Mast Steps: No Perfect Design
Part 1—Among nine different steps, of three distinct types, each has its pros and cons. But when all is said and done, we see advantages to the removable Fastep.
High on the list of chores for which it’s difficult to find volunteers are trips to the masthead.
But aboard most boats, it sooner or later is unavoidable. A fouled or lost halyard, an expired lightbulb, a damaged antenna or wind sensor…and up you go.
Perhaps the least tremulous ride is in a well-made boatswain’s chair slung from a recently inspected, powerhouse halyard, on an integral masthead sheave, whose tail is tended by your two best friends, neither of whom is a beneficiary on your insurance policies.
Doing the window shade trick rarely is that idyllic. Sometimes you even have to go it alone, sometimes on something other than a flat calm morning, sometimes even underway.
Some good minds have worked on this problem. They’ve come up with steps attached to the mast; web ladders; drums that contain multi-purchase mechanisms; and mountain-climbers’ hand grippers and stirrups (the hand grips contain cam cleats). We’ll look at all of them we can find, plus a “home brew” block-and-tackle/chair-cleat system used by an expert rigger.
For this report, we’ll deal only with mast steps, which probably constitute the most commonly seen mast climbing method aboard shorthanded cruising boats. In a subsequent issue, we’ll look at the other systems mentioned above.
Nine Mast Steps In All
We collected all the steps we could find—nine in all. Shown in the photos on the next page, they are mounted on a short section of mast once aboard a Prout 37 catamaran that, while doing the Inland Waterway, snagged a spreader on a tree and ripped out a big chunk of mast. Paul Boyce, manager of Hood Yacht Spars, responded to our request by grabbing a saber saw and cheerily saying, “About six feet, you say?”
The mast steps come in three basic flavors—fixed, folding and one demountable.
The five fixed versions carry twin liabilities. Except for one very small step, they create considerable wind resistance and there’s little you do about that. They also snag errant lines, such as halyards and sometimes sheets, a tendency that can be minimized (with some of them) by rigging a fine wire or light line along their outside edges, tensioned with turnbuckles. That creates even more windage, of course, and makes the mast begin to look like a truss left over from the Eiffel Tower. In our experience, even this wire, however, may have a tendency to catch lines, especially those with a soft hand.
The three folding models eliminate much of the windage and virtually all of the snag potential, but do not provide footing as secure and comfortable as most of the fixed steps.
The ninth sample? It’s a permanent or demountable step that the inventor intends should be used with an attendant safety harness manipulated with a sliding cam cleat device.
All of these steps involve drilling many holes in your mast. We’ve never read or been told that drilling holes in a mast removes enough material to worry about. Further, we’ve never heard of a mast failing because of such holes. Nevertheless, one surely likes to minimize the number of holes.
Because it is considerable work to install such steps, it’s not recommended that it be done when the mast is stepped. Exerting pressure on a drill bit (and applying lubricant to preserve the bit) is difficult enough to do when the mast is on sawhorses, let alone aloft. It’s minor, but you also would wind up with a lot of nasty sharp aluminum curlicues on your deck.
And whether you intend to use plain aluminum rivets or stainless machine screws or 305 stainless rivets (with a threadlock or insulating paste to inhibit corrosion), tapping good, clean threads or operating a rivet gun also is difficult if you’re confined to a boatswain’s chair.
Stainless steel machine screws are nearly twice as strong as pop rivets, but 3/16" 5052 aluminum rivets have a shear strength of 500 pounds (1/4" 5052 rivets go up to 850 pounds). Nobody recommends self-tapping screws for this job.
For our tests, we took the easy way and installed all the steps with aluminum rivets. (We had enough practice in drilling and tapping aluminum when we last year worked on the mast of our Tartan 44 test boat.)
To attach these steps, we used a stock rivet gun that cost about $30. If you use stainless rivets or aluminum rivets larger than 3/16", you’ll need a compound-action gun that’ll set you back a hundred and a half, unless you can rent or borrow one.
Aluminum rivets go for 2¢ to 8¢. Stainless rivets cost 8¢ to 22¢. Stainless machine screws are not cheap. Whatever you choose, with two or more per step, you’ll need quite a few to attach alternating steps the recommended 16" to18" apart. Measure and divide to get the steps evenly spaced. You’ll want two opposing steps for standing at the top; consider carefully how far these two should be from the top of the mast.
The Stainless Triangles
The most flattering thing to be said about the strap-type steps is that they sort of enclose the foot, once it is inserted, and provide a more secure feeling than the open steps.
The two stainless steps—one sold by ABI Industries, Inc. ($18), the other by West Marine ($14)—appear to be identical except for the tread material. The West version, bottom left in the photo, has a grooved teak piece. The ABI, second from the bottom left, has a black “urethane instep pad.”
These steps are heavy. They weigh 11-1/2 ounces.
Both have tightly spaced holes for six fasteners…too many in our opinion. If either of these steps were our choice, we’d utilize but four of the holes, two at the top, two at the bottom.
The least flattering thing to be said about these steps is that a size 10-1/2 male shoe can just barely be inserted in the opening. Extracting a foot requires a bit of a bowlegged cant.
These steps provide lateral security and are very nice hand grips. However, the difficulty of inserting and removing a foot makes them—at least for those with average to large feet—a bit clumsy and perhaps even slightly dangerous.
Further, they snag halyards and, being stainless, need careful anti-corrosion treatment to isolate the stainless from the mast.
If you favor either of these steps (we don’t), try one (mounted) for size before you commit.
Triangle & Trapezoid
On the bottom right in the photo is an aluminum step shown in the Defender Industries catalog. It sells for $8.60. Our files show it used to be made by United Die and Manufacturing Co. in Sebring, Ohio, but we got a “not in service” message when we telephoned and Defender could not supply the name of the maker.
So, we do not know who makes it now, but most anybody could.
That’s because it is a piece of anodized aluminum tubing, bent and flattened in the proper places to form a step and for mounting holes for fasteners. (We’ve never been taken with anything that utilizes flattened tubing; too many failures.)
This step has three closely spaced fastening holes at the top and three of the same ilk at the bottom and that’s several holes too many, in our view. Even if using two at the top and two at the bottom, the holes are very close together.
It’s simple and strong and cheap.
It weighs but 8 ounces.
It makes a fairly comfortable hand hold.
The opening for one’s foot is more generous than the two discussed above. However, the narrow rounded “tread” is tough on the instep. If you wear thin-soled boat shoes, you’ll get enough in a hurry.
A minor objection: This step is very unattractive; we’ve seen boats with a full set and the steps stand out very noticeably.
A major objection: Windage.
Unless saving a few bucks is paramount, this is not the way to go.
The other aluminum step, which makes a trapezoid with the mast, has been made for years by Pace-Edwards.
It is a wide extrusion, ribbed on one side, grooved on the other side. The ribs are for strength and ridigity, but they also make for good footing on the 2"-wide tread. The grooves, on the surfaces facing outboard, are said to make it more radar-reflective.
Being a tradezoid, the step has ample width for even a big seaboot (see photos).
The anodized extrusion is tabbed (by punch pressing away part of the flange) at the top and bottom for fastening with four rivets. The holes are widely spaced, which we like.
The Pace-Edwards step weighs 7 ounces.
It is available with an “extra,” a small clip, fastened with two very small rivets, that can carry a wire to vertically connect the steps and prevent halyard fouling.
In a PS review years ago, it was observed that the wide tread makes a somewhat difficult handhold. If one has small hands, this is true.
It’s also true that, along with the other triangular steps, there will be considerable windage.
However, for size, rigidity, finish and comfort, we think this is the best step of its type. West Marine’s catalog displays the Pace-Edwards step, priced at $26.99 a pair.
The Seabird, aka Nicro aka Ronstan
The Ronstan, known in an earlier life as a Seabird Mast Step then as a Nicro product, is derived from a step used aboard Bernard Moitessier’s Joshua. It is described in the famous French sailor’s book, The Long Way.
A one-piece cast stainless half circle with an integral supporting strut, the Ronstan probably is one of the strongest steps made. It can be bent to shape. Attached with but three widely spaced fasteners, it also is, by far, the lightest at 3 ounces.
It also has, by far, the least wind resistance.
It doesn’t snag halyards. (It’s also used by some sailors at the base of the mast to stand on while flaking the mainsail and dealing with the cover on boats with high booms.)
The West catalog shows it for $16.99, only $1.04 more than it cost almost 10 years ago, when we last evaluated mast steps.
So why isn’t it the perfect mast step?
Maybe it is, if you’re intrepid and have small feet.
Besides being a very poor handhold, its principal liability is that it projects from the mast less than 2". Because the average shoe is about 4" wide, you get support for about half of your arch or even less if you elect to place the ball of your foot on the step.
To compensate somewhat, the Ronstan step has cast into its step surface six fairly sharp teeth. They’re intended to grip the bottom of rubber-soled boat shoes; it also means you wouldn’t go up the mast barefooted.
We wouldn’t consider for an instant going up the mast with these steps unless we were wearing a harness or chair on either a tended halyard or, if singlehanded, one with a sliding cam cleat we will be discussing in a moment.
The Folding Steps
The two folding steps, both made of cast aluminum, may appear in the photo to be identical. They’re the two on the top right. In one of the photos, they’re shown in the stowed position.
Each is made up of two aluminum castings.
One casting is a movable step with a tread about 4-1/2" long with non-skid gooves and a prominent hook on the outer edge for lateral security.
The other casting, to be mounted on the mast with four fasteners (aluminum rivets would be our choice), is shaped to permit the step to be folded up when not needed and slid down to lock in place.
As one ascends the mast, the steps are popped up and open. Those who own and use this type of step probably only forget once or twice to fold and stow each and every step while descending.
They make good, long, wide footholds; as handholds, both serve better than any others. They don’t foul halyards. Windage? About medium. They’re a bit heavy, about 10 ounces.
The Mast Walker, made by Damage Control, is smoothly made of Almag 35. There’s evidence of careful shaping, fitting, grinding and polishing. It operates easily and has a nylon button insert, threaded for adjustment, to bear against the mast and preclude rattling.
There are six versions of the Mast Walker to fit different mast curvatures. Priced at $14.50, the Mast Walker would be especially attractive for anyone looking for a good snug fit.
The ABI folding step, well polished and anodized, also has the important nylon insert that engages the mast when the step is folded. (The ABI step used to have a black rubber button, but somebody must have decided that the adjustable nylon button was worth copying.) With either make of step, the button should be adjusted before mounting, if possible. You’ll see why, on the first one you mount.
The ABI step is sold by West Marine for $15.99.
There seems to us to be little to choose between these two well-made folding steps whose principal advantages are that they reduce windage, avoid snagging lines and eliminate corrosion (if mounted with aluminum rivets).
Another folding step, also made by ABI and sold in several catalogs for $14, is more commonly used as a transom step. However, ABI feels this heavy (15-ounce) chromed brass assembly can be used on a mast. In the photos, it is the second from the top left. It folds and is held firmly by a stainless spring. It does not, however, fold quite flush enough to the mast to preclude it from snagging a 1/2" halyard. That and its weight, plus the mish-mash of metals, make it a choice we’d avoid.
A Demountable Step
In the photos, half way up the left side of the mast, is another man’s approach to mast steps.
Looking for a better way or the best of all worlds, Alfred Gilbert fashioned his Fastep from two pieces of 1/4" stainless rod. Bent properly and assembled with four simple welds, the Fastep is, for an “open” step, very strong and quite secure.
More importantly, Fasteps can be mounted when needed and demounted coming down. No windage, no fouling, no fasteners.
Fasteps can, of course, be left in place, in which case there would be a little windage and the threat of a fouled halyard. If you mount and demount them as needed, there is, of course, the risk of dropping one.
A Fastep requires only two holes in the mast. Gilbert admits the holes are a “bit fussy” but he supplies stick-on templates, instructions to keep the holes perpendicular to a fore and aft line (not to the curvature of the mast) and suggests a center punch and a bradpoint bit to get clean 9/32" holes.
Going up the mast with a canvas bucket of Fasteps, the steps are inserted in the two holes and pulled down 90° to seat them snugly in place. They have small nylon-tubing fenders to make them fit snugly and not vibrate. Coming down, a step is rotated upward 90° and pulled free of the two holes.
Gilbert strongly recommends that his Fasteps ($12.95 each) be used with what he calls a Saf-Brak. The Saf-Brak is a 12" web strap with a cam cleat device on one end and, on the other, a locking carabiner to attach to a good harness or soft boatswain’s chair. The cam cleat assembly, from an Idaho mountaineering gear manufacturer, seems, by marine standards, a bit clap trappy but it’s certainly rugged. Rigged on a taut, stowed halyard, the Saf-Brak rides up easily as one climbs up the mast, but belays securely with a down load. One would lift the strap momentarily and slide it down a bit when coming down the mast one step at a time.
The Saf-Brak, which sells for $68.95, is a sort of store-bought Prusik knot but better, because Prusik knots can jam and require two hands to work loose. (The Prusik knot, really a hitch, was invented during World War I by an Austrian professor of music, Dr. Karl Prusik, as a way to join the broken strings of musical instruments. There are several versions, one of which, made of tape or webbing, is what is called a Chinese finger. Mountain-climbing experts using two Prusik slings, both led through a ring on a harness to foot stirrups, have climbed 100' in about one minute.)
With the Fastep system, a mast ascent will take a bit longer than with permanent steps. And, in addition to your bag of tools for whatever job it is you’re about to perform, you’ll have a second bag of steps to contend with. In a controlled situation this doesn’t worry us, but if going up the mast underway, the extra time and fuss could be a liability.
The Bottom Line
There are here probably more than the usual personal preferences to be sorted out. Included are cost, comfort, safety, windage, esthetics, whether you fear halyard fouling and how many holes it takes to make you uneasy about your mast.
For those who want permanently installed steps and care little about windage or esthetics, the Pace-Edwards trapezoid is a good choice.
If you want an open folding step that creates less windage and is a bit more sightly, choose either the Mast Walker or the ABI’s nearly identical folding aluminum step.
If very little windage and no fear of fouling is your wont, consider the small, strong Ronstan...but only if you’re willing to be faithful about using a harness attached to something that will catch you if you slip.
Best overall? Unless there’s something we’ve missed, a canvas bag of Fasteps, used in conjunction with the Saf Brak, makes sense. They can be left in place, which we wouldn’t do. No fasteners and only two holes per step. Mounted only when needed, there’d be no corrosion fears, nothing to foul halyards, nothing unsightly.
And if you’re going up alone with any of these steps, we’d recommend the use of the Saf Brak.
Contacts- ABI, 1160A Industrial Ave., Petaluma, CA 94952, 707/765-6200. Defender Industries, 42 Great Neck Road, Waterford, CT 06385, 800/628-8225. Fastep & Saf Brak, Alfred Gilbert Enterprises, 2921 Wood Pipe Lane, Phila., PA 19129, 215/849-4016. 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. West Marine, 500 Westridge Dr., Watsonville, CA 95076, 800/262-8464.