Going Aloft Safely

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 04:33PM - Comments: (14)

An external halyard through a ratchet block (in a addition to second a halyard controlled from below) gives the person going aloft control over his safe ascent or descent.

For those of you who plan to go aloft to do some work this spring, please make sure you are well aware of all the safety measures that pertain to this kind of work.

One of the most important tips that we failed to mention in recent article on bosun chairs was to never use a self-tailing winch when hauling someone aloft. In light of a 2011 safety warning from Lewmar, the importance of this advice is clear.

Lewmar issued the warning regarding safe winch use after a two cruising sailors in Antigua were seriously injured in an accident involving a Lewmar winch. The accident occurred while a woman was using a mechanically operated Lewmar winch to hoist her husband up the mast.

The warning, which was posted on the Lewmar website, repeats some important advice from Lewmar's manual for electric and hydraulic winches:

Under no circumstances should any self -tailing winch be used in self tailing mode for any lifting operation; rather suitable and adequate manual tailing should be arranged with proper means of manually cleating or stopping the hoist.

  • Isolate the winch using circuit breaker/isolator when not in use.
  • Only persons who are completely familiar with the controls and those who have been fully made aware of the correct use of the winch should be allowed to use it.
  • It is the unavoidable responsibility of the owner or master or other responsible party to assess the risk of any operation on the vessel.

According to news reports in the Antigua Daily Observer, Lola Khon was hoisting her husband up the mast of a 2006 Amel 54 in Jolly Harbor when she realized something was mechanically wrong. Fearing he was in danger, she tried to stop the equipment when her left hand got caught in the winch. She tried to free her left hand with her right hand, but this also got caught.

Her rescuer, John Algrehn, who came from another boat, lost seven fingers trying to free Khon from the winch. Khon's injuries were more serious. Her left hand was completely severed beneath the elbow and her right hand was crushed. 

In April, the newspaper reported that  Khon was in Miami being fitted with prosthetics and undergoing surgery and rehabilitation of her right hand. Algrehn was being treated in his home country of Norway. He had the use of his thumbs and the little finger on his left hand, according to the Observer.

This type of accident is rare, but winches deserve the greatest respect, particular on today's super-sized cruisers with their heavily loaded lines. I remember quite clearly the ambulance rolling into the Typhoon Refuge in Guam after Typhoon Paka blasted through in 1997. Amazingly only one person of the few who'd elected to weather the storm in the refuge was seriously injured. Again it was the result of a winch accident. The woman injured in that accident was much luckier than Khon. Her broken arm soon healed.

For professional guidance on going aloft, Brion Toss's DVD on mast climbing safety is as good as it gets without taking a course. Toss is a well-known professional rigger and has spent countless days high above the spreaders. The DVD offers essential tips that not only make working aloft safer, not just for the person in the air, but also the people below on deck. 

Comments (14)

I, too, am confused by the article. Do I use the self tailing feature on an electric winch or not?
On checking the Lewmar website I couldn't find any reference to the operation warning PS mentioned.

Posted by: Ronbo | May 19, 2018 4:38 PM    Report this comment

I, too, am confused by the article. Do I use the self tailing feature on an electric winch or not?
On checking the Lewmar website I couldn't find any reference to the operation warning PS mentioned.

Posted by: Ronbo | May 19, 2018 4:38 PM    Report this comment

A few years ago I was squating on one knee in a calm harbor, recovering an anchor with a windlass. A wake threw me off balance is such a way that my knee landed on the "up" switch and my hand slid to the incoming chain right where the chain enters the windlass. My weight was on both the hand and the knee such that I could take neither take my hand off the chain nor turn the winch off. For 1-2 horrible seconds, the chain ground on my glove trying to pull my hand into the gypsy. What I did was stupid and it could easily have turned out differently. Now I either stand, sit, or kneel on both knees.

My recollection of the powered winch accident is that it was a foot-operated winch that got stuck on, and a riding turn was involved. I can envision that a snarl was evolving and that the operator panicked. Assuming the rope ran through a stopper, she probably could have calmly walked to the breaker, perhaps at the cost of damage to the winch, but the climber would have been safe. But this is hindsight. The rescuer, faced with desperate screaming and panic made mistakes of his own.

The bottom line is that unguarded winches and windlasses are extremely dangerous pieces of equipment, and outside of an industrial setting, we sometimes let our guard down. OSHA requires that winches be guarded if it is possible to be caught in them (1917.47b) but this is not done on boats. Obviously, when a winch or windlass jams, your first reflex should be to keep your hands away from it, no matter how strongly you want to reach in to resolve the jam. They can bite and these were not the first body parts removed by powered winches.

I also question the safety of a foot-operated switch on a rocking platform, for an unguarded winch, if you must use your hands to hold on or manage the rope. This brings back my experience all too clearly. Basically, you are standing on one foot. Manual grinding, on the other hand, you have two feet on the deck and at least one hand on a handle; far more stable. I'm sure these is a safe answer, but I don't think an open winch with a foot switch is it.

Posted by: Drew Frye | April 28, 2018 11:26 AM    Report this comment

Boson's Chair Standards. Some are built to OSHA or EN standards, some are not. If the chair is not built to one of these standards it MUST be used with a rated climbing harness (those built to a standard either include the harness in the design or are intended to be worn with a secondary harness--the instructions will say which). The harness must fit such that it cannot be pushed over the hips; it is entirely possible to invert if you catch a leg on a spreader.

Rope type. Ascenders are generally used with static climbing ropes (EN 1891), which are similar to polyester double braid yacht ropes of the same size. Dynamic climbing ropes stretch, resulting in an inefficient bouncing motion with each step. Both types are approved as safe. However, EN1891 does NOT include completely static high modulus ropes, such as Dyneema. Most ascenders are not intended for fall arrest and will fail at 1200-1600 pounds (I have broken a few intentionally in testing). Thus, the slack in the system must be minimized.

Posted by: Drew Frye | April 27, 2018 11:38 PM    Report this comment

I do not know the precise circumstances of the accident reported but it seems likely that the winch motor overran and the winch operator did not know how to stop it. Most winch system if properly installed should have an overall "stop" button which removes all power from the winch(es). After the winch has stopped, the person aloft is held securely ( and likely the halyard has come through a clutch so he/she cannot fall even if the winch freewheeels or reverses) while the problem is sorted out. Yes it is a good idea to have some sort of insurance line connected to e.g a harness in case the bosun's chair fails but that is a different issue. Personally I much prefer going smoothly up the mast using the electric winch and the self tailer ( with the clutch on so that if the rope slips out of the self tailer nothing happens) rather than the winch operator having to change grip on the tail every 2-3 feet. If you have extra crew to hold the tail, that is fine but many cruisers don't have that luxury.
The other problem about lashing yourself to the mast is that if you are injured or lose consciousness, the person below cannot lower you beyond the next set of spreaders.

Posted by: JonathanLyne | April 26, 2018 6:06 PM    Report this comment

In order to feed new wire down the mast, I needed two hands free and I needed something to hold my chest in close when standing on the mast stirrups. So I purchased a full body harness and planned to use the tether to pull my chest toward the mast.
During the work when atop, I heard a tearing sound. The strapping on the bosuns chair was ripped in half. I quickly transferred the tether to the halyard line. Then we continued feeding the wire down the mast.
Once the wire was completed, terminated, and the mast cap was put back on, she came out from below. " I need to come down now." I said calmly. I did not want her to be nervous rather conscientious about untying from the sampson post while holding tight to the line. She began lowering me, loosing the halyard line around the windlass drum. The boson chair strap broke all the way and I was caught by the tether, head pushed over by the strap.
Strapping is more prone to sun damage than rope and it is difficult to determine if the cloth is going bad.

Posted by: Locquatious | April 26, 2018 10:00 AM    Report this comment

I am a little confused over the advice being given. It says not to use self-tailing winches but then implies that it means those with electrical/hydraulic winches. Which is it?
Anyway, excluding the use of electrical/hydraulic winches (as I don't have them), backing up the bosuns chair and rope with a separate rope to a harness is my "insurance".

Posted by: bobgarrett | April 26, 2018 9:37 AM    Report this comment

Having been a bit of a rock climber for several years, I got in the habit of having a safety line as a back up. Sure it was nice to have someone below on belay, but it was my responsibility to be safe. On my ODay 40 I made up a block and tackle to hoist myself up the mast on my self constructed bosen chair made from a teak board, spliced line and thimble, my back up was a saftey harness that that had two straps, one of which was always attached to the mast as I accended or decended. It worked will and the block and tackle had other uses over the years. Besides, I always enjoyed the view from the top of the mast and the excitment that being so high up gave me.

Posted by: John M | May 12, 2011 5:32 AM    Report this comment

The mast climbing issue is a non issue for me since using folding mast steps for 18 years.
I use a soft harness which I fix to the top when arrived. I rest both feet on the steps and have both hands free. No second person necessary. It is almost fun to go aloft. I open the steps while going up and close them on the way down. The whole climbing part takes a minute.

Burger Zapf

SV Halekai currently Lankawi on the way up the top of my mast to change my anchor light.

Posted by: BURGER Z | May 11, 2011 7:40 PM    Report this comment

Sweet boat Jack. Send us some photos some time.
Which model Petzl's how long have you had the? No corrosion issues?
Another obvious issue is that anyone planning to use climbing gear should be intimately familiar with their safe use. Some of it is common sense, like a a clear communication between climber and belayer. "On Belay!"
And, of course redundancies:
This is a 2004 notice from Petzl, regarding one customers concerns about their B17 ascender:
"It is well known that ascenders can unexpectedly come off the rope, normally due to misuse. For this reason, redundancy is necessary in any rope ascent system. One should never use a single ascender for a rope ascent system; a minimum of two ascenders with appropriate connections to the harness (e.g. chest ascender and/or other ascender with lanyard connection) is required to achieve an adequate level of safety."

Posted by: sailordn | May 11, 2011 2:17 PM    Report this comment

I am 68, the happy master of a Joel White 36' ketch, Alisande. I have been using a climbing harness and a 10.5 mm dynamic rope which is springy in the event of a fall. I use Petzl ascenders, one at belt level and the other [with a tether to the belt belt loop] for the 2 foot loops. This seems very secure, and allows the climber to ascend and descend reasonably quickly and easily in full control of progress. It is essential to hoist the dynamic rope on a sturdy mast head block or halyard, and to put your full weight on the dynamic rope to secure the tail under tension. Hanging from the belt loop one has two hands or the feet to wrap around the mast or shroud should a passing boat's wake, or waves rock the boat.
Jack N

Posted by: Alisande | May 11, 2011 1:31 PM    Report this comment

Three of the bosun chairs/ascenders that we tested were based on climbing designs and Toss' video talks about the use of climbing equipment. One problem with some climbing gear is that the alloys corrode easily in a marine environment. Next month we'll look at the new ATN equipment which will be familiar to climbers. It is important that the person going up the mast has control of his destiny, for his sake and for the sake of those on the deck.

Posted by: sailordn | May 11, 2011 12:53 PM    Report this comment

The accident described was much more a result of the powered winch than it was the self tailing. That being said, I prefer a top climber which fits somewhere between climbing equipment and a bosun's chair. Takes the winch out of the equation.

Posted by: JRM | May 11, 2011 12:46 PM    Report this comment

What a horrible and tragic accident. This is just one reason why on our boat we rely on professional climbing equipment to go up the mast, rather than a bosun chair and winches. It is the same type of equipment used by rescue personnel, loggers, tree workers, cavers and rock climbers. It would be great if Practical Sailor could look into some of this equipment as an option to the various methods and kits that are offered as specific to boating.

Posted by: Unknown | May 11, 2011 12:23 PM    Report this comment

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