Saturday, March 03, 2012

View From The Masthead

Marathon, Florida
24 42.40 081 N 05.68 W

I just came down from the top of the mast.  The view from up there was lovely.  It occurs to me that I never wrote about that cruising chore before.  It is something every cruiser needs to do once or twice per year.  Like everything else on the boat, things up there need maintenance.

My mast sits 42 feet above the deck, 47 feet above the water.  That's pretty modest.    Many cruising boats have masts approaching the ICW maximum of 65 feet.   A few of the biggest sailboats have 100 to 200 foot masts.  It doesn't really matter.  All of them are an effort to climb and a fall from any of those heights is likely to be fatal.

On Tarwathie, our standard procedure for climbing the mast is to get out our boatswain's (also spelled bos'n or busun and pronounced bosun) chair.  Ours is a standard design, and it is extremely uncomfortable.   I always wear an athletic cup when using that chair, but still it manages to make me want to come down before even reaching the top.  The picture on the right shows a similar chair.

Today, my friend Don let me borrow a rig of the type rock climbers use.  It was much more comfortable.  In that, I could have stayed up there 30 minutes or more without discomfort.   However, I did not climb it like the man in the video here, we use a winch.

Once before I borrowed a climbing rig from Jeff & Wendy.  It was much nicer than my bosun chair, but not as nice as this topclimber.  I'll ask Santa for a topclimber rig.

Next steps -- very important.  Inspect your halyard.  If it is old or frayed, replace it before climbing.  Then, tie a halyard onto your rig using a bowline.  DO NOT USE ANY OTHER KNOT AND DO NOT USE A SHACKLE.  Security of the knot is life critical, and being able to untie it when done is handy.   A bowline offers an important type of security that no other knot offers --- you can look at it and reliably verify visually that it is tied correctly.

Next, I need two or three helpers.  Onc or two to crank on the winch to haul me up.  The third is usually Libby.  She tails the line, and watches out for my safety in general.  Once, when I had three men to help me, I told Libby that her help wasn't needed.  Boy was that a mistake.  She takes my safety very personally and she was very offended that I would trust someone else.

We have a #30 halyard winch on the mast with high gear and low gear.  Low gear makes it much easier to crank.  No points are scored for speed.   Some people use an electric winch or the electric anchor windlass to hoist people up the mast.  They just shoot up there at elevator speed.  I'm opposed to that.  I think it is a safety hazard.

So, what was my mission today?  Our anchor light began to flicker a week or so ago, then it stopped working.  I suspected either that the fancy LED bulb with built-in photocell, was broken, or that the wiring had gone bad.  I brought with me all the tools needed to diagnose the problem and to rewire it if necessary.  I carry my tools in a canvas bag that can be lowered onto the deck.  Then, if I forget something (which is nearly 100% of the time) I can lower the bag to fetch the missing thing without asking my helpers to lower me and crank me up multiple times.  

Did I succeed in the mission?  Yes.  It was a minor repair today.  The push-then-twist bulb had simply come loose in the socket.  The bulb and the wiring were find.  Total time feet off the deck, 10 minutes.
Thanks Don and Libby for the help.


  1. I second the Topclimber, Dick. I had one on Hotspur (my 33' Mistral) and used it many times to go up the mast. No winching needed. It has the added benefit of allowing your head to be higher than the masthead, which is often useful.

  2. As you may know, Dick, I love to go up the mast. The view is always worth the sweat. I saw the Topclimber at the Annapolis Boat show but balked at the price -- well over $300. But I saw how it was made and then went to REI and bought a climbing harness and two "ascenders" -- cam cleats with handles. I tied one ascender to the climbing harness and the other to a piece of line with a double bowline, to use as stirrups. Then I bought a length of non-stretch line to haul up the mast with the main halyard. The line goes up first, and then I use the ascenders to climb the (sacraficial) line. Don't want to damage the haylyard. It's not fast, but the price was about $160 for all the pieces and the method has fewer risks than handing someone a line to winch you up the mast.

  3. Sorry I wasn't there to go to the top :)


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