The question ‘how many ropes are on a sailboat’ sounds like the start of a bad joke, or one of those brainteasers you will never be able to work out. In the world of yachting however, it is a perfectly valid question.
Rope is a broad term for a wide range of materials used to make lines and tethers on board. So, there are numerous answers to the question of how many ropes are on a sailboat, depending on what the person answering means by ‘rope’. Each rope has a specific role on board a sailboat, therefore you will find that more often and not different lines will have different names, relating to their individual purpose.
Ropes on a boat fall into two categories; standing rigging and running rigging. Standing secures other parts of the boat, and running helps hoist and move. Standing rope rigging can be a fore or aft stay. The fore means it is at the front (bow), and the aft means the back (stern). There are also the shrouds which are the mesh-like rope leading from the mast down to the sides of the boat. Running rope rigging are halyards or sheets. Halyards raise and lower other pieces of equipment on the boat such as the spars and flags. Sheets control the sails.
Ropes are on a sailboat for a reason. Many are arranged in spools for ease of access and storage. There is nothing worse than a tangled rope on a boat. Rope on a boat is most often called a line, so when you hear or read line; they mean rope. Typically, four types of ‘rope’ although there can be many more if you include lines.
The foot rope is so named as it is the rope which the sailors of the yacht use to stand on whilst tinkering with the sails. It runs the length of the whole boat, which means it gives good access to all areas for those sailing the boat in any conditions. The foot rope is found on any type of vessel and is an integral part of the boat. On some models, it is replaced now by a boon. But a traditional rope allows for much better grip in choppy conditions.
A bolt rope is slightly different. It is attached to the base of the sails and exists to connect the sail with the spars. Its name also gives you a clue to its purpose, as it is a reinforcement rope. It strengthens the sail.
The tiller rope (surprise surprise) is the line that is used to tie off the tiller. It is most useful when sailing as boat rope when the sails are at an equilibrium ergo leaving the tiller free to be set in position. This is the tiller rope’s function. It saves the sailor from having to stand there – and that encapsulates the importance of rope on a sailboat; if a piece of rope is doing the work, the sailor doesn’t have to! It leaves the sailor free to go about other business, and is a particularly handy rope when the helm needs urgent attention. Many more modern boats now no longer need this tiller rope, as they are built with wheel steering. Historically they were used all the time, but now it is rarer to see them on yachts over 30 feet in length. The move to wheels has made sailing more accessible, as it is less technical. But it also means some of the artistry in sailing has been lost.
Last but not least… the bell rope. Now this really is the most obvious one – it is the rope that hang’s from the bell which allows the sailor to ring the bell when needed. Horns and whistles are more common on smaller yachts, but you will still find the traditional bell on larger yachts of over 40 feet. Other than those four types, pretty much everything else rope-like on a boat is known as a line.
So it may seem that ropes are not as abundant as they once were upon sailboats, but where they do exist, they still perform very important functions, and any sailor should get to know his ropes and be able to answer the question of how many ropes are on the sailboat. It is a bit of a trick as technically one could say there are no ropes on a sailboat, because they all have their own names which mean there is nothing that is just called ‘rope’.
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