ESSENTIAL KIT - Mast Climbing

ESSENTIAL KIT - Mast Climbing

You will need a secure and easy method of climbing the mast with minimal support from your crew.  This operation is much different for the man & wife cruising crew than is is for a 6 strong burly race crew.

There are 4 things to consider:

  • How will you make the ascent, climbing or hoisting?
  • How can you ensure that a simple slip does not send you crashing back to the deck?
  • If you do slip what may minimise injury?
  • How will you secure yourself comfortably and firmly at the top to allow you to work with both hands and reach all the kit?

Hoisting by Winch

A bosun's chair is the traditional method but this requires 2 strong crew members, one to handle the winch & the other the safety line.  The problem in a 2 person crew is - if one of you is on the mast and the second on the winch, who is looking after the safety line?

Even electric winches do not alleviate this problem, although they certainly make the hoist much easier.

If you can borrow a third hand and you have 2 good halyards available then this method is quite safe once each member thoroughly understands their role.   Sadly, the famous "Sod" says that you will need to climb the mast in open water when there are only 2 of you on board.

The hoist halyard is attached to the bosun's chair.  I ALWAYS tie off with a bowline here and NEVER simply trust the stainless fitting on the halyard whatever type it may be.

The security halyard is tied off to a second harness.  Most people use a lifejacket harness but this is quite dangerous as you can fall through the harness straps.  Even if you have a crotch strap the plastic buckles are not designed to take the snatch load of a person falling even just a few feet, not to mention the pain they will cause if they do manage to hold you.

A simple deck harness is a better option with 2 sail ties securely tied under the crotch.  If you do opt for either deck harness method and bosun's chair always tie off the tail of the security halyard through the webbing straps of the bosun's chair after securing it to the harness.

The best hoist option is to combine the comfort of the bosun's chair with the security of a 6 point climbing harness specifically designed for the job.  At least if you do fall it won't hurt quite as much.

The idea is to prevent any single point of failure causing an accident, which if it happens in open water will leave the other crew to deal with everything.

Mast Steps

In my opinion, Mast Steps are a good solution for the cruising couple even if they do look a little unsightly.   Ideally fit the folding type or thread the outside of fixed steps with thin taut line to ensure the halyards don't get caught around them

Alternatively there a number of strap step systems on the market that are raised taut on a halyard or they can even be built into the luff of the sail.   Experienced climbers may opt for a combination of Prussik, Bachmann or Kleimheist knots to ascend a taut halyard.  Well it takes all sorts....

If you are going to climb the mast yourself then you will only need one security halyard and one person on the deck to manage it around a winch.  This line must have 2 turns around the winch at all times and be made off with a bosun's hitch around the winch if it is to be left unattended for any reason.   The deck crew must pull in and pay out using the winch to keep the line semi-taut so that a fall is only a foot or two while not restricting your ability to climb freely.   This is an acquired skill that needs practice and co-ordination between the climber and the deck.

You will still need a security harness of some sort that will take your load if you fall.  I prefer a 6 point harness just for the comfort value.  I have seen a bosun's chair used, so you can sit comfortably at the top, BUT the securing point is usually too low to act as a good security harness.  At least pass a bowline under your arms and tie it to the security harness to keep you the correct way up if you slip.

Once at the Top

While the view and photo opportunities at the mast top can be stunning they are rarely sufficient to justify the climb on their own, although my son might disagree with this analysis.

You have come to do a job of work at the top.  This will require tools, equipment and time.  

DO NOT RELAX until you are sure the security halyard is made off around the winch using a bosun's hitch.  Do NOT trust your life to rope jammers.

At this point the deck crew is in the most danger as you may easily drop something on them.  Not Funny!   Ensure they stay well back from the mast and wear a hard hat if you have one.

DO NOT climb with tools in your pocket,  They will fall and the best you can hope for is to lose them overboard after they badly mark the deck.  At worst your deck crew might catch them on some unprotected part of their anatomy.

If you have a spare halyard at the mast head use that to raise a bucket with the relevant tools and bits inside.  A light control line should also be attached so the deck crew can hold the bucket away from obstacles as it ascends.  This also tends to keep the crew well back so they can see what they are doing.   If you don't have a halyard then you will need to take a line up with you as you climb to act as tool bucket hoist.  This line should be loosely looped through your harness so if it snags you can get rid of it easily.

Working at the mast head is exhausting and it can be awkward to get into the best position to reach and work.   If you have fitted steps, the top pair should be positioned as side by side working steps at a suitable height so your chest is on level with the mast head.   Even if you will use the hoist method a pair of folding working steps at the mast top is a good idea.

Where possible, I use short lanyards on tools and gear so if I do drop anything they don't go far. 

As an ex-BT telephone lineman, in my youth, I am used to working aloft and still use my linesman's belt to secure me steadily to the mast so I can swing around to reach everything.   That is not for everyone but be aware that 15 minutes at the mast head can feel like a lifetime so try to pre-arrange things so you can be as comfortable as possible.

Whichever method you choose, practice in open water to get used to climbing a moving mast.  Go through each stage with the deck crew so you iron out any kinks in the procedure before you need it for real.

Hey, what else are you going to do all day anyway?  Drink beer?

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