Stairway to Heaven

I was sailing solo to Bermuda one year when the weather turned wicked. The wind and waves kept building, until finally I lay ahull with the sails furled. Knockout blows from the steep seas pounded my Westsail 32, Antares. When at last the storm blew over I found both halyards were loose and had wrapped around the masthead in a huge tangle. I had no choice but to climb. Going aloft in a
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I was sailing solo to Bermuda one year when the weather turned wicked. The wind and waves kept building, until finally I lay ahull with the sails furled. Knockout blows from the steep seas pounded my Westsail 32, Antares. When at last the storm blew over I found both halyards were loose and had wrapped around the masthead in a huge tangle. I had no choice but to climb. Going aloft in a quiet marina can be a challenge, but climbing a swaying, slippery mast in big seas was downright terrifying.

Fortunately, Antares is fitted with permanently mounted mast steps. I inched aloft, clipping in my safety harness every few feet as the mast whipped me through the air. At the masthead, I clung onto the mast like a bug to a wheat stalk as I cleared the mess of tangled lines. Safely back on deck I started breathing normally again, but I knew without my mast steps Antares might have drifted under bare poles to Ireland.

Sooner or later every sailor has to climb a mast. Lights need replacing; instruments have to be checked; rigging must be inspected and serviced. Climbing a mast can be risky, but with the right equipment and some careful planning it can be both safe and fun.

Option 1: Mast Steps

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I use fixed triangular mast steps to go aloft. Yes, steps add windage and weight, but I sail a heavy cruiser, and the convenience of the steps far outweighs the slight decrease in performance. Two opposing steps mounted four feet below my masthead give me a stable platform when working up there and are much more comfortable than hanging free in a bosun’s chair.

It is crucial to use the “three-point” rule when climbing the mast. Always have three points of contact with the steps—two hands and one foot, or two feet and one hand. Go slowly and carefully. Wear a safety harness and clip in to a sturdy tie-off point once aloft.

As an added precaution it’s wise to attach a back-up safety halyard to your harness and have someone on deck take up the slack as you climb. If you’re climbing alone, a rope ascender running up a tensioned halyard and tied to your harness will catch you if you fall.

Triangular steps are the safest, as they provide an extra margin of security by enclosing the foot. Fold-down steps create much less windage and won’t catch loose halyards, as triangular steps sometimes do, but each step must be unfolded and refolded when climbing and descending. This is distracting and takes time. Also, fold-down steps do not surround the foot and it is much easier to slip off them.

Option 2: Bosun’s Chair

A bosun’s chair is the most common way of going aloft, and every boat should have one aboard. Fitted with a back, padded seat and crotch strap, a bosun’s chair is quite safe and comfortable. Most chairs come with wide pockets sewn into the sides, making it easy to carry tools and equipment aloft.

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It’s best if two people hoist crew aloft in a chair, but one person with a self-tailing winch can do the job safely. A backup safety halyard should be used and its slack taken up as the chair ascends. If shorthanded, the backup halyard can be belayed, the chair lifted 10 feet, then the slack in the backup line taken up and the process repeated.

Halyards should always be attached to a chair with a bowline—never with a snap-shackle that might pop open. For obvious reasons the lightest member of the crew should be the one sent aloft. Four turns should be taken on the winch on the ascent to provide lots of friction. For a gentle ride down, keep just two turns on the winch drum. This avoids the possibility of an override, but still provides enough resistance to hold the person in place if necessary.

Before starting up the mast bounce a bit with your full weight in the chair. Test the bowline and let the halyard take the full load. Is the hoisting crew ready? Is the backup halyard attached? Does everyone know their role? They literally have your life in their hands—they must understand this. Communication is the key to safety.

Wear gloves and help the crew cranking the winch by pulling yourself up a bit. It’s tiring work, however, and generally the person at the winch does most of the heavy lifting.

Carry some means of securing yourself to the mast so the line you’re on can be cut should something go wrong on deck. Once aloft, hold on to your equipment—deck crew take umbrage at having tools dropped on their heads.

A good alternative to a bosun’s chair is a webbed climbing harness. Although not quite as comfortable as a chair, these do provide more security. You can literally hang upside down in one and not fall out. Another advantage to a harness is that the attachment point is lower, making it easier to reach the level of the masthead.

Good close-toed shoes and heavy long pants are highly recommended when going aloft, especially at sea. The motion offshore can be violent, and the added protection pants and shoes offer is crucial. A helmet is another good idea.

Option 3: Climbing Gear

Another way to get aloft is to use mountain-climbing equipment called ascenders. These work by grabbing a tensioned 1/2in line with a ratcheting mechanism. Using the “inchworm” method (where both legs share the load), two loops are attached to the lower ascender, one for each foot. The upper ascender attaches to your climbing harness. To climb, put all your weight on the foot loops and slide the upper ascender up the line. Sit and take up your weight on the harness, then pull up the lower foot ascender. Repeat.

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As a safety precaution, a short line can be run from the lower ascender to the harness. To descend, all your weight must be removed from the ascender before you can slide it back down the line.

Ascenders require a fair bit of stamina and strength and should be used only by those in good physical condition. They are an excellent choice for shorthanded crew and have become quite popular in recent years. You can make up your own or purchase a ready-made version such as the ATN Mastclimber.

Flexible webbed mast ladders that are hoisted in a mainsail track are another choice for going aloft. These systems are lightweight and removable, and thus create no windage. Their lack of rigidity and stability, however, make them unsuitable for offshore work. Also, if you have to remove the sail from the track prior to rigging the ladder, it becomes time consuming and cumbersome.

Finally, the old stand-by method for hoisting oneself aloft is the traditional 4:1 block-and-tackle system. These can require well over 200 feet of line and, although slow, are a workable alternative. You only need a modest amount of strength to hoist yourself aloft this way. If you replace the top block with a Harken Hexaratchet (cam cleat removed) you can pause and catch your breath en route.

Which of these systems should you use? That depends. Will you be alone or with a group of strong and experienced crew? Are you sailing a cruising boat or a high-performance racer? How strong are you? Who will be making the ascent? What conditions are you sailing in? How self-reliant must you be?

Each boat, each crewmember and each sailing situation is different. You should always be prepared to climb your mast and have the equipment aboard to do it safely. Remember, it’s not a question of if you’ll need to go aloft, but when.

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