Professional skipper Simon Phillips shares how to go aloft safely with only one other crewmember aboard
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.
1 PREPARE TO GO ALOFT
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.
3 GET COMFORTABLE
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