Knowing a tried and tested solo mast climbing technique (for masts with internally routed halyards) will inspire confidence and mean you are never left waiting for crew to complete essential jobs above deck level.

This guide to solo mast climbing technique has all the information you need to rappel solo, double handed and crewed and I show you the best kit for the job.

What about all those times you’ve put off climbing a mast because there’s no-one to winch you? Having the ability to rappel your own mast unaided is highly recommended. You’re more likely to crack on with those essential jobs that keep getting put off or dangerously ignored.

At the business end of the mast we have a host of electronics, from the wind wand that might get a poopy visit from a well fed seagull to vibration causing stress cracks in flexible aerial brackets and the cable chafe we all want to keep an eye on that will short circuit something and leave you unexpectedly sailing in the dark.

One of my own experiences was a mystery short circuit every time I switched on the tri-light. This nonsense went on for about three weeks one summer while out and about sailing and I was without mast head nav lights all that time.

Finally I had some helping hands come onboard and after much to-ing an fro-ing up and down the mast, we dismantled the mast head light unit to find a petrified husk of a spider in there shorting across terminals.

The solo climbing gear was procured shortly after.

Here’s a practical guide to the gear you’ll use for climbing a mast: as a single hander, as a double hander and if you have the luxury of crew, as a well oiled team of three or four.

You do not need to buy price hiked marine badged versions of climbing gear promising some new magical way of going upwards.

Whilst there’s no singular perfect method that will suit everyone all of the time, the climbing gear I have outlined and used in the demo is the most popularly tried and tested by a host of people who’s job in life is to hang about working at height.

This gear is also safety approved and meets rigorous safety standards.

The climbing gear components identified with a red badge are ones that I have independently tested or used on my own boat and as a professional skipper on other boats in the buyers guide, along with recommended alternatives. If you already have all the gear but no idea how to use it, then use the button below to skip straight down to the step by step guide to climbing a mast.


Mast climbing gear: Essential buyer’s guide

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For climbing a mast solo you will need:

  • a climbing harness
  • an ascender
  • a belay device
  • 5 or 6 carabiners
  • a personal sling/daisy chain/loop
  • at least one foot strap
  • one prussik loop (you can make this from a 2.5m piece of rope/cordage)
  • total cost of kit used in demo approx: £288

For climbing a mast double handed or crewed:

  • a climbing harness and/or bosun’s chair
  • one prussik loop
  • total cost approx: £98

Harnesses and Bosun’s Chairs

Petzl Adjama Men’s Climbing Harness

Petzl Adjama mens harness - climbing a mast gear
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 Leg loops adjustable with doubleback buckles, to adapt to different body types and to seasonal clothing. Capacity to carry large amount of gear.

  • 5 gear loops
  • 460g (s) – 545g (large)
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£65  /  $79.95

Buy Petzl Adjama harness at GoOutdoors.co.uk

Buy Petzl Adjama harness from Amazon.com

Note: We may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site, at no extra cost to you. This doesn’t affect our editorial independence. Where indicated, items have been tested independently of manufacturers influence.

DMM Vixen Women’s Climbing Harness

DMM vixen womens harness - climbing a mast
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This is the harness I used in the video. It is designed for women. I’ve used it for about 8 years and it is still in great condition. It comes in sizes XS to L. I bought the L to fit over my foulies or larger clothes, but it is a little big when wearing just light form fitting clothes. Ideally I would get a smaller sized harness for that purpose.

  • 5 gear loops
  • breathable
  • 345g (xs) – 410g (large)

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£54

Buy DMM Vixen from GoOutdoors.co.uk

 

Petzl Aquila Men’s Climbing Harness

Petzl Aquila mens harness - climbing a mast
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Maximum comfort for long suspensions and for larger body types.  The wide, comfortable waistbelt is ideal for all body types and adjustable leg loops adapt to clothing for climbing in any season.

  • 2 slots for caritool holder
  • 4 gear loops
  • 320g (xs) – 425g (xl)
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£95.65  /  $134.95

Buy Petzl Aquila harness from AlpineTrek.co.uk

Buy Petzl Aquila harness from Amazon.com

 

Ocun Neon Lady Climbing Harness

Ocun womens climbing harness from Go Outdoors
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Designed specifically for the female anatomy, the Ocun Neon Lady is extremely light, yet provides plenty of comfort for longer climbs or practicing difficult moves.

  • Padded belt and leg loops with breathable sandwich design
  • 4 gear loops
  • 330g (xs) – 375g (large)
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£63.96

Buy Ocun Neon Lady harness from GoOutdoors.co.uk

 

Lalizas Bonsun’s Chair

Lalizans bosuns chair - climbing a mast
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Rigid seat, basic bosun’s chair seen on many boats around the world. I have used this one a lot. The only niggle I have with it is the hard metal triangles used for attaching to the halyard have bruised the middle of my chest when the push back while working aloft. I make sure I wear good padding when I use it now, and this may not affect taller people. I keep using it because the hard seat suits me and it’s better than a wooden plank with carpet stapled to it.  Combine this with a harness when working aloft on a lengthy job.

  • tool pockets and loops
  • rigid seat
  • no frills but does the job

Jayne Toyne using Lalizas bosuns chair at the top of a mast

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£43.99

Buy Lalizas Bosun’s Chair from Marine Scene on Amazon.co.uk

 

Lalizas Professional Bosun’s Chair

professional bosuns chair for working aloft on a yacht mast
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A comfortable bosun’s chair with secure back to avoid slipping through. Good tool storage onboard and tool loops. I’ve used this one on various boats over the years including in the opening picture to this article. It always inspires confidence and comfort.

  • Used by many professional riggers
  • Comfortable for lengthy spells
  • Lots of tool storage

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£62.46

Buy Lalizas Professional Bosun’s Chair from Bataeu Plus via Amazon.co.uk

Ascenders

Petzl Ascension Ascender

petzl ascension ascender left and right hand models
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This is the ascender I use on my own climbing gear. I use a left handed version because I am right hand dominant and it’s easier for me to slide the ascender up with my left hand while pulling up on the lazy line with my right hand.

  • line size: 8mm – 13mm
  • 165g
  • left or right handed versions


petzl ascension ascender detail of jaw

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£46.76  /  $87.07

Buy Petzl Ascension left handed from GoOutdoors.co.uk

Buy Petzl Ascension left or right from AlpineTrek.co.uk

Buy Petzl Ascension from Amazon.com

 

Climbing Technology Quick Up+ Ascender

Climbing Technology Quick Up+ Ascender
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The easy-to-use Quick Up+ ascender from Climbing Technology comes with an ergonomic, glove-friendly grip that makes it a solid option for fixed-rope ascents.

  • line size: 8mm – 13mm
  • 215g
  • left or right hand versions
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£49.95

Buy CT Quickup Ascender from AlpineTrek.co.uk

Belay Devices

Petzl Gri Gri +

Petzl Gri Gri + climbing a mast
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This belay device can be used with all single ropes (optimised for 8.9 to 10.5 mm diameter ropes) and is equipped with an assisted breaking function. Suitable for beginner mast climbers to expert riggers.

  • line size: 8.9mm – 10.5mm
  • 200g
  • auto-locking

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£90.86 /  $129.95

Buy GriGriplus from Decathlon

Buy GriGriplus from AlpineTrek

Buy GriGriplus from Amazon.com

 

Matik belay

Matik belay
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This works in a similar way to the GriGri but the line feeds in a straight line rather than from the side. Some people prefer this to avoid their lines becoming twisted.

  • line size:  8.6mm to 10.2mm
  • 276g
  • antipanic auto clutch engagement
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£103

Buy Matik Belay from GoOutdoors

Buy Matik Belay from Amazon.com

 

Petzl Reverso

Petzl reverso
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No moving parts, the Petzle Reverso is a simple belay device that can be more easily put on or taken off a line as you go. You push a bight of rope through one of the apertures and clip a carabiner through to act as the friction turn. A really handy bit of a kit.

  • line size 8.5mm to 10.5mm
  • 57g
  • very simple device with little to go wrong.
    petzl reverso in use
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£27.99 $21.95

Buy Petzl Reverso from Decathlon

Buy Petzl Reverso from Amazon.com

Carabiners

Grivel Mega K6N Screw Lock Snap Hook

Grivel Mega K6N Screw Lock Snap Hook climbing a mast
x For belaying and rappelling. It is designed for use with both single and double ropes.

I use two of these in my solo mast climb gear. One is used from the bottom of the ascender to hold the footloop and personal lanyard and the other is used on the top of the ascender to work as a reduction turning point for the belay lazy line.

  • 7000-series aluminum
  • Screwgate
  • 78g

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£8.99

Buy Grivel K4n Carabiner from Trek Inn

 

Black Diamond Gridlock Screwgate Carabiner

Black Diamond Gridlock Screwgate Carabiner climbing a mast
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Designed specifically for belaying, the GridLock isolates the belay loop behind its uniquely shaped gate, thereby keeping the carabiner in its proper orientation.

I use two of these carabiners, both from my harness. The anti-crossloading design is reassuring as the repeated loading and unloading of both the belay and ascender has a tendency to make standard carabiners rotate and there’s a high risk of crossloading when solo rappelling.

  • Anti cross load design
  • 76g

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£18

Buy Black Diamond Gridlock from GoOutdoors.co.uk

 

DMM – Rhino Quicklock – Locking carabiner

DMM - Rhino Quicklock - Locking carabiner climbing a mast
x For regular users of pulleys or GriGri like belay devices.

I use this carabiner on my prusik line. The horn stops the hitched on line sliding around the carabiner as it is repeatedly adjusted.

  • Anti cross load horn
  • Quicklock gate
  • 81g

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£17.96

Buy DMM Rhino from Alpine Trek.co.uk

Slings and quickdraws

DMM Dyneema sling

DMM Dyneema sling
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Dyneema has several advantages over traditional nylon webbing – it’s incredibly light and strong, less susceptible to UV degradation and is more abrasion resistant.
I use this sling as my personal lanyard between harness carabiner and the ascender. You need to find a sling that can be adjusted to your own personal reach length. I double this one over to give me the correct length.

  • 11mm Dyneema tape
  • 120cm
  • Strength: 22kN

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£9.90 

Buy DMM Dyneema sling from GOOutdoors.co.uk

 

Multi Chain Evo Daisychain

Multi Chain Evo Daisychain
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A daisy chain is a versatile alternative to the above single sling option. You can use this to adjust lengths for multiple applications, which might be ideal if more than one of you will be using it to climb the rig, especially if you’re notably different heights. Obviously there’s a cost implication as it’s four times the costs a basic dyneema sling.

  • 90g
  • Tensile strength: 24 kN
  • Dyeema loops
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£38.95

Buy Multi Chain Evo from AlpineTrek.co.uk

 

Beal Nylon Sling

Beal Nylon Sling used as footloop for climbing a mast
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A basic Nylon loop, ideal for use on a multitude of climbing uses, I personally use this as my footloop. I have two of them. They are cow-hitched onto the bottom of my ascender, one is tucked away and the other used for climbing. When I reach working height I use the second loop to stand up with both feet or to wrap one around the mast. It’s very handy to have two of these.

  • 120cm
  • 16mm

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£6.48 

Buy Beal Nylon Sling from GoOutdoors.co.uk

 

PETZL – Footape – Foot loop sling

PETZL - Footape - Foot loop sling
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Simply attach the sling to your handled ascender, adjust the length with the secure Mini DoubleBack buckle, and start making upward progress.
This is for those who can’t quite get the right length from a fixed simple loop or you want the foot security from a more rigid and foot secure adjustable loop
  • 65g – 20mm webbing
  • Minimum length 84cm
  • Maximum length 125cm
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£16.95

Buy Petzl Foot loop sling from AlpineTrek.co.uk

 

Black Diamond Quick Draw

Black Diamond Quick Draw
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Wire gate and solid gate carabiners. quick and easy to clip to a harness and then to secure tools, gear, or yourself to a solid point while you work at height.

  • 103g
  • 12cm sling
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£14.99

Buy Black Diamond Quick Draw from Decathlon

 

DMM Quickdraw Shadow

DMM Quickdraw Shadow
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Two solid gates on an 18cm sling. Quickdraws comes in a variety of wire and solid gate styles with a variety of sling lengths. You can buy them in multipacks or individually.

  • 113g
  • 18cm sling
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£18 (RRP £20)

Buy DMM Shadow quickdraw from GoOutdoors

Helmets and Body armour

Edelrid climbing helmet

Edelrid climbing helmet
x Wing-Fit system and rear adjustment dial fits all sizes. The cradle folds into the helmet to reduce stowage size.

  • 359g
  • headlamp mount
  • 54cm – 62cm head size
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£39.99

Buy Edelrid climbing helmet from Decathlon

 

Eclipse women’s climbing helmet

Eclipse women's climbing helmet
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Ventilated and lightweight for smaller heads, this has a washable padded liner too. Handy headlamp clips could be useful for climbing in the dark.

  • 280g
  • headlamp mount
  • quick adjust dial
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£47.95

Buy Eclipse Women’s climbing helmet from AlpineTrek.co.uk

 

Pro Tec BMX helmet

Pro Tec BMX helmet
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You don’t have to have tons of dedicated single purpose kit on your boat, a BMX or other hardshell cycling helmet will do just as well. If you’re carrying a hardshell helmet to use with your own bike then use that for climbing a mast! (just beware of standard polystyrene cycling helmets and their fragility, one headlong smash into your mast and you should consider a regular polystyrene cycling helmet dead and must be replaced. Use a hardshell helmet that is designed for light knocks and bumps. I know some friends who sail with ski helmets because their boom is so low. A ski helmet would also be a good alternative.

  • Polycarbonate Shell
  • 5 sizes: xsmall – xlarge
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£35.99

Buy Pro Tec BMX helmet from Source BMX

 

Forcefield Ex-K Harness Flite Plus Body Armour

Forcefield Ex-K Harness Flite Plus Body Armour
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A premium brand motorcycle armour designed to be worn over a baselayer and under a jacket, this armour is robust and easy to don. Whilst I haven’t tested this particular body armour model, I have used Forcefield body armour integrated within my motorbike kit and it is really good stuff, comfortable and relatively easy to move in. This would suit the larger body clanging about up a mast at sea.

  • designed to be flexible
  • breathable
  • CE Level 2 back and chest protection
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from £277

Buy Forcefield Body Armour from Amazon.co.uk

 

O’Neal Underdog protector jacket

O'Neal Underdog protector jacket
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A mesh jacket with strategically placed foam padding and moulded plastic cups to protect your fragile bits. IPX foam cushioning.
If you’re climbing a mast in anything other than benign conditions, you’ll be thankful you invested in body armour.

  • injection moulded plastic to shoulders and elbows
  • comes in wide range of sizes from small to xxl
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from £123.96

Buy O’Neal Underdog protector from Alpinetrek.co.uk
Buy O’Neal Underdog protector from Amazon.co.uk
Buy O’Neal Underdog from Amazon.com

 


How to climb a mast: Step by step guide

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climbing a mast single handed

Solo Mast Climbing Technique

  • Wear appropriate clothing. We recommend close fitting clothing that wont snag on anything. Also protect your shins.
  • Consider wearing body armour if going up the mast at sea. It’s very easy to be slammed against the mast and crack a rib, which will definitely spoil your day.
  • Wear a helmet if you are in a rolling anchorage or underway. A BMX, kayak or dedicated climbing hard shell helmet is ideal.
  • Assemble the climbing gear like this:
    equipment diagram for solo climbing a mast
  • Attach halyards to the mast foot area.
  • Attach prusik line to the halyard or line you are using as a backup safety.
  • Attach Ascender and GriGri to the main working line/halyard.
  • Clip on harness.
  • Double check all carabiner gates are locked closed and nothing is cross loaded.

To get started climbing now that everything is attached to the halyards.

  1. Slide the ascender as high as you can while standing.
  2. Pull up on the lazy line to pull the GriGri/belay device as far up the line as you can, as high as it will go while you stand on deck.
  3. Sit back into your harness and watch the GriGri articulate (if you are using this device) and grip the line.
  4. Make sure your foot is in the footstrap.
  5. Slide the ascender as high as you are able to.
  6. Grab hold of the ascender handle and pull yourself up so that you are standing in the footstrap.
  7. Take in the slack on the GriGri/belay device pulling it up the line as high as possible, to meet the bottom of your ascender.
  8. Sit back down again. watch the GriGri articulate again and watch for any snags or anything that doesn’t look right.
  9. Slide the ascender upwards again as far as you can.
  10. Repeat this process to rappel as far as you want up the mast.

Remember to keep sliding your prusik line up as you progress. This is your backup if the main line fails.

Ascend at your own pace.

You will swing about a bit. You can use your spare non-footloop leg to help grip the mast and steady you from swinging about too much. A couple of quick draws can be handy for holding you in place while you stop to work.

climbing a mast solo caution don't wind the ascender to the top without a gap

Beware of the need to leave a small gap above the ascender to allow it to be released from the line. So don’t go hauling it upwards slamming it into the underside of your masthead overhang. You’ve been warned!

When ready to descend, double check all of your lines and carabiners.

  1. Sit back on your GriGri or belay device, ensuring it holds you without slipping and remove the ascender from the line.
  2. Close the ascender gate to avoid getting spiked and hang it from your harness.
  3. Wind up the foot strap, tuck that away. You don’t need the footstrap anymore but you also don’t want it to get snagged on anything on the way down.
  4. With one hand on the lazy line,  ease back on the GriGri lever or belay device with the other hand to gradually release the friction on the line you are sitting back on.
  5. Feed the lazy line to control your speed of descent. You will start to slide down the line.

REMEMBER to slide your prusik line down as you go!

Take it slowly and control your descent carefully. There’s a lot to get snagged on as you go back down the mast.

Use your legs to grip the mast if the boat is moving around a lot.


Double handed climbing a mast

You have a few options.

  • A harness combined with bosun’s chair for a lengthy time up in the air or just a harness for a quick trip.
  • I prefer a hard seat bosun’s chair so I can sit back in it for a rest when doing lengthy jobs, such as feeding lines or wires down the mast. A harness is secure but can easily nip off circulation to a leg when hanging around for a long time. Foot loops can also help to take pressure off or allow you to gain a little height above the mast head.
  • Agree on hand signals for up and down winding.
  • Have your co-skipper wind on one winch while you slide a prussic line up the second secure line.
    Alternatively they could wind up one line then take up slack on a second winch with the safety line, as both can be attached to your bosun’s chair or harness, but this means your crew mate will be running between lines and this runs the risk of mistakes, cross winching, or tangles or worse, accidental line release.
    A prusik on a static line attached to mast foot while you are winched up on another line is a much safer method for two people.
  • For security when you are working aloft, make sure your co-skipper locks off that line on the winch to either a cleat or double back to create a locking turn. Don’t just rely on a clutch.
  • When they ease you back down the line, remember to hold your prusik line and knot as you go. This will help to hold you steady but also allow you to stop your descent quickly if you need to.


Fully crewed climbing a mast

Use two lines, one per winch and you have a lead wincher for the main number one line and a second line tailer, taking up the slack on the safety line.

If you have enough crew, have someone as a designated spotter to relay messages to the prime wincher.

  • If you are unsure of the safety and condition of the lines, make sure you have a safety backup or mouse a new line through if there’s doubt over the condition of the line you are using. This might not be possible if you have a broken halyard already and the reason you’re going up is ton put a new one in!
  • Always go up with two lines.
  • Always wear footwear.
  • Use padding and head protection if there is a risk of you swinging about with the boat in motion.
  • Tie your own knot to your bosun’s chair or harness if being winched. Do not rely on the shackle or sail crimp to secure you.
  • Lanyard on/ securely all tools
  • Use a mobile phone with hands free set or a pair of handheld vhf radios on ships internal comms channel 15 or 17 on low power/1w. [Calling protocol would be: Boatname – Alpha (for one person, eg up the mast) Boatname – Bravo (for another person, eg on deck spotting)]
  • Make sure your comms devices are securely attached and cannot fall.

Spot the little faces looking upwards from the cockpit area. Your crew mates will seem quite far away when you are high up in the rigging. Make sure you have adequate communication in place for safety.

clipper 70 Old Pulteney

The bigger the boat, the more important comms devices become. Pace out the length of your mast on land, let’s say that’s 25m or 85 feet away away, now face sideways and try talking to someone at that distance. Rig up your phones or vhf radio on hand free use. Make sure comms devices are secured and can’t fall.

Don’t forget to use your own judgement when following our advice, or use a professional. Here’s our full disclaimer. 


Further reading on mast climbing methods and equipment

How to climb a mast safely at sea – masterclass with Pip Hare

Mast Climbing for short handed crews

7 mast climbing kits on test

12 Bosun’s chairs tested

What happens when you dismast in the antarctic


Enjoyed reading Climbing a mast – best climbing gear & practical guide?

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