Adding Mast Pulpits
Call me old-fashioned, call me daring, call me crazy, but I prefer not to have my cockpit full of lines that have been led aft. I enjoy going forward and working at the mast. It hasn’t always been that way. During my first crossing from Isla Mujeres, Mexico, to the Dry Tortugas off Florida many years ago as crew on an Irwin 38, each trip forward was a crawl on my hands and knees. Oh, how I admired those experienced sailors who could dance on the foredeck in rolling seas.
In time, of course, after sailing many more offshore miles myself, I was able to assume an upright position while working the foredeck. Somewhere along the way I discovered the wonders of mast pulpits, which are often known as “granny bars.” Not only did a granny bar let me stand upright, it let me lean back and gaze up the mast. And I could do this with both hands free. Granny bars thus appeared on my list of must-have features when it came time to outfit my own boat.
Granny bars are not stock items you can find at your local chandlery; they must be fabricated specifically for your boat. My local stainless expert, Mickey, is chief welder for a megayacht builder and moonlights on weekends and evenings doing work for us non-megayacht sailors.
When we first discussed installing a set of granny bars on my Pearson 424, Mickey suggested we attach the granny bars to the existing dorade-vent guards. Doing so, he said, would make the bars look really custom, would save space on deck, and would also reduce the number of holes we’d have to drill in the deck. We also discussed the height of the crosspiece—or banana, as he called it. This is a very personal matter; I want the bar to hit me at belt level, but others prefer it about a foot lower than that. After taking a few quick measurements, Mickey went back to his shop to make the up the pieces.
The next morning he returned with his welding gear, some round deck flanges, and three pieces of straight tubing for each side of the mast. I stood in position while Mickey cut the tubing to length and tack-welded the pieces together at the proper angles. After 20 minutes he was off with a cheery “See you next Saturday!”
Mickey arrived the following Saturday bringing with him the highly polished, seamlessly welded granny bars. They were beautiful, but like a two-legged stool remained useless until their third leg was joined to the dorade guard. Watching this happen gave me an opportunity to appreciate the six-step welding, grinding, and polishing process that is part of every welded joint.
Once Mickey had welded the granny bars to the dorade guards, his work was finished and my work was about to start; both granny bars had two other legs that had to be secured to the deck. Since the deck is cored, I couldn’t just bolt the base flanges to the deck. The 1/4-inch holes for the machine screws had to be isolated from the core to keep water out. I also had to install proper backing plates for each flange underneath the deck to provide the necessary strength.
Step one was to lower the headliner in the cabin directly below the flange mounting points. Then it was back on deck to locate the flanges that would support the granny tubes and mark (with a pencil) the holes for the screws that would hold them. Once all the holes were well marked, I slid the flanges out of the way; there was lots of play in the granny tubes before they were bolted down. I used a 3/8-inch drill bit first because I wanted to have a slight countersink in the deck at each hole to keep the deck fiberglass and gelcoat from cracking. Next, I drilled a 5/16-inch hole straight through the deck skin, the core, and the ceiling skin in the cabin. Then I used a Dremel tool to remove the core material from between the two layers of fiberglass. That created a tunnel about 3/8-inch in diameter.
Then I covered the bottom of each hole with masking tape. This was done so I could fill each hole with epoxy. I mixed up some MAS epoxy resin and hardener and first wet out the sides of each hole with a Q-tip. Then I thickened the rest of the epoxy with colloidal silica and worked it into each hole. I used a round-robin method to fill all 12 of the holes I had created. When air bubbles rose up and created holes in the epoxy, I filled them with more epoxy. A toothpick and a putty knife were very useful for getting the air out and working the epoxy into the little holes.
Once the epoxy cured, I removed the masking tape and started to fit the plywood backing plates that would support the machine screws. The backing plates serve two functions: First, they spread stress loads over a larger area of the deck; second, they fill the space between the underside of the deck and the headliner. With the headliner back in place, the backing plates’ washers and nuts pull the headliner firmly into place without crushing it.
Before fitting the plate, I coarse-sanded the underside of the deck and cleaned it with acetone before wetting it out with thin epoxy. I then wetted out the backing plate and fixed it in place with thickened epoxy. Once the backing plate was correctly positioned, I used a piece of duct tape to hold it in place while the epoxy set.
I let the epoxy cure overnight and the next morning trimmed the epoxy left on the deck overhead with a sanding drum on my Dremel tool. I removed the duct tape from the backing plates and then drilled 1/4-inch holes through the epoxy plugs I had created. I then reinstalled the headliner and, using a small bit, ran it down through each screwhole from abovedeck and marked the center of the hole in the headliner. Next, I carefully finished drilling out each of the holes in the headliner with the 1/4-inch drill bit. Finally, I cleaned the bottom of the granny bar flanges and the surface of the deck with acetone. Then I masked off the area, applied some of 3M’s 5200 bedding compound to the bottom of the flange, and inserted a 3-inch stainless machine screw into each hole.
While an assistant held the top of each screw in place with a screwdriver, I went below and tightened the nuts; I used stainless fender washers and Nylock nuts. I tightened the nuts just enough to squeeze out a bit of the 5200 compound.
Although I knew the 3-inch machine screws were too long, the extra length did serve a valuable purpose. One week later, after the 5200 had set up really well, I went below and gave the nuts a final tightening. I held the bottom of the screws with Vise-Grip pliers while tightening the nuts with a wrench. Then I used the Dremel tool and a parting disk to trim each screw to length. Screws can get very hot when cut this way, potentially melting the Nylock material or even burning the headliner. For this reason I cut each screw just a little bit at a time. Here again, I used a round-robin approach and kept moving from screw to screw. I touched up each screw with a fine grinding wheel to leave every screw clean and flush with its nut.
My granny bars always get admiring looks from people passing by on the dock. But these pale in comparison with the appreciation they get from my crew when we are at sea and somebody has to do something at the mast.
Pete Dubler, a certified ASA instructor, has made many offshore passages and is presently restoring and refitting Regina Oceani, his Pearson 424. When his three daughters are safely in college he plans to do extensive cruising with his wife, Jill.