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Tips for safely going aloft

The list of reasons for going aloft is long: checking the rig, rerunning a lost halyard, fixing a broken wind instrument. There are two basic ways to go up the mast: You can climb a halyard or you can be hoisted. While there are a number of devices available to help you ascend, the best method is to use a bosun’s chair or to use a mast-climbing device that attaches to—and ascends via—a halyard.

Bosun’s chair Going aloft in a bosun’s chair is the easier method. For starters, the chair should be supportive and comfortable, and it must have certain safety features. Look for a chair with secure safety straps to ensure that you can’t accidentally fall out. To test the fit of the chair before you go up, get into it and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for use. Attach a halyard to the tie-in point. You can use the halyard’s shackle for this, but I prefer to tie the chair to the halyard with a bowline because it removes a potential weak link in the chain. Always tie a second safety halyard to the chair’s tie-in point so you’ll be secure even if the primary halyard should fail.

Always have an experienced crewmember hoist you up the mast and belay the halyard at the proper moments. Confirm that the halyards, sheaves, and turning blocks are in good condition. If you’re unsure about any piece of equipment, replace it before you go up. If possible, run both halyards through rope clutches and to self-tailing winches. Make sure your helper on deck closes the clutches so that if the halyard should get off the self-tailer, you won’t be suddenly dropped.

While your helper is hoisting you up with the winch, do your best to assist by climbing or standing on spreaders, shrouds, or other secure pieces of hardware. Make sure your helper takes up the slack in both halyards every few feet, as halyards are static (they have no give, so your body takes the full impact of any fall); this way you can’t fall any distance. Always communicate with the person on deck so that he or she knows when to pull in on the halyard and when to grind. Once you’ve reached the desired height, your helper should pull both halyards tight and check that they are secure.

Communication is needed to coordinate your trip down. Ideally, there should be two people on deck—one for each halyard—but one person can do the job if everything is done slowly and methodically. This is when the chance of a misstep is highest because both clutches are open and the halyards are being controlled manually. Make sure that both halyards have at least five wraps around their respective winches and that the person holding the halyard(s) is properly braced and is wearing sailing gloves. One way to proceed is to have your helper ease out 6 feet of the safety line before lowering the primary halyard. He or she should then lock off the primary halyard while easing the safety halyard. As you descend, use the inside end of spreaders and other hardware to give yourself support. Go slowly and be safe.

Halyard Climbing The second method involves using a mast-climbing device to ascend a fixed halyard. As an experienced climber, I prefer this method because it gives me complete control over my rate of ascent and descent. There is a tradeoff, however. You must physically haul yourself up and then reverse this motion for the descent. The good news is that with practice, climbing a mast this way is not difficult.

There are several mast-climbing devices on the market, but as a climber I’ve found the ATN TopClimber (www. atninc.com/topclimber.html) to be the one I like most. ATN recommends you run a low-stretch line to the masthead, connecting it either to the main halyard or topping lift (or you can just use the halyard). Once you’re secured in the bosun’s chair, run the low-stretch line or halyard through both of the jumars (one-way rope clamps with weight-activated cams). If you have a helper to tend it, secure a safety line to the bosun’s chair.

Be sure the jumar is oriented correctly—that is, so that it can slide up the line but will lock in place when it is weighted. Next, tie the end of the line to a secure point—a strong fitting at the base of the mast, for example. Make sure there is 2 or 3 feet of slack in the line; you’ll need this amount of play so you can ascend without becoming bound up on anything. Attach the top jumar to the TopClimber’s bosun’s chair (carefully follow TopClimber’s instructions) and attach the bottom jumar to the foot loops.

When everything is ready, get into the chair and start your ascent. Ascending involves sliding the top jumar up, weighting the bosun’s chair, then sliding up the lower jumar and standing on the foot loops. When your weight is on the upper jumar you can lean back in your seat; this is when you can rest. In other words, you shuffle your weight between the two jumars, using your legs to ascend. Again, look for sturdy mast hardware you can use as a foothold. Wrapping an arm around the mast can help you feel secure. Also, be sure that the lower jumar slides up with you as you climb. Once you reach the desired height, place your weight on the upper jumar and sit back on the bosun’s chair.

Lowering yourself may seem awkward at first, but it simply involves reversing the steps you followed to ascend. To begin your descent, stand on the foot loops, free the top jumar, and slide it down so that it is 2 inches above the lower one. (Determining the optimum distance takes a little practice because the best distance depends on your own height.) The next step is to weight the top jumar and sit back on the chair. Next, slide the lower jumar down, transfer your weight onto the foot loops, and repeat this process. Here again, determining how far to slide the jumars comes with experience.

Use both these methods to practice climbing up and down just a short distance above the deck. Do your practice runs early and often—well before you have to work aloft. And no matter what else you do, always go slowly, be patient, and above all, be careful.


For more information on mast-climbing devices visit www.sailmagazine.com

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