Going Aloft Sans Butterflies

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 03:34PM - Comments: (5)

Long pants are essential when working aloft, especially in summer when the mast is too hot to touch.

As a result of a lost spinnaker halyard and loose spreader light, I found myself leaning into a halyard winch last weekend, hoisting a friend 65 feet aloft on his 42-foot Endeavour. The grueling exercise (due to the tremendous amount of friction in the mainsail halyard where it exited the mast) reminded me again of the risks involved when carrying out even simple projects aloft.

The bosun’s chair we used for the project was one that was overlooked in our last bosun’s chair test. Made by the Connecticut-based sailmaker Hathaway, Reiser, and Raymond (makers of the Galerider drogue), the chair is constructed of heavily reinforced Dacron that can be adjusted to fit snugly around the thighs. A thick, adjustable webbing strap supports the back, and a safety tether and heavy-duty snap-hook is stitched onto the lifting ring. Velcro pockets on either side hold tools.

As we noted in our bosun’s chair tests, these harness-type chairs are more comfortable than the conventional swing-type seats, making them a good choice for riggers or anyone who spends more than a few sweaty moments high off the deck. They also bring you closer to the top of the mast ... and cost a fair bit more money. Our Best Choice in that test was a modified tree-climber’s harness designed by renowned rigger Brion Toss, which retailed for $400. Chairs of this echelon, in our opinion, are principally for professionals who make their living climbing masts. But if you got the bread ...

We, of course, flagged several other less-expensive products worth considering.

The LED spreader light from Scandvik (similar to the ones PS tested in August 2013) needed tightening.

In an upcoming issue this fall, we will look at other ways to get aloft, assisted and unassisted, using conventional bosun’s chairs or modified climbing ascenders, similar to the one popularly marketed as the ATN Mastclimber. [The article, "Getting to the Top," appears online in the October 2014 issue.

A good investment for anyone who plans to go aloft is Toss’s excellent video on the topic. Available at his website, the one-hour video covers the essential skills and procedures forgoing aloft safely.

Here are few of tips Toss shares:

Harnesses: Although not as comfortable as traditional chairs, harnesses bring you closer to the top of the mast and are more secure. Wear long pants and good shoes.

Halyards: Use two halyards—one primary, one safety. One should be an external halyard on a ratchet block leading from your harness back to you, so that you can have control over your own safety and ascent/descent.

Shackles and winches: Don’t rely on snap shackles or self-tailing jaws on winches. To attach the halyard to the harness, use locking screw-pin shackles or a buntline knot, which brings you closer to the masthead sheave than a bowline.

Tools: Always take vice grips and a non-folding rigging knife aloft. Toss also takes a crescent wrench welded to a marlin spike. Attach lanyards to all tools.

Going aloft at sea: To reduce swinging, use a carabiner to secure your harness to a jackline halyard run tightly from the masthead to deck.

Mast steps: Steps are a good idea at the mast bottom, for handling the main, and at the top of the mast, for relieving weight on the harness or chair while working at the masthead.

Comments (4)

Only one halyard?

A practical way to provide fall protection is to wrap a sling around the mast in the same way climbers use a prusic knot to climb a rope (look on www.animatedknots .com). You will need 2 of these in order to pass the spreaders. The method is also useful for a tie-off while working. The method can also be used to climb the mast when the halyards are too small or untrustworthy.

For painted masts, webbing grabs better, though it is also harder to slide.

Do NOT simply wrap the sling around the mast, assuming it will catch on the spreaders and stop a fall. The impact force on a fall of only a few feet will exceed 1000 pounds. A longer fall will break the spreaders, the sling, and you.

Posted by: Drew Frye | August 8, 2014 10:07 AM    Report this comment

I have a boat with in-mast furling so the main halyard is not available unless the mainsail is removed similar to the foresail. That means the only halyard available for the mast climber is a spinnaker halyard. Are there any other alternatives?

Posted by: joy r | August 3, 2014 1:39 PM    Report this comment

Thanks so much; this is great info. I hate being more than 10' off the deck/ground, but know it is something I will have to do, so it's good to know there are safe ways to do so!!!!!!

Posted by: Howar L | August 2, 2014 9:21 AM    Report this comment

Webbing steps, like Mast Mate, work well too. Contrary to conventional wisdom, they work just fine hoisted free of the track, so long as they are well tensioned by the halyard. They are faster than rope climbing systems, and they offer the additional advantage of giving a place to stand when you get where you are going. The same safety rules (back-up belay, climbing harness) apply; while they show chest harness on the web site, that is a mistake. A sling or short rope can be useful for tying off, to reduce movement and improve leverage.

As for professional use, the rigger who last inspected my boat uses Mate Mate.

And always climb on a weekday if you can; fewer wakes!

Posted by: Drew Frye | July 30, 2014 8:28 AM    Report this comment

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