Tips For Going Aloft

Tips for Going Up the Mast

Over the years, I’ve watched a number of individuals and couples cope with going up the mast-or “going aloft” in sailing parlance. The reasons vary: Retrieve a lost halyard, fix a wind vane or spreader light, install a radar reflector, or any one of a number of jobs that require working essentially in midair. While most did it safely, it was surprising how many didn’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation-literally.

The climber has to depend on the ability and alertness of the belayer, so the belayer must know what he or she is doing. Both parties must also understand that the climber may be in place for some time and will need to have the right tools to do whatever job needs doing up. And both the climber and the belayer need to understand the physics of pendulums: any movement on deck, whether from the wake of a passing boat or from someone walking around, can turn the mast into a jumbo metronome, which presents serious difficulties to the climber as he or she tries to get the job done.

Here are some tips about going up. My “gender labels” in this list assume a male/female team of two going through the exercise, with the male climbing and the female belaying. However, the items I discuss apply regardless of the gender of the participants.

  • Plan out the work before any feet leave the ground. Talk through what will be done aloft so that both parties know what’s planned.
  • If possible, pick a time when all is quiet. Go aloft in calm waters with little or no boat traffic in order to minimize boat movement. Unless there is an emergency, avoid climbing the mast in rough waters or windy conditions.
  • Assemble all tools needed for the job and attach them to something. Put lanyards on the tools that are going to be taken up and secure them to something else that’s going up-the bosun’s chair, a bucket, the climber’s belt loops. This will avoid 1) losing a tool to gravity and 2) losing the belayer to unconsciousness after being bonked on the head from a falling hunk of metal.
  • Prepare two halyards to be attached to the climber. Do not use halyard shackles-tie the halyards directly to the bosun’s chair and/or climbing harness. The belayer will need to attend to both of these halyards at all times during the exercise. Check both halyards to make sure there’s no wear and tear that could give way; if polyester line looks OK on the outside, it is OK on the inside. The two key spots to check are the length within a few feet of the shackle and the wire-to-rope splice.
  • Use a full climber’s harness in addition to a bosun’s chair. By “full,” I mean a harness system that covers both chest and seat areas. If the system is comfortable to “sit” in while aloft, you could forgo the bosun’s chair-but you would still need to use two halyards (for safety back up) and you would need to come up with an alternative to the chair’s tool pockets.
  • Agree on a communication system to use while the climber is aloft, and then use it. The ability to speak in full sentences may be diminished because of wind or other factors, so one-word communications should be used for different actions. Make sure both of you know what the system is going to be and what the various words mean-this is not a situation that has a lot of leeway for miscommunication and misunderstanding. Further, because it is important for the person communicating (whether the climber or the belayer) to know that the other person has heard and understood, it is an excellent idea to discipline yourselves to repeat any command you hear to indicate that you have heard, understood, and are taking the requested action.
  • Rig a canvas bucket on another halyard or messenger line that can be pulleyed up and down. This can be used to send up any tools or materials that the climber finds he needs once aloft, or to send down items if needed. Also, the bucket can be used to hold heavy tools so the climber doesn’t get encumbered by them.
  • Go slow. Whether using mast steps (I’m a big fan of these) or being hauled up by winch, be patient. The belayer needs to keep the slack out of both halyards, and the climber needs to make sure he doesn’t get ahead of her. Take your time and make sure that the climber is safe all the way up.
  • Once the climber is in position, tie off both halyards securely. The belayer should not depend on self-tailing winches to tie him off. Use cleats for both lines.
  • The belayer should minimize movement on deck as much as possible to avoid pendulum action up top. Also, she should move away from the mast once the climber is cleated off, just in case something that isn’t tied to him happens to fall. However, she should remain close by and “on watch” for the whole time he is aloft.
  • When it’s time for the climber to come down, belay him down slowly and in control. Avoid allowing the lines to be pulled down just by his weight. If he is climbing down on his own (as is the case if there are mast steps), the belayer must pay attention and match the speed of line release with his descent. Do not take the lines off the winches until he is on or within easy jumping distance of the deck.

Dealing with gravity on a boat when someone has to leave the deck and go vertical is really an exercise in common sense. After all, gravity isn’t just a good idea-it’s a law!