The soft shackles I’ve seen in marine supply stores look like a great idea, but I’ve never been tempted to buy any despite the many advantages they have over their metal precursors. While they’re lighter and less prone to harm woodwork or people, won’t corrode or seize up, and don’t require tools to use, they are expensive and the high-tech Dyneema from which they are made seems out of place on a traditionally built wooden boat.
I’ve worked with Dyneema and its very slippery braided fibers require splicing and tying methods unlike anything I’ve seen in my well-used copy of Ashley’s Book of Knots. Then I discovered that there were ways to make soft shackles with ordinary cordage, so I made some. I found several different methods of tying them but there is only one I would trust in use on my boats.
The commercial Dyneema soft shackles have a stopper knot on one end and a small loop on the other formed by inserting one end of the hollow-braid line through the other. The loop can be cinched tight behind the stopper to keep it from slipping through, which is possible if there is no tension on the soft shackle and it gets shaken, say, by a flogging sail.
I’ve made soft shackles in laid line, solid braid, and kernmantle cord in both 1/8″ and 3/8″ and they have all worked well using the same method. The stopper knot starts with a common slip knot (Ashley’s #43 Noose) and becomes a thick stopper knot (Ashley’s #526 Oysterman’s Stopper) by tucking the free end through the loop and cinching the loop around it. The loop on the other end of the soft stopper is folded back on itself to form a lark’s head (Ashley’s #5 Bale Sling Hitch) that is cinched around the stem of the stopper knot.
I’ve used small soft shackles to connect spinnaker sheet leads to pad-eyes on my decked canoe, an application where metal shackles are commonly used. I’ve also made soft shackles for the jibsheet leads on my sailing Whitehall where the open gunwale isn’t well suited to adding pad-eyes. Here, I made the soft shackles long enough to wrap around the inwale. In both instances, the soft shackles can twist to allow the sheaves to align with the sheets.
I’ll be looking for more uses for soft shackles. Sail stops are next. Indeed, wherever I need a loop of a fixed length, a soft shackle might be a good replacement for metal hardware or knot tying.
Christopher Cunningham is the editor of Small Boats.
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