Up the mast

Article and photos by Steve Christensen

Article taken from Good Old Boat magazine: Volume 2, Number 5, September/October 1999.

Ease that fear of falling:
Techniques for making a trip up the stick safer

Looking down from atop the mast

The only sure things
in life are death, taxes, and that – sooner or later – you will have to
go up your mast. Many people dread going aloft and will do just about
anything to avoid it, even putting off needed repairs or rig inspections.
But the trip needn’t be a white-knuckle affair. With the proper equipment
and technique, you can actually enjoy going aloft. I’ve gone from being
afraid of heights to looking for opportunities to climb the mast (anyone’s
mast) just for the view. Really.

There are two parts
to the problem. The first is how to get up the mast. Unless you have
a couple of strong deck apes handy to grind away on a halyard winch,
this can be a real concern. But this isn’t your only consideration.
Just as important is the question of what to use for support once you’re
up there.

Bosun’s chairs

For most sailors
the answer to this second part is the trusty bosun’s chair. For
comfort aloft it’s hard to beat a well-padded board. But bosun’s
chairs are also part of the reason most people hate going aloft. It
just doesn’t feel secure sitting in one of those things. You
are tense and apprehensive the whole time, worried that you might fall
right out of it. And in fact, if you lean over too far in many of them
(like when stretching to reach a spreader tip), you can fall out. Fabric
chairs with back supports, waist belts, and crotch straps give more
of a feeling of security, but you still aren’t secure.

John Vigor notes
in The Practical Mariner’s Book of Knowledge that he prefers
to use an ordinary wooden plank as a bosun’s chair “to
remain insecure and terrified on the theory that if I don’t feel
complacent, I won’t relax my guard.” Avoiding complacency
is a good thing, but feeling terrified may keep many sailors from going
aloft, even when they need to.

Climber’s harness

Petzl Climber's harness

Wearing a climber’s harness, you could even hang upside down safely, not that you should do this on purpose. The Petzl ascender slides up and locks on a 1/2-inch line.

The solution to
this feeling of insecurity is not therapy, but a mountaineer-style climber’s
harness. It looks and feels a bit strange at first to be tightly strapped
into this contraption, but you get used to it. And the sense of security
that comes with knowing you can even hang upside down is fantastic.
It was a revelation to find just how relaxed I could feel aloft while
using one of these. An additional benefit to using a harness is that
the point of attachment is lower than with a chair. That makes it a
little easier to reach the top of the mast when working at the masthead.

The main drawback
to many harnesses is that they can be uncomfortable for long “hang
times,” since your weight is supported by two-inch webbing. Choose
a harness with thick padding on the waist belt and leg loops (as shown
in illustration). The best I have seen uses a modified rescue harness
available from Brion Toss Rigging.


There isn’t
much you can do on a sailboat that is inherently more dangerous than
climbing the mast. So safety should be uppermost in your mind at every
step of the process. Don’t try any of these techniques until
you are sure you know what you are doing. Always use a “belt
and suspenders” approach, with a backup for the primary hoist
method. That usually means being hooked to two halyards when aloft,
preferably halyards with internal masthead sheaves. If using a climber’s
harness, hook both halyards to the ring provided. If using a chair,
hook the second halyard to a separate chest safety harness. (Note: for
clarity the extra safety halyard was omitted from illustrations on Pages
7, 8, and 9, but this is not a good idea in practice!) Don’t
depend on snap shackles! Use only screw shackles, locking carabiners,
or good knots to attach the halyards: a bowline, or better yet, a buntline
hitch – never a square knot (see illustration).

Before you ascend,
talk through every step with those on deck who are helping you, to be
sure that all of your commands are clear and understood. (The last thing
you want is for someone to release the wrong halyard.) Don’t depend
on self-tailers alone to belay halyards – use cleats. Tie all of your
tools to your tool bucket, as it annoys members of the crew to have
things fall on them. Finally, don’t get complacent when coming down
– take your time.

What techniques
are available for climbing the mast, and which is right for you? Some
of the things to keep in mind in choosing a method include whether you
need crew on deck, how much equipment is involved, and whether the technique
would work at sea in an emergency.

Mast steps

The most obvious
approach for getting up your mast would be to turn your mast into a
giant ladder using mast steps. These fixed or folding metal steps are
most often seen aboard shorthanded cruising boats and can make getting
up the mast as simple as climbing a ladder. The benefits are that they
are always ready, give easy access to the very top of the mast, and
allow you to climb aloft without the aid of crew. The drawbacks include
windage, weight aloft, aesthetics, potential halyard fouling, and the
difficulty of hanging onto the steps in anything rougher than a dead
calm. If help is available, you should always climb mast steps with
a second halyard attached to a safety harness or a climber’s harness,
and you should have someone taking up the slack in the halyard to support
you in case you fall. Once up the mast, you may still want a bosun’s
chair or a climber’s harness for support while working, as you can’t
easily reach the spreader tips from the mast steps. Overall, if you
are willing to put up with having steps on your mast, it would be hard
to beat the convenience of this method.

If you plan on using
mast steps to go aloft alone, you should rig an ascender on a fixed
line as a backup. An ascender is a piece of mountain-climbing gear ($50).
Well-known examples include the Petzl and Jumar. It fits around a line
(of about 1/2 inch diameter) and has an internal cam that allows it
to slide easily up a line, but locks in place if you pull downward.
If you have an available halyard of the proper diameter, you secure
it near the deck, fasten a tether from the ascender to your harness,
and slide the ascender up the fixed line as you go. If your halyard
is not the proper diameter, you will need to hoist a 1/2-inch line aloft
instead. Once you get where you’re going, you can allow the ascender
to take the load. To descend, you momentarily disengage the cam and
slide the ascender down a few feet at a time as you climb down the steps.

An alternative to
using a halyard or an ascender for a backup would be to clip a safety
line from your safety (or climber’s) harness around the mast
as you work your way up. Use a carabiner on the end, so you can unclip
as you pass the shrouds and spreaders. (An alternative to this would
be a lineman’s belt, or Mast Mate’s Tool Bag Workbelt.
If you fall, this line will jam up against the next obstruction on the
mast. But that still means you could drop from the second to first spreaders
or from just under the first spreaders to the deck. To be extra safe
(especially if it is turbulent), use a halyard with an ascender and
a safety line around the mast.

Mast ladders

Block and tackle ascenders, padded climber's harness

Steve’s current preference is using a block and tackle, ascenders, and a padded climber’s harness.

What if you don’t
want to mount those metal triangles on your mast, but still want the
simplicity of climbing steps? Then your best bet would be a mast ladder.
There are currently two of these on the market, the Mast Mate and Capt.
Al’s. These are essentially web ladders that are hoisted up the
mast with a halyard, then made fast at the deck. To minimize the side-to-side
motion while climbing, each has provisions for mounting sail slides
(which you provide) to the vertical webbing. You can then run the slides
up the mainsail sailtrack to give lateral support. The Mast Mate uses
two-inch webbing for its single vertical support strap. It has alternating
steps every 17 inches (there is also a 12-inch step version). The Capt.
Al’s uses three one-inch vertical web straps, with PVC tubing
placed over webbing between the straps to form the steps every 12 inches.

A mast ladder has
most of the advantages of the fixed mast steps, without the drawbacks
of windage, aesthetics, and potential halyard fouling. The major downside
to mast ladders is that they can’t easily be used underway unless
you either drop the mainsail or do without the sailtrack support. And
even if the main is down, it may be necessary sometimes to remove much
of the main from the sailtrack to mount the mast ladder. The safety
procedures for regular mast steps (a second halyard, ascender, or safety
line) should be followed here too. The Mast Mate is about $250 (35-foot
length) to $350 (50-foot length) while Capt. Al’s is about $150
(36-foot length) to $250 (50-foot length).

My Ericson came
with a Mast Mate left in one of the lockers by the previous owner. I
loved the simplicity of the approach and was eager to try it. But I
found the sensation of climbing a flexible ladder to be a little unsteady
for my taste (not surprising, since I wasn’t using any safety
backup that day), and I only made it to the lower spreaders before turning
back. By the time I needed to go aloft again, I had installed a batten
car system that blocked off my sailtrack – I needed to find another
approach. But a friend with a 45-footer regularly uses a mast ladder
and swears by it.

Halyard winches

Another method for
going aloft uses the boat’s halyard winch to hoist someone in
a bosun’s chair attached to a halyard. There are a few problems
with this approach. In the case of most sailing couples, the man goes
aloft and the woman stays on deck. Given the small size of most halyard
winches, there usually isn’t enough mechanical advantage for
the woman (or many men, for that matter) to be able to handle the load.
Furthermore, if the winch isn’t self-tailing, you need a third
person to tail.

One way to make
things slightly easier is to use a snatch block to lead the halyard
to one of the primary winches aboard. But even with a larger winch,
this approach can still be too much work. Of course, this method doesn’t
allow you to get aloft by yourself. And that’s one of the drawbacks
– you have to really trust the people at the winch, as they do
have your life in their hands. (Couples: don’t try this right
after an argument.)

After the experiment
with the mast ladder, we next tried having my wife hoist me aloft in
a bosun’s chair. But even with the help of our primaries, it
was just too much work for her. The only way I made any progress was
by wrapping my arms and legs around the mast and shinnying a few inches
at a time to create slack in the halyard. But this can lead to overrides
on the winch. We had to find another way.

Powered winches

Depending on the
equipment aboard your boat, there are a couple of ways to lessen the
effort of this grinding. If you have electric primaries, getting someone
aloft is as easy as pressing a button. Lacking these, the next best
bet would be to run the tail of the halyard forward to a powered anchor
windlass. If you do decide to try either of these options, be especially
careful with the last few feet of hoist near the masthead. Without the
feedback of a manual winch, it may not be obvious when you have “two-blocked”
the rig, and you can jam the shackles in the masthead halyard sheave
or even rip out the attachment rings in the chair if you aren’t
careful. This is why some people argue against the practice of using
electric winches or powered windlasses in this application.


An alternative to
having your crew winch you aloft directly is to attach a heavy counterweight
to one end of an external halyard (internals won’t work here)
and hoist the weight to the masthead instead. You then attach yourself
to the other end of the halyard and let gravity do the work as the counterweight
drops. This is supposed to be an old trick of singlehanders, who had
no one around to help with the grinding. And I suppose someone could
use this technique to get aloft if the crew weren’t strong enough
to handle the winch. Of course you should at least take care that you
weigh more than the counterweight, or you could easily get stuck up

I offer the following
as an example of just how ingenious sailors can be when there is a problem
to be solved, not as a recommended technique for getting aloft. My favorite
version of this involved someone hoisting aloft a large, empty, plastic
container with one end of a garden hose tied to the inside rim. Once
it was in place, the skipper turned on the water to fill the container,
and rode up the mast on the other end of the halyard as the container
filled. If you do decide to try something like this, please alert your
dockmates so they can have their video cameras ready.


Mastlift chain hoist makes going up a one-person job

The Mastlift chain hoist makes going up a one-person job.

What if your partner
can’t grind you aloft, and there’s never a deck ape around to help when
you need one? In this case you might consider the Swisstech Mastlift.
This is a chain hoist with a 10:1 gear ratio, except that the load-bearing
line is made of Spectra, not chain. In practice, you shackle the Mastlift
to a halyard, attach the load-bearing line to a bosun’s chair or climbing
harness, unroll the load-bearing line as you hoist the 15-pound cylinder
to the masthead, then cleat the halyard. Using the endless control line
(with double internal safety brakes), you then hoist yourself aloft.
This is easily a one-person job, with very little effort. It would be
a good idea to lightly fasten a line around the control line at deck
level to prevent it from blowing away and fouling, especially if you
go up alone. For safety you would want to use one of the backup methods
mentioned above.

Downsides to the
Mastlift? The first is that the size of the drum makes it a little more
difficult to get close to the masthead, as you are probably a foot lower
than when using a halyard alone. But the big drawback of the Mastlift
is cost. When I contacted the importer a couple of years ago, the introductory
special prices were $1,100 for the 45-foot hoist model, and $1,300 for
the 82-foot model. At that price not too many skippers will be buying
them for their personal use. But it would be a great item for a club
to own, if you could just figure a way around the inevitable liability

By the way, a solution
to the problem of not quite being able to reach the masthead from a
chair or harness is to fashion a pair of rope steps, each at the end
of a four-foot tether. Once you get as close to the masthead as possible,
attach the tethers to the crane with a carabiner. Then place your feet
in the steps, and stand up at the masthead. Hold yourself upright with
a piece of line tied around your waist and the mast. Mast Mate sells
a Workbelt patterned after a lineman’s belt that is designed
for just this application (see illustration). An alternative to the
tethers is to mount a pair of mast steps on either side of the mast
about four feet down.

Block and tackle

If your crew can’t
hoist you aloft, and you can’t afford a Mastlift, you might consider
putting together a block and tackle arrangement to help do the work.
The simplest version of this is to get a length of 1/2-inch line twice
the length of your mast, position a single block at the mid-point, and
haul the block aloft on a halyard. Attach one end of the line to your
bosun’s chair or climber’s harness with a good knot, grab
the other end, and just haul yourself aloft.

How much work is
this? Well, normally you find the mechanical advantage of any block
and tackle by counting the number of parts coming out of the moving
block. With no moving block, it seems as if there should be no mechanical
advantage to this simple rig. But for reasons that still confuse me,
there is a 2:1 mechanical advantage in this case, so that you are only
lifting half your weight. (The best way I can explain it is to point
out that you have to haul in 100 feet of line to raise yourself 50 feet.)
So this is actually easier than it looks. To reduce the effort further,
you add extra parts to the tackle, but that can add up to a lot of line.

I learned about
this approach from rigger Brion Toss at one of his seminars, and thought
I’d give it a try. To reduce the effort a bit, I opted for a
3:1 mechanical advantage. This meant putting together an upper single
block with becket, a lower single block, and a 1/2-inch line three times
my mast’s length, or 150 feet (see Figure A on the next page).
Brion also suggests using a Harken “Hexaratchet” ratcheting
block in the upper position, as it greatly reduces the effort required
to grip the line.

This tackle approach
will work with either a bosun’s chair or a climber’s harness,
but I use a climber’s harness knowing I need the feeling of security
it provides. After getting the line reeved through the blocks, I haul
the upper block aloft with a halyard, and shackle the lower block to
my harness. For safety, I use a second halyard attached to the harness,
but any of the backup methods would work.

Buntline hitch knotCarabiner hitch knot

Buntline hitch, at far left, and carabiner hitch. When using the buntline hitch on a halyard, for added safety, pass the line through the thimble, rather than the shackle, if it will fit. If not, tape the shackle closed.

Before hauling away,
there are two more techniques to mention. The first is how to belay
the line once you’re up there. You can make do by passing a bight of
the line through the ring in your harness and making several half hitches
with the loop. But I like the technique Brion uses in which the standing
part of the line is led through a carabiner at the harness and then
tied off using a special mountaineering knot – the carabiner hitch (see
illustration on next page). This carabiner hitch is easy to tie and
untie under load – a real advantage.

I added a second
technique as a way to feel even more secure. It involves mounting an
ascender on the hauling part of the tackle and then rigging a three-foot
tether between the harness and the ascender. Each pull aloft is made
easier by having the comfortable handle of the ascender, rather than
just the line, to grip. At the bottom of each pull, I hold the line
fast at the carabiner with one hand and slide the ascender back up the
hauling part with the other. The added security comes from the short
tether, as I could let go with both hands and only slide back three
feet at most. This addition also makes it easy to stop and rest along
the way. To get as close to the masthead as possible, I remove the ascender
from the line, two-block the tackle, and rig a carabiner hitch. To descend,
I just keep a wrap or two around the carabiner and slowly lower myself
to the deck.

This combination
of tackle, climbing harness, and ascender is a real joy to use. With
it I feel secure enough that I’ve been known to go up the mast
while underway just to take pictures from the masthead. (It’s
amazing how small a 38-foot sailboat looks from 50 feet up!)

This approach is
good for singlehanders, as you don’t need help from anyone on
deck. And that means you don’t have to depend on anyone else
for your safety. But if you do try this approach alone, give some thought
to keeping the tail of the line from getting tangled in the rigging
on deck. If the line gets caught, you won’t be able to lower
yourself down. Brion’s instructional video, Going Aloft, features
this approach. I highly recommend it.

Line climbing

Two block line climbing drawingStairstep line climbing drawing

      A – Two blocks           B – Stairstep

Inchworm line climbing drawing

           C – Inchworm

Two final methods
for getting up your mast are based directly on mountaineering techniques
and are probably the least familiar to sailors. In these, you climb
up a fixed line with your feet in rope steps at the end of tethers rigged
to the fixed line with ascenders. You could use one of your halyards
as the fixed line (if it’s the proper diameter), but since the
cams of the ascenders are hard on the line, I recommend hoisting aloft
a separate length of 1/2-inch rope to reduce halyard wear.

I think of these
two methods as the “stair step” and the “inchworm,”
based on the action used to climb the rope. The “stair step”
method is perhaps a little easier to understand. In this approach, two
ascenders are mounted on the fixed line, each attached to a rope step
on the end of a three- to four-foot tether. At least one of the ascenders
is also attached with a tether to your climber’s harness (or
to a safety harness if a bosun’s chair is used). To begin, position
the steps above the deck, place your feet in the steps, and grab the
ascenders for support. Then raise one leg and its corresponding ascender
at the same time. After that, step up onto that upper step, and finish
by raising up the other leg and its corresponding ascender to just under
the first ascender.

By alternating one
side after the other, you can “stair step” your way up the
line. You will need to adjust the length of the tethers between the
ascenders and the steps to suit your reach and height, or you can purchase
two triers at $24 each from a mountaineering store. These are short
web ladders with four to six steps in a line, about 15 inches apart.
One of the steps should be at just about the height you need.

By comparison, the
“inchworm” method looks a little strange. This method
works best with a climber’s harness, but a bosun’s chair
will work in a pinch. After rigging your fixed line, attach a short
tether of about three feet between your harness and the first ascender.
The second ascender is then added to the line underneath the first and
attached to a pair of rope steps, each on a three- to four-foot tether
(or a pair of triers).

To begin climbing,
position the steps above the deck, place your feet in the steps, and
grab the fixed line for support. First, slide the upper ascender up
the fixed line as far as you can reach, then sit back to put your weight
on the harness. Next, slide the lower ascender up the line as far as
possible while bringing your knees up. Finally, extend your body and
step up onto the steps, holding onto the fixed line for balance. After
that you extend the upper ascender up the line again and sit back into
the harness. Repeating these steps allows you to “inchworm”
your way up the line. You will need to experiment a bit to find out
how long the upper and lower tethers need to be for the most efficient

The “inchworm”
method is probably slower, but the motion is a little easier to learn
and uses the strength of both legs at once to do the climbing. While
the “stair step” method can be faster, it can take some
time to get the hang of the technique (sort of like the diagonal stride
in cross-country skiing). A drawback to both line-climbing methods is
that getting down can be a little slow, since most ascenders are a little
difficult to slide down a line as you descend.

With either of these
methods, be sure to practice a bit before tackling a big job. Both are
well-suited for use by singlehanders. You will, of course, want to use
one of the safety backup methods with or without crew on deck.

Which is best
for you?

Which approach is
best for you depends on your boat, your age, and your bank account.
Just like everything else in sailing, each approach is a compromise,
and no single method is right for everyone. I like my current block-and-tackle
rig, but if I could afford it, I would have a Mastlift instead. I strongly
suggest that you consider trying a climber’s harness for support
aloft – unless you like feeling insecure and terrified.

Above all, please be safe up there.

Steve Christensen, a research chemist, moved from Utah to Michigan and took up sailing to replace skiing. Steve and Beth sail Rag Doll, an Ericson 38, on Lake Huron. They spend each August cruising the waters of The North Channel and dream of retirement as liveaboards someplace warm.

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