Features August 15, 2002 Issue

Multi-Purpose Boat Poles

With boathook, mop, squeegee, and net attachments, telescoping poles save space aboard and are quite handy. The MPS Perfect Pole's no-look locking mechanism helps it earn top honors in a seven-product test.

There are probably dozens of items aboard the typical boat that lead quiet, unremarkable lives for long periods of time, working well under everyday demands. Then, just when you need them to play a bit above their game, they fail miserably. Turns out they're not strong enough, or they corroded when you weren't looking, or their batteries died in the night. Flashlights are like that. Zippered bags are notorious. And boathooks definitely fall into that category. Probably everyone, sooner or later, uses a boathook in a wrestling match with a buoy or piling. The chances of victory, as we all know, are slim. But with a cheesy boakhook they're nil. 

A pole for all seasons — these tools need
to stand up to heavy stresses and be easy to
manipulate. Here, winter's work on mooring
chains, in gloves.

The cousin to the cheesy boathook is the cheesy mop—the kind whose handle buckles or mophead detaches mid-swab.

We last mentioned boathooks a couple of years ago. In the September 2000 issue we said nice things about the proper mahogany hook sold by Jamestown Sailing Gear; then in October we evaluated a bunch of pole-mounted clip devices designed to make it easier to latch on to a mooring or fixed dock line.

Now it's on to a rapidly growing subsection of the boathook world—the telescoping multi-purpose boat pole. Hyped as space-saving tools that can accept everything from hooks to various cleaning attachments (squeegees, mops, and Scotch Brite-type pads) to a paddle—or even fishing nets and gaffs, these poles are made by several companies.

What We Tested
We scanned the usual catalogs and websites and came up with seven poles that telescope from about three to six feet.

Telescoping poles differentiate themselves by their lock mechanisms, materials, and diameter. Twist-lock poles have an internal offset cam that locks and releases when the inner and outer tubes are counter-rotated. Pin-lock poles are secured via a pin in the inner tube that pops up through a hole in the outer tube. Poles are made of aluminum or stainless in 7/8" and 1" diameters.

What We Tested
We tested the tools for strength, bending, deployment time, flotation, and corrosion resistance. We also scrubbed a boat with each tool. We did not evaluate all the various attachments.

When used as a boathook, the telescoping pole must be sturdy enough to withstand pushing and pulling forces without breaking or collapsing. For example, you may use the pole to pull the boat to a dock or mooring (as we did) or push off a bulkhead. We think a boathook should withstand at least 80 lbs. of pushing and pulling, which is typical of what we generated holding one of the poles in our hands and pushing hard.

A telescoping pole should not deflect excessively or be damaged in reasonable bending applications like lifting a mooring buoy or retrieving an item that fell overboard. A slight, permanent bend will prevent the tubes from sliding together properly.

It's important that a telescoping boathook can be quickly extended and locked at its working length. A few seconds of fumbling can mean the difference between safely docking your boat or damaging it. The lock mechanism should be intuitive and reliable. The tool should be deployable in near darkness, as well.

A person may need to telescope the tool several times while cleaning to reach hard-to-get spots on the hull and bridge. Thus, the ease with which the tool extends and retracts is important. Cleaning attachments should change with a minimum of fuss, and the tool should be operable with wet hands.

Telescoping poles are subject to salt water and harsh cleaning chemicals. We expect them to exhibit corrosion resistance and function acceptably with some salt build-up.

How We Tested
To test for strength, we mounted a bathroom scale on a tree and pushed on it with a fully extended pole until the scale reached 80 lbs. For the pulling test, we put the scale on the far side of the tree, placed a board with a line bridle-fashion against the scale and pulled on the line until the scale reached 80 lbs. We tested for reasonable force, not for destruction. The boathook tip was used for both tests.

For the bending test, we hung an 8- lb. container on the end of a fully extended pole and measured the deflection from horizontal at the tip. Although 8 lbs. may not seem like much, it requires a surprising amount of effort to lift at the end of a 6' pole.

Deployment speed was a timed test performed by four people: two experienced with such poles and two with little or no experience. Each tester was given a chance to familiarize himself or herself with the pole. We timed how long it took the tester to pick up the pole off the deck, unlock it, extend it to its maximum length, lock it and touch a piling. The timed test had the added benefit of putting a little pressure on the tester, as is typical in real boating situations when a boathook is suddenly needed.

For the float test, each pole was dropped in the water both horizontally and at about a 45-degree angle (a tool landing horizontally may float a little while from trapped air, but the same tool entering at an angle fills and sinks). The poles were tested with their boathook attachments. Since brushes can be buoyant enough to hold up the pole, we did not perform the float test with a brush.

To check for obvious corrosion susceptibility, the tools were immersed in a plastic tube of seawater overnight, then removed and allowed to dry during the day. The cycle was repeated for five days. To create salt build-up, we sprinkled water droplets on the tools daily for five more days and allowed the droplets to evaporate and leave salt deposits. The tools were then telescoped to check the sliding action, and we looked over the lock mechanisms for corrosion.

For the cleaning test, we used the tools to scrub the hull and deck of a fiberglass powerboat hauled out in a nearby boatyard. The tool was telescoped and retracted as needed. Different cleaning accessories were attached and removed. We noted the ergonomics of the tool while cleaning.

The twist-lock and pin-lock poles each have inherent advantages and disadvantages. The twist-lock designs are faster to deploy, don’t come apart if extended too far and can be extended by feel in darkness. But twist tools are friction-locked and may inadvertently collapse or extend when pushed or pulled during use as a boathook. If locked tightly, they can be difficult to unlock. Under pressure, people may confuse which way to twist and forget to lock them after extension.

Pin-lock tools withstand pushing and pulling forces well and lock securely. But, with the notable exception of one tool (the Perfect Pole), pin-locks require you to look at the holes. In addition, some people have difficulty pushing in the pins far enough. Pin-locks are slower to deploy, come apart if extended too far and, except for the Perfect Pole, can’t be operated in darkness.

Some general comments: All of the tools tested operated satisfactorily despite salt build-up. We did not have problems unlocking twist-lock tools with wet hands, although we did with soapy hands after wringing out a mop. The 7/8"-diameter tools bend noticeably more than the 1" tools. Only one tool in our test group floats.

Star brite Extend-a-Brush
During the pushing part of the strength test, this twist-lock tool's inner tube slipped back into the outer tube at 40 lbs. of force. Although it passed the 80-lb. pull test when fully extended, it slipped when partly extended. No doubt it could withstand greater forces if locked tightly, but then it is difficult to unlock and the lock mechanism could be damaged.

The boathook attachment feels a little loose. The connection is 1-1/4" metal into plastic, compared to a 2" to 3" metal-to-metal connection of the pin-lock tools. The Extend-a-Brush performed well in cleaning applications. Being light, it is less tiring to use. Its easy, quick operation permits adjusting the length frequently. A master/slave button facilitates changing accessories because there is no need to depress a button below a tube.

When we first tried the tool, it required several turns to lock at some lengths and the normal quarter turn at others. The manufacturer said this was likely due to residual oil spots inside the tube and that we should slide the tool back and forth with a little friction in a partly locked position to work out the oil. That took care of the problem. It should be mentioned with the instructions.

West Marine "Heavy Duty"
We wouldn't call it a heavy-duty tool. Made of 7/8" tube of average wall thickness, it's among the lighter tools tested. The West Marine 143292 looks identical to Star brite's Extend-a-Brush except that the West tool has a collar to protect the hand when collapsing. The performance of the West tool was virtually the same as Star brite's and thus our comments on the Star brite tool apply to the West Marine tool as well. The mid grip slipped on the pole.

West Marine Signature Series
The Signature Series is a heavy-duty twist-lock constructed of 1" diameter aluminum. The tip narrows to 7/8", so it's compatible with Star brite and West Marine attachments. Like the other twist-lock tools, it slipped when pushed on, but at a slightly greater 45 lbs. It's a stronger pole than the 143292, deflecting 3.5" inches in the bending test, compared to 6" for the 143292. The Signature tool is the only tool tested that claims to float and the only tool to pass the float test.

The Signature tool worked well prior to submersion for the float and corrosion tests. Following submersion and after drying for a week, it required two to 10 twists to lock in some positions and the normal quarter twist at others. The pole retained some water when the inner tube was extended, possibly because the handle grip does not have a hole in the end like other tools, and the collar where the inner tube slides into the outer is a close fit. Of course, these factors may allow the tool to float.

Taylor Made C-Mate (aluminum)
The aluminum C-Mate uses a dual-pin lock for added strength and security. To extend the tool, two buttons are pushed simultaneously with the thumb and forefinger.

We found the C-Mate tool aggravating to extend and retract. Sometimes it took 15-20 seconds to line up the pin to a hole. There's no way to tell if the pin is past the hole, ahead of the hole, or right at the hole but facing the wrong way. The manufacturer says they have not had many complaints and have no plans to add an alignment line. The tool cannot be extended in the dark since one has to be able to see the holes.

In general, a pin-lock tool's tubes separate if extended too far. The C-Mate tool is more susceptible to separation because you're likely to miss the last hole. During the deployment test, testers were surprised to find themselves suddenly holding two poles when they started with one. Having the tubes come apart on a boathook could make a routine situation serious.

One hole in the outer tube was not large enough for the pin to extend through fully.

Taylor Made C-Mate (stainless)
The stainless C-Mate tool looks and operates like C-Mate's aluminum tool. It does have a collar at the tip of the outer tube. This is one hefty tool, and easily the strongest of those tested. For cleaning, we found it heavy and a bit tiring, compared to the aluminum tools. The collar on the outer tube came off early in the tests. Unfortunately, this tool also suffers from the frustrating hole-locating problem and accidentally-pulling-it-apart problem. Our other comments on the aluminum tool apply here as well.

Swobbit Perfect Pole by MPS
The Perfect Pole is a new pin-lock tool with an innovative design. Extend the pole and it automatically stops and locks into the next hole. There is no need to watch the holes to locate the pin: The teardrop-shaped outer tube houses a channel that guides a pin in the inner tube to insure that the lock pin stays aligned with the holes. The design works well when extended at normal speeds but may skip holes if telescoped moderately fast. MPS representatives say they are aware of this and are looking into how to improve it.

Even though it is necessary to press the pin three times to reach maximum deployment, deployment times were fast since there's no need to look at the holes. This is the only pin-lock tool that can be operated by feel at night.

You have to depress the pin a fraction farther to clear the .075" wall tubing versus .058" wall commonly found on other pin-lock tubes. Some testers had trouble with that, while others with tougher thumbs did not.

The Perfect Pole performed well in cleaning. The tear-drop shape allows for a good grip. This is a particular advantage when there is a need to twist the pole, as when utilizing a universal joint attachment for cleaning. The soft handle is comfortable yet provides a better grip than the usual plastic handles. When extending or retracting the pole, it's possible to skip holes, if desired, by covering the hole with a finger.

Shurhold Pole
The Shurhold Pole is a pin-lock that features a red alignment line mark on the inner tube to help you line up the pin and a hole. Keep the line visible through the holes while extending.

The alignment line definitely helps, but you still must carefully watch the holes to lock the tool. The pin slips past the hole if misaligned by a fraction of an inch, especially when extending the tool moderately fast. The line is difficult to see in low light.

Despite the line, testers accidentally separated the tubes during the deployment test. Since the last hole is just 2" from the end, the pin does not have far to go before it's out of the tube. There's no mark indicating when the tubes are about to separate.

The Shurhold showed the most visible salt residue, and there were cosmetic salt stains on the inner tube after a freshwater rinse. A little extra cleaning may be necessary. The alignment line was off by half a hole width, a quality-control issue.

There isn't a perfect telescoping pole, but MPS' Swobbit Perfect Pole comes close. When used as a boathook, you can operate it quickly by feel. It's strong and locks securely. It's the only pin-lock tool that can be telescoped in the dark. Although not as easy to extend as the twist-locks when used for cleaning, it's quick enough and ergonomic.

On the down side, it skips holes when extended quickly (the company is addressing that issue) and it doesn't float. Some people find it hard to push pins. Still, it would be our first choice, especially if you plan to use it primarily as a boathook.

Their light weight and ease of extension make the Star brite Extend-a-Brush and the West Marine tools good choices if primarily used as cleaning tools with occasional use as a boathook. If used as a boathook, they should be for smaller boats or as a backup.

The C-Mate tools badly need a scribe mark to assist in lining up the holes and lessen the likelihood of being pulled apart. Without it, the C-Mate tools are only suitable if you rarely change the length of the tool, which defeats the purpose of a telescoping pole. The C-Mate stainless appears to be a well-made tool. If its problems were addressed, the C-Mate stainless could be a good choice for a larger boat. It has the strength for any application.

The Shurhold tool doesn't excel for use either as a boathook or for cleaning, but does either job reasonably well. Like the C-Mate, it would benefit from a ring on the inner tube, indicating when the tube is approaching maximum extension.

Bear in mind that some poles are sold as a package with attachments nearly equal to the cost of the pole itself.


Also With This Article
Click here to view "Value Guide: Multi-Purpose Boat Poles."

Contact - MPS, P.O. Box 9271, Jupiter, FL 33458; 800/362-9873; www.swobbit.com. Shurhold, 3119 S.W. 42nd Ave., Palm City, FL 34990; 800/962-6241; www.shurhold.com. Star brite, 4041 S.W. 47 Ave., Fort Lauderdale, FL 33314; 800/327-8583; www.starbrite.com. Taylor Made, 66 Kingsboro Ave. Gloversville, NY 12078; 518/725-0681; www.taylormadegroup.com. West Marine, 500 Westridge Dr., Watsonville, CA 95076; 800/BOATING; www.westmarine.com.

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