Professional skipper Simon Philips shares how to go aloft safely with only one other crewmember aboard
Mast climbing is a skill some sailors love to put into practice, while others, even seasoned professional yachtsmen, loathe the dizzying heights involved in even the simplest of mast-top maintenance tasks.
Modern yachts, often with precious little in the way of steps to climb, in most cases rely on a safe system of lines to get up and down the mast, which can be pretty daunting.
No matter whether you are going aloft to change a bulb in the tricolour on a windless day alongside in a marina, or freeing up a jammed line that’s much more critical out at sea, having a routine that’s well practiced is at the heart of making mast climbing safe and stress free.
Practice and preparation is key.
Getting familiar with the techniques and equipment will mean you’re better equipped to go aloft should the need arise at sea, which will inevitably be when you least expect it.
When I train round-the-world yacht race crews on their 70ft yachts, ideally there are seven people involved, just to hoist one up the mast.
I have two separate halyards involved and I have two people on a grinder, two people tailing (one per winch), two people on the clutches and one person watching the person going aloft who tells everyone what to do.
This way, there is a great safety margin involved.
But even when shorthanded, it’s still possible to go aloft safely.
1 Prepare to go aloft
Prepare the person going aloft.
They should have shoes rather than bare feet, a comfortable bosun’s chair or climbing harness, and a helmet (cycling, skiing or kayaking) to help prevent head injuries.
Take a smartphone, so a photo can be sent to someone on the deck if necessary, saving a second hoist, and put your basic tools in the pocket of the bosun’s chair.
Ideally, all loose items should be attached by lanyards so that they can’t be dropped on to the deck
Using two halyards is a must to ensure the safety of the person aloft.
Decide which is the primary halyard and which is the safety halyard.
Use only halyards that are internal to the mast, like a headsail or mainsail halyard, as these go into the mast around 6-8ft off the deck and exit near the top.
Never use external halyards – if the block at the masthead fails then you’ll be freefalling on to the deck.
3 Get comfortable
Get in the chair and bounce in it just off the deck to ensure it is comfortable and adjusted correctly.
Tie bowlines through the lifting part of the harness.
Never rely on a shackle as this may come undone or fail.
Once you’ve done this with both halyards, you’re set to go.
Hoisting the person can be tiring work.
The person aloft can assist greatly by pulling themselves up, but care must be taken to stay safely in the chair or harness.
Keep three turns on the winch and a clutch closed on the primary halyard.
This halyard has their full weight on it at all times.
5 Safety line
As you’re hoisting, stop every couple of metres or so and pull in the slack of the safety line and secure.
This should also be through a clutch and on a winch.
If this is not possible, make the lead fair to a cleat and secure.
6 Secure aloft
When they are at the desired height, tension the safety line by hand and secure both lines.
On the winch, use a tugboat hitch and move away from the mast in case they drop something.
7 Flake the halyard
While they are up the mast, flake out both of the halyards so these can run free when they’re being lowered.
8 Lower away
Lowering can be tricky unless you have the correct amount of friction in the lines – both primary and safety lines.
Ideally, the person being lowered would like to be lowered smoothly all the way down.
Having too much friction on the lines results in having to ease by hand on the winch, which bounces them all the way down.
The number of turns will depend upon the size of the winch, the make of the winch (some manufacturers’ winches have more friction than others), and the type and diameter of the halyard used.
It’s likely to be at least two or three turns.
Lower them hand over hand for the smoothest journey down.
The man aloft pulls through a couple of metres of one of the lines, the person on deck secures it, then eases the other halyard until both halyards are tight.
Repeat this process until they are on deck, keeping an eye on them all the way down.
Gear for going aloft
Well-chosen gear that will keep you safe and comfortable
A helmet is never a bad idea for going aloft when alongside or at anchor, but it is a must in any kind of seaway as one wave swinging you into the rigging could cause serious injury.
Lightweight climbing or kayaking models that also protect the side of the head are ideal but a bike helmet will also do.
Ensure the chinstrap is short and any excess is tucked in to prevent it getting caught in anything whilst aloft.
Available for under £25, a helmet is a worthwhile part of your boat’s kit.
One popular addition amongst shorthanded cruisers to their mast-climbing kit is a ladder.
Available in various forms, they are particularly helpful in taking the strain out of getting someone aloft, allowing the crewmember going up the mast to gain purchase themselves.
Ascenders are an alternative method of climbing a single rope.
Ideal for singlehanded yachtsmen, they can also be used in tandem.
This is a useful bit of emergency kit that can also be connected to your second line to provide a safety line that isn’t dependent on the crew on deck
Things to avoid going aloft
- Never use a halyard that’s routed through an external block running outside the mast
- Avoid old halyards and those showing any sign of chafing or wear
- Shackles or quick-release karabiners should not be used. Always tie directly into the harness or bosun’s chair to ensure there is one less point of failure
- Never go aloft in a harness that doesn’t sit tight above your hips
Bosun’s chair or harness?
The traditional piece of kit to haul someone aloft is a bosun’s chair.
Most designs have a central tie point that’s in line with the sternum when loaded.
Chairs are generally more comfortable than their harness counterparts, due to how they spread the load and the more relaxed seating position, ideal when you’re embarking on a big job up the mast that will keep you there for a while.
The chair you buy should be purpose-built for use on yachts and deep enough in the seat to ensure you feel safe and comfortable.
The work you are doing up the mast shouldn’t take you out of the seat as, unlike a climbing harness, a bosun’s chair won’t keep you secure if you end up inverted; most designs rely on the user’s weight to be safe.
If you are going to take your own weight out of the seat aloft, on a mast step or spreaders for example, be sure to use a harness.
Chairs vary in design and suit different body shapes – be sure to try before you buy.
A pocket for tools, preferably with a flap to keep contents secure, is very useful.
Any items you put in trouser pockets will probably be hard to access once in the seat, whilst drawing anything from a pocket that’s not vertically opening is asking for the item to be dropped.
For larger items, attach a bucket on a rope, ensuring it doesn’t interfere with the lines holding you aloft.
Anything dangerous if dropped should be secured with a lanyard, whilst heavy loads should be supported by their own halyard.
A climbing harness is the alternative option to a bosun’s chair, although they are less flexible on body size and it’s crucial that the harness fits; climbing harnesses are designed to hold the wearer secure above the hips.
Allowing more freedom of movement in exchange for less comfort, harnesses are ideal for going up the mast at sea.
Some professional models secure the upper body as well and even include a seat that can be dropped down when in position aloft.
Both harnesses and bosun’s chairs should be stored clean and dry to prevent degradation of the material.