Dr Harken block-traveller maintenance_750x250

    Block and traveller maintenance…what’s the big deal?


    Less maintenance = more friction = less efficiency

    Block and traveller maintenance isn't something that springs to mind as the most exciting of projects, and for many sailors this may be something that gets put to the bottom of the to do list. Well it shouldn't!

    And considering the loads our blocks and travellers operate under, we never appreciate how well they work …until they don't!! The performance impact on a yacht due to failure of a block or traveller system can be immense, as I shall look into now.

    What's the performance impact of poorly maintained blocks and travellers?

    The best way to describe this would be to think of using a football. That's right, a football! Imagine trying to kick a ball on a tarmac surface, and then imagine trying to kick it in a muddy bog. The football will obviously be easier to kick and go further on tarmac than the muddy bog.

    The same goes for your hardware. A poorly maintained block or traveller and genoa car can result in a build-up of dirt, grime and salt. The result will be increased friction on the ball bearings, causing them to develop flat spots. If they are unable to rotate properly, the increased friction makes it difficult for the sheave/car to run freely, which in turn makes sail handling less efficient. As a result, you need to put more effort into the task at hand. Once there is a flat spot on the ball, the ball will not turn correctly again, causing the ball bearings to be weakened (and possibly crushed) while under load, making the block unusable.

    The same goes for poorly maintained traveller systems. Dirt and salt build-up can corrode materials, making them jam or move unreliably, adversely effecting sailing performance and safety while at sea.

    What's the impact of a block or traveller failing while at sea?

    In worst case scenarios, the traveller or block can break completely; if it breaks under load, this obviously could be dangerous for crew. If you don't have spares on board, you won't be able to trim your sail correctly, which on a long ocean passage may require you to divert to another port, shortening your trip, costing you both time and money.

    If ball bearings crack, the traveller car can fly off the track whilst under load, risking injury. If this happens on a sheet that controls your genoa or mainsheet, you suddenly lose the ability to control your sails, hindering your trip's progress.

    What's the most common cause of block and traveller failure?

    There's no simple answer to this question, but what I can do is highlight some of the key factors that should be addressed by any sailor.

    Salt, dirt and grime are not friendly to your boat's hardware. If you don't clean your blocks and travellers regularly with fresh and/or warm soapy water, salt and dirt build-up can result in reduced efficiency due to ball bearings wearing down and becoming distorted over time.

    One of the most common causes of block failure occurs when there is a misalignment between the block and the directional pull of the load, so the block is not able to rotate fully. The result is increased strain where it's not meant to be. Loading the block at the wrong angle reduces its strength and efficiency.

    Your blocks and travellers should only be loaded according to their specific tolerances. A common mistake is to make alternations to your yacht with little or no consideration to the correlating effect on the hardware. For example, if you change the sails on your boat to increase their size, you will subsequently increase the loading on the block and traveller systems, which if not checked can result in them being overloaded.

    Be sure when making upgrades to your boat or changing sails that you also check your block/traveller's loading capabilities to ensure they are aligned!

    How often should I inspect/service my blocks and travellers?

    There is no written rule, but generally you should give them a visual check every time you plan to set sail. You also need to check shackle points and lashings for wear, as well as look for signs of cracking, distortion, and stiffness.

    A full-service should be done once a season. A good wash-off after every sail (or longer period of inactivity) will go a long way toward keeping your gear in optimal working condition.

    Do maintenance requirements depend on the type of block or material the traveller is made from?

    In all honesty, it depends! Here's a simple way of looking at it…

    Bearings that roll: such as ball bearings in the traveler cars, Carbo blocks, and the Torlon® rollers in Black Magic® blocks, all need to be regularly cleaned in fresh water or a warm soapy liquid. After cleaning, adding a small drop of McLube® OneDrop™ conditioner helps maintain them in good condition.

    Parts that slide: such as ESP genoa slider rod cars, slider batten cars, and T-Track systems should also be serviced in the same way as blocks, but with a dose of McLube Sailkote™ spray instead of OneDrop.

    What are common signs repair/maintenance work needs to be done?

    For blocks: Look for signs the sheave is struggling to run freely, elongation of the head post or shackle, or cracks/damage to the side cheeks.

    For traveler cars: If you notice the car is not moving or is very stiff to move when no load is on the system, this is a sign it needs some attention!

    Key points to take away:

    • Remember that if you make increases to the sail size or the sheeting position, you need to make sure that the loads aren't too great for your deck hardware.
    • Give a visual check before setting sail. Nothing's worse than a shackle coming loose and losing the pin.
    • Get cleaning! Wash your blocks and travellers after use and/or periods of inactivity.
    • Ensure blocks are correctly aligned to the load.
    • Less maintenance = more friction = less efficiency.

    That's all for now…

    Dr. Harken!

    Got a question?
    For more information on boat maintenance, or anything else feel free to contact Dr Harken at drharken@harken.co.uk, call 01590 689 122 or visit the Dr Harken section of our website.


    Other articles by Dr Harken:

    McLube is a registered trademark of McGee Industries, Inc.
    Torlon is a registered trademark of Solvay Advanced Polymers L. L. C.
    Sailkote is a trademark of McLube, a division of McGee Industries, Inc.
    OneDrop is a trademark of McLube, a division McGee Industries, Inc.

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