A racer's perspective on climbing the mast

As a racing sailor, the recent article on how voyaging sailors should climb a mast (“Climbing the mast,” July/August 2000, Issue No. 107) grabbed my attention, and I thought readers might like to hear how racers handled this task. Racers discarded bosun’s chairs long ago. I have been using a mountain-climbing harness for 30 years. The recent article does not mention the most important features of a climbing harness as contrasted with a bosun’s chair. First, with a climbing harness, you can actually climb the mast, with the halyard(s) being merely an assist.

The point is that, with a climbing harness, everyone can climb to some degree and thus lessen the burden on the winch grinder. With a typical bosun’s chair, even the canvas sling type, your legs are generally useless for climbing.

Also, at sea a bosun’s chair is not only totally unsafe, but it denies the use of your legs to protect yourself from injury if the boat rolls, as can happen even in port.

Incidentally, the articles for the voyaging sailors have not mentioned how to be comfortable in a climbing harness, especially for long periods. Rather than sitting erect as if your were in a chair, you must lean backward. This transfers the pressure from the narrow straps under your legs to the wide strap at your back.

What is the right way to go aloft? I am going to assume that you have one other person. Even if I were voyaging alone, I believe that I could find another voyaging sailor to help me up the mast or just wait until one shows up. Therefore, I feel all of the focus on getting up singlehanded is somewhat academic and fails to teach the safest and best way to go aloft.

Let me explain what I feel is the right way to go aloft. I evolved this with the help of a famous mountain climber, Keith Brueckner, who watched me go aloft on two halyards with two helpers. It concerned him that my safety was in their hands. I had no role in my own safety.

The method that I now use in port, or underway when it is calm, involves one other person, a climbing harness, a dynamic climber’s rope (a stretchy nylon) such as a Gecko 10.5-mm diameter, two halyards, and a rappelling device such as Black Diamond ATC. With the rappelling device, the climber’s rope is led into the hole in the device, around the carabiner (large climber’s shackle), and back out through the same hole. With this simple arrangement, a slight downward tension on the tail of the line jams the line so descent can be slowed or stopped.

First, attach the climber’s rope to one halyard. If possible, tie the line through either the eye in the halyard or the eye of the shackle. If you must use the shackle itself, tape it closed. Use a bowline and tape it also.

Hoist the halyard fully two-blocked, as we say. Do not put the halyard tail in a self-tailer and do not simply cleat it, for this is your safety. Find a very secure place and tie it. Feeding it through the eye of a cleat and securing it with a few half hitches might do. The objective is to ensure that no one can mistakenly free this halyard (your safety!) without giving it some real thought.

Now snap in the second halyard in your harness and begin climbing as best you can, with your helper taking up slack or grinding as best he or she can. As you go up, keep pulling the slack out of your safety line. Remember: the rappelling device will run free unless you have some downward tension on the tail. Therefore, keep the tail under a leg and back up through the carabiner, and periodically remove the slack as you ascend. In the unlikely event that your helper makes an error and lets his halyard run, your fall will be snubbed very softly by the dynamic climbing line.

The part I like best about this rappelling arrangement, aside from having my safety in my hands and needing only one helper, is the descent. In our previous practice with two halyards and two helpers, it was always difficult to get the helpers to lower me without the halyards grabbing first on one winch, then on the other, giving an uncomfortable stick-slip bounce, bounce. And it was slower than I wanted.

With the rappelling device, to descend I have my helper use only one turn on the winch and ask him to ease the halyard swiftly. Also, I wear a glove on the hand that controls the halyard tail because, at speed, the friction is significant and control is difficult without a glove. Then I can control my own speed and can come down smoothly and very fast.

A few months ago, during the 2000 race from Chicago to Mackinac Island on my boat Moonraker, we were changing jibs to follow the vagaries of the wind speed. Just as the luff of the newly hoisted jib was being tensioned, the Sparcraft halyard shackle opened. This design of shackle is used almost universally by racers for halyards and spinnaker sheets. One of its features is the absence of a pin that can be pulled open by inertial load or by catching on something. To open a Sparcraft, you must insert your finger (or, if under heavy load, a fid) into a hole on the shackle and pull. I assumed that the bowman simply had not snapped the Sparcraft shut, although that has not happened in many years.

The crew immediately pulled the sail down, snapped in another halyard and hoisted. This all occurred in less than 30 seconds, so not much speed was lost, except we now had a dead halyard up the mast that must be retrieved. As the sea was calm and the watch was busy with the old sail and trimming the new sail, I donned my harness and then interrupted the watch briefly to grind me up the mast. When I reached the dead halyard, I snapped it into the head of the sail and shouted, “Tension green halyard!”

As the green halyard was tensioned, with a bang the Sparcraft shackle opened. I have seen only one Sparcraft open in the past 25 years, and that was when we put the masthead underwater in a squall and the spinnaker head and shackle likely were snagged on some protrusion of the masthead, thus triggering the Sparcraft. Understandable. But now I had seen one open twice in 10 minutes!

Back on deck, an examination disclosed that the shackle was dirty and in need of lubrication – a very unusual condition on my boat, but there it was. The shackle had simply become extremely hard to close properly. Taping would have been unlikely to hold the shackle secure. All of this was pretty scary, and in light of this Sparcraft experience, I urge everyone, racer or voyager, to use two halyards to go aloft.

By Ocean Navigator