C&C 27 Association – Accept No Imitations?

In the last few years we’ve seen an increasing number of low-cost items of sailing equipment from Asia generally and China particularly. The trend started with cabin hardware – hooks, hinges and the like, and has expanded recently to include running rigging gear such as u- and bow-shackles and snap-shackles. Thus far we haven’t seen anything made from engineered plastics, but with projects like the Flying Tiger sportboat, Chinese manufacturers have signalled their willingness (as if we needed reminding) to expand their reach.

Usually the Chinese gear looks similar to the hardware we’re used to, whether from Perko, Ronstan or Wichard (three widely copied sources); innovation isn’t yet a major feature. The question is, how does it perform and how much does it matter?

Taking the second question first, we suggest that in cabin hardware, performance isn't critical. If a door hinge fails, it’s a nuisance, little more. With rigging hardware, failure may result in a spoiled afternoon, a disappointing race or personal injury, so you want to avoid it, even if the added assurance costs some money.

Added assurance does cost money. Looking at the comparative cost of snap-shackles, which is the product that started this enquiry, the difference between our established brands and the Chinese copies is about 300%. The Ronstan snap-shackle shown here retails for C$45.95 (Ronstan bought Nicro Fico’s hardware operation). The Wichard snap-shackle retails for C$39.95. The Victory shackle, of roughly comparable size, lists for $14.95. Incidentally, the retailer name has been blocked out to avoid pointless cavils about the specifics of price; the point is the relative difference.

Ronstan snap-shackle
Wichard snap-shackle

The difference is not merely in price. First, and most important, the Ronstan shackle card provides both a Maximum Working Load (1600 Kg) and a Breaking Load (3200 Kg). The Wichard shackle card states loads of 1200 Kg and 2000 Kg respectively (the shackles are shown here as approximately the same size, but the Wichard is smaller). There is no comparable information on the Victory shackle. Make of that what you will, but the absence of application information doesn’t speak of great confidence in the product by its manufacturer or importer.

Second, unlike Ronstan or Wichard, Victory and similar manufacturers provide no information about how their products are made or from what. True, many of us couldn’t decipher the information on our own, but over the years, people with better knowledge of metallurgy and metal-working have acknowledged that Ronstan and Wichard hardware is well made; their approval provides a foundation for the sailing community’s experience that these items perform as we want and expect them to perform.

Two processes are principally used in making snap-shackles and similar hardware, forging (Wichard) and investment casting (Ronstan). The links lead to Wikipedia entries on the processes but here briefly are some of the listed benefits:

Forging results in metal that is stronger than cast or machined metal parts. ... during forging the metal's grain flow changes into the shape of the part, making it stronger. Some modern parts require a specific grain flow to ensure the strength and reliability of the part.


Special characteristics of the Investment Casting process [include]:

  • High production rates, particularly for small components
  • High dimensional accuracy and consistency
  • High integrity castings
Victory snap-shackle

The Victory shackle is probably made by the investment casting process. It’s the logical choice – investment casting has been around since the early Egyptians, so the barriers to setting up an investment casting plant are low. First-class investment casting, however, requires knowledge, complex process controls and appropriate material, all three of which can be expected to be fully in place in the Ronstan operation while the Victory plant is shuffling along with bits and pieces of these three requirements.

Victory and other Asian producers are good at visual quality – the shackles are consistent in shape and nicely finished – what could be wrong with them? The locking pins are too short (they're also inconsistent in length, an indicator of a serious quality management failure in the plant, and their action is sticky), but there is another, hidden defect – material. A good metal-working operation knows precisely what materials are going into its melting pots and how that material is treated on the way to becoming a finished product: heating levels, cooling rates, pressure applied and so on. The result is a very specific combination of attributes in the finished piece, one of those being resistance to deformation under load. Companies like Ronstan and Wichard know their processes and can ensure those attributes are present. We can infer that plants like Victory cannot ensure their products' attributes, since while there are no reports of Ronstan or Wichard shackles deforming or failing at the hinge, there are lots of reports of Chinese snap-shackles doing so, such as the following from Scott Schoeler of Scot-Free.

"In doing the Trans-Erie this year, we found ourselves at 11:30pm in 35-knot winds which blew the #2 out of the foil track. Alone on the foredeck, I wrestled it under control but the halyard snap-shackle pin had deformed, preventing me from being able to open it and release the head. I wrapped the halyard around my wrist, cut the shackle off and pushed the sail down the hatch. The #3 came back up and I raised it with the halyard tied to the head.

"The owner bought the cheap one thinking he couldn't imagine ever needing the load ratings of the expensive one. The loads weren't that great, but the "no-name" shackle deformed. I remember his words back at the dock, looking at the deformed shackle: '...it's like catching a liar – how do you ever really trust him again, and on a sail boat, all you've really got is trust. You've got to trust your crew, boat and equipment.' The owner replaced the cheap shackle with one from Wichard."

Scott recently turned up a report on knock-off Rule bilge pumps. The Chinese copy was superficially identical to the original Rule 2000 pump. The difference lay in the pumps' performance; the genuine pumps will run for 5,000 hours (208 days) continuously while a knock-off failed after 45 minutes. The same report also discussed counterfeit Faria engine gauges that copied every detail, including certifications and test stamps.

"The article adds to the original Black Arts information," says Scott, "in that it brings out the issues of IP theft and the greater harm caused by the piracy. The issue goes beyond simple copy-cat, patent infringement and threatens engineering designers and manufacturers, who are asking; 'If nothing I design and manufacture is safe from pirates and I have no recourse, why go to the expense and trouble.' We all will feel this loss. I’m not a protectionist but I do believe in 'voting with my feet' and not opening my wallet to these knock-offs, no matter the tempting price and no matter where it is used on the boat."

There are also anecdotal reports of concern from industrial safety commissions about Chinese industrial hardware that has failed because of hidden voids in the metal or inappropriate materials, so people have been injured. This sort of thing is virtually unheard of in North American and European hardware, but too common in Chinese hardware.

So where does this leave us? Scott Schoeler and I discussed the issue while this page was being written. Scott is a marine surveyor and has seen more than he cares for of knock-off gear in his work, plus as related above, he's experienced the consequences of its failure in conditions where that failure should not have occurred. His condemnation is absolute, from rigging hardware to cabin hardware.

"Is there any place for the knock-offs? Nope – not in my opinion. Not on my boat. Is there a market for it? Yup – people love a bargain. New boat builders are using it to create a price-point boat. To the people who buy boats equipped this way, new or used... caveat emptor."

My own opinion is not quite there. I believe that cheap shackles should never be used overhead, for obvious reasons, or in any location where the load could exceed what you can hold by hand (which effectively limits them to tasks like holding your keyring or attaching a kellet to your anchor rode, a low-load task for which a shackle is better suited than the more commonly used carabiner).  Aesthetics may also be an issue; we have rings tied to the pulpit and rails to which we attach sail bags and oddments of gear. These rings looked like stainless steel when bought, but over about two years have developed patches of rust – in fresh water. Cabin hardware may be less critical. If a cupboard hinge loses its plating (or simply fails), it's an inconvenience and seldom more.

Somewhere in the narrow gap between these two positions, you can find your own place.

This begs the question of how you find out what is good and what isn't. Scott likes Practical Sailor, though while he finds some reviews spot-on, he takes the magazine "with a grain of sea salt" overall. I'm not so enamoured. It's a long sight better than the mass-circulation magazines like Cruising World, Sailing World or Sail that will never slag an advertiser. An ostensibly authoritative review of radar reflectors some years ago left the impression that the popular Mobri devices (and similar tubular reflectors by Plastimo and other manufacturers) are a reasonable choice despite the magazine's tests having established that the Mobris are poor performers, a result in line with US Sailing's findings that Mobris are "essentially invisible". (Mobris conveniently meet the Canadian regulation requiring carriage of a radar reflector, but if you want to be visible on radar, get a Davis aluminum and hang it high in the "catch-rain" orientation.) One Canadian yacht-builder has repeatedly taken issue with PS's findings; PS's recommendations are the products they frequently have warranty problems with. Perhaps the reader should take Practical Sailor's recommendations with a lump of salt rather than a grain.

In the end, it may be that the best filter for what is going to work and what won't is common sense. At one-third the price of high-quality shackles, Chinese shackles look like a deal that is too good to be true – and that's exactly what they are, too good to be true.

– David Weatherston, Towser

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