Dirt and salt bury into the fibers of rope, causing fatigue and ultimately shortening their lifespan. But before you replace those crusty, dirty, stinky lines, try washing them!
We read through all the forum discussions, blog posts, and Practical Sailor’s excellent tests and present you with a distilled guide with all the DOs and DON’Ts. Clean your ropes once per year to keep them looking, feeling, and working great.
Prep the ropes
- Remove all your ropes, lines, and running rigging from your boat. Run a messenger line to make it easy to re-run your halyards, but consider doing them in two batches so you always have a halyard available in case you need to go up the mast.
- Make sure all the ends are properly whipped or fused so they don’t come unraveled.
Soaking the ropes for an hour in warm water with mild detergent is safe and very effective. It may be enough to get them clean. Even if it’s not enough, pre-soaking the ropes makes the wash machine much more effective.
- Fill a tub or bucket with warm water and Woolite or a mild laundry detergent.
- Put the ropes in the water and agitate for a minute to get them thoroughly soaked.
- Allow them to soak for an hour, and then agitate by hand for a minute or two.
- If the rope comes clean to your liking, then consider calling this good enough and skip machine washing them. Thoroughly rinse the ropes multiple times by dumping the water, refilling the tub, and agitating until the water is clean and no soap residue remains. Move on to drying them.
Machine washing a rope has the possibility of damaging it or your wash machine. But when done right, you’ll find that it can be safe and quite effective.
- Remove any shackles if possible, or cover them with a sock and secure with a zip tie.
- Daisy chain the ropes, which will make them both easier to untangle later, and will prevent the core from slipping in the wash machine.
- Put the ropes in a mesh bag to prevent them from becoming a tangled mess and getting wrapped around the actuator—if your wash machine has one. An old pillow case will suffice, but it is not as effective since it traps in the grime. To keep the washer balanced, make sure you have at least two bags of equal weight, or some additional laundry, but preferably one bag for each rope.
- Add a small amount of Woolite, or any modern mild laundry detergent with a dash of fabric softener.
- Run the washer on the gentle cycle.
- When it finishes, inspect the contents to make sure the ropes are not damaged or wrapped around anything.
- For good measure, run the washer one more time on the rinse cycle to make sure all the detergent and fabric softener is washed out.
It’s important that your lines get completely dried, especially before being stored. The easiest method is simply to loosely flake the rope on the floor or dock and let it dry for 24 hours or so.
When re-running each line, flip it around end-for-end if possible to vary where the line is stressed.
What not to do
- Never wash a new rope.
- Never use a pressure washer.
- Don’t wash rope in a machine with an agitator without putting them in a bag or pillow case. You might get lucky and they’ll come out fine, or more likely you’ll end up with a tangled mess and a broken wash machine. If you have a front-load wash machine or a machine without an agitator this is less of an issue.
- Avoid acid cleaners and anything with a pH below 7 or above 9.
- Avoid special “rope cleaners” since they aren’t any more effective than a mild detergent like Woolite or a modern laundry detergent.
- Avoid bleach. It doesn’t really make a difference, and likely reduces the breaking strength.
- Never use hot water or dry with heat. Excessive heat will shrink or damage your ropes.
- We don’t recommend drying ropes in the clothes dryer, because it can further damage the ropes, it’s just obnoxiously loud, and it doesn’t really produce better results. If you really must use the dryer, use the delicate or lowest heat setting.
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