Mooring ropes on a sailing vessel.

Rope Types Every Boater Should Know

Rope can come in a variety of sizes, colors, and types.  It can be made from any fibrous, stringy, and obviously long-stranded materials.  For boating, depending upon the purpose of the rope, there are a variety of different types that you will encounter.  In this article, we will review the various types of rope which are commonly used for boating, both in fresh as well as saltwater.

Let’s start things off by discussing some of the terms you need to understand, which I will reference in this article.  

Rope Definitions

Circumference – The measure around the exterior of an object.

Diameter – The measure through the center of an object, from one edge to the other.

Deformation – When an object bends, twists or otherwise loses its original shape due to stresses and/or forces applied to the object.

Halyard – This term in sailing refers to rope used for raising sails, ladders and so on.  The name is derived from the sailing term to haul a yard (of fabric aka sail).

Hawser – A thick line used in towing or mooring large sailing vessels.

Laid Rope – Laid, or twisted rope is the standard for rope construction.  It implies the rope is given a twist during construction in one of the two possible twist directions.

Mooring Line – This is a rope that is used for the purpose of securing a vessel such as a boat to something such as a wharf or pier.  In other words, ropes for docking a boat.

Tensile Strength – Tensile strength is the measure of a material’s ability to withstand being torn apart.

History of Rope

A pile of rope.
A pile of rope.

Rope in one form or another has been used by humans since prehistoric times.  That’s right, we’ve likely been using ropes for the better part of a possible 3.3 million years.  That’s an awfully long time for rope to be around. And due to this fact, the way rope has been measured, manufactured and so on, has changed dramatically over the years.

The oldest known account of rope being used by people was found in a cave in France and dated about 15,000 BC.  It was likely a two-ply rope of approximately 7mm diameter.

The Egyptians were well known for using a rope for a variety of purposes.  Seafaring was definitely on the list of things they used ropes for. The ropes were made of mostly water reed fibers.  The Egyptians were the first, that we are aware of, to actually have special tools created solely for the purpose of making rope. This would make rope manufacture a serious part of civilization back as far as 3500-4000 years ago.

Today rope is used by a variety of different people, for a variety of different things.  And make no mistake, there are now all kinds of different rope out there thanks to advancements in technology.  

Synthetic ropes have proven to be considerably stronger, last longer, and generally, have preferential qualities to natural fiber ropes. Synthetic rope has been around for about 80 years with companies like Samson boasting of being a first manufacturer of a quality synthetic rope as early as 1957.

Natural vs Synthetic Rope

Rope with its long history has traditionally been manufactured out of natural materials.  The rope has been made from everything from hair to plant fibers. It has not been until the most recent millennia where we have seen the advent of synthetic fibers, that rope has really changed.  

Synthetics allow us to design materials to withstand the elements which natural fibers do not stand up well against.  But both types of rope have their place. Synthetic ropes are usually made of either Nylon, Polyester, Polypropylene or Polyethylene.

Natural fiber rope is usually made of cotton, jute, manila, sisal, and/or hemp.

The synthetic rope such as nylon for example often has a much longer shelf life than the natural fiber ropes.  This is due to its properties of being resistant to rot and mold, UV and other things like certain chemicals. Due to these superior properties which often also include strength and durability, it is no wonder that synthetic ropes are the preferred ropes of choice for most boating applications.

The most common synthetic rope type for boating is the marine-grade polyester rope.  Polyester rope offers superior strength, resistance to ultra-violet radiation (U.V.) and also does not stretch much, unlike Nylon.  Polyester rope is commonly called Dacron. It is often the more common of rope types for pontoon boats and also a common rope type for fishing boats.  This type of rope also has good abrasion resistance but we’ll get more into the particulars later in the article when I discuss the particular characteristics of each rope type.

How Rope Is Made

A 1928 Metters Rope Making Machine
A 1928 Metters Rope Making Machine.  By Photographs by Gnangarra…commons.wikimedia.org, CC BY 2.5 au, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=823803

In Western society, the standard for a rope is to be twisted.  This is also known as laid rope. The twisted rope may be twisted in one of two directions.  The universal standard for denoting which direction the twist in the rope is is by using the letters S and Z.  The central portion of each letter shows the direction of the rope twist. In other terms, it is ‘ \ ‘ direction or ‘ / ‘ direction.  One might refer to it as a left or right-hand twist, but using S and Z is the standard.

An antique rope making apparatus.
An antique rope making apparatus.

The modern rope is made using a machine not that dissimilar in design to the 1928 rope twisting machine pictured above.  Modern rope making machines use a variety of spinning apparatus which all move together to weave multiple strands into rope.  

Technology and rope making has even advanced so far as to make what is called wire rope.  This is often found in industrial applications such as bridge design, aircraft manufacture and also on some of the more industrial shipping and fishing boats.  It is often used as a structural component. This type of rope is also spun together or twisted together using fabrication machines.

Another antique rope making machine for multi-strand rope.

Basic Boating Rope Materials

Polyester Rope

Polyester is the standard rope for many different boating applications.  This rope is great for boating because it is stretch resistant, U.V. resistance, and has the superior abrasion resistance and atypically high tensile strength compared to natural fiber ropes of similar diameter.

Due to the fact that this type of rope does not float, it can be great to use for an anchor line if mixed with polypropylene so it has stretch.  But this also means it may not be good to use for floats and bumpers as you may want that rope to float. This is where getting a mixed material type of rope may be beneficial.  For example a polyester rope with a polypropylene core so it floats and still maintains excellent tensile strength.

Benefits

The high tensile strength of polyester rope makes it ideal for use for boating as a general-purpose rope.  It is resistant to ultra-violet and many chemicals as well so it stands up well out in the elements. This type of rope is also resistant to abrasions and makes decent mooring lines due to this property.

Drawbacks

This rope sinks in water.  Drop it off your dock or deck of your boat and it’s gone down to Davey Jones locker.

Common Types of Polyester Rope

Plaited Pre-Stretched – commonly used for lacing and so on, for smaller diameter applications.  As the name implies, this type has a measure of pre-stretch built into the rope to reduce the amount of stretch.  The type of rope makes great knots.

Braided Rope – this is your everyday, standard polyester rope.  This is the most common type.

Polypropylene Rope

Pool with polypropylene rope markers.
Swimming pool with polypropylene rope markers.

Benefits

Polypropylene floats in water.  This can make it very useful for boating as a dropped rope won’t sink into the depths.  You’ve likely seen this rope before if you’ve ever watched swimming in the Olympics or if you’ve looked at a community center pool.  The typical white and blue floating rope that marks out the deep end or swimming lanes in a pool is made of polypropylene rope. Polypropylene rope is slightly more stretchy than polyester rope is.

Drawbacks

This type of rope will degrade over time with exposure to UV rays.  Polypropylene does not have ‘stretch memory’. This means that once it stretches, it will not return to its original state.  Also, this type of rope heats and melts under friction so it doesn’t serve well as a mooring line typically.

Types of Polypropylene Rope

Staple Spun Polyprop

This type of rope is typically a 3-strand spun/twisted rope.  Each strand is made from a collection of smaller strands of polypropylene material.  This rope is a cheaper type that is used quite commonly for a variety of applications.  Keep in mind, that it will become brittle over time as it degrades. Once it becomes brittle and begins to splinter, it will need to be replaced.  

Monofilament Polyprop

As the name implies, this type of rope uses mono or single filament construction.

Nylon Rope

Nylon rope is the most stretchable type amongst the synthetic ropes mentioned here. It can store a tremendous amount of energy making it excellently suited for anchor and towing lines.  The problem with nylon rope is when it breaks due to having the force on it exceed its tensile strength. Due to the amount of energy that nylon rope can store, when it breaks it can release that energy very quickly potentially causing harm to anyone struck by the rope as it snaps back away from where it was stretched out to the point of breaking.

Speaking of breaking, did I mention that nylon is the strongest of ropes commonly used?  Well, it is. The only drawback is that like polyester rope, it sinks. That’s why you don’t see nylon being used for pool rope like you see polypropylene used for.  Nylon is a common boating rope type used.

Hemp Rope

Hemp rope is strong and makes very good knots.  It stands up well to the elements but like any natural rope, it will biodegrade over time. Made from the fibers of the cannabis relative hemp, this is a highly useful material as it also makes excellent cloth for people to make clothing and is a renewable resource.

Manila Rope

Manila rope is a natural fiber rope made from a plant native to the Philippines.  The plant, a relative of the banana tree is called the Acaba. This type of rope was often employed as a hawser line due to its natural resistance to saltwater.  It is a strong and flexible natural rope.

Jute Rope

This light-colored natural fiber rope is often used for decorative knots and other decorative applications.  It is most commonly known for its making of the well-known burlap sack. The fiber is commonly obtained from the Corchorus olitorius.  It is not commonly used in boating.

Sisal Rope

This natural fiber rope is made from the Agave sisalana plant.  It is a strong rope that is stiff and does not deteriorate from saltwater.  Like any natural rope, it eventually breaks down but this is a good, cheap rope other than that.  It is not resistant to fire or certain chemicals.

Sisal is commonly known for its part in making the well-known product known as twine.  It is an excellent, tough-fibered material that holds knots well.  It is not commonly found as a boating rope type.

Coir Rope

Finding coir rope or twine is actually somewhat rare in the boating world.  Coir is made from the fibers of coconuts. Typically it is similar to twine and used for similar purposes.

Cotton Rope

Cotton, as you likely already know, makes an excellent textile that is a favorite of many for a material to make clothing.  It makes a soft material that is strong and flexible as well as the obvious quality of softness. But there’s a drawback to a cotton cord and rope and that is that it soaks up water unless specially treated.  It is a strong cord mind you, so the treated cotton cord can be an excellent choice, depending on the application of course. For most boating purposes, cotton is better left on the land. That is unless you use it in sailing.  In general, cotton is not a boating rope type.

Snapshot Of Common Uses For Ropes In Boating

  • Mooring Lines
  • Anchor Rope
  • Sail Ropes
  • Towing Lines
  • Fishing Net-Lines

Sources

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