Anyone who has stood working at the mainmast aboard a sailboat underway in heavy weather knows how awkward, even dangerous, it can be, juggling a halyard, reef cringle and lines, and a winch handle while simultaneously hanging on for dear life. Working the starboard side, where the main halyard usually secures, with the boat on a port tack puts you on the “downhill” slope with nothing between you and the briny but thin air. Of course, any sane sailor will clip their safety harness to the mast in such conditions, but you can still be thrown around and possibly injured.
Now, compare that scenario to having a stout, broad railing braced against your back, one you can lean into with complete confidence so that both your hands are free to work. The macho lubbers who nicknamed these rails “chicken bars” or “granny bars” have obviously never been offshore.
I’m talking about mast pulpits, standing stainless steel rails mounted on either side of the mainmast. With the possible exception of those vessels aboard which all halyards and reef lines are led aft to the cockpit, any sailboat that ventures offshore should have these life-savers. While there are some one-size-fits-all rails advertised, mast pulpits must generally be fabricated (or modified) to fit an individual boat’s coachhouse camber. Price, quality, design and dimensions can vary widely. It pays to query several metal fabrication shops and welders. If your boat is a production model, an online owners’ group may be able to direct you to a fabricator who already has the appropriate mast pulpit plans. A boat with a roller-furling genoa halyard permanently secured on the port side of the mast might get by with just one starboard mast pulpit. But then again why scrimp when trouble (not to mention heavy weather) can come from any direction?