Installing Midship Lifeline Gates

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By Mike Smith #688 Breezer (1988)


With Jan's encouragement, I decided to install midship lifeline gates on Breezer, our 1988 Catalina 34. There are several important reasons for doing this, most of which are associated with more easily getting our overweight dog, Sam, on and off the boat. Also, I think lifeline gates look really cool.

Before I installed the lifeline gates, I had to consider several things. I wanted to keep the 1988 Catalina look, and I wanted to re-use existing parts and material as much as possible. I wanted to repair and drill as few holes in the boat as possible, and I wanted to upgrade and enhance the lifeline system in terms of structure and function.

Where to put the gates?

Usually, we don't board Breezer by dropping the cockpit lifelines like most folks do. Breezer lies to starboard alongside our dock, which is 50' in length. The left end of the dock next to Breezer’s stern has a 180 rotating lift for our 1983 11’ Boston Whaler dinghy, so we can't easily board at the cockpit without first repositioning the boat. So, we board a little aft of midship, by stepping onto the boat and then swinging a leg up and over the lifelines to do so. This movement is easy enough if you are wearing shorts or a bathing suit, but it lacks a certain decorum for our female guests in skirts when we motor across the sound to Quietwater Beach for a fancy evening dinner at Jubilee. Further, since I've noticed a lot of our friends are looking older for some reason, and may not be able to board in this manner in the future, I decided a near midship lifeline gate was essential. Actually, an ideal location for the lifeline gates would be exactly at midship, where the beam is widest to facilitate boarding and moving from boat to boat during raftups. However, when docking, I usually drop a couple of fenders and a fender board at midship and center the boat on a dock piling, which unfortunately, would also center the piling in the middle of the gate. So, in yet another compromise, I decided to install the lifeline gates just aft of midship. You can mount these gates anywhere you want along the lifelines; it’s a matter of utility and safety.

How wide to make the gates?

Lifeline gates are usually about 30 inches in width or about the width of a household doorway. On Breezer, the distance between the existing cockpit gate stanchion and the midship stanchion is about 6 feet. I decided that locating a new gate stanchion amidships and another new gate stanchion only 30 inches aft within that same 6-foot span would detract from the appearance of the boat, i.e., three gate stanchions in a row. To avoid this, I considered replacing the existing cockpit gate stanchion with a regular stanchion to clean the configuration up a bit, but I decided that would weaken the lifeline system as a whole. I wanted a substantial gate stanchion at the entrance to the cockpit. So, I decided to install one gate stanchion at midship, replacing the existing midship stanchion, and rotate the existing cockpit gate stanchion around in place.

Before I go any further, a very important consideration if you are going to replace the midship stanchions is whether your boat uses a regular stanchion or a vented stanchion at midship. A vented stanchion has an extension on the bottom running through the deck to which the holding tank or water tank vent hose may be attached. On Breezer both the holding tank and water tank vent hoses are attached to 90 through hull fittings just below the rubrail on either side of the boat. The holes in the deck for the special vented stanchion extension are not used and have been filled with epoxy. So, my midship stanchions are the regular or non-vented type. If you intend to use a gate stanchion to replace the vented stanchion at midship, then you may need to have a special vented gate stanchion made up by the manufacturer. Since my source, Catalina Direct, has the stanchions made to order, this may not be a problem. Just make sure the vent extension is on the vertical leg, not the curved leg, of the midship gate stanchion.

Ordering new stanchions

So, just order two new gate stanchions and bolt them on, right? Not quite. Gate stanchions consist of a vertical leg with a square base and a curved support leg with a round base. Of course, gate stanchions should be installed with the vertical legs facing each other and the supporting legs facing away, i.e., fore and aft. But the gate stanchions are not interchangeable. They are mirror images of each other, with two versions, port and starboard, with the inboard mounting holes in the square base closer together than the outboard mounting holes. So I couldn't just turn the existing cockpit gate stanchion around in place 180 as I had thought. If I did that, I would have to first repair seven mounting holes (four in the square base and three in the round base) and then re-drill seven new ones in very close proximity to the site of the old ones. Not a good idea for structural integrity.

What type and how many gate stanchions do I need to order to minimize drilling additional holes in the boat?

For the starboard midship gate stanchion I needed a gate stanchion with the vertical leg facing aft, the curved leg facing forward, and the inboard mounting holes in the square mounting base closer together than the outboard mounting holes. That is a Catalina standard starboard gate stanchion. For the cockpit gate stanchion I needed a gate stanchion with the vertical leg facing forward, the curved leg facing aft, and the inboard mounting holes in the base closer together than the outboard mounting holes. That is a Catalina standard port gate stanchion. With this starboard type midship and port type cockpit arrangement, the mounting holes in the deck all match up for the square base of the vertical leg of the gate stanchions. However, you will have to drill three new mounting holes for each round base of the curved leg of the stanchions, and repair three mounting holes left when the cockpit gate stanchion was replaced. This gate stanchion arrangement is simply reversed for the port side. So, since I already had two existing gate stanchions on the boat which I could re-use, I ordered two new gate stanchions from Catalina Direct, one each port and starboard, and eight backing plates (more on this later). I decided to mount the two old gate stanchions on the port side and the two new stanchions on the starboard side of Breezer for appearance sake, which is where we usually board the boat at the dock.

What is the sequence of events for installing the gate stanchions?

You may want to do this one side at a time. First off, remove and LABEL your lifelines, (fore and aft, starboard and port, upper and lower). Incidentally, now is a good time to check the end fittings for corrosion and cracks. If you find any, you may want to replace them instead of reusing them. Now is also a good time to clean the vinyl coated lifelines themselves. I use foam automobile tire whitewall cleaner. Coil them up and store them - they will be cut to size later.

To remove a stanchion, all you have to do is reach way up under the teak trim along each side of the boat, feel around and use a small ratchet wrench or nut driver with and extension to unscrew the nuts. A GearWrench from Lowe’s is perfect for this. An extra pair of hands topside holding the pan head machine screws (I’ll call them mounting bolts) still with a Phillips head screwdriver or a pair of vice-grips helps a lot. There is a vinyl-covered liner in the aft cabin, which is attached with three long wood screws to three wooden blocks attached to the underside of the deck. Unscrew them and pull the liner down. Upon closer inspection, I found (as expected) that NONE of the stanchions had backing plates installed, and several lacked even fender washers - only a lock washer and nut. I decided that since I was installing the lifeline gates, I would rebed and install backing plates on ALL of the stanchions on Breezer, hence the additional four backing plates I ordered from Catalina Direct. I'm saving the bow and stern pulpit rebed project for another day. Since I added backing plates and fender washers to each stanchion base, I increased the length of the mounting bolts from 1 1/2" to 1 3/4"

Remove each stanchion, clean, polish, and label it, i.e., Stbd #1, Stbd#2, etc. so you can put them back where they came from. Remove every bit of adhesive sealant from each stanchion base footprint on the deck and the stanchion base itself using a spray or liquid adhesive remover in a well ventilated area, preferably outdoors. Store the old midship stanchions, put them on Ebay, or use them as spares to replace any damaged ones since gate stanchions will replace them. Inspect the mounting holes and the deck area around them. If you are absolutely sure that you have no moisture intrusion or rot in the deck core, you can just remount and reseal the stanchions in place. If this is not the case, then see Note 1: Repairing Moisture Intrusion Damage at the end of this article. For enhanced moisture intrusion protection when you remount the stanchions, see Note 2: Enhanced Moisture Intrusion Protection at the end of this article. Temporarily reposition the stanchion by lining up the mounting holes in the stanchion base with the mounting holes in the deck and trace around the square base of the vertical leg on the deck with a pencil. For the new starboard midship gate stanchion be sure to use a new Catalina standard starboard gate stanchion with the curved leg facing forward and vertical leg facing aft. Trace around the round base of the curved leg on the deck and mark the positions for the three new mounting holes, check below for any wiring or fixtures to avoid, and drill and slightly countersink them using a 1/4" drill bit. For the new starboard cockpit gate stanchion, be sure to use a new Catalina standard port gate stanchion with the curved leg facing aft and the vertical leg facing forward. Temporarily reposition the stanchion by lining up the mounting holes in the square stanchion base with the mounting holes in the deck and trace around the square base of the vertical leg on the deck with a pencil. Trace around the round base of the curved leg on the deck and mark the position for the three new mounting holes, check below for any wiring or fixtures to avoid, and drill and slightly countersink them using a 1/4" drill bit. Do the same for the all the port side stanchions, using the old port cockpit gate stanchion as the new port midship gate stanchion, and the old starboard cockpit gate stanchion as the new port cockpit gate stanchion. See Note 3: Asymmetrical Deck Fitting Placement at the end of this article.

Applying sealant

Now you are ready to apply sealant (NOT 3M 5200) and mount the stanchions. Using long duration masking tape, mask off the traced out area around each stanchion base footprint to prevent excess sealant from adhering to the deck. Wipe the stanchion base footprint and stanchion base with acetone and let it dry. Apply marine sealant (NOT 3M 5200) to the entire stanchion footprint area slightly overlapping the edge of the masking tape. Position the stanchion and apply a bead of sealant around each mounting hole in the base to seal the mounting bolt head. Drop the mounting bolts through the mounting holes and through the deck. Your partner below can wipe off any excess sealant that each bolt has picked up to keep things neat. Mount the backing plate on the underside of the deck and place the fender washers, lock washers, and nuts onto the mounting bolts for each stanchion. Tighten the nuts about 3/4 of the way down so you don't squeeze out all the sealant. I place a strip or two of thin double sided foam tape, the kind for mounting pictures, on the underside of each stanchion base to prevent it from "bottoming out" from the weight of the stanchion on the deck and squeezing out all the sealant before it cures. Once the sealant has cured overnight, you can tighten the mounting bolts all the way down. Be sure to have someone on deck hold the head of the bolt still with a Phillips head screwdriver or pair of vice-grips while you tighten the nut, not the bolt. That way the seal underneath the head of the bolt will not be broken. After the sealant has cured, using an Exacto knife or similar instrument, trim away the excess sealant from the stanchion base and bolt heads and remove the masking tape.

Lifeline cutting and installation

Now you have all your gate stanchions mounted, so now you can measure and re-cut your lifelines. I strongly advise doing this on the boat, if possible, with all tools and hardware readily available. Measure repeatedly, make drawings, and visualize how the fittings will function once they are attached to the lifelines. Turnbuckles, pelican hooks and other adjustable settings should be screwed in about 1/3 of the way, leaving the remaining 2/3 for adjustments on each fitting. I used Johnson Marine 3/16” Hand Crimp fittings and the recommended Johnson hand crimping tools. If you are using the large bolt cutter type of Johnson hand crimper, lock one handle in a table vise so you can use your weight to pull the other handle down and complete the crimp more easily. I installed the upper and lower, forward and aft lifelines first and put them under appropriate tension, and then installed the gate lifelines last to ensure that they fit.

First, take the starboard upper forward lifeline and, from the aft side, thread it through the top hole in the midship gate stanchion vertical leg and then forward through the top hole of each of the other stanchions, and attach it to the bow pulpit with a turnbuckle screwed in about 1/3 of the way into the barrel on each end. Position yourself aft of the midship stanchion, pull the upper forward lifeline tight and mark where it exits aft of the vertical midship stanchion leg top hole. This mark is where the new upper forward double gate fitting will butt up against the vertical leg of the midship gate stanchion when the upper forward lifeline is tensioned. Next, take the starboard lower forward lifeline and, again from the aft side, thread it through the lower hole in the midship gate stanchion vertical leg, then forward through the lower hole of the midship gate stanchion curved leg and then forward through the lower hole of each of the other stanchions and attach it to the bow pulpit with a turnbuckle screwed in about 1/3 of the way into the barrel at each end. Again, located aft of the midship stanchion, pull the lower forward lifeline tight and mark where it exits aft of the midship stanchion vertical leg lower hole. This mark is where the new lower forward double gate fitting will butt up against the vertical leg of the midship gate stanchion when the lower forward lifeline is tensioned. Carefully following the directions included with the Johnson fittings, and using the recommended tools, cut the forward starboard upper and lower lifelines to the marked length, trim off the appropriate length of vinyl covering, and hand crimp the forward double gate fittings onto them. Johnson end fittings unscrew from the crimp barrel, so you can install the fittings without removing the lifelines again. Just thread the forward lifelines aft through the appropriate holes in the vertical leg of the midship stanchion and screw the fittings on. At the bow pulpit, tension the upper and lower forward lifelines by screwing in the turnbuckles. The proper amount of tension is measured midway between any two stanchions. A 10 lb force should deflect the lifeline no more than 2 inches. Repeat this procedure for the port side forward upper and lower lifelines.

When the cockpit gate stanchion was turned around 180 degrees, the vertical leg remained in the same location, so the upper and lower aft lifelines should be just long enough, and new ones do not have to be cut. However, I wanted to replace the old end fittings with new Johnson fittings so I decided to fabricate new upper and lower aft lifelines. Measure the distance from the stern pulpit attachment points for the upper and lower aft lifelines to the forward side of the vertical leg of the cockpit gate stanchion at the height of each hole and add about a foot to each for good measure. Carefully following the directions included with the Johnson fittings, and using the recommended tools, cut the lifeline stock for the aft upper and lower lifelines to the measured length, trim off the appropriate length of vinyl covering, and hand crimp a pelican hook to one end of each of them.

Attach the new starboard aft upper lifeline to the stern pulpit with the pelican hook screwed in about 1/3 of the way. From the aft side, thread the lifeline forward through the upper hole in the cockpit gate stanchion vertical leg. Pull it tight and mark where it exits forward of the cockpit stanchion vertical leg top hole. This mark is where the new upper aft single gate fitting will butt up against the vertical leg of the cockpit gate stanchion when the upper aft lifeline is tensioned. Attach the new starboard lower aft lifeline to the stern pulpit with the pelican hook screwed about 1/3 of the way into the barrel. From the aft side, thread it forward through the lower hole in the cockpit gate stanchion curved leg, then through the lower hole in the cockpit gate stanchion vertical leg. Pull it tight and mark where it exits forward of the vertical leg cockpit stanchion lower hole. This mark is where the new lower aft single gate fitting will butt up against the vertical leg of the cockpit gate stanchion when the lower aft lifeline is tensioned. Carefully following the directions included with the Johnson fittings, and using the recommended tools, cut the upper and lower aft lifelines at the mark, trim off the appropriate length of vinyl covering, and hand crimp the cockpit single gate fittings onto them. The Johnson end fittings unscrew from the crimp barrel, so you can install the fittings without removing the lifelines again. Just thread the aft lifelines through the appropriate holes in the vertical leg of the cockpit stanchion and screw the fittings on. At the stern pulpit, tension the upper and lower aft lifelines by screwing in the pelican hooks. The proper amount of tension is measured midway between the stern pulpit attachment point and the vertical leg of the cockpit stanchion. A 10 lb force should deflect the lifeline no more than 2 inches. Repeat this procedure for the port side upper and lower aft lifelines.

There may be just enough lifeline material left over from the upper and lower forward lifelines to use for the upper and lower gate lifelines, so new gate lifelines might not have to be cut. However, I wanted to replace the old end fittings with new Johnson fittings so I decided to fabricate new upper and lower gate lifelines. Measure the distance from the cockpit gate stanchion to the midship stanchion at the height of each hole and add about a foot to each for good measure. Carefully following the directions included with the Johnson fittings, and using the recommended tools, cut the lifeline stock for the upper and lower gate lifelines to the measured length, trim off the appropriate length of vinyl covering, and hand crimp one end of each of the lifelines to the midship stanchion double gate fitting. Attach a pelican hook screwed in about 1/3 of the way into the barrel to the single gate fitting on the cockpit gate stanchion. Pull the upper gate lifeline tight alongside the pelican hook fitting and make a light mark on the lifeline stock next to where the pelican hook barrel ends. Measure 1 3/4" further aft on the lifeline stock toward the cockpit gate stanchion and make a heavy mark there. Carefully following the directions included with the Johnson fittings, and using the recommended tools, cut the lifeline stock for the aft upper and lower gate lifelines at the heavy mark and trim off the appropriate length of vinyl covering. Detach the pelican hook from the upper cockpit gate stanchion single gate fitting and hand crimp the pelican hook onto the gate lifeline. Re-attach the pelican hook to the upper cockpit single gate lifeline fitting on the cockpit gate stanchion and tension the gate lifeline. The correct amount of tension will result in minimal sagging while the pelican hook can still be opened with a little effort. Repeat this procedure for the lower gate lifeline, and then for both port gate lifelines.

All in all, the project was an easy one and the appearance of Breezer has changed very little. The lifeline gates make boarding from the dock or from the dink very easy, and our guests appreciate that. One important safety aspect of having lifeline gates that takes a little getting used to is remembering when they are open and when they are closed.

Materials List for Two Midship Gates

2 Catalina Standard Gate Stanchions (Port and Starboard) 4 Johnson 3/16” Double Gate Fittings 4 Johnson 3/16” Single Gate Fittings 4 Johnson 3/16” Pelican Hooks 1 Johnson Hand Crimper or Bolt Cutter Type Crimper 3/16” Lifeline Stock (as needed)

Note 1:

Repairing Moisture Intrusion Damage. Drill out each stanchion-mounting hole with a 1/2" drill and remove all debris. Check each mounting hole for core rot or moisture. If you find any, the damaged core must be removed using a bent nail/Allen wrench chucked into an electric drill. Be careful not to damage the fiberglass surface of the deck. If you have found moisture, tape over the hole underneath the deck and fill the hole with rubbing alcohol and let it dry out completely. The alcohol combines with the moisture and removes it as it dries out. Once all the mounting holes have been cleaned out, securely tape over the holes from underneath the deck. Mix enough unthickened West System resin and hardener to fill the mounting holes and fill them up, using a syringe. Let the mixture cure overnight, then re-drill and slightly countersink the new mounting holes using a 1/4" bit.

Note 2:

Enhanced Moisture Intrusion Protection. Drill out each stanchion-mounting hole with a 3/8" drill and remove all debris. Tape over the holes from underneath the deck. Mix enough unthickened West System resin and hardener to fill the mounting holes and fill them up, using a syringe. Let the mixture cure overnight, then re-drill and slightly countersink the mounting holes using a 1/4" bit.

Note 3:

Asymmetrical Deck Fitting Placement. One little surprise that the folks at Catalina left for me to discover was the relative placement of the midship waste pump out and water inlet deck fittings on each side of the boat. You would assume (there’s that word again) that the placement of those fittings would be symmetrical, port and starboard. Not so. When I installed the starboard midship gate stanchion, it neatly straddled the midship water inlet fitting in the deck. When I started to install the port midship gate stanchion, I found that the waste pump out deck fitting is about three inches further forward than the starboard water inlet deck fitting and occupies the exact spot where I wanted to attach the round base of the midship gate stanchion. From inside the cabin, the placement of the fittings looks identical relative to their distance forward of the teak bulkheads at the navigation table and the galley. The problem is that the interior bulkheads themselves are offset about three inches. So, I could either move the waste pump out fitting aft to match the starboard arrangement on the deck, or I could move the port midship gate stanchion forward to straddle the water fitting. Moving the port waste pump out fitting would involve cutting large holes in the deck and the interior teak bulkhead at the navigation table and then repairing the existing large hole in the deck, so I opted for just moving the port midship gate stanchion forward about three inches to straddle the waste pump out fitting. No one will notice.