Going up your mast is one of those strange and occasionally risky rituals that sailors have to do to retrieve halyards, check fittings and generally ensure their boats are seaworthy. In this article, John and Amanda Neal, authors, circumnavigators and cruising instructors, tell us how to go up the mast safely.

Perhaps this article should be entitled “Avoiding going aloft at sea,” because if you are consistent with rig maintenance and inspections, you will hopefully never need to. A general rig inspection entails going aloft for a rig check before every major passage, coupled with daily deck rigging checks.

If you’ve purchased a used boat and plan to sail offshore, you will need to do a thorough rig inspection. This includes removing the mast and disassembling the components to check for cracks, corrosion and wear. Remember to check the condition of blocks, sheave box, sheaves and wiring. Unless you are very familiar with what to look for, it is prudent to hire a professional rigger for the rig inspection. As with any survey, it is in your best interest to be on hand, learning and documenting everything the rigger finds. You will find that taking a picture of the masthead fittings when the mast is down for the inspection may be helpful later.

Common Problems

There are several issues that will require going aloft while at sea. Among them are lost halyards (more likely the main, as the jib halyard is often semi-permanently attached to the furling headsail swivel), a chafed-through halyard or a burned-out nav light bulb (this can be helped by replacing incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs that have a much longer life). Other problems include binding or stiff main halyard sheave in need of lubrication, a jammed roller furling sail or ripped furling sail, a broken or jammed mainsail slider/car or broken rigging.

With proper halyard maintenance, you can greatly reduce the likelihood that you will need to go aloft. Install a small, permanent trace line inside the mast from the base to the masthead. Ensure that your furling headsail extrusion is the correct length ensuring that the angle from the furling unit’s top swivel to the halyard sheave is correct — this is very important. A headsail halyard will frequently last for 30,000 miles, or a full circumnavigation. A spinnaker halyard is generally used as a back up if the furling halyard breaks or chafes through. Ensure that the topping lift can be used as a main halyard; the weight of the boom, when the main is dropped, needs to be taken by a rigid vang or boom gallows. For offshore passage-making, carry an extra halyard and spinnaker block in your rigging spares.

I have been asked whether it is necessary to go aloft for coral piloting. Honestly, I don’t think so, as standing on the boom provides enough elevation. We have found mast pulpits (a.k.a. granny bars) to be a great platform to stand on for navigating through coral.

Options for Going Aloft

Whether using a bosun’s chair, harness or mast steps, always use a backup safety line. We use a standard webbing chest safety harness attached to a halyard (generally the spinnaker halyard). If you are unsure of the condition of the halyard you are going aloft on, remove it using a trace line. Check the entire length for chafe, UV deterioration, and if applicable, the state of the wire-to-rope splice and wire quality.

To ensure that the masthead sheaves are running smoothly and not binding, hold both ends of the halyard at deck level, pulling it back and forth in a see-saw motion across the sheave with pressure. Never use the halyard shackle or clip as they can fail or open. Also, never trust your life to an eye spliced in a line. When using a rope halyard, use a bowline instead of the halyard shackle. If the halyard is wire, use a backup shackle.

The following options for going aloft are also recommended (note: prices are in USD and approx.):

1. West Marine Bosun’s Chair ($140) or Harken Premium Bosun’s Chair ($190)

2. Foredeck racing harness used by bow men: Spinlock Pro Harness ($175)

3. Top Climber ($430)

4. Mast Mate, a webbing ladder that is hoisted up mainsail track or slot ($12 per foot)

5. A four-part block-and-tackle with a cam cleat on the bottom block, similar to the mainsheet arrangement on smaller boats. When singlehanding, I found this worked well. I simply hoisted the top block to the masthead on the main halyard, shackled the bottom double block and cam cleat assembly to the bosun’s chair and pulled myself aloft, getting a good work out in the process. For a safety line, I wore my safety harness and clipped my tether to different strong points in the rigging.

6. Mast steps. I am often asked if these are a good idea. The answer is yes and no. Yes, steps are helpful when your boat is in a calm anchorage or marina, but they can also chafe and catch external halyards, cause corrosion and increase windage. Climbing mast steps without a safety or climbing harness attached to a halyard is not safe, as the higher one gets, the more severe the side-to-side whipping motion can become, making it difficult to hold on.

Tips for Going Aloft Using a Chair

1. Wear fish cleaning cotton and rubber gloves. They are inexpensive and provide an excellent grip on the mast or rigging. You can make the job easier and faster for the person winching you aloft by grabbing the rigging or halyards and lifting yourself as they are winching.

2. Consider wearing long pants and deck shoes to protect your legs and feet.

3. When in rolly conditions, rig a downhaul line from the bottom side of the chair or harness. It can be secured to the base of the mast once you reach the height at which you will be working.

4. Another option to a downhaul line is to rig a halyard close to the mast. You can then attach a short bite of line or shackle around it from the chair or harness. This keeps you close to the mast while going aloft, and greatly reduces the possibility of your being thrown around by the boat’s motion. If you need to get the spreader tips, your helper can ease the mast line out.

5. On some boats, it is possible to release the clutch on the anchor windlass and lead a halyard to the windlass drum, using snatch blocks if necessary to get a fair lead.

6. Installing two mast steps four feet down from the masthead allows more secure access to the top of the masthead.

Going up the mast does entail some risks, but practicing good seamanship can minimise those risks.

About the authors

John Neal sailed to the South Pacific in 1974 at age 22 on a 27’ sloop, wrote log of mahina, a best seller, and has since logged 284,000 miles. Since 1976, John’s passion has been sharing his knowledge of ocean voyaging and he has conducted 142 sail-training expeditions in the South Pacific, Patagonia, Antarctica, Atlantic, Scandinavia and the Arctic aboard Mahina Tiare II & III. Amanda Neal is a rigger and sail maker and former around the world Whitbread racer. John & Amanda’s current boat, Mahina Tiare III is a Hallberg-Rassy 46 which they have sailed 136,000 miles since launching in 1997. they update their website, regularly.

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