Know how: Installing a New Whisker Pole

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A well-functioning spin pole is essential for safe, efficient sailing dead downwind

A well-functioning spin pole is essential for safe, efficient sailing dead downwind

If you own an older boat, you’re likely familiar with the quirks that come with aging rigging and equipment. Many budget sailors like myself make do with these imperfections on their boats by finding workarounds or perhaps living in ignorance of how well their boat could sail if everything was running correctly. Perhaps it’s that squealing masthead sheave that you haven’t yet found the time to replace. Or maybe the outhaul car is stuck, but it never really bothered you anyway. In my case, it was a whisker pole with seized jaws, jammed telescopic tubes and a damaged cast-aluminum car that wouldn’t slide up and down the mast anymore.

My boat, Eclipse, a 1984 Tayana Vancouver 42, doesn’t yet have a spinnaker in her arsenal, so for now, sailing downwind has involved a main and genoa. Still, I have spent many long hours running dead downwind in this configuration, sans whisker pole, watching the genoa dance and collapse in the shadow of the main. My sails were suffering, my boatspeed was suffering and my frustration was climbing. Having known for some time now that a pole was critical, it was time for the project to move to the top of my priority list.

Laying out the tools and parts at the start of the job is a smart first step

Laying out the tools and parts at the start of the job is a smart first step

Repair or Replace?

Repairing my existing pole was an option. I could have cut off the seized ends and replaced them with new fittings. However, that would have just been the start of the project. I would also need to repair the telescopic feature of the pole with a number of small customized parts. In addition, a new car that fit the existing mast track would need to be purchased, at no small expense since Isomat, the original builder, is not around anymore. Finally—and what really led me to my final decision—was the fact that by replacing my existing gear I could go with something much better. Even if I brought the pole and track back to their original condition, it would never work as well as a more modern system with things like a ball-bearing car and 2:1 pole lift controls.

Planning

I chose to work with equipment from Seldén Mast simply because I had found its equipment to be of high quality but not overly expensive. Flip through some manufacturer websites or catalogs to see what suits your boat best. After that you’ll want to find a rigger (or a boatyard) who is a dealer and can help you through the design and purchasing process. Even if you are a veteran DIYer, you’ll still want to have someone familiar with the equipment to check over your order and help you procure the parts.

Be warned that, a fair bit of planning and decision making will also go into the to ordering process. In my case, for example, one of the first things I had to do was determine the length of track that would be required. If your pole is going to be stowed vertically on the mast (like mine) it will be quite long. If you have a deck light or radar on the front of the mast, don’t forget to be sure to check it won’t interfere.

These tracks are also not your standard deck T-track. Instead, they have a curved mounting surface designed to be riveted to the forward side of your mast. Not all mast shapes are compatible, with the mast tracks from Seldén, for example, coming with two different radius options, 38mm and 54mm. Using a drafting compass, I, therefore, traced out a 54mm half circle on a sheet of paper and then cut out the inside of the circle and held it up to my mast to ensure it would, indeed, fit.

Would you like a telescopic pole or a fixed-length pole? Telescoping poles are great when working with large genoas, but they are heavier and can be more prone to failure. My own boat was close to exceeding the maximum recommended size for a telescoping pole, so I chose to go with fixed.

That done, the next step was to calculate my boat’s righting moment to determine pole section size. To do so I visited seldenmast.com pulled up its online righting moment (RM) calculator. This simple tool takes your boat’s beam, draft, displacement and ballast and returns you your RM, a figure that is critical for determining how strong the pole needs to be for your boat. This, in turn, determines the pole diameter, after which you can consult a table in the Seldén catalog to determine the maximum length for this type of pole. In the end, I chose a pole length slightly longer than the “J” dimension of my boat, or about 18ft.

Of course, at some point, you’re going to want to gybe with your pole up—using either the end-for-end technique, by going a dip gybe, the preferred method aboard larger boats—which will, in turn, determine the types of ends you’ll be going with. Specifically, an end-for-end pole gets jaws on either end with a bridle for the topping lift; while a dip pole has jaws on the outboard end and a socket fitting inboard end that clips into a bayonet-type of fitting. I eventually chose to use a dip pole for greater control given its large size.

Finally, you need to select the hardware you want to use to control the inboard end of the pole. I chose to go with a ball-bearing type of car with two small blocks on it that allowed me to set up a 2:1 advantage control-line system. By consulting the catalog again, I looked over the standard layouts and worked with my dealer to select the exact size and model. I also purchased two opposing cam cleats to install on the mast, thereby making the adjustment of the inboard end a piece of cake, even when under load.

While you’re at it, don’t forget to specify lines for a topping lift and foreguy if you don’t already have them. I had snap shackles spliced onto some new polyester line for this purpose. Your dealer will also help you make sure you have all of the necessary mounting hardware. When my kit finally arrived, I was pleased to find a surplus of rivets and matching machine screws for each piece of hardware that required them.

From left: checking the curvature of the mast extrusion; fitting the car on the track; tapping another hole for the track end pieces; drilling holes for one of the cheek blocks used to help adjust the inboard pole height

From left: checking the curvature of the mast extrusion; fitting the car on the track; tapping another hole for the track end pieces; drilling holes for one of the cheek blocks used to help adjust the inboard pole height

Installation

One of the nice things about the pole installation on my boat was the lack of any serious removal. Often a big rigging upgrade includes some difficult extractions. However, aside from removing the existing pole, its car and vertical stowage mast mounts, there was little to prevent us from beginning the installation right away.

The most labor-intensive part of the project was the installation of the aluminum track, which had to be riveted to the front of the mast. The track was supplied in two sections and at 16ft was just a bit shorter than the total length of the pole. Of course, because the top of the track needed to end up more than 18ft above the deck, it was necessary to go aloft.

As always when working on a major boat project, start with a plan, but be ready to change and adapt. It’s also a good idea to inventory all of the parts and gather all the necessary tools before you get started. In my case, these tools included a couple of cordless drills, extra batteries, sharp drill bits of the right size for the zinc-coated monel rivets, a powerful rivet gun, Tef-Gel, electrical tape, a thread tap set, screwdrivers, climbing harnesses, tethers and a big ladder.

We started with the lower track section and carefully measured for the correct distance from the deck before we began fastening. Using some electrical tape, we temporarily secured the track to the mast and with a careful eye made sure to hold the track in a vertically centered position as we drilled holes for the first rivets. After that, with the track securely affixed at a couple of points with real hardware, we got busy. Working side by side with two drills, a friend and I would drill each hole through the track and then squash each rivet until the track section was completely secured.

Of course, as we worked our way toward the upper section of track, we also needed to get up the spar. There are a number of different ways doing this, of which hanging in a bosun’s chair is probably the safest. However, in order to continue working in tandem, one of us used a ladder lashed to the mast while wearing a harness and tether for safety. It was hard work, but in the end the two of us managed to drill and rivet the tracks into place in about four hours.

After that, it was time to add the blocks, eye straps, cam cleats and fairleads making up the pole’s inboard controls. This involved drilling and tapping the aluminum mast to accept a number of stainless steel machine screws, which I coated with Tef-Gel to reduce the likelihood of corrosion between the dissimilar metals.

Careful placement and accuracy with the drill is critical here. If a piece of hardware has multiple fastening points, I never mark and drill all of them at once. Instead, I drill a hole and install the first fastener. After that, I begin drilling the next hole through the hardware to mark its location and then remove the hardware and finish drilling the hole. I then reinstall both of these two fasteners before continuing to the next one. This process ensures you don’t end up with a hole that is off center.

Finally, with all the necessary hardware installed, I slid the car onto the track and affixed the track stoppers to hold it in place. I also mounted the becket and rubber bumper to accommodate the vertical stowage of the pole and threaded the car control line and a new pole topping lift into place. After that, I clipped the socket end of the pole to the bayonet fitting on the car and we were ready to go.

Using the new gear on the first downwind sail was a real joy. Everything ran smoothly and after a few practice gybes, I found that I could handle the operation by myself on the foredeck. 

Boat systems specialist Phil Gutowski lives aboard Eclipse in Boston Harbor and cruises extensively 

November 2018

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