If you’re thinking of hiring a boatyard crane to step your mast, why not consider this low-tech, low-cost alternative? Rupert Holmes shows how it’s done

Mast stepping without a crane may sound impossible – but it’s quite straightforward given a couple of willing friends with boats and reasonably flat water.

The basic idea is to raft your boat between the other two, and use their halyards to lift your rig.

With practice, little more than half an hour is needed: this technique is standard practice among charter fleets in the Eastern Med, where often there are no cranes available if mid-season repairs are needed at short notice.

However, I’ve never seen this method employed anywhere in the UK or other parts of northern Europe.

Yet it could be really cost effective for clubs that store yachts on the hard over the winter, as a crane only needs to be hired to put the first two rigs up.

Indeed, if two of the boats have tabernacles, it may be possible to step the masts of the entire fleet without recourse to a crane.

Of course, mast raising is never without risk, even using a crane, so it’s important to allow plenty of time – especially on a first attempt – and approach the task in a logical and organised fashion.

Mast stepping: Weight worries

An 11m (36ft) rig for a typical 9-10m (30-34ft) cruiser weighs about 75kg (165lb), maybe a little more if there are halyard winches mounted on the spar.

That’s around the same weight as hoisting an average-size person aloft, but with the load spread between two rigs, of course.

This means hoisting the spar is well within the design capabilities of the rig of a similar-size or larger vessel and does not need to be a strenuous operation.

Raft the three boats together, with yours in the middle.

Here we’re raising the mast on my own Discovery 3000, Ammos.

A man tying halyards on a mast

1. Tie halyards from the neighbouring yachts under your spreaders

We pointed her in the opposite direction to the others, enabling the main halyards of the outer vessels to be used, but you could also use spinnaker halyards, especially if they are fitted with a swivelling pulley at the masthead, in which case it’s best to have all three boats facing in the same direction.

Tie a halyard from each of the other boats under your spreaders, and include a retrieval line so you can get the halyards back down once the mast has been stepped.

Never be tempted to use a snap shackle to secure the halyards – although generally reliable they can fail without warning under load, and the danger of that happening when supporting the mast is too great a risk.

A large bowline tied in the end of the halyard is a much more secure method.

Don’t worry if the halyards on the neighbouring boats are a little too short – simply attach an extra length of line to make up the difference and form a strop.

Also, securely tie a guide rope around the mast foot – this is to control the heel of the rig as it’s lifted.

Rig raising

Simultaneously hauling the halyards of the neighbouring boats will not lift the rig.

You’ll need a couple of people on the deck of your boat to guide and control the spar as well.

If it’s a single-spreader mast, as was with Ammos, it will initially rise almost horizontally, but as the rig gains altitude, the foot of the mast can be guided towards the mast step on deck, or the partners if it’s a keel-stepped rig.

Men on a yacht mast raising

2. Start hoisting the rig – when doing it the first time it helps to have a few extra people on your deck to lend a hand – and allow plenty of time

In an ideal world, each of the halyards would be hauled at the same rate so that, once the mast is standing more or less upright, it is always vertical in the athwartship plane.

However, this is rarely the case so you’ll need to check on the angle of the rig as it’s lifted, directing each winch grinder as necessary to keep it in line.

Men holding a mast while raising it on a boat

3. As the rig rises, you can start walking the foot of the mast forwards, towards the mast step

With a two-spreader rig, it’s best to put the strop below the top spreaders if possible.

This will lift the top of the mast first, so the heel will then need to be ‘walked’ along the deck of your boat towards the mast step as the rig is lifted.

Three-spreader rigs can be lifted by the upper or middle spreaders – the former is easier, providing the rigs of the boats assisting you are tall enough.

Delicate stage

Locating the mast on its step is the most precise stage of the operation, requiring good communication between the crew on your boat, who are manoeuvring the foot of the mast into place, and the halyard operators manning the winches on the adjacent yachts.

The rig needs to be lifted until it’s just clear above the mast step – around 2cm-3cm (an inch or so) of clearance is fine.

Once it’s in position, the halyards can be eased a fraction – tell each operator exactly how much – until the rig is sitting firmly on the mast step, still supported by the two halyards.

Men hoising a mast on a boat

4. The rig rarely goes up exactly vertically, but that’s easy to tweak by adjusting the load on the two halyards

If you have a keel-stepped mast it’ll have to be carefully lowered through the partners to the keel below.

Once the mast is correctly located, put each of the cap shrouds into their bottle screws, spinning the first one by only a couple of turns to give the maximum chance of settings its opposite number connected.

If the rig is canting over to one side and it’s not possible to connect the second cap shroud to its bottlescrew, the halyard on the boat on the opposite side to that shroud is a little too tight.

Ease the halyard a fraction, then take up the slack on one of the other supporting boats, being careful not to lift the rig off the mast step.

A man connecting cap shroud after finishing a mast raising on a boat

With the mast held aloft it’s time to connect the cap shrouds

Once both shrouds are connected, and tensioned enough for the threads to be fully covered, connect the forestay and backstay.

If the rig is not sufficiently upright in the fore and aft plane, and one won’t reach its bottlescrew, one of your own halyards can be taken down to a suitably stout deck fitting and tensioned to tilt the mast in the correct direction.

Once the forestay, backstay and cap shrouds are connected their bottlescrews should be wound up hand-tight – this will secure the rig sufficiently for the supporting halyards to be released and returned to their respective boats.

After that, the lower shrouds and babystay can be connected.

Tensioning and tuning

Next tension the rig to its normal settings, or as close as you can manage, using a pair of well-fitting spanners to turn the bottlescrews once they’re too tight to wind by hand.

Don’t be tempted to turn a bottlescrew under tension by using a screwdriver poked through the body as a lever – they’re not designed for those sort of forces.

On larger boats it may not be possible to achieve the full tension needed without going sailing – this allows the lee shrouds to be tensioned when they are slack.

If you do this and plan to leave the bottlescrews unpinned while adjusting the rig, each pair of cap and lower shroud bottlescrews can be tied together with line to prevent them unscrewing.

Lowering the rig

It’s also possible to lower a mast by reversing this method. Less muscle power is needed, but it’s still important to take care.

Start by tying a halyard from each of the supporting boats under the spreaders – making sure these are outside the lower shrouds and babystay – then tension the halyards to support the rig.

At this stage, the rigging can be disconnected. Ensure you record the number of turns on each bottlescrew so the rig can be tuned with the same settings next time it is stepped.

Continues below…

A mast step on a yacht which is curving, and not supporting the mast

Rebuilding a damaged mast step

Rupert Holmes repairs a compressed water-damaged mast step – a common problem for boats with a deck-stepped mast - and

It also helps to clean and oil the threads before starting work.

The critical part is when the rig lifts off the mast step.

The mast heel will start to swing, especially if it’s a single spreader rig that will want to lie horizontally from the strop, though it’s no different in this respect to using a crane.

It’s worth having two people standing opposite each other, both holding a line to control the mast foot.

That way, they can arrest its progress, whichever direction it wants to move.

Once the rig has been lifted off its step, all that’s needed is the halyard operators on each of the adjacent boats to coordinate lowering the spar to the deck.

Enjoy reading Do-it-yourself mast stepping?

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