Going aloft to the masthead can be tricky at the best of times on a calm day in a marina – and even more so at sea. In our November 2009 issue, Ben Meakins tested seven sets of mast climbing gear to see which worked best.
It must have been a wise man who once said that: ‘A fear of heights is illogical. A fear of falling, on the other hand, is prudent and evolutionary.’
Perhaps sailors should take note. Climbing the mast is seldom a popular task, but it’s a lucky sailor that never has to go up to fix an aerial, replace a bulb or even perform a visual inspection.
With the right equipment, however, it’s possible to go up and down a mast safely, and without too much exertion.
We looked at seven different sets of mast climbing equipment designed to help you get aloft, testing them on a blustery summer’s day on a Sigma 38 on the River Hamble. The wind increased to 30 knots during the day, making life aloft uncomfortable and somewhat dangerous, so we donned helmets to give us some protection while swinging around. It’s worth having one to hand if you ever think you might need to go up the mast while at sea.
The conventional method of climbing the mast is to sit in a harness or bosun’s chair while the deck crew grind you to the top using a halyard and a winch. Harnesses are often favoured by racers: take a glance at the bow of any large racing yacht and chances are you’ll see the bowman sporting a climbing harness. They’re less comfortable than a bosun’s chair to spend time in aloft, but are more secure: unlike a chair you can’t fall out of a well-fitting harness. You can pick one up for as little as £30 from a climbing shop.
Cruisers tend to carefully choose their times to go aloft, so are content to use a bosun’s chair – after all, greater comfort means you can spend more time aloft getting the job done before your legs go numb. You can pick one up from any chandlery for anywhere between £30 and £130. Look for one with a solid seat and good pockets and, if you can, try them on in the shop – anything that feels remotely uncomfortable on the ground will be multiplied a hundredfold when aloft, so this is not an area for compromise.
The bosun’s chair used in this feature, a SwissTech from BlueWater supplies, had all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a top-end chair, and felt secure and comfortable for working aloft for extended periods.
What we tested
Conventional methods of hoisting a crewman to the masthead have worked well for centuries, but there are now several more modern methods designed to reduce the effort needed by the deck crew – some even to the point of permitting mast climbing single-handed. All are teamed with a harness or bosun’s chair to support the weight of the climber.
LADDERS: We’ve all seen blue-water cruisers with their fixed or folding mast-steps riveted to the mast, but mast steps aren’t for everyone: they’re a snag hazard, they add weight and windage and involve drilling lots of holes in the mast. A temporary ladder is the answer to overcome these issues, and with modern materials these can be lightweight and small enough to be stowed on the most space-impoverished yacht.
Never climb mast steps or a temporary ladder unassisted. It’s safest to use a harness, with a crew member taking up the slack in a halyard as a fail-safe should you slip from the ladder.
MASTHEAD WINCH: Like a chain hoist found in warehouses and motor service stations, the MastLift comprises a 10:1 reduction gearbox operated by an endless line. You simply hoist it up the mast on a halyard (two are recommended for security), attach yourself to its integral Dyneema halyard and pull on the endless line – one way to ascend, and the other to descend.
ASCENDERS: Climbers have been using ascenders for many years. Traditionally, a prusik hitch would be tied onto a static line to provide a foot or hand-hold, taking advantage of this knot’s ability to slide easily along a rope or bar when not under load but lock solid as soon as the climber’s weight is applied to it.
We tried out two variations on the theme, using a 10mm genoa sheet as our static line, hoisted to the masthead on the main halyard and stretched tight.
MASTHEAD HARNESS Finally, we tried out a ‘mast-top’ harness. This attaches to a bosun’s chair and allows you to stand up and see above the halyard exit.
* Prices correct at the time of going to press, November 2009
PRICE*: 5m £101, 10m £169, 15m £240, 20m £311
The FibreLight ladder, as used by the SAS, is constructed from webbing with carbon fibre rungs, and packed down into a bag only 26 x 15 x 15cm in size. We found it easy to climb, as long as it was hauled tight with two downhauls – if these were too loose, it swung around significantly.
It proved easiest to climb ‘side-on’ – alternating your feet from one side to the other – rather than climbing up one face. Descending was hard work, and in the significant gusts on the day, the ladder blew around a lot, despite the best efforts of our downhauls. One advantage of this type of simple, light ladder is that you could use it with the mainsail hoisted, but it would be tricky to climb in any kind of sea.
SwissTech Mast Ladder
PRICE*: 10m £431; 2m extension piece £109
This ladder has aluminium rungs, joined at the edges by webbing straps. Each rung slides into the mainsail track in the mast, and is held steady by two adjustable guide-rollers. It took us some time to set the ladder up for our mast, but you should only need to do this once, and from then on it takes only minutes to hoist.
As with the flexible ladder, the Mast Ladder needed two tight downhauls to keep it rigid and in line. It was easy to climb, although it moved around a little with each step. The curved aft face of our Sigma’s mast may have contributed to this. Descending was hard work, but the steps were easy to find – and the whole team found them to be well spaced.
Mast Mount/Mast Mate
PRICES*: 27ft $240 (£146), 35ft $300 (£183), 42ft $357 (£218)
This type of webbing ladder has been available in a number of guises for many years. We tried a Mast Mount, which is no longer produced, but an almost identical product, the Mast Mate, is still available from the USA.
Consisting of a series of webbing loops, held on to the mast by mainsail-type sliders, the Mast Mount was easy to ascend and descend. An extra layer of stiff webbing was sewn into the base of each loop, keeping each step open – and the team liked the ‘alternating’ steps, which made climbing easy. With the halyard pulled taut against a tight downhaul, it felt the most secure and safe of all the ladders tested.
PRICES*: 13m halyard £1,014; 25m halyard £1,188
Hoisting the MastLift was somewhat nerve-racking, and in any sea it would sway around a lot. We used the optional neoprene cover to prevent damage to either the mast or the unit itself, and SwissTech also provide a loop of ‘parrel balls’ which loop around a furled jib to help with guiding the unit up. We found that keeping tension on the Dyneema halyard as a downhaul prevented any major movement.
Going up was a simple matter, if tough on the arms, but you can stop at any time for a rest. It felt secure at all times, with a reassuring ‘clicking’ from the ratchet on the way up. Going down was even easier, although the gear change from ‘up’ to ‘down’ took a little getting used to. We used it on a breezy day, and soon realised that it was important not to let go of the endless line, which trailed off to leeward, leaving me stranded until a handy lull dropped the line back into my lap. You could also use the MastLift attached to the end of the boom as a hoist for outboard engines and MOBs – a shorter, 4m endless line is available for this purpose. Overall it was easy to use, and felt secure and safe. It’s not cheap, and would be hard to deploy at sea, but is good for solo ascents.
PRICE*: Around £30 from climbing shops
The Petzl ascender is a cheap and simple piece of climbing equipment that works like a rope clutch in that it can slide upwards, but jams when pulled down. For the test we used a single ascender with a foot loop made from a heavy-duty sail tie and a harness on a long strop.
You sit in the harness, with your weight taken on a halyard, and slide the ascender up the static line. Next, stand up in the foot loop while a crewman takes up the slack in the halyard, and repeat the process. With a second ascender you could climb the line unassisted, as you can with the TopClimber (see right). We found we needed a long strop between the ascender and the harness to allow enough movement, and that having two foot loops, which were attached loosely to the static line, made straightening your legs easier. An ascender has the advantage that it will act as a brake if you let go – but you must take care if taking your weight off the ascender that it won’t capsize.
The TopClimber is a ready-made version of a double-ascender system. You sit in its bosun’s chair, and straighten your legs. This releases the strain on the top rope clutch, which can be slid upwards. You sit down and do the same for the lower clutch, before repeating the process and ascending the line. It took some practice before the process felt natural, but once mastered it was a quick, secure method of climbing the rig. The instructions provided were on the brief side, however, and we found it was well worth spending 5 or 10 minutes getting familiar with the equipment before trying it out for real. Coming down the process is reversed, and we found that the important thing was to take small steps. The chair felt comfortable and one tester even commented: ‘It was so good I didn’t know I had it on!’ The TopClimber also has the advantage that you can stand in the foot loops once at the masthead to gain access to navigation lights and aerials which live above the halyard exit.
Used in conjunction with our bosun’s chair as a step to allow you to reach the masthead, we found this device got in the way somewhat on the way up and we had to take care to ensure the chair itself did not slip down when we stood up. As long as you take these into account, it’s a good solution to the problem of getting access to fittings above the halyard exit.
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the classic bosun’s chair – it does the job and does it well. The problem is that it can be hard work for a crew to wind someone to the masthead, and this is where the newer methods come into their own.
The ascender technique is a great way of climbing the mast without relying on crew to put in the effort, and was our team’s preferred method. Each of the two ascender techniques we tried took a little practice, but once mastered they were quick and easy. One of our test team, who had previously done some rock climbing, mastered it quickly – demonstrating the value of proper training with any equipment. The TopClimber might be a more expensive option, but it felt safer, more secure and comfortable than our cobbled-together Petzl system.
Ladders are certainly a viable way of climbing the rig, but they are tiring and it’s important you wear a harness and halyard as any movement of the boat makes it hard to hang on. Of the three we tested, the Mast Mount felt the most secure and was the easiest to climb, with the least movement. The FibreLight Ladder is compact but was tiring to climb, while the SwissTech Mast Ladder felt secure and safe, but could conceivably damage the mast if not properly adjusted beforehand.
The MastLift winch was a seriously impressive piece of kit – but had a price tag to match.
- Mind your head! Don’t stand near the base of the mast while there’s a crewman aloft – a tool or any other object dropped from a height could cause serious injury.
- Tie your own bowline. It’s tradition that whoever is heading aloft ties their own knot: that way there’s no one else to blame if it’s not done properly. Never use a snapshackle to take the load – instead, tie a bowline and use the shackle to secure the tail.
- Use a safety line. It’s worth having a second halyard attached, with a crewman taking up the slack, as a backup.
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