In preparation for a circumnavigation of Australia, the Endeavour replica’s standing rigging is being completely renewed for the first time since the ship was launched in 1993. It all began with a visit to the 17th-century ropewalk at England’s Chatham Dockyard, to watch the ship’s new ropes being manufactured.
Endeavour has sailed twice around the world since her commissioning in 1994. Her rigging has been exposed to dust from a Sahara sandstorm blown out to sea, snow in Europe, hot and humid conditions in the tropics, storm-force winds and the strains of breasting huge seas. Now the time has come to replace the entire standing rigging.
The original Endeavour carried standing rigging constructed of hemp. For the Endeavour replica’s standing rigging, manila was chosen instead of hemp because it was more readily available than hemp and was cheaper. It also has a higher natural resistance to mildew.
A synthetic rig had been ruled out because of its tendency to continue stretching and thus to give inadequate support to the masts.
Manila fibre is obtained from the leaves of a species of banana native to the Philippines locally known as abacá. The fibres are exceptionally strong and durable and are generally 1.5–3.5 metres long.
At the ropewalk at England’s Chatham Dockyard, the fibre is separated and cut to lengths of no more than 1.5 metres. It is progressively combed and knit together and treated with an emulsion called batching oil to help it comb out easier, and as a waterproofing agent. Then it is sent to the spinner to be spun into yarns.
The spinners were regarded as the most skilled tradesmen employed in the ropewalk. They walked backwards down the length of the walk uniformly feeding in the combed fibre as the yarn was spun by a hook on a spinning wheel that was operated by a young boy. An experienced spinner was capable of spinning 1,000 feet (305 metres) in 12 minutes.
Today the spinning is performed by a machine. The spinning machine used for Endeavour’s yarn is able to produce over 20 kilometres of spun yarn in 20 minutes.
A rope holds its form and gains its strength by applying opposing twists during the different stages of construction. Yarns are is spun clockwise or right-handed. Then they are spun in the opposite direction to form a strand. Strands are then twisted together clockwise or right-handed to ‘close’ the rope.
The forming machine that was used for Endeavour’s rope is known as Maud, and dates from 1811. It is the oldest machine employed in the ropewalk.
Seventeen kilometres of rope were ordered for the replacement of the Endeavour replica’s standing rigging, but only four and a half kilometres are made of manila. We do use polyester but only for the seizings, servings and worming. These are components that require strength and are applied very tight, so there is very little concern about them stretching.
Once our new manila rope was delivery from England, the coils of rope were opened, the required lengths were cut and the rope ends were whipped.
The lengths of rope were pre-stretched for a minimum of 24 hours by attaching a weight equivalent to their working-load limit, to let the fibre reach its maximum stretch and then relax and settle. Once manila has been pre-stretched, it has similar stretch characteristics to wire.
If the standing rigging is not sufficiently pre-stretched, it will continue stretching in operation and provide insufficient support for the masts. The stays and shrouds will need regular re-seizing around the deadeyes at their lower ends.
The next step is to preserve the manila rope. This is done by soaking it in raw and natural Stockholm tar, a residue left after distilling a gum that is extracted from pine and fir trees.
Once these preparatory measures have been completed, we can start turning the ropes into ship’s rigging.
That’s a huge job, and if you’re interested I will make it the subject of another blog.
Anthony Longhurst, ANMM leading-hand rigger and shipwright