Ever stop to think about how much you use marine rope in your boating life?
Between docking, anchoring, sailing and towing, marine rope wears a bunch of hats in the boating world. Without it, we’d drift aimlessly about with no wind in our sails (literally, because you gotta have rope for sails).
But what makes marine rope (or “line”) different than any other rope? How do you know whether you want a rope that floats as opposed to one that sinks? (Yes, there are needs for both types in the boating world.)
Characteristics of Marine Rope
You can’t (or at least you shouldn’t) use just any old rope around water, salt and other outdoor elements. Whether you have a sailboat, trawler or canal boat, you’ll want to take a few minutes to learn the important characteristics to look for when choosing marine rope.
- Waterproof — It’s no secret that the biggest feature to consider when choosing marine rope is that it’s waterproof. Even if it doesn’t come into direct contact with water, the fact that it’s being used on a boat makes the waterproof aspect a necessary factor.
- Strong and durable — Strength and durability go without saying (but I’m going to say it anyway). Salt and water can wear down the toughest fibers, and when you’re trusting it to secure your boat, tow your kids and keep your sailboat sailing, you want it to be the best.
- Floats — For towing (waterskiing, tubing and wakeboarders), you’ll want a marine rope that floats. This makes it easy for the rider to find and grab onto if they fall off.
- Sinks — While seemingly counteractive to the previous characteristic, there are some boating tasks where you need the rope to sink. Namely, for anchor lines.
- Stretches — Dock lines require a stretchable rope. This allows them to sway with the boat as the water moves. If rope is too tight, it can rip or cause your boat to slam into the side of the dock during high wind and inclement weather.
Types of Marine Rope
Sailboats, in particular, use a lot of rigging and rope that’s not needed in power boating. Here are just a few types of marine rope that sailors know well:
- Docking Rope
- Anchor Rope
- Tow Rope
- Sailing Rope
Color-Coded Marine Rope
One cool, useful feature about sailing rope is that it’s often color-coded. In the sailing world, there are standard color codes to distinguish the use and length of rope. Although you can really apply any color to any line of your personal vessel (so long as you member what the codes stand for), here are the standard color-coded lines:
- White — Mainsail sheet and halyard lines
- Blue — Jib/genoa line
- Red — Spinnaker
- Green — Guys
- Black — Vangs and travelers
Now you know some cool sailing tricks and terms to impress your boating buddies with.
Marine Rope Flecks and Tracers
Also, ever notice how some marine rope has specks of different colors? It’s called a “fleck“ when there’s an extra bit of color in the rope like a white rope with flecks of blue.
When there’s more than one color, like a white rope with red and blue, the term “tracers” is used. The flecks are used to indicate length or depth.
Marine Rope Materials and Fibers
You’ll find that several synthetic and natural fibers go into the construction of marine rope. Consider your budget and what you’ll use the rope or lines for when making a decision.
- Nylon, which is moderately priced, offers shock absorption and UV and wear resistance. It’s very strong and is often used for dock and anchor lines. It does shrink a bit when wet.
- Polyester is strong, has low stretch and is quite durable. It’s also moderate in price. It can be used for anchor lines.
- Polypropylene is lightweight, very stretchy and almost as strong as nylon. Since it floats, it’s a good choice for tow ropes. On the negative side, it’s not very UV resistant and melts at low temperatures. It’s quite affordable, so buying a new tow rope every season isn’t too bad of a deal.
- Kevlar, also known by names such as Technora, is incredibly strong, has low stretch and doesn’t rust. It’s used for mooring lines on ships and oil rigs, as well as in sailing rigging. Marine rope made with Kevlar often has a polyester cover over the Kevlar/Technora core.
Marine Rope Construction
In addition to the various types of marine rope fibers, there are a couple of ways marine rope is constructed, including braided, twisted and with a parallel core.
Braided Marine Rope
You’ll find two types of braided marine rope—single and double-braided.
Single-braided marine rope has a flexible construction that doesn’t kink or twist. It’s used on sailboat mainsheets and large dock lines.
Double-braided rope has a braided core and a braided cover. It’s easy to handle and is strong and durable. It’s used in running rigging and dock lines.
3-Strand Twist Marine Rope
3-strand twist rope is just what it sounds like—a twist of three strands. It’s flexible, durable and long-lasting. It doesn’t harden with age, and is used for anchors, running rigging, and dock, mooring and tow lines.
Parallel Core Marine Rope
Marine rope with a parallel core means it has a unidirectional fiber core with a braided cover. It has less stretch but lots of strength. You can use it for halyards, sheets and anywhere you need a low stretch marine rope.
The Best Marine Rope Brands
Every boater has a favorite brand or two when it comes to boating gear and supplies. Here are a few excellent ones to check out the next time you need marine rope.
Attwood has been around for more than 100 years manufacturing anchoring, docking and mooring rope, as well as general-use marine rope. They also manufacture other boating supplies like Bimini tops, trailer parts, deck hardware and other parts and accessories. This solid braid anchor line with thimble (check price on Amazon) is a great choice for boaters to secure their boats.
New England Ropes (check price on Amazon) has been making marine rope since 1967. Their signature product was a 3-strand premium nylon rope that was durable, reliable and innovative. Boaters use their products for anchoring, docking and mooring, as well as mega-yacht rigging, performance cruising, Olympic competition and Grand Prix racing.
In business since 1984, SeaSense (check prices on Amazon) makes anchor and general use marine rope in nylon, 3-strand twisted and double braided varieties. You can also find kayak and paddle sport products. They offer competitive prices for beginner to experienced boaters, campers, hunters and anglers. Their nylon dockline (check price on Amazon) is an excellent example of twisted marine rope.
West Marine is one of my favorite boating stores (I’m especially fond of the Key West branch). From tow rope and dock lines to anchoring and mooring gear, they’re likely to have most any kind of marine rope you’ll ever need.
How to Take Proper Care of Marine Rope
Along with using the correct rope for the job, and using the correct knots, you can keep your marine rope maintained and in top shape with these few easy tricks and tips:
Marine rope is exposed to chafing all the time—anchor lines over the side of the boat, tied up at the dock, hoisting sailing lines … and the list goes on. Chafing is just a fact of life in boating, but there are ways to prevent it.
Simply put a piece of PVC pipe or a flexible garden hose over the exposed area. You can also stitch a piece of canvas (like a glove of sorts) to cover the places where chafing is impossible to avoid.
Fraying and Rope Ends
To prevent fraying of the rope ends, you’ll need to secure the strands before cutting and treating the ends. Here are a few tricks:
The first method is called a Sailmaker’s Whipping. You secure the strands using a needle and thread. It’s the most traditional, and very effective, method, but it does require sewing skill.
The other method is to use tape (quick and easy).
Once the end strands are secure, (for synthetic rope) you’ll use heat to “melt” the ends into a protective end. If there are non-synthetic fibers in the rope, cut around the core to expose just the outer pieces. This way the outer edges will form a protective cap over the core. After the end has melted, pound it down and flatten it.
If you’ve ever walked around a marina, you’ve probably noticed swirls of perfectly coiled rope alongside the cleats of docked boats. This isn’t just an example of marine OCD—it’s a way to prevent fraying, tangling and chafing of the rope.
It also keeps the rope within easy reach when you need it (free from dangling into the water). Some boaters prefer to use a figure-eight shape. It’s all up to you.
Saltwater, dirt and other debris (including fish gills, bird droppings and the like)—rinse off with fresh water at least once a season. Avoid soapy detergents, however, as that can wash away protective finishes on marine rope.
Along with cleaning, marine rope should be inspected at least once a season (usually at the end of the season). You’ll want to look for chafing, frayed ends, dry rot, tears and worn spots. An important spot to check is the areas on your boat where rope touches. There could be sharp edges on cleats, winches and the like, or areas that snag the rope.
Know Your Ropes Yet?
Now that you know the basics behind marine rope. Use it to your advantage to choose the best type for your boating needs.
Next on the list? Mastering some of those fancy nautical knots.
Sandy Allen is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Virginia. Her specialties range from hotels, islands and yacht charters to theme parks and family fun. She enjoys boating, snorkeling and jet-skiing along the waterways of Virginia, Florida and North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Follow her adventures at Somewhere in the Sand.