The Best Emergency Cutters for Standing Rigging?

Since reading Rescue in the Pacific by Tony Farrington, I’ve been thinking about how to cut away steel wire rope standing rigging in an emergency situation.

(I wholly recommend that book, by the way—it’s a riveting read you won’t want to put down.)

Here’s the typical scenario—whether imagined or reality:

It’s dark. There’s been a storm raging for hours. The waves are the largest you’ve ever seen: steep, breaking, foreboding. You’re surfing down the faces pretty fast, but taking them on the quarter… It’s starting to feel like you might just get through this ok. Suddenly, without warning, the boat rolls through 360 degrees. Was it a rogue wave? It’s an academic question—your world has just been literally turned upside-down. You ascend from the cabin to assess the situation. The mast is gone! Well—not gone, exactly. It’s over the side, in the foam-churned water, but still attached to the vessel via its spaghetti of shrouds. That rhythmic thudding you hear against the side? Yes, that’s your fallen mast doing its best to ram a hole in your boat. You’ve been up for 36 hours straight, exhausted from an adrenaline-fueled night at the helm, tired, under-nourished and over-caffeinated, and now you need to go on deck in this mess and somehow loose your once-noble mast, lest it succeed in doing you in.

All the reading and research I’d done pointed to bolt cutters. So, I set out to get a pair. Of bolt cutters!

The largest diameter of steel wire rope I’d need to cut is 9/32 inch. When I looked at bolt cutters that were spec’ed for this size… they were HUGE. And heavy. I imagined myself, or perhaps a companion, attempting to wrangle such a beast on the deck of a heaving vessel in a storm…

Um, I don’t think so. But what other options are there?

It wasn’t until I saw this video that I realized there were options:

Here are the options I considered. Most were discarded simply from my personal prejudices, which are described below. For the remaining two, I obtained steel wire rope of the largest diameter I’d need to cut, for testing.

  • Bolt cutters. Heavy and bulky. Likely cumbersome to use on deck in a storm. Especially by exhausted crew. Didn’t even bother testing these.
  • Cable cutters. Tried these as a compromise to the bolt cutters, because they were lighter and less bulky. With incredible physical effort, they only made it about 1/3 of the way through the unloaded test wire rope. The tool was damaged in the process.
  • Hack saw. I did not actually try this option. In Yachting Monthly’s test, they ended up giving it the top overall score of the methods they tried. However, I suspect that’s in part because they used the saw on a heavily loaded wire rope. An unloaded rope would have require more effort, and been more difficult in a storm situation. I do have a hack saw aboard in my tool kit, so it will be available as a (backup) option while I’m sailing.
  • Toolova Shootit. This is a powder-actuated tool featured in the Yachting Monthly video. Allegedly it uses nail gun charges that are fairly waterproof to make quick work of steel wire rope. Seems ideal–fast, lightweight, easy to use. Unfortunately this tool is discontinued, so I did not consider it further.
  • Hydraulic cutters. I discounted this option outright. While it performed well in Yachting Monthly’s test, my concern is that when I most need this tool, the hydraulic oil will have leaked out. I’d prefer a purely mechanical option.
  • Ratcheting cutters. This is not something that was tested by Yachting Monthly. In fact, the first time I heard of this as a possibility was from my dad. Armed with the idea, I found the Baudat KS 10. It’s able to cut through my toughest rigging in 13 strokes. Some of the strokes required a decent two-handed effort. Overall, I feel this is imminently do-able for the 8 lines I’d need to cut. The tool showed no sign of damage after use. Most importantly, it is lightweight and easy enough to be feasibly used on deck during rough conditions.

Baudat—which I ended up choosing as my go-to option in an emergency—has cutters for all kinds of sizes. The best tool I hope to never have to use.

Have you ever had to cut your rigging in an emergency? What did you use and how did it work out? Leave a comment below and share your story!

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