Climbing the mast

The only sure things in life are death, taxes, and thatsooner or lateryou will have to go up your mast. Many people dread going aloft and will do just about anything to avoid it, even putting off needed repairs or rig inspections. But the trip needn’t be a white-knuckle affair. With the proper equipment and technique you can actually come to enjoy going aloft. I’ve gone from being afraid of heights to actually looking for opportunities to climb the mast (anyone’s mast) just for the view. Really.

Let’s break the problem down into two parts. The first of these is how to do the considerable work of actually getting up the mast. Unless you have a couple of strong deck apes handy to grind away on a halyard winch, this can be a real concern. But this isn’t your only consideration. Just as important is the question of what to use for support once you’re up there.

For most sailors the answer to this second part is the trusty bosun’s chair. And for comfort aloft it’s hard to beat a well-padded board. But bosun’s chairs are also part of the reason most people hate going aloft. They just don’t feel secure sitting in one of those things. Most people are tense and apprehensive the whole time, worried that they might fall right out of it. And, in fact, if you lean over too far in many of them (like when stretching to reach a spreader tip) you can fall out. Fabric chairs with back supports, waist belts, and crotch straps give more of a feeling of security, but you still aren’t secure.

Climber’s harness

The solution to this feeling of insecurity is not therapy, but rather a mountaineering-style climber’s harness. It looks and feels a bit strange at first to be tightly strapped into this contraption, but you quickly get used to it. And the sense of security that comes with knowing you can even hang upside down is fantastic. It was a revelation to find just how relaxed I could feel aloft while using one of these. An additional benefit to using a harness is that the point of attachment is lower than with a chair, and that makes it a little easier to reach the top of the mast when working at the masthead.

The main drawback to many harnesses is that they can be uncomfortable for long “hang times,” since your weight is often being supported by just two-inch webbing. The answer to this is to choose a harness with thick padding on the waist belt and leg loops. The best I have seen uses a modified rescue harness (Brion Toss Rigging).

Just remember that a harness is only secure if fitted properly. For that the waist belt must be snug and above your hipbones, as it is only the greater width of your pelvis that keeps the harness from slipping off. If your pelvis is not wider than your waist you need to look for a special full-body harness.

Now, just what techniques are available to climb the mast, and which is right for you? Some of the things to keep in mind when evaluating these methods include whether you need crew on deck, how much equipment is involved, and whether the technique would work at sea in an emergency or only at the dock.

Mast steps

The most obvious approach to getting up your mast would be to turn your mast into a giant ladder using mast steps. These fixed or folding metal steps are most often seen aboard shorthanded cruising boats, and they can make getting up the mast as simple as climbing a paint ladder. The benefits are that they are always ready, give easy access to the very top of the mast, and allow you to climb aloft without the aid of crew. The drawbacks include windage, weight aloft, aesthetics (many sailors consider them ugly), potential halyard fouling, and the difficulty of hanging onto the steps in anything more rough than a dead calm.

If help is available, you should always climb mast steps with a second halyard attached to either a safety harness or a climber’s harness, with crew taking up the slack in the halyard to support you in case you fall. Once up the mast, you may still want either a bosun’s chair or a climber’s harness for support while working, as you can’t easily reach the spreader tips from the mast steps. Overall, if you were willing to put up with having steps on your mast, it would be hard to beat the convenience of this method.

If you plan on using mast steps to go aloft alone, you should rig an ascender on a fixed line as a back-up. An ascender is a piece of mountaineering or caving gear ($50) with well-known examples being the Petzl, CMI, or Gibbs. It fits around a line (of about 1/2-inch diameter) and has an internal cam that allows it to slide easily up a line but locks in place if you pull downward. The cams of some ascenders are toothed with spike-like teeth that point down (Petzl) or straight in (CMI). These provide a very firm and reassuring grip on the line, but can be hard to disengage for descents. Others (Gibbs) have ridged cams that are easier on the line and much easier to use while descending, but do not grip the line until heavily loaded. Which type you choose will depend on the application.

How to rig a solo back-up? If you have an available halyard of the proper diameter, you secure it near the deck, fasten a tether from the ascender to your harness, and slide the ascender up the fixed line as you go. If your halyard is not the proper diameter you will need to hoist a 1/2-inch line aloft. Once you get where you’re going you can allow the ascender to take the load. To descend, you disengage the cam and slide the ascender down a few feet at a time as you climb down the steps.

An alternative solo back-up method is to clip a safety line from your chest (or climber’s) harness around the mast as you work your way up. It is convenient to use a carabiner on the line so you can unclip as you pass the shrouds and spreaders. (An alternative to this would be a lineman’s belt or Workbelt, as mentioned below.) If you slip, this line will jam up against the next obstruction on the mast and break your fall. If the mast steps can catch the safety line, then this fall might be just a few inches. But most mast steps are closed (triangular) and will not catch the line, allowing you to fall much too far. So I don’t recommend this practice as your only back-up.

Mast ladders

What if you don’t want to mount those metal triangles on your mast, but still want the simplicity of climbing steps? Then your best bet would be a removable mast ladder. There are currently three mast ladder products on the market. The Mast Mate and Capt. Al’s are flexible web ladders that are hauled up the mast with a halyard, then made fast at the boom. To minimize the side-to-side motion while climbing, each has provisions for mounting sail slides (which you provide) to the vertical webbing. In practice you first remove the main from the mast, then run the slides up the mainsail sail track as you hoist the ladder aloft. The Mast Mate uses two-inch webbing for its single vertical support strap and its alternating steps every 17 inches. The Capt. Al’s uses three one-inch vertical web straps, with PVC tubing placed over webbing between the straps to form the steps every 12 inches. The Mast Mate is about $265 (35-foot length) to $365 (50-foot length) while Capt. Al’s is about $150 (36-foot length) to $250 (50-foot length).

In contrast, the Prime Climb Mast Ladder is a rigid system. This ingenious design uses aluminum steps that have sail slides milled into the end of each step on the leading edge, with the steps held apart by lengths of removable connecting rod. After removing the mainsail from the sail track, you begin by fitting rods to the bottom of each step. These steps are then inserted into the sail track one by one, alternating left and right, connecting the rods between the steps as you go, with the final rod supported on the boom. You can also rig a halyard slide to the top of the first step, allowing you to haul the system aloft rather than push it up from below. But the beauty of the design is that you don’t need a halyard, as the system is freestanding. And that means you can use this system to go aloft to retrieve lost halyards without needing a halyard to do it. The system weighs between 12 and 16 pounds and costs between $325 (35-foot length) and $470 (50-foot length)so it isn’t cheap. But if the feel of a flexible web ladder puts you off, the Prime Climb Mast Ladder has a lot to recommend it.

These mast ladders have most of the advantages of fixed mast steps, without the drawbacks of windage, aesthetics, and potential halyard fouling. Their major downside is that you must have the sail tack available, which means they can’t be used underway unless you drop and remove the mainsail. And that means they wouldn’t be of much use if you needed to go aloft to help bring down a stuck main. These ladders also can’t be used with some batten car systems that block off the track. The safety procedures for regular mast steps (harness attached to either a second halyard or a fixed line with ascender) should be followed here as well. In this case the Prime Climb system has an advantage, because its design allows just safety line looped around the mast from a chest harness to provide reasonable back-up, since the line would fetch up on the next step if you lose your footing.

Winch approach

After using steps to get aloft, the next method most people think of would be using the boat’s halyard winch to hoist someone up in a chair attached to a halyard. Since the hoisting gear is already there, this is an attractive approach, and probably the one most people use. But there are a few problems. For one, with most sailing couples, it’s the man who goes aloft while the woman stays on deck. And, given the small size of most halyard winches, there usually isn’t enough mechanical advantage for the woman (or many men, for that matter) to be able to handle the load. And if the winch isn’t self-tailing, you need yet a third person to tail.

One way to make things slightly easier is to use a snatch block to lead the halyard to one of the primary winches aboard. But even with a larger winch, this approach can still be too much work. Of course, this method doesn’t allow you to get aloft by yourself. And that’s one of the drawbacksyou have to really trust the person at the winch, as they do have your life in their hands.

Powered winches

Depending on the equipment aboard your boat, there are a couple of ways to lessen the effort of this grinding. First, if you have electric primaries, then getting someone aloft is as easy as pressing a button. Lacking these, the next best bet would be to run the tail of the halyard forward to a powered anchor windlass. If you do decide to try either of these options, be especially careful with the last few feet of hoist near the masthead. Without the feedback of a manual winch it may not be obvious when you have “two-blocked” the rig, and you can jam the shackles in the masthead halyard sheave or even rip out the attachment rings in the chair if you aren’t careful. This is why some people do not recommend the practice of using electric winches or powered windlasses in this application.

Halyard stepping

Here’s a clever way to go aloft using just halyards that I learned about from a friend (thanks Timothy). You begin by attaching the jib halyard to a bosun’s chair, and the spinnaker halyard to a chest harness as a back-up, with both halyards led through sheet stoppers. Now tie a loop in the spinnaker halyard that reaches just a few inches above the deck while still standing. Have your crew, stationed at the sheet stoppers, raise the spinnaker halyard loop 18 inches, after which you step up into the loop. Then have your crew take up the slack on the jib halyard attached to your chair. After sitting down in the chair, the spinnaker loop is then free to be raised another 18 inches, and the process can be repeated. Once you get the hang of it, the process goes quite quickly.

This approach has the benefit of using leg power to do the actual climbing, without the need for the mountaineering gear shown later in the article. And you automatically have a second halyard rigged as back up. The downside is that this approach can not be done solo, and it requires an experienced crew to work efficiently. But if I had learned of this approach after we failed using our halyard winch, I probably would have been satisfied with the method and stopped right there in my quest for the perfect “up the mast” technique.

Counterweights aloft

An alternative to having crew winch you aloft directly is to attach a heavy counterweight to one end of an external halyard (internals won’t work here) and hoist the weight to the masthead instead. You then attach yourself to the other end of the halyard, and let gravity do the work as the counterweight drops. This is supposed to be a old trick of singlehanders, who had no one around to help with the grinding. And someone could use this technique to get aloft if the crew wasn’t strong enough to handle the winch. Of course you should at least take care that you weigh more than the counterweight, or you could easily get stuck up there!

This technique is offered more as an example of just how ingenious sailors can be when there is a problem to be solved, not as a recommended technique for getting aloft. My favorite version of this involved someone hoisting aloft a large, empty, plastic container with one end of a garden hose tied to the inside rim. Once it was in place, the skipper turned on the water to fill the container, and rode up the mast on the other end of the halyard as the container filled. If you do decide to try something like this, please alert your dockmates so they can have their video cameras ready.


What if your partner just can’t grind you aloft, and there’s never a deck ape around to help when you need one? In this case you might consider the Swisstech Mastlift. This is basically a chain hoist with a 10:1 gear ratio, except that the load-bearing line is made of Spectra, not chain. In practice you shackle the Mastlift to a halyard, attach the load-bearing line to a bosun’s chair or climbing harness, unroll the load-bearing line as you hoist the 15-pound cylinder to the masthead, and then cleat the halyard. Using the endless control line (with double internal safety brakes) you then hoist yourself aloft. Easily a one-person job, with very little effort. It would be a good idea to lightly fasten a line around the control line at deck level to prevent it from blowing away and fouling, especially if you go up alone.

Downsides to the Mastlift? The first is that the size of the drum makes it a little more difficult to get close to the masthead, as you are probably a foot lower than when using a halyard alone. Another drawback of the Mastlift is cost. The 13-meter (43-foot) model is listed at about $900, while the 25-meter (82-foot) model is $1,040. The biggest drawback is availability, as there is currently no North American distributormeaning you will have to order it directly from Europe.

By the way, a solution to the problem of not quite being able to reach the masthead from a chair or harness is to fashion a pair of stirrups, each at the end of a four-foot tether. Once you get as close to the masthead as possible, attach the tethers to the crane with a carabiner. Then place your feet in the stirrups, and stand up at the masthead. Hold yourself upright with a piece of line tied around your waist and the mast. Mast Mate sells a Workbelt patterned after a lineman’s belt that is designed for just this application. An alternative to the tethers is to mount a pair of mast steps on either side of the mast about four feet down.

Block and tackle

What if your crew just can’t hoist you aloft, but you can’t afford a Mastlift? This is where you might consider putting together a block-and-tackle arrangement to help do the work. The simplest version of this is to get a length of 1/2-inch line twice the length of your mast, position a single block at the mid-point, and haul the block aloft on a halyard. Attach one end of the line to your bosun’s chair or climber’s harness with a good knot, grab the other end, and just haul yourself aloft.

Just how much work is this? Well, normally you find the mechanical advantage of any block and tackle by counting the number of parts coming out of the moving block. With no moving block, it seems as if there should be no mechanical advantage to this simple rig. But if you were to measure the loads while hanging there, you would find that your weight is equally distributed between the two lines. So when you pull on the hauling part (or “fall”) you only have to haul half your weight (plus a little more to overcome friction). So this is actually a lot easier than it looks. To reduce the effort further you just add extra parts to the tackle, but that can quickly add up to a lot of line.

I learned about this approach from rigger Brion Toss at one of his seminars, and thought I would give it a try. To reduce the effort a bit I opted for a 3:1 mechanical advantage. This meant I put together an upper single block with becket, a lower single block, and a 1/2-inch line three times my mast’s length, or 150 feet. Brion also suggests using a Harken “Hexaratchet” ratcheting block in the upper position, as it greatly reduces the effort required gripping the line.

This tackle approach will work with either a bosun’s chair or a climber’s harness, but I chose a climber’s harness knowing I would need the feeling of security it provides. After getting the line reeved through the blocks I haul the upper block aloft with a halyard, and shackle the lower block to my harness. For safety I use a second halyard attached to the harness, but a fixed line with ascender would work as well.

Before hauling away there are two more points to mention. The first is how to belay the line once you’re up there. You can make do with passing a bight of the line through the ring in your harness and making several half hitches with the loop. But I like the technique that Brion Toss uses, in which the standing part of the line is led through a carabiner at the harness, and then tied off using a carabiner hitch (also known as a Munter hitch, see Chapman’s Guide to Knots). This carabiner hitch is easy to tie and untie under loada real advantage.

I added a second technique as a way to feel even more secure. It involves mounting an ascender on the hauling part or fall of the tackle, and then rigging a three-foot tether between the harness and the ascender. Each pull aloft is now made easier by having the comfortable handle of the ascender to grip rather than just the line. At the bottom of each pull I hold the line fast at the carabiner with one hand, and slide the ascender back up the hauling part with the other. The added security comes from the short tether, as I could let go with both hands, and only fall a foot at most before the ascender grips the line. This addition also makes it very easy to stop and rest along the way. To get as close to the masthead as possible I remove the ascender from the line, two-block the tackle, and rig a carabiner hitch on the fall. In this application I chose a Petzl Ascension ascender due to its comfortable grip for hauling. The aggressive toothed cam is not a concern here as I don’t use the ascender to descend. For that I just keep a wrap or two around the carabiner for friction and slowly lower myself to the deck.

This combination of tackle, climbing harness, and ascender is a real joy to use. With it I feel secure enough that I’ve been known to go up the mast while underway just to take pictures from the masthead. (It’s amazing how small a 38-foot sailboat looks from 50 feet up!)

This approach is also good for singlehanders, as you don’t need help from anyone on deck. And that means that you don’t have to depend on anyone else for your safety. But if you do try this approach alone, give some thought to keeping the tail of the line from getting tangled in the rigging on deck, because if the line does get caught, you won’t be able to lower yourself back down.

Line climbing

Two final methods for getting up your mast are based directly on mountaineering and caving techniques and are probably the least familiar to sailors. These are potentially the most dangerous as well, so please don’t try this until you know what you are doing or can find someone with experience to show you how.

Line climbing is going up a fixed line, with your body supported by a harness, your feet supported in stirrups, and both the harness and the stirrups fastened to the line by friction knots or mechanical devices. The process used to be known as “Prusiking” after the “Prusik” knot used on the fixed line. These Prusik knots are effective, but they can be slow and awkward, so the mechanical ascenders mentioned earlier usually replace them. As for the fixed line, in this technique there is enough chafe that you should definitely employ a dedicated line and not use one of your halyards. A good choice would be 1/2-inch New England Ropes’ Regatta Braid. If you decide instead to buy an actual “climbing” line, be aware that climbing rope comes in two types. Climbers who need a rope for fall protection use what is known as dynamic rope, which is designed to absorb shock. For line climbing, mountaineers and cavers use static rope, which is designed for low stretch and chafe resistance. In any case it is important to have the line fastened quite taut at the deck, as any slack increases the effort required to climb.

I think of these two climbing methods as the “stair step” (also known as “rope walking”) and the “inchworm” (also called the “frog climbing system”) based on the action used to climb the rope. The “stair step” method is perhaps a little easier to understand. In this approach two ascenders are mounted on the fixed line, each attached to a stirrup on the end of a three-foot to four-foot tether. At least one of the ascenders is also attached with a tether to your climber’s harness (or to a safety harness if a bosun’s chair is used, which I don’t recommend).

To begin with, position the steps above the deck, place your feet in the steps and grab the ascenders for support. Then raise one leg and its corresponding ascender at the same time. After that, step up onto that upper step, and finish by raising up the other leg and its corresponding ascender to just under the first ascender. By alternating one side after the other you can “stair step” your way up the line. You will need to adjust the length of the tethers between the ascenders and the steps to suit your reach and height, or you can purchase two “etriers” ($25 each) from a mountaineering store. These are short web ladders with four to six steps in a line, about 15 inches apart. One of the steps should be at just about the height you need.

By comparison the “inchworm” method looks a little strange. This method works best with a climber’s harness, but in a pinch a bosun’s chair will work. After rigging your fixed line, you attach a short tether of about three feet between your harness and the first ascender. The second ascender is then added to the line underneath the first, and attached to a pair of stirrups, each on a three-foot to four-foot tether (or a pair of etriers).

To begin climbing, again position the stirrups above the deck, place your feet in the stirrups, and grab the fixed line for support. Now 1) slide the upper ascender up the fixed line as far as you can reach, then 2) sit back to put your weight on the harness. You then 3) slide the lower ascender up the line as far as possible while bringing your knees up. Finally you 4) extend your body and step up onto the steps, holding onto the fixed line for balance. After that you again extend the upper ascender up the line, then sit back into the harness. Repeating steps 1-4 allows you to “inchworm” your way up the line. You will need to experiment a bit to find out just how long the upper and lower tethers need to be for the most efficient progress.

The “inchworm” method is probably slower, but the motion is a little easier to learn, and uses the strength of both legs at once to do the climbing. And while the “stair step” method can be faster, it can take some time to get the hang of the technique.

A drawback to both line-climbing methods is that getting down (“down climbing”) can be slow and awkward. Using either the Gibbs (ridged cam) or the CMI (straight-toothed cam) ascender will make the down climbing a bit easier.

With either method be sure to practice a bit before tackling a big job. Both are obviously well suited for use by singlehanders. For these methods an additional safety back-up option would be to use two fixed lines, side by side, held aloft by two different halyards. If you attach one ascender to each, and attach both ascenders to your harness, you will have a complete back-up in place, with no need for crew.

If you are enough of a “gear head” not to be put off by the special mountaineering equipment involved in line climbing, but want help in assembling the gear, there are suppliers that sell complete systems. For example On Rope 1, Inc., sells a Mitchell Climbing System (stair step, $305) and a Frog Climbing System (inchworm, $170) that contain all the gear you need except the line and your harness.

ATN Topclimber

If you like the idea of using your legs to do the work of going aloft but are intimidated by all the complex mountaineering harnesses and gear required for line climbing, then you might want to look into the ATN Topclimber. This is essentially a bosun’s chair that comes with a pair of foot stirrups, a tether, and two ascenders. The system is designed specifically for mast ascension, not mountaineering, and everything you need (except the fixed line) to climb your mast using the “inchworm” approach is supplied.

In practice the Topclimber is quite easy to use and makes the “inchworm” method of going aloft about as simple as you could want. I found the bosun’s chair provided to be a bit cramped (just 14 1/2 inches wide), but my main concern is with the ascenders provided, which are generic off-brand units. Their design is fine, with closed bodies for simplicity and ridged cams for ease of down climbing. But I would feel a lot better if the system came with well-known ascenders such as Gibbs or Petzl, with established track records for dependability. For a safety back-up I would recommend a chest harness rigged to either a second halyard or a fixed line with Gibbs ascender.

The whole package, including 50 feet of 1/2-inch line, fits into a snug, 18-inch-by-71/2-inch-by-31/2-inch storage bag that weighs less than 10 pounds. (I hate to think about the size and weight of my block-and-tackle mast climbing bag.) If you don’t already own a bosun’s chair the price of the Topclimber system, at $285, is quite reasonable compared with the cost of assembling all the gear yourselfand a lot easier.

The best method will depend on your boat, your age, and your bank account. These approaches are compromises and no one method is right for everyone or every situation. Whatever method you choose, I strongly suggest you consider trying a climber’s harness for support aloft.

Freelance writer Steve Christensen and his wife Beth sail their Ericson 38 Rag Doll out of Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron.

By Ocean Navigator