Fed up with having to employ a crane every time he wanted to take the mast down, Barry Pickthall shows how he installed a tabernacle

Even if you’re able to share the cost with other boat owners, hiring a crane to lower your mast has its drawbacks.

It dictates when you have to de-rig for the winter refit and be ready for the spring launch.

I’ve enjoyed some fantastic crisp, sunny sailing weather right up to the end of December and have no wish to winterise my 8.23m (27ft) traditional cruising yacht Sea Jay until the last moment.

Well, you can do as you please if you have a deck-stepped mast and replace the step with a tabernacle.

The foot of a tabernacle on a boat

The 5mm stainless steel plates at the foot of the tabernacle. Credit: Barry Pickthall/PPL

It was a trip to Holland that gave me the idea.

Almost every Dutch yacht has a hinged mast so that it can navigate under the bridges spanning the IJsselmeer inland sea and canals.

The systems have become very refined with a permanent A-frame on the foredeck and a winch to lower and raise the mast simply, all within minutes.

Continues below…

A group of people mast raising on a yacht

Do-it-yourself mast stepping

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

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

Since I plan to take the mast down only once a year, I didn’t need a permanent system, so worked with Collar Masts, the wooden spar specialist based near Oxford, to come up with a simple but equally effective system on Sea Jay that would use existing equipment.

It helped that Collars was making a new mast for us, but the principles remain just the same when converting an existing mast, wooden or aluminium.

Design a tabernacle

The first stage is to design the tabernacle. This has to be of sufficient height for the mast to hinge down clear of the deck and rest on the pulpit.

It also has to be made strong enough to stop the mast from twisting the tabernacle out of shape.

A folded down tabernacle on a boat

The tabernacle folded. Credit: Barry Pickthall/PPL

The cheeks need to be a close fit with the mast to prevent any side movement, and with doublers welded to strengthen the area where the hinge and securing bolts pass through.

I had Sea Jay’s tabernacle welded up in 5mm stainless steel plate which cost £400 unpolished, but having it fabricated in mild steel and then galvanised would have cost less.

deck of a boat

The aft shroud plates provide the pivot point for the feet of the A-frame used for hoisting the mast. Credit: Barry Pickthall/PPL

The mast itself needs to be no different to a normal deck-stepped spar, though it is important to measure the distance between the foot and pivot hole to ensure just enough clearance for the mast to hinge down.

To be sure, we made up a dummy lower mast and then replicated the pivot hole position on the actual mast once we were happy we had it right.

Making the A-frame

For the A-frame, I utilised the two alloy scaffold poles I use as sea legs on Sea Jay.

They were too short on their own, so I extended them using two lengths of square alloy tube, scrounged from the local scrapyard, that provided a sleeve fit inside the scaffold tube.

These were drilled and bolted where the rope ties usually attach to the base of the sea-legs, and the feet were then bolted loosely to the aft shroud plates to provide the pivot point for the A-frame.

An A frame on a boat

Lifting the A-frame into position. Credit: Barry Pickthall/PPL

The scaffold poles were bolted together at the apex of the frame and the forestay led through and attached to a pulling rope.

We had plenty of willing hands to help hinge the mast up from its resting place on the pushpit, so simply fed the rope through the bow roller to our tug-o-war team on the ground.

If you have neither space nor manpower for this, then you will need to set up a multi-purchase system – minimum 5-part – led back to a winch, to haul the mast up.

For safety’s sake, you must always have at least one person steadying the mast in line as it goes up to counter any effect from the wind or motion of the boat.

10 steps to lowering the mast

A diagram showing how to lower a boat mast

  1. Release tension on the backstay.
  2. Release lower shrouds, set up a halyard as a temporary forestay and tension.
  3. Set up the A-frame, bolting the feet to the forward shroud plates to act as the pivot point.
  4. Secure fenders across the deck just in case the mast is dropped.
  5. Release the forestay and attach a multi-purchase tackle led back to a primary winch. Ensure that the purchase system will extend the full arc that the A-frame makes.
  6. Lead the forestay through the top of the A-frame and apply tension to the multipurchase system.
  7. Remove the lower retaining bolt in the mast step and slacken the upper pivot bolt.
  8. Release the temporary forestay.
  9. Ease the multi-purchase line a few inches while a mast hand gives a backward push to the mast to ease its foot out of the tabernacle.
  10. Once you have some initial movement, the mast man now steers the spar down as the multi-purchase is eased slowly.

Raising the mast is the opposite of lowering

  • Attach the cap shrouds and backstay, remembering to loosen the side-stay bottlescrews to give sufficient slackness. Check that halyards and stays are free, and haul away.
  • Once the mast is vertical and the forestay bottlescrew can be attached to the stem fitting, you can replace the lower retaining bolt in the tabernacle and fasten it up tight. If this is the first time you have raised the mast, mark and drill the hole for the retaining bolt.
  • Now set up the standing rigging in the usual way, and you are ready to sail.

Enjoy reading How to fit a tabernacle to your boat?

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