Prac­ti­cal sea­man­ship

Pro­fes­sional skip­per Si­mon Phillips shares how to go aloft safely with only one other crewmem­ber aboard

Yachting Monthly - - CONTENTS -

Mast climb­ing for short­handed crews. Pro­fes­sional skip­per Si­mon Phillips shares how to go aloft safely with only one other crewmem­ber on board

Mast climb­ing is a skill some sailors love to put into prac­tice, while others, even sea­soned pro­fes­sional yachts­men, loathe the dizzy­ing heights in­volved in even the sim­plest of mast-top main­te­nance tasks. Mod­ern yachts, of­ten with pre­cious lit­tle in the way of steps to climb, in most cases rely on a safe sys­tem of lines to get up and down the mast, which can be pretty daunt­ing. No mat­ter whether you are go­ing aloft to change a bulb in the tri­colour on a wind­less day along­side in a ma­rina, or free­ing up a jammed line that’s much more crit­i­cal out at sea, hav­ing a rou­tine that’s well prac­ticed is at the heart of mak­ing mast climb­ing safe and stress free. Prac­tice and prepa­ra­tion is key.

Get­ting fa­mil­iar with the tech­niques and equip­ment will mean you’re better equipped to go aloft should the need arise at sea, which will in­evitably be when you least ex­pect it. When I train round-the-world yacht race crews on their 70ft yachts, ide­ally there are seven peo­ple in­volved, just to hoist one up the mast. I have two sep­a­rate hal­yards in­volved and I have two peo­ple on a grinder, two peo­ple tail­ing (one per winch), two peo­ple on the clutches and one per­son watch­ing the per­son go­ing aloft who tells every­one what to do. This way, there is a great safety mar­gin in­volved. But even when short­handed, it’s still pos­si­ble to go aloft safely.


Pre­pare the per­son go­ing aloft. They should have shoes rather than bare feet, a com­fort­able bo­sun’s chair or climb­ing har­ness, and a hel­met (cy­cling, ski­ing or kayak­ing) to help pre­vent head in­juries. Take a smart­phone, so a photo can be sent to some­one on the deck if nec­es­sary, sav­ing a sec­ond hoist, and put your ba­sic tools in the pocket of the bo­sun’s chair. Ide­ally, all loose items should be at­tached by lan­yards so that they can't be dropped on to the deck.


Using two hal­yards is a must to en­sure the safety of the per­son aloft. De­cide which is the pri­mary hal­yard and which is the safety hal­yard. Use only hal­yards that are in­ter­nal to the mast, like a head­sail or main­sail hal­yard, as these go into the mast around 6-8ft off the deck and exit near the top. Never use ex­ter­nal hal­yards – if the block at the mast­head fails then you’ll be freefalling on to the deck.


Get in the chair and bounce in it just off the deck to en­sure it is com­fort­able and ad­justed cor­rectly. Tie bow­lines through the lift­ing part of the har­ness. Never rely on a shackle as this may come un­done or fail. Once you’ve done this with both hal­yards, you’re set to go.


Hoist­ing the per­son can be tir­ing work. The per­son aloft can as­sist greatly by pulling them­selves up, but care must be taken to stay safely in the chair or har­ness. Keep three turns on the winch and a clutch closed on the pri­mary hal­yard. This hal­yard has their full weight on it at all times.

5 Safety line

As you’re hoist­ing, stop ev­ery cou­ple of me­tres or so and pull in the slack of the safety line and se­cure. This should also be through a clutch and on a winch. If this is not pos­si­ble, make the lead fair to a cleat and se­cure.

6 Se­cure aloft

When they are at the de­sired height, ten­sion the safety line by hand and se­cure both lines. On the winch, use a tug­boat hitch and move away from the mast in case they drop some­thing.

7 Flake the hal­yard

While they are up the mast, flake out both of the hal­yards so these can run free when they’re be­ing low­ered.

8 lower away

Low­er­ing can be tricky un­less you have the cor­rect amount of fric­tion in the lines – both pri­mary and safety lines. Ide­ally, the per­son be­ing low­ered would like to be low­ered smoothly all the way down. Hav­ing too much fric­tion on the lines re­sults in hav­ing to ease by hand on the winch, which bounces them all the way down. The num­ber of turns will de­pend upon the size of the winch, the make of the winch (some man­u­fac­tur­ers’ winches have more fric­tion than others), and the type and di­am­e­ter of the hal­yard used. It’s likely to be at least two or three turns. Lower them hand over hand for the smoothest jour­ney down. The man aloft pulls through a cou­ple of me­tres of one of the lines, the per­son on deck se­cures it, then eases the other hal­yard un­til both hal­yards are tight. Re­peat this process un­til they are on deck, keeping an eye on them all the way down.

En­sure the per­son go­ing aloft has all they need with them

While large crews have lots of man­power to send some­one aloft, small crews can still do it safely Large crews can eas­ily hoist some­one aloft, but it is still pos­si­ble for small crews

Lower as smoothly as pos­si­ble, al­ways keeping an eye on what’s go­ing on above you

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