Few things aboard your boat are as simple—or as important—as rope. Docklines and anchor rodes will give you years of service if you take care of them properly, but ignore them at your peril: A failure of either can be disastrous. Fortunately the care and feeding of rope is both simple and cheap.
Once a year wash your docklines with mild soap and water to remove salt, dirt, and other abrasives. Let the lines soak in soapy water for an afternoon, stirring them a few times to knock the grit out from between the strands. Rinse with fresh water, and lay the lines out on deck to dry before coiling and stowing them. Do the same with your anchor rodes, which will be covered with slime and/or mold, since the anchor locker rarely dries out completely. Scrub and dry the anchor locker while the rodes are soaking.
Inspect all lines for chafing, cuts, and abrasions, especially at the eye splices, which are abused by rough pilings and galvanized dock cleats. Even minor damage is grounds for replacing the line or at least cutting off the bad splice and tucking in a new one if the rest of the line is okay. (Splicing is easy to learn, as the illustration below shows; get a book, or find an old salt to teach you.) To make your new lines last longer, protect the eyes with sewn-on chafing gear; your local chandlery should have kits that include leather, twine, needles, and instructions. You sew the leather using the same stitch that holds the cover on a baseball; it's called, oddly enough, a baseball stitch. If you're not into handicrafts, some rope suppliers sell pre-spliced, chafe-protected docklines; one company is Rope Inc. in Fort Lauderdale (888-596-7673).
If you have a windlass, your anchor rode is probably attached to its chain leader with a chain splice rather than a shackle. A chain splice passes easily over a rope/chain wildcat but is prone to chafing due to mud, sand, bits of shell, and other gurry getting between the rope and chain. If you drop anchor more than once or twice a season, you should renew the chain splice every spring and reverse the rode end for end. A chain splice is straightforward: The rope is unlaid for 18 inches or so, two strands go through the end link of chain from one direction, the third strand from the other, and all three are tucked into the standing part of the line four or five times (see illustration below). However, if it fails the results can be expensive, so maybe it's worth paying the yard rigger to do it for you, at least the first time.
Here are a few more tips. First, match your docklines to your boat's cleats: 1/16 inch of line for every one inch of cleat, e.g., 1/2-inch line for eight-inch cleats. Keep the lines straight; sharp bends accelerate chafe. Run lines as directly as possible from the boat to dockside cleats, which sometimes means foregoing the chocks or hawse pipes. Replace the permanent docklines at your slip every two years (every year in the tropics), since prolonged exposure to UV rays will degrade the nylon. Protect your lines with chafing gear at every chock or hawse pipe; ditto for the anchor rode, which can chafe quickly in a choppy sea, even in its roller. And keep your lines neatly coiled so they don't get tangled and kinked. Tangled lines scream "landlubber."
What's a fender board? Do I need one? Where do I get one? How do I use it?—R.C. Dunham, via e-mail
A fender board is a plank hung outboard of two or more fenders to provide protection against a piling or other hazard that a single fender will roll away from. It works better than a fender tied horizontally from both ends, since the plank still rides against the piling even though the boat moves forward and aft because of current, wind, etc. As long as you have enough places to tie two fenders and two fender-board lanyards within three or four feet of your boat, a board works pretty well.
A fender board can be as simple as a rough 2'x6' stud with lines tied around both ends for hanging or as fancy as a varnished mahogany plank with bronze half-round chafe strips. Before investing in the latter, I'd try the former to see if a board really helps your situation. If it does, you can then make a nice one yourself. The board should be about four feet long, with a hole drilled near each end to take the lanyards (use 1/4-inch nylon). Any wood that's fairly light and stiff will work: I'm a cheapskate, so I'd use the aforementioned 2'x6' but with its corners nicely rounded, its edges knocked off with a plane, and I'd prime and paint it white (or I'd match a colored hull). Two or three strips of stainless half-round screwed to the face will keep the paint from rubbing off. If you want to show off, go the mahogany route.
To use the board, first hang the fenders vertically, one a little forward, one a little aft of the piling or whatever you want to guard against. Then hang the board across the fenders. Don't place the fenders too close to the ends of the board; you don’t want a fender to come out from behind the board as the boat moves, or the board might inflict more damage than the piling it's supposed to be protecting you from. A little common sense and trial and error will show you exactly how to rig the setup.