Going aloft

If you own a sailboat sooner or later you’re going to have to get to the top of the mast to deal with some mistake or repair. Lost halyards, flaky anemometer connections, jammed genoa tracks or a bad roller reefing system — you look up, mouth agog, and curse the fact that someone, most likely you, is going to have to go aloft.

In the days I raced with my father on our Wianno Senior, the Snafu III (#140), his rule for going aloft was quite simple and brutal. If you lost the halyard (usually accomplished by forgetting to clip it to the head of the spinnaker and then wildly hauling the loose end to the top of the mast) theny you were the one who went up after it. Climbing a spruce mast by “shinning up” while underway in a three foot confused Nantucket Sound chop ranks among the more unpleasant things I’ve ever done, especially for me, the Cub Scout who had to have his fingers pried off the stairs to the fire watcher’s tower in Georgetown, Massachusetts in 1968. I am terrified of heights, it is, with no doubt, the single biggest phobia I have. I get freaked out watching people on window ledges in the movies, let alone experiencing vertiginous terror for real.

I’ve been hauled up a mast by making an impromptu Bosun’s Chair out of a bowline on a bight and stepping into the two rings. The resulting choke hold on my nether regions was amazingly unpleasant, and the feeling of being winched up the mast by a person on the deck is pretty terrifying. If they mess up and slip then down you. Crashing 20, 40 feet down onto a winch or worse. Going aloft is serious business. Consider what it was like in the days of sail to go aloft in the ratlines and climb out on the end of a yard arm to take in sail in a serious sea.  A simple ride up a mast is a breeze compared to what those jack tar’s went through in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Serious off shore voyagers like the late Bernard Moitessier install permanent mast rungs on their mast — think of backwards “7’s” bolted to the mast. This is very utilitarian and guarantees a fast run up the spar, especially underway, but I’m not inclined to drill out and through-rivet a series of such a solution on my 51′ tall Kenyon aluminum mast.

The solution? A real bosun’s chair. A $200 expense (I am not inclined to skimp just as I wouldn’t shop for a discount parachute) that gives me some firm support under the butt, a tool bag, and some certified hardware s the worst won’t happen while I’m aloft.  I’ll probably go with the Harken Bosun’s Chair, based on the video posted on YouTube by West Marine.

And I don’t intend to use it. That’s what teenaged sons are are for.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

5 thoughts on “Going aloft”

  1. As a follow up to “Going Aloft,” you’ll have to follow up with “Going Deep” — and I don’t mean diving over the side for something valuable you dropped. “If you own a sailboat sooner or later you’re going to have to” repair clogged heads, most likely from a guest who used too much toilet paper and not enough flush water after performing number two. Get a good pair of industrial rubber gloves, preferably ones that extend to your elbows.

  2. I do have to do some “head” surgery. Leaky c-clamps. I’d prefer a boat with a simple cedar bucket as Nat Herreshoff once declared was all one needed. Boat toilets are wrong in so many ways.

  3. Now you know the origin of the phrase “I’m up to my elbows in shit”. It’s a literal description. On the folkboat I had during high school, I ditched the head in favor of a black rubber cow-feed bucket. So much simpler.

  4. Hi david you might like to check out my web site above, as you say getting winched up by someone else ‘can be pretty terrifying’ my system allows you to do it all for your self with the beauty over many other mast ascending kits or ideas of not having to descend on ascenders. It’s a simple and finessed solution to ascending your yachts mast. Cheers Andy

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