Synthetic lines gain market share with innovation, reliability and durability


For a real-world glimpse at the latest maritime cordage materials, look no further than Capt. Steven Huttman's fleet at G&H Towing Co.

Huttman, G&H's director of marine operations, heads a field test of Samson Rope's newest product, Saturn-12. The new abrasion-resistant rope is serving as pendants on 11 of Huttman's tractor tugs in the Houston-Galveston region.

A pendant composed of Samson Rope's Saturn-12 synthetic line is visible under Dynalene chafing gear. (Brian Gauvin photo)

Huttman's crews gather longevity and performance data on Saturn-12, comparing it with Samson's earlier AmSteel brand lines. The new coating on the Saturn lines does seem to thwart abrasion, he said.

"We are extremely pleased with the residual strength," Huttman said. "The Saturn-12 reduces the internal and external abrasion and lasts longer than the AmSteel."

G&H's data-gathering embodies the constant innovations sought by the nation's maritime cordage manufacturers and fabricators. Companies such as Samson and Cortland Puget Sound Rope, as well as the U.S. makers of chafe gear and other accessories, lead the world in developing better materials and customizing them for mariners' specific needs, said David A. Richards, technical director at the Cordage Institute, which establishes the industry's breaking-strength standards.

The 150-foot pendant with the gray chafing gear is attached to a 400-foot mid-body line. (Brian Gauvin photo)

Many mariners and vessel operators, unfortunately, are still accustomed to ordering off-the-shelf ropes, Richards said. He suggests that mariners contact their supplier to learn more about specialized products that may better fit their needs.

"They're buying just whatever's available, and they don't realize there's more," Richards said. "They've got a lot more choices now. The U.S. manufacturers have taken what I would call the high road and are making rope that is application-specific. Now most of the rope manufacturers have fiber rope engineers on staff full-time, so they are constantly finding ways to make a product to meet a specific need."

The industry is in the midst of a revolution as synthetic ropes replace traditional materials including steel wire and nylon. Richards said the development of materials containing high-modulus polyethylene (HMPE) "has changed the complexion of the fiber rope industry in this country." The maritime industry benefits because mooring, ship-assist, inland towing and hoisting lines become stronger, lighter, more buoyant and less susceptible to abrasion.

"With the fiber, it opens up doors that have been closed in the past because of the weight factor," Richards said. "With the station-keeping rope that keeps the deepwater platforms in place, using fiber rope is more economical than using wire rope, even though the fiber rope is higher in price. For mooring lines, HMPE has replaced wire in a lot of places. A lot of ships now are going to 100 percent HMPE."

Samson Rope's Saturn-12 line undergoes analysis as the tug Lexie M assists a containership at Barbours Cut Container Terminal in Texas. The gray material covering the synthetic line is 80 feet of Dynalene chafing gear. (Brian Gauvin photo)

Cortland Puget Sound Rope's fiber brands include Plasma synthetic ropes and BOB, which stands for Braid Optimized for Bending, a deepwater lifting application. The company's East Coast sales manager, John Sheehan, said Puget Sound's most significant recent development is the acquisition of a new braiding machine that allows the company to string together longer and fatter ropes.

"Everything's getting bigger," Sheehan said. "The ships are getting larger, and companies are working in deeper and deeper water all the time. This requires very strong lines."

The Herzog 2000 12-strand braider enabled the company recently to supply an offshore wind farm installation project with a 176-mm diameter, 22-inch circumference Plasma rope sling.

"We're able to make some of the biggest ropes that have ever been made," Sheehan said.

More and more, maritime customers are asking for efficient products with a long service life, said Peter Gronbeck, CEO of Atlantic Cordage, a New Jersey-based supplier and fabricator.

"The big trend is actually the light weight and the ability to increase strength with smaller diameters," Gronbeck said. "They're looking for abrasion-resistance and the strength, and that equates to longevity. Everything they're doing is geared toward that."

While showing a visitor how Atlantic Cordage uses a splicing table and fid to fabricate a 2 5/8-inch diameter Samson Ultra Blue tugboat tie-up line, Gronbeck pointed out the advantages of the fiber over steel. He pulled out a cross-section of another Samson line that is 2 1/8 inches in diameter to explain how the synthetic composition differs from steel lines.

"This is the same strength as 2 1/8 diameter wire rope, with one-seventh the weight," Gronbeck said. "And it's much more flexible."

Samson's Saturn-12 represents a vast improvement because it uses Samson's Samthane Type E coating to strengthen the fiber both externally and internally, said Terry Crump, the company's director of sales for the Americas.

"The coating is on each strand, and it's driven down to the core of the strand itself," Crump said. "The internal abrasion is greatly reduced, and it's extending the life by about 15 to 20 percent and it's going to reduce the amount of failures. That's pretty substantial when you're trying to manage your lines for success."

At least three towing fleets, including G&H, are serving as field test sites for Saturn-12. The companies keep track of length of service and type of jobs for each line, and they inspect the lines for damage and abrasions before turning the ropes back over to Samson for further lab testing. "They're getting much better service life, and it's safer," Crump said.

In addition to providing Samson lines, Atlantic Cordage is also the exclusive distributor of Defiance brand of fiber and wire ropes. Defiance is specifically designed to exceed Cordage Institute standards by 10 percent.

Gronbeck said another recent breakthrough is a non-rotating steel wire that is helpful for use with shipboard cranes so the load stays stationary and doesn't spin around. That wire consists of four strands of 39 wires per strand.

Chafe gear also has benefited from engineering improvements. Protective covers made of various materials are increasingly in demand for installation on the rope itself — such as on the eye — or on deck equipment where contact with lines causes friction points.

Operators who use higher-priced fiber ropes are seeing the value of chafe guards, said David F.A. Richards, regional sales manager at Gator Supply Co., a Louisiana-based oilfield and marine supplier and fabricator.

"The chafe protection is a big deal, because the high-tech ropes cost so much money — the Dyneema and the Spectra products," said Richards, who is the son of the Cordage Institute's David A. Richards. "Chafe-Pro offers a nylon web chafe guard that has a unique weave that lends itself to be very durable."

Chafe-Pro Vice President Michael Ratigan said his North Carolina-based company is seeing more demand for ship mooring lines, towlines and covers for rope eyes and for hydraulic hoses.

"A lot of customers are making the switch from the wire steel cables over to the synthetic lines. They're abrasion-resistant, but that doesn't mean that they won't chafe," Ratigan said. "As the work boat industry starts making this transition, we see more and more need for a chafing device."

Ratigan said the Chafe-Pro nylon, invented by his father, lasts longer than other chafe guards and is often much less expensive.

Huttman's Houston-Galveston boats have been testing Samson's Dyneema chafe gear — and he has been pleasantly surprised at the level of protection for his ropes.

"The chafe guard does give you extended service life. We use it on the eye and 80 feet down the throat of the line," Huttman said. "Initially we were skeptical about chafe gear. We really didn't think it was worth the money, but the empirical evidence has changed our mind."

While some chafe gear is placed directly on lines, other accessories are custom-fitted to roller fairleads, H-bitts, chocks or other high-friction points on the vessel. Fluoron Inc.'s Maritime Application Rope Savers, or MARS, employ heat-shrinkable, ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) that can cover old, worn equipment with a smooth, long-lasting surface.

"This is better and cheaper than replacing the bullnose with stainless steel," said Fluoron President Randall Chapman.

In addition to setting the industry standards, the Cordage Institute also acts as a watchdog to ensure that foreign manufacturers who attempt to copy American innovations do not make false claims about quality. Mariners and their customers must rely on their cordage at sea, and the issue can literally be a matter of life and death, said Richards, with the Cordage Institute.

"They want a reliable source of product and trust it," said Richards, who is also fiber rope division manager at Houston-based Holloway Houston Inc. "If it's made properly with the right materials, it will do the job for a long time. They're tired of buying stuff that falls apart too quickly."

The aftereffects of the 2008 recession and a slowdown in offshore drilling after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico are still causing cordage purchasers to shop around for lower prices, the dealers said. Yet, quality and reliability must remain paramount.

"Reputable mariners and reputable ship operators want to work with a reputable company," Gronbeck said. "Price is secondary."

By Professional Mariner Staff