Tips and tricks for going aloft safely (published February 2013)
Climbing a sailboat’s rig is not something that prudent sailors should have to do on a regular basis, especially at sea. But at some point, every self-sufficient cruiser will need to climb his or her mast in order to perform a rig inspection, fetch a halyard, change a lightbulb or capture that one amazing photo. It has been said, “A sailor atop a mast is the closest they will ever get to heaven.” I’m not sure about that, but climbing a rig certainly might be a cause for prayer to the gods of sailing safety.
One of the biggest considerations when deciding to go aloft is situational—are you simply going up for a rig check in a quiet anchorage or are you going up to make an essential repair at sea? Obviously, the former is preferable. If at all possible, I try to avoid going aloft at sea as the dangers and safety concerns become far more complex. For that reason, it is imperative you know your standing and running rigging are sound before heading offshore.
If your rig has been properly built and stepped, there should be very few reasons to go aloft aside from regular maintenance. Even for a seasoned skipper or rigger, there are a host of potential problems to think about before going aloft. With the multitude of methods sailors have devised to get up and down a mast, doing it safely is of the utmost importance.
Safety starts with trusting your equipment and the people around you. Before going aloft, check your halyards for chafe and make sure their sheaves are running smoothly. Also, be sure you know how to properly wear your bosun’s chair or harness and inspect it for any signs of wear. A nice padded chair with gear bags and attachment points for lanyards will be comfortable and easy to use. Harnesses, like those sold by Spinlock, Petzl and Brion Toss, are an excellent alternative to a bosun’s chair, especially when going aloft at sea, as you won’t be able to slip out and will be closer to the mast and masthead while working.
If you are the person going up the mast, make sure your crew is well briefed before making your ascent. You should not be yelling instructions from the masthead about how to get you down. If your crew has never put anyone up a mast before, teach them on a calm day before you leave the dock. Never send someone up a mast if they are apprehensive or unsure about what to do, and do not go up the mast it you are not confident in your crew, as this only invites problems.
When your crew, halyards and chair are in order it’s time to set up for your ascent. A steadfast and straightforward procedure for sending a person up a mast is to attach a primary halyard and safety halyard to the chair—some sailors use an upper-body harness for the safety halyard— and pull them up with a winch while they help by climbing. Attaching halyards to your chair or harness is a critical step, which, if mentioned in the company of other sailors will invoke a flurry of differing opinions. The majority of sailors will agree that a snap shackle should never be used to attach a halyard to a bosun’s chair. The most agreed upon method will probably be a bowline, and the standard is for the person who is going aloft to tie his or her own knot.
The bowline naysayers out there will bring up the fact that if the knot is under load it cannot be untied; thus, if you are at the top of the mast the knot is there to stay. Another issue with a bowline is that if the loop is made too large, it may keep you from getting all the way to the masthead. That being said, it is still a good and acceptable knot for the application. Whatever your method, make sure it is trustworthy.
Once your halyards are in place, step into the chair, put some tension on the primary halyard and get comfortable before leaving the deck. In most cases you will be bringing tools up with you, so this is the time to make sure you have everything you need. Double-check your inventory and tie heavier tools to your chair or harness with lanyards—no need to make an extra vent on deck by dropping a tool from the masthead. Lastly, attach a long length of line to use as a downhaul. When you get to where you will be working, have a crewmember snug it up on deck near the mast to help keep you steady.
Now you’re ready to climb and your crew is ready to assist. An electric winch is ideal as it reduces the amount of work for the climber and crew, but that is not always available. In any case, it is nice to have two crewmembers to safely complete the job—one to grind, operate clutches and take up slack on the safety halyard, and one to tail the primary halyard. If you do not have an electric winch, it is best for all involved if the person going up can assist the grinder by climbing the mast.
When the climber has reached the spot where they want to work, make both halyards fast with rope clutches atop a self-tailing winch, or better yet, with a sturdy cleat hitch. If you are the crewmember who is helping, talk to the climber as they go up the rig and get settled. Often times you might need to do a little adjusting or send things up to them with the downhaul.
When it comes time for the descent, having two crewmembers makes line handling much easier. While one person eases the primary halyard, the other can be tending the safety halyard. If only one person is there to help, they will have to do both by easing each halyard a bit at a time. Finally, when the climber is down, make sure they have good footing on deck before fully releasing the halyard.
While the method above is an easy and adequate way to climb a rig, sailors have come up with alternatives that allow for ease of climbing and for solo climbing. Alternatives include mast steps, a block and tackle setup, the ATN Mastclimber, and the Mast Mate to name a few.
Foldable mast steps are a convenient way to climb a mast at anchor or at a dock. Drawbacks are that they can be clumsy to get up and down, add windage aloft, and may be a snagging point for sails, halyards and lazy jacks. A nice place to have a set of foldable mast steps is a few feet below the masthead so you have a platform to stand on while working. It is not advisable to use mast steps at sea and you should always use a halyard when climbing as the swinging motion increases as you go up.
There are various types of block and tackle setups that sailors use. The system I have and prefer is two large ratchet blocks with a long length of double braided line between them attached to a Brion Toss rigging harness (www.briontoss.com). I hoist the top block on a primary halyard and safety halyard to the masthead. With the blocks set in the ratchet position I can then pull myself up the mast. When I want to stop and work, the blocks don’t spin because they are in ratchet and when I need to come back down I take the bottom block out of ratchet to safely lower myself. I prefer this method as I have full control of going up and down and can easily adjust myself anywhere on the mast; plus, it’s a pretty good upper body workout.
The ATN Mastclimber (www.atninc.com) is another go-it-alone system that allows you to climb without assistance or winches. The Mastclimber is basically a bosun’s chair with two webbed foot-loops and jammers that attach to a halyard that has been made fast on deck. With this system, the jammers—or ascenders, as mountain climbers call them—get attached to the halyard, and you sit in the bosun’s chair with your feet in the loops and “inchworm” your way up the line. The nice part about the Mastclimber is that it allows you to easily get aloft and work above the masthead because you are standing in the loops.
Another option for going aloft, similar to fixed mast steps, is the Mast Mate (www.mastmate.com). The Mast Mate is a webbed ladder that gets fed into the mast track and hoisted on the main halyard. Like mast steps, I would only use this in a calm anchorage or at a dock, as it is slightly clumsy to climb. The other drawback is that you have to take out your mainsail slides in order to get the Mast Mate’s slugs into the track. I can see how a lot of sailors prefer the Mast Mate to installing steps on both sides of the mast though, and it is really easy for one person to use.
Over the years, I have climbed lots of masts in a variety of ways. Each time I prepare to go aloft, a safety checklist rolls through my mind and I know that if one thing gets missed it could end up being a very bad day. Practice going up the mast with your partner or crew, even if you just go up past the boom. The feeling of hanging from a halyard can take some getting used to and you will gain confidence the more you go up. If you are apprehensive about going aloft, ask a professional instructor or trusted friend to literally “show you the ropes.” And the next time you find yourself doing a rig check in a far-flung anchorage, take some time at the top to enjoy the scenery—it might not be heaven, but it could be close.
Andrew Cross is a USCG licensed captain and US Sailing certified sailing and navigation instructor. After putting thousands of miles under his keel on the East Coast and in the Caribbean, he and his wife Jill now reside in Seattle on their Grand Soleil 39, Yahtzee. Catch more of Andrew’s expertise in each week’s edition of www.cruisingcompass.com.