Up The Mast (as published in Latitudes & Attitudes Magazine)

The following is an article I wrote for Latitudes & Attitudes Magazine that is currently on newstands in the June, 2011 edition:

Up the Mast
By Kevin Walters

Sooner or later your mast and the hardware installed on or in it will need inspection, repair or maintenance. Ideally, an inspection of your mast should be done annually. This of course means going up the stick if the mast is already stepped. If your boat isn’t equipped with mast steps or you don’t have specialized mast ascender gear, you can still get the job done with mostly what you already should have on board. The prudent sailor will take the time to learn and practice the procedures to make a successful and safe ascent and descent before they are truly needed.

As mentioned, you may need to go up the mast for any number of reasons such as re-taping spreader boots, rigging flag lines, inspecting standing rigging or installing any number of masthead hardware (wind vane, anchor light, antenna, etc.). Therefore, go up prepared with the following equipment in addition to anything specific you’ll need for your intended job:

  • Rigging tape and duct tape
  • Screw drivers (one flat, one Philips)
  • Multi-tool (i.e. Leatherman, Swiss Army Knife, etc.)
  • Rope long enough to reach the deck from the top of the mast in case you need to pass something down or have something sent up
  • Camera
All tools should be either kept in a drawstring bag or secured directly to your bosun’s chair or climbing harness. The bag should also be attached to prevent bombing the deck and crew below with tools and equipment. The camera can be used to take pictures of questionable things seen during inspection and to help log what’s on the masthead for future reference. Of course, taking pictures looking down at the deck while up on the mast is mandatory because they just look so neat!

Bosun’s chairs are purpose-built for mast ascents. However, rock climbing harnesses can be just as suitable and are often more affordable. In particular, the Alpine BOD climbing harness from Black Diamond is a good choice for budget minded sailors while still offering all the necessary safety features. Additionally, the climber should consider wearing a helmet (bike helmets work well) and a life vest to protect against being swung into the mast, particularly if the ascent will take place at sea or in windy conditions. A tether is also highly useful to keep the climber close to the mast if climbing while at sea. Never climb the mast while the boat is on the hard as stability can be compromised and cement will cause more injury than water should an accident occur.

You’ll need two halyards to ascend the mast. The main halyard should be used as the primary uplift and any of the other halyards (back up main or headsail halyard) as the back up. Tie a bowline knot to secure the main halyard to the bosun’s chair or harness instead of using the shackle by itself as it can accidentally be released with dire consequences. However, the shackle should also be connected as a secondary precaution. Use the same set-up for the back-up halyard. If you have wire-to-rope halyards that cannot take a knot, be certain to use tape or seizing wire to prevent the shackle from accidentally releasing. If your halyard winch is mounted on the mast, consider using snatch blocks to route the halyard back to a cockpit mounted sheet winch to keep the area beneath the mast clear.

Ideally, at least three people should be used to ascend the mast. One serves as the climber while the other two each work the primary and back-up winches. Using the lightest of the three-person crew as the climber makes hoisting easier and leaves the bigger and likely stronger crewmembers on the winches. If you do not have self-tailing winches you may need an additional helper to tail. If your boat is equipped with rope clutches for the halyards, be certain they are closed and locked when ascending.

Using the primary halyard and a winch, slowly begin to hoist the climber up the mast. The climber should help by using arms and feet to shimmy up if possible. The person on the back-up halyard should take up slack every 1 or 2 feet, cleating off the halyard as the climber is hoisted to prevent an accidental slip. Once the climber has reached the necessary height on the mast, both halyards should be secured by cleating. Movement on deck should be kept to a minimum because any boat movement will be amplified for the climber up on the mast. When the work is complete be sure to have the climber take the requisite pictures looking down at the crew on deck. Then slowly reverse the ascent process to lower the climber in a controlled manner.

If done properly and cautiously, ascending the mast can become a rewarding part of your annual sailboat maintenance repertoire and help prevent rig failures by inspecting and repairing potential trouble spots. And don’t forget you’ll have some great photos to use as your computer’s wallpaper in the off-season!

Author Bio:
Kevin Walters and his family (wife & two daughters) cruise the Great Lakes each summer aboard their Irwin 28. They pride themselves in doing nearly all of their own maintenance and repairs.

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