropes that are sold at low price. Polypropylene ropes are light enough to float. They are widely used for dinghies and other small sailing vessels and make good safety lines.

6.) High Modulus Polyethylene (HMP): Another material widely encountered through the packaging industries. Unlike the previous ones, HMP twisted into ropes is not that cheap, but makes ropes of exceptional strength and lightness. Their elasticity is pretty low, making them good anchor lines or halyards. HMP ropes are light enough to float.

7.) Aramid: This makes luxury ropes with similar properties as its colleagues made of HMP: high strength, little weight and low elasticity. And they too come with a high price. Aramid is light enough to float.

If you want to get now ropes, you should ask about elasticity, strength, whether or not the rope will float and the price. You might want to chat with sailors from your area, since they might have some experience with ropes particularly suitable for your local climate. If you do so, try to learn some specific terminology first.

Basic Rope Terminlolgy

For example: A rope is a piece of thick string that is suitable for sailing applications; as soon as you actually use it, however, you should refer to it as a “line”. Ideally, you would refer to it as the specific line that the former rope now serves you. For instance, as a dockline – formally known as rope.

Ropes have two ends – a standing part and a working end. The former one is the bit that remains unaffected by your fiddling with the rope, whereas the “working end” is the one that you attack with knots and alike.

Bending a rope can lead to a “bight”: this is made by folding a rope back tightly to itself rather than into a “loop”, which would give you sort of a circle. If you turn the loop so that the rope crosses itself (so that the circle is closed), you get something called a “crossing turn”. Do that around an object, and you get a “turn” (basically by wrapping the rope around it). Do it once and you get a simple turn, do it twice to get a round turn.

Further Reading

Back to "gear"

Glossary of Sailing Terms

Wikipedia on ropes and lines

DMOZ on Rope and Rigging