Climbing The Mast Quickly and Safely

How to climb a boat or sail mast

When it comes to climbing the mast of your vessel there is a lot to be considered. It's not an easy task to undertake and can be one of the most dangerous jobs to do on any ship. It's difficult while in the slip, but if you determine that you need to ascend while on the open water? Well, you'd better hope that you've got a pair of big brass ones. More importantly, you'll need an eye for safety so you can climb the mast without risk of injury.

When Do I Need To Climb The Mast?

This is a very good question to ask yourself, particularly if you are at sea. Climbing the mast outside the safety of the harbor can go bad very quickly. I've had to climb most often to fix electronic equipment, but any variety of things might lead to ascension. Sails rip, rigging becomes tangled, you might need to replace a snapped line. Obviously you will need to climb eventually, but if you can wait until you're back in the slip to do so, I'd highly suggest that.

Climbing The Mast Quickly and Safely harbor view

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Famous last words. Even if you've climbed the mast safely a million times before, that's no reason to get complacent! There are a wide variety of risks that you'll need to be aware of while climbing the boat's mast. The more you are conscious of them, the less chance that you'll end up injuring yourself, a crewmate, or any equipment.

  • You may fall
  • You may swing
  • You may get stranded at the top
  • You may be injured from sharp edges
  • You may suffer crush-type injuries if in harness for long periods
  • You might lose command of the vessel whilst aloft!
  • You might be incapacitated whilst aloft
  • You might injure crew or damage the vessel by dropping tools etc
  • You might damage equipment on the mast during the climb

Safety First. All The Time, Always.

You'll need to choose a harness or bosun's chair and some quality boating line to make the ascent, but there are many other safety considerations that need to be observed.

Climbing The Mast Quickly and Safely man climbs

  • Wear a helmet

Wearing a safety helmet is your last line of defense. If something goes catastrophically awry this simple piece of equipment can be the difference between temporary and permanent damage. You certainly won't walk away from most falls, but a helmet can protect your most valuable asset. You won't win any awards for fashion, but doing a job takes priority over looking cool.

  • Use two halyards

Twice as nice! It's always a smart idea to have a second line available to you in case of emergencies. If the first line does happen to snap you'll thank your lucky stars that you made the wise decision to double up.

  • Stand clear!

Having an extra pair of eyes is never a bad idea when you're ascending the mast, but make sure that they're giving you a good amount of clearance. Dropped tools can easily become a lethal bombardment if you aren't careful!

  • Communicate clearly

While on the mast you very likely won't be able to clearly shout clear requests or instructions. Before going up it's wise to work out some hand signals, or simply bring a walkie-talkie up with you.

  • Downlines and Lifelines

Downlines can be used by crew or shipmates on the ground to prevent excess swaying. What is essentially a few ripples at sea level is massively increased the higher you climb. Lifelines are attached to a free halyard and your lifejacket to circumvent falling or even just damaging equipment during a slip.

  • Climb windward in clement weather

If you're attempting to fix anything in the middle of the storm you must been in dire straights. Unless it is life-threatening there is no reason to risk going up the mast while it's raining or even just in cold-weather. On top of that, you'll always want to position yourself windward so you're being blown into the mast instead of being pried off of it.

  • Bring a sharp knife

This is a good rule to live by no matter where you are, but particularly when you are doing anything rope related. Getting tangled in a line can cause a life-threatening scenario to unfold, so the faster you're able to cut that line and get yourself free the better.

Climbing The Mast Quickly and Safely tall view

Methods of Ascending the Mast

Now that you've had a bare-bones safety brief, it's time to consider your preferred method of getting up the mast.

  • Bosun's chair is a minimalist seat that is raised with a system of winches and pulleys. This is my preferred method since it requires the least physical exertion. Investing in a bosun's chair will have you rising in style!
  • An ascender is similar to what you might use when rock-climbing. You essentially climb the boat ropes with a set of grips for your hands and feet. Open the grips and slide them up the rope, close them to dig the teeth into the rope and hold yourself in place.
  • Mast steps are a permanent installation on your mast and they can be easily unfolded in order to climb upward. While it doesn't suit my particular style it's definitely an option for anyone who likes the idea of being able to climb in seconds.
  • Mast ladders are the final option I've seen most commonly. This solution straps to the last and are use similar to mast steps. The upside is that you can climb and store the ladder fairly easily, the downside is the bit of preparation it takes to ascend the mast. The choice is yours!

Final Thoughts

Your climbing rope needs to be carefully considered but we'll go over all that in our next article. For now, you've got all the tools in hand to make a swift and careful climb when it is truly essential. We wish you the best of luck! Stay safe out there.