Are you sitting comfortably? Let’s hope so – especially when climbing the mast. Ben Meakins chairs a discussion about the comfort, safety and build quality of a selection of bosun’s chairs
Dangling many metres above the deck isn’t the time to find out that your bosun’s chair cuts off the blood supply to your legs.
However, most of our mast-climbing devices sit in a locker year after year, and the only time we find out just painful they are is on the rare occasion that we need to go aloft.
We collected together 12 bosun’s chairs of all types and tried them out for comfort, safety and build quality on a wintry day, with some poor souls hoisting my 15 stones aloft repeatedly in each to see how they performed.
They left me dangling for a while so they could get their breath back while I monitored my legs for circulation and assessed how each one felt when I was swinging around and sitting still.
Devices such as ascenders, ladders and winches to help you climb independently are also available – and we tested seven of them in 2009. You can see the article online at www.pbo.co.uk/mastclimbing
TIP: Don’t use a shackle – tie a knot
Some use a bowline tied in the bight of the halyard, and use the shackle to secure the bitter end. Climbers use a double figure-of-eight knot, which also works well for mast climbing.
Types of bosun’s chairs
Bucket seat: Usually these are made from PVC or vinyl with webbing reinforcements and add a back and sides to the simple seat. Some also have a rigid seat for comfort, and others use a spreader bar to stop them squeezing legs and hips.
Simple: These are similar to those used for hundreds of years by ships’ boys sent to paint the waterline – at their most basic, they are a simple plank with a line on each corner. These days they tend to have webbing straps.
Harness: As used by climbers and racing bowmen, these are the most secure – it’s impossible to fall out – but can also be uncomfortable to spend too much time aloft in. Wiring a light or antenna can take a long time!
Crewsaver Crewlift 40
Crewsaver’s bosun’s chair is made from padded nylon, with a rigid seat and plenty of securing straps – a set for the thighs and a strap to go around the chest. I found it fairly comfortable to sit in – and it felt nice and secure thanks to the chest strap, which stopped me falling backwards or sliding out. It was also possible to climb in thanks to the chest strap. One shortcoming is that the halyard attachment is in the form of two webbing straps and D-rings, one from each side of the chair. I’m larger than average and found that these barely reached around my front, so that when my weight was applied the D-rings were squeezed together, constricting my chest a little.
This low attachment also meant that the chair felt like it could roll backwards, although the chest strap stopped this from becoming dangerous. It would be better for smaller people, where the halyard attachments wouldn’t be so constricting.
Made from PVC-coated fabric, Plastimo’s Professional chair is a ‘bucket’ design with a rigid seat. The seat is wider than average and has wider webbing than the alternatives – and the chair also has a higher safe working load of 150kg. The pouch doubles as a tool bag.
It’s more adjustable than the Comfort chair, which means you can alter the fit to suit – for instance, leaning you back if required, or reducing the strain on the legs. This was among the most comfortable and secure of the chairs we tested, and it felt like you could sit there for some time if required – there were no dead legs at the end of our test.
Osculati Nylon Bosun’s Chair
This is Osculati’s take on the ‘bucket seat’ concept, with a max load of 100kg. There’s no solid seat, which means it’ll take up less room to stow, but that does impact the comfort.
We found that the seat was on the generous size, which meant that you can’t physically sit far enough back to fill the chair. Added to that, the lack of a rigid seat meant that the front of the ‘bucket’ was pulled together, squeezing the legs and hips inwards and leading to cramp in a short period – it was really quite uncomfortable to sit in for any length of time.
The halyard attachment is quite high, which in turn leads to a low centre of gravity, so you won’t fall out backwards.
This, the mid-range model from Plastimo, is of the ‘bucket’ seat type, with a board seat. It has a high back and two tool pockets – and the storage pouch clips on to the side to act as another, Velcro-sealed bag. This model didn’t have the same level of padding as the Lalizas professional chair (below), but had an adjustable strap to alter the angle of the seat and adjust the size and shape for different-shaped occupants.
The materials, PVC-coated nylon with 40mm webbing, felt secure and safe, and the stainless D-rings were of good quality. I found it easy and intuitive to get into, and among the most comfortable of all the chairs we tried out. It could be used for climbing, although care was needed to stop it falling down.
Lalizas Professional bosun’s chair
The Lalizas professional bosun’s chair is made from padded nylon with robust webbing strapping and reinforcement. The bucket design was lightweight and although a rigid seat is an option, this chair felt comfortable without it. The high back means you can’t fall out backwards, and a belly strap and crotch strap keep you securely inside. The top strap was a little constrictive, but the four webbing straps that hold the chair up made it feel safe and secure. The storage pouch clips on and forms a useful Velcro-sealed tool bag.
Lalizas Standard bosun’s chair
The Lalizas standard chair was the cheapest of all we tested. Made from nylon material, it had a good padded seat which made it comfortable to sit in when aloft. However, the chest strap was hard to adjust (the design meant that there wasn’t enough travel to really tighten it up). It gave both our testers a slight ache in the lower back, and it was easy to fall back if you weren’t careful: and if you climbed at all, the chair slipped down. There are tool pockets on each side of the chair.
Plastimo’s cheapest model is made from lightweight polyester with a rigid board seat. It’s of the traditional ‘seat’ style, but has a crotch strap for safety, and a safe working load of 100kg. It has two integral storage pockets, one on each side. It’s designed for use in a seated position, and as such can’t be used for climbing.
When you’re seated it’s a little uncomfortable, with the rigid seat and no padding leading to a numb backside in a short time. There’s an adjustable back strap to keep you in the chair and to adjust to your satisfaction – and you can do this while in the chair, as the tail of the webbing is fixed at one end. This does leave a loop hanging down when adjusted tight, which could be a snagging hazard at the top of the mast.
Another simple ‘seat’-type chair, this one comes with a 100kg maximum load. It had a good, wide seat which made it comfortable to sit in aloft. However, the back strap was a little low, which made it feel a little unsafe. The front strap kept us tightly enclosed, but it felt as though with that eased it would be easy to fall out. You can’t climb in this chair, as it slips down your legs and makes it unsafe.
Swi-Tec bosun’s chair
Made from a heavy-duty cotton/polyamid canvas with stitched-in rope edging, Swi-Tec’s bosun’s chair is a lovely piece of kit. The seat is wide and broad enough to make it comfortable to spend some time seated in, and an XXL version is also available. A wooden spreader bar stops the chair from squeezing your hips and legs together while also stopping you from falling forwards, and a crotch strap runs from the bar down between your legs to the seat to keep you secure.
The chair has a high canvas back to stop you falling backwards, and in use this was by far the most comfortable chair of all we tested, not cutting off circulation to the legs and feeling safe and secure. There is a good tool pocket on either side of the chair.
Spinlock Mast Pro
Spinlock’s Mast Pro harness is designed for racing bowmen, and as such is as light as they can make it. To wear, it was very unobtrusive, and I actually forgot I was wearing it – it allowed me to sit down and move around with ease.
It has wide, stiffened belt and leg straps, and neoprene covers over the adjustment buckles to avoid damage to the deck or fittings. Adjustment of the straps is well thought out, with a ridged, elasticated outer for ‘ratchet’ adjustment on leg straps.
When up the mast, it wasn’t as comfortable as the more padded climbing harness (Petzl) – unsurprising, as it has less padding. An excellent tool bag is also available, which is a moulded pouch that attaches with Velcro onto the side of the harness. This was the best of all the pouches, and the moulded shape meant that you could open it and fish around inside without capsizing anything.
The bag is available separately, and would be a great addition to any bosun’s chair.
Petzl make harnesses for climbing, but this one is designed to be simple to use and rugged enough for canyoning, swimming and white-water cascading. It has a slightly obscene black plastic seat but was extremely easy to adjust, with large buckles and wide webbing. It had useful loops for attaching tools and extra lines, and a Dyneema attachment point for a halyard. This was more comfortable than a standard harness for sitting, and very easy to adjust.
Razorback Treehog TH7000
This is a tree surgeon’s harness, so as you’d expect it’s designed for comfort and safety for prolonged periods aloft. It has a wide, padded back and leg straps which can be easily adjusted, and it has very good-quality lightweight clips to release the straps when it comes to taking the thing off.
Three sizes are available – and ours took some time to adjust for each person – but with the waist strap released sufficiently, it was the most comfortable harness of all we tried. It wasn’t quite as good as the best bosun’s chair in terms of seated comfort, but as it allows you to climb and you can’t fall out, it was very secure. It has lots of tool loops, and some well-made metal fixings and fastenings: halyard attachment is via a sliding ring.
The first choice you must make is which type of chair you want. The simple chairs are comfortable to perch on short-term but offer limited security, which is important at the top of the mast where a small wave can feel enormous.
The bucket chairs offer significantly improved safety, and the chest and back straps mean that some will allow you to climb a little without them slipping down.
The best of these are far more comfortable than the simple seats – the Swi-Tec, Plastimo Pro and Lalizas Pro were all excellent examples.
For optimum safety it’s a harness every time, and indeed some manufacturers recommend using a harness as well as a chair for safety. Of the harnesses, the Spinlock was unobtrusive when not being used for support – and as such would make a useful secondary harness if using a chair for comfort.
The Petzl Canyon was a good compromise, while the Treehog was supremely comfortable, but very bulky.
Chair-wise, top honours go to the Swi-Tec, which we found well-made and the most comfortable on test.
The Plastimo Pro comes a close second as a safe, comfy chair which also allows a little climbing, while the Lalizas professional chair is cheap and lightweight but felt comfortable and secure; as such it would be a good choice if on a budget.
As published in the April 2017 issue of Practical Boat Owner magazine. Prices correct at the time of going to press.