Features August 15, 1998 Issue

Going Up the Mast Alone

A certain appeal of sailing is its seeming limitlessness. One can spend a lifetime perfecting navigation skills. Remember Marvin Creamer, who circumnavigated by the ancient Polynesian method of memorizing the relationships of stars? He carried no instruments, not even a compass.

Even more mundane aspects of sailing confound us with myriad possibilities. Take going up the mast. There are lots of ways to make the short trip nobody enjoys.

For going up alone, one can choose from mast steps, web ladders, adaptations of mountain-climbing equipment or mechanical contrivances utilizing gears or tackle.

Whatever method you choose, thought must be given to the question of whether you want the capability of going up the mast while underway with the mainsail set. Reaching the top while tied securely to a dock or at anchor on a quiet morning is one thing. Going aloft with the mainsail in the way is another.

With the main set, steps can be used only when ascending along the front side of the mainmast. Web ladders can’t be used at all because their slides fit in the mainsail track.

In the recent July 1 issue, the nine currently available mast steps were reviewed. Included were fixed, folding and demountable steps. Also extolled was a device called a Saf Brak, a short cam cleat-equipped strop for use with a harness or boatswain’s chair.

To complete the examination of devices to travel up and down your mast, undertaken here is a look at two mast ladders made of webbing, another device called the Mastlift (a little like a chain fall) and, because of a reader’s suggestion, a rundown on a professional rigger’s way of doing it.

Mast Ladders
The two ladders—Capt. Al’s and the Mast Mate—are made of very strong webbing. Each is hoisted to the masthead with a halyard. Sail slides to fit your mast track and shackled to the vertical length of webbing help keep the ladder close to the mast.

Mast Mate uses powerful 2" nylon-Dacron blend webbing for both the single vertical strap and the steps. The steps have double layers of webbing. Gary Wheeler, who developed Mast Mate, said the special webbing has no “memory,” so it stows and deploys very nicely, with the steps standing open. The steps are 17" apart. There are double steps 3' from the top; they can be placed higher if desired.

Wheeler recommends that a downhaul be rigged and made taut to give the Mast Mate good vertical stability.

Capt. Al’s uses three vertical 1" all-Dacron straps, which also support PVC tubing on the steps. Compared with Mast Mate’s all-web step, the PVC tubing on Capt. Al’s helps a bit when you insert a foot. The tubing also makes fine handholds.

Alan Byer, president of Capt. Al’s Products, Inc., said the ladder has recently been re-engineered. The web loop at the top end has been replaced with a high tensile stainless ring and the steps have been made 12" apart rather than the prior 15". The 12" steps are an especially good idea for those with short legs or whose long ones are no longer quite as flexible.

Most importantly, instead of mast slides sewn to the webbing (by your sailmaker), Capt. Al’s now has brass grommets, reinforced with stitching, at 24" intervals to which sail slides are to be attached with small, loose-pin shackles. (The grommet system has always been used by Mast Mate, which furnishes nylon shackles; you supply the sail slides.)

There is but a moderate load on the grommets and shackles; the principal load is on the halyard.

The real advantage of the grommet/shackle arrangement vs. sewn-in-place slides is that if you change boats, you can, if necessary, easily change the sail slides.

Capt. Al’s sells for $148 for a 36' version, $198.89 for the 50' model. The Mast Mate is $250 for a 35-footer, $350 for the 50'. Both come in custom lengths and with bags.

While convenient, the downside of these two ladders is that they can’t be used underway. The mainsail must be lowered first; in fact, unless you have a gate above the lowered main, you may have to remove it entirely.

The Mastlift
A different approach to mast-climbing is the Mastlift imported by IMTA. It has parts made in Switzerland, is assembled in Spain and sold by a German company. It’s a slick but very expensive drum-shaped gear box that is attached to a halyard (or better, two halyards) and hoisted to the masthead while a line on a reel is retained initially at deck level. Fasten your harness or chair to the line (5/16" Spectra with a breaking strength of close to five tons) and use a separate line, a continuous long loop fitted to a ratchet wheel, to enjoy a 10-1 advantage for hoisting yourself. It takes about 10 minutes to rig. The Mastlift won’t get you eye level with the top of your mast, but hardly anything does.

The Mastlift has a worm gear drive and two automatic brakes, so you need not keep tension on the continuous control line. Reversing the pull on the loop brings you down.

An important advantage of the Mastlift is that it also can be used on the end of a boom as a lifting device. Made of stainless, anodized aluminum and high impact plastic, the Mastlift for masts up to 45' costs $995 and weighs 15 lbs. The large one for masts to 82' costs $1,195 and weighs 17 lbs. You get every three years a free courtesy inspection of ratchets, brake pads, etc. Available as an extra is a thick neoprene cover ($40) to prevent damage from swinging around. Unfortunately, it covers just the sides and not the ends of the drum. To keep the Mastlift entirely away from the mast, a roller device (a stainless bridle with wood rollers) permits you to hoist the Mastlift on the jib stay with the sail furled; it sells for $60. Mastlift’s boatswain’s chair ($166) is sturdy, but it wouldn’t be our choice; we’d use a soft chair like a Lirakis or Raudaschl. (Bosun’s chairs were reviewed in the January 15, 1993 and August 15, 1993 issues.)

We could not find for this review a device called the Topclimber, that utilizes a static line, moveable hand grippers and a set of stirrups. It once was handled by Luna Industries, a Canadian firm, but their telephone answering machine states that they no longer handle the Topclimber.

Home-Made Chair & Tackle
But here’s another approach, prompted by a letter from a reader, Michael Spencer of Duluth, Minnesota, who asked, “How do real riggers do it?” He had asked a professional rigger, who described a system involving two fiddle blocks and a length of 5/8" line five times the height of the mast. But the rigger issued so many warnings and admonishments, Spencer is being rightfully cautious. So, he wrote us.

We’ve been admiring our rigger’s system for some years now. Tim Leery of Portsmouth, Rhode Island told us that he copied his chair and tackle from others and it too has been copied. Like Mr. Spencer’s rigger, Tim has 4:1 purchase, but does not use fiddle blocks. Schaefer 3" side-by-side double blocks, one with a becket and both with shackles make up the purchase. What distinguishes Tim’s setup is the big teak cleat bolted to the lower block with 1/4" x 40 machine screws and nuts (see photo), for belaying his 300' of 7/16" Regatta braid. (Note that he does not use a stopper, clutch or cam, Clam or jam cleat.)

To use, he secures the shackle (not a snap shackle!) to a halyard led over an internal masthead sheave (never a block suspended from a crane!). Then he gets into the chair and begins hauling. Though he’s only lifting about 25% of his weight, he says it does require some arm strength. For less effort, the purchase could be increased to 5:1 or 6:1 by using one triple/double or triple/triple block combinations, the disadvantages being that the hauling line gets proportionally longer and there’d be increased friction.

To secure himself when he stops, Tim belays the lifting line on the teak cleat bolted to the block. Then, he runs a 4' pennant around the mast and back to his chair, securing it with a carabiner. This pennant not only keeps him from swinging, it will stop his fall at the first obstruction, such as the spreaders.

Working from a swinging chair isn’t easy. Tim recommends installing two steps near the masthead for foot placement. This enables one to actually work at masthead level by getting a little higher; the blocks with chair stop a little short of letting you get your head above the masthead.

Because Tim works alone, he does not have a safety line in the form of another halyard attached to a harness. When a helper is available, this is a good idea. That person should take the halyard end to a winch or give it a half-turn on a cleat and trim as the rigger ascends. When the rigger descends, the helper should pay out line, keeping some tension and friction on the winch or cleat.

We’ve been up the mast many times with a helper or two grinding and tailing a winch below, and frankly, it’s always made us nervous. Paranoia sets in. What happens, for example, if a bee stings the tailer? Or he gets a cramp or simply relaxes his grip when he spots Willow Bay on a passing boat?

Most professional riggers we know, including Tim Leery, prefer to take themselves up rather than rely on deckhands.

The Bottom Line
Now to summarize both the July 1 review of steps and this examination of the ladders and other means of going to the masthead, the choices in steps remain the same: Fixed or folding.

The fixed types are basically the old $16.99 Ronstan, which is small and snag-free, or triangular-shaped pieces of stainless steel or aluminum that are fastened with screws or rivets. They hold the feet captive, a good feeling in a seaway. But, halyards inevitably foul on them. We think the best of the triangles is the $26.99 Pace-Edwards, an excellent aluminum extrusion that can be fastened with aluminum rivets.

The folding types—the $14.50 Mast Walker (made by Damage Control) and a nearly-identical $15.99 step made by ABI—present less of a corner for halyards to catch, but are simply pegs that despite a lip at the end, don’t hold the foot captive.

The final choice in steps are the de-mountable Fasteps, which sell for $12.95. Used in conjunction with the previously mentioned Saf Brak, which sells for $68.95, we think the Fastep/Saf Brak combination is the best choice in steps. Besides providing automatic safety against falling, the Saf Brak keeps the climber close to the mast.

For web ladders, there’s little to choose between the Mast Mate and Capt. Al’s. With either, the tendency to swing around is nerve wracking. Still, we keep one aboard. The manufacturers of these web ladders talk about hoisting them on any halyard or even a topping lift, but note that the professional rigger will not go aloft on anything that does not go over a fixed masthead sheave. One also should periodically check the sewing.

Of the Mastlift, it’s an expensive but solidly engineered solution to a problem that can be solved less extravagantly—unless you want to use it for other lifting purposes. Backed up by a Saf Brak, it provides an extraordinary feeling of security. We exercised it a number of times while repairing lights and instruments on Viva, our Tartan 44 test boat (see photo) and with each usage, confidence climbed higher and higher.

Finally, if you’re inclined to go often to the masthead without anyone to help, consider rigging your own tackle, but as a safeguard buy and figure out how to rig a Saf Brak. A photo of the Saf Brak is in the July 1 issue.

Again, a reminder about going aloft while underway.

Going up a bare mast with sturdy gear while tied to a dock on a calm morning is not difficult—just nervous.

Doing so while underway, with the mainsail set, is a much more demanding feat. You cannot reach the masthead with the mainsail set using steps unless you go up along the forward edge of the mast. You cannot go up with either web ladders, because they mount in the mainmast track. You could rig the Mastlift, but we’re not sure how it would be with that 15-pound canister swinging around up there. You can go aloft with a block and tackle of your own assembly, but unless you use a Saf Brak on a separate line, you have nothing to prevent you from swinging around.

Our choice? We like the ability to go it alone and not depend on the strength and concentration of crew below, especially—and we don’t mean to be sexist here—a small woman. If we had the bucks, we’d buy the Mastlift. If not, the home-made rigger’s tackle would satisfy us nicely. With any of these systems—steps, ladders or tackle—we’d definitely use the Saf Brak. For about $70, it is, we think, the best insurance you can buy.


Contacts- ABI, 1160A Industrial Ave., Petaluma, CA 94952; 707/765-6200. Capt. Al’s Products, PO Box 370153, West Hartford, CT 06137-0153; 860/232-9065. Defender Industries, Inc., 42 Great Neck Road, Waterford, CT 06385; 800/628-8225. Fastep & Saf Brak, Alfred Gilbert Enterprises, 2921 Wood Pipe Lane, Philadelphia, PA 19129; 215/849-4016. Mastlift, IMTA, 326 First St., Suite 17, Annapolis, MD 21403; 800/606-0589. Mast Mate, Box 5035, Augusta, ME, 04332, 800/548-0436. Mast Walker, Damage Control, 7670 Bay St., Pasadena, MD 21122-3433; 410/360-2445. Pace-Edwards, 2400 Commercial Blvd., Centralia, WA 98531; 800/338-3697. Ronstan, 7600 Bryan Dairy Rd., Largo, FL 33777; 813/545-1911. Schaefer Marine, 158 Duchaine, New Bedford, MA 02745-1293; 508/995-9511. West Marine, 500 Westridge Dr., Watsonville, CA 95076; 800/262-8464.

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