How to Step a Mast

Sean Simmons Working Hard to Get the Mast Ready to Step

Before stepping the mast there needs to be several preparations in order for everything to go smoothly once the crane arrives. So take your time and double, triple check everything in order to keep from having to go aloft, or worse, having to re-step the mast once the mast has been stepped. Below you’ll see a few tips and guidelines on how we step a mast…

First, we fill out our pre-step checklist. So before we are even ready for the crane we must:

  • Build the mast either track up or track down depending on whether the crane will be set up forward of where the mast sits or aft of where the mast sits (bow-in or stern-to)
  • Hang all standing rigging
  • Ensure all turnbuckles and stays are new or have been inspected and serviced
  • Install spreaders and make/ seize spreader ends onto the wire
  • Install spreader boots
  • Test all light fixtures through the mast
  • Ensure mast butt/step has proper drain
  • Ensure mast butt/step has proper electrical access or wiring hole
  • Rig mast boot if keel stepped
  • Ensure all halyards are run correctly and on the correct side of the spreaders and root bars (if present)
  • Run-in halyards or tie all messengers to be used to deck level, leave all unused messengers tied off tight aloft
  • Ensure all clevis pins are inserted properly and cotter pins are bent correctly
  • Silicone any remaining wiring holes or spreader cotter pin legs
  • The Windex has been installed and aligned
  • All remaining masthead gear and electrical items have been installed
  • The chain plates are in place and clevis pins and NEW cotter pins have been laid out next to chain plates
  • The mast step is in place, clean and secure
  • The deck ring (if keel stepped) is in place and secure
  • The foresail furler(s) has/have been pinned and secured
  • The rigging and the furler(s) has/have been lashed to the mast, ready to be lifted

Stepping a sailboat mast

Now we are ready for the crane. When rigging the crane’s hook to the mast, we use a 4′ endless lifting loop (this is generally long enough for most mast diameters, for larger masts a 6′ loop may be a good idea) which is rated adequately.

~Ultimately we suggest seeking the counsel of the crane operator.  

First we tape open the mousing latch. Then we rig the loop in a ‘single basket hitch‘, making sure not to trap any halyards (except for maybe one or two that can be used to help retrieve the loop later). It is also important to be mindful of which side of the loop the forestay(s) (or backstay, depending on the mast being track up or down) is placed relative to the crane. The correct side (port or starboard) can be determined by where the crane is set up relative to the boat’s fore and aft center-line (the stay needs to be opposite the crane).

Before attaching the lifting loop to the crane hook we have a heavy duty tag line with a large bowline tied in one end. The bowline is then slipped over the two ears of the lifting loop’s basket hitch and attached to the crane’s hook (see picture above).

~The loop NEEDS to be placed somewhere above the masts balancing point, this is VERY, VERY important and can cause the rig to upend if not picked from above the balancing point.

In doing this, be mindful of any gear on the front of the mast that might snag on the crane once vertical. Finally, the lifting loop is slightly tensioned by the crane, and the tag line is tied off tight using three half hitches around the mast. These three hitches should be placed at a strong point near the deck (underneath halyard winches, the goose neck or any available horn cleats).

Mast Being unstepped!

Once the mast is sitting securely on the mast step, pin and lightly tension all of the stays. If for some reason you still find either the backstay or the headstay has been ‘locked out’ by the crane, make sure you have something, halyard or alternate stay, to take either forward or aft depending on your situation. If the mast is keel stepped there is  slightly less of a chance of anything detrimental happening. However, you should still take every precaution before releasing the crane.

TIP:  On a multiple spreader mast, the loop likely needs to be attached above the lower spreader. Therefore it might be difficult to retrieve the lifting gear without going aloft once stepped. In this situation we will tie a retrieval line (long enough to be reached from deck level) to the lifting loop. This helps to retrieve the loop once it is off the hook. Also before stepping take note if the crane’s hook can swivel freely. If so, attach another small control line to the crane’s hook itself (If the hook is fixed just make sure the open end is facing the masthead). This will help to manipulate the swiveling effect, and get the loop off of the hook. 

A properly installed mast boot, from SSI, by The Rigging Co.

Now that the crane is out of the way, the mast has been technically stepped! There is still lots to do before you can go sailing. Next, take all halyards and lines away from the mast so that you can see what you are doing. Then chock and boot the mast at the partners (if keel stepped). Next, tunepin and tape the standing rigging. Now, hang/rig the boom, connect all electrical items, and finish running the lines…………as I always like to say, ready for sails! ~exit the rigger

Have a question? Leave us a comment!

Related article: How to Un-step the Mast.

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Un-stepping the Mast

When un-stepping the mast there are several things that need to happen in preparation for the actual mast removal. The following tips and procedures are in line with the methods we use for boats up to 55′. Small boats or big boats alike, first things must come first. All of the sails and sail covers should be disconnected, flaked, folded, or rolled and stowed. When doing this, any battens should be labeled and removed. Also, sparing any sail pendants or strops, tack shackles, head shackles or clew shackles should stay with the boat’s rigging not the sails. Neatly coil and label any associated sheets.

Un-stepping the mast

Stow the lines: Next, uncoil all remaining halyards and un-cleat the associated cleat, jammer, or clutch. Now take the working end (shackle end) of the line to the mast to be stowed near or around the boom’s gooseneck area or anywhere clever (but on the mast, not the boat). Make sure to look up at the entirety of the line and make sure it is running cleanly to the top of the mast. Take forward any foresail furling lines, mark the drum with an arrow that indicates which way the furling line is to be spooled-on (i.e. clockwise or counter clockwise) and un-spool the drum completely. It is up to you whether or not you wish to remove the entire line, coil and label it, or leave it neatly coiled hanging from the head shackle on the swivel. Either way, un-spooling the furling line before you unstep is always recommended in case you need to work on the furler after it is down. It is much harder to do with the furler laying on the ground. Lastly, tidy up any remaining lines (i.e. runner block and tackles, cunningham, in mast furling lines, lazy jacks, etc…).

TIP: Leave one of the shorter tailed lines available (uncoiled) for tying up the furlers and rigging once the mast is being lifted off of the boat.

Remove the boom: Remove the main sheet and vang tackle. Tie a stopper knot or leave the shackle in the working end of the reef lines and outhaul and suck them tight into the end of the boom. If any of these lines are rigged and run externally, remove, coil and label them neatly. Temporarily tie off the boom to keep it from swinging side to side. Remove or stow the boom end of any lazy jacks (if present). With the boom resting in the boom’s topping lift only (or Boom Gallows if present) remove the cotter pin or locking nut of the boom toggle’s horizontal pin. With someone (or several someone’s) supporting the outboard end of the boom, loosen and remove the boom’s lift and take it to the mast to be stowed with the rest of the lines. Then maybe with the assistance of yet another person (bigger boats) remove the inboard end’s horizontal pin (or pins) and lift the boom off. Many times you can stow the boom forward on the side-deck on some fenders or cushions, or take the boom off of the boat entirely (if you plan on doing work to the boom). If leaving the boom aboard make sure that it is securely lashed to the boats toe-rail.

Prepare and mark the rigging: Now go around, remove any tape or turnbuckle coverings and straighten/remove all of the cotter pins. Leave the cotter pins in the clevis pins at the chain plates for safety, but make sure they are straight and ready to be pulled out. While doing this, before loosening the stays, make a mark where the turnbuckle body and the threads intersect. You can use tape or a Sharpie. This will be important if any of the stays need to be replaced, serviced, repaired. It can also be handy if you simply want to duplicate the rigging tension once re-stepped.

Disconnecting the electrical items: Next you will need to find the electrical junction. This can be tricky sometimes, just follow the wires out of the base of the mast to their junction. If no wires are visible, they can be hiding in various places. Some have electrical access panels in the mast near the butt (typically when deck stepped). Occasionally, the connections are inside of the mast and you will need to wait until the mast gets slightly lifted (this is again typical with deck stepped masts). Some deck stepped masts will utilize a ‘plug’ style connection (called a deck gland) which goes directly into the deck. The wires can also be located at head level just below decks for keel stepped masts, so keep an eye for that. Either way, make sure you do a thorough job looking for these mast junctions, it can take a little effort to find where they are hiding.

Note: It is almost never the case that there are no junctions at all.

Never have I seen it that all of the wires run through the boat and to the associated panels, displays or radios. However, it is possible that some of the wires run directly (without junction) to their instruments. Sometimes digital wind instruments, TV antennas, VHF antennas, and radar’s are known to do this. If this is the case find a good spot to cut the cable, one that leaves you some service length on either the boat or the mast end depending on which part of the cable you are likely to replace the soonest. If you are not planning on replacing either end anytime soon, take your time to ensure that you make a smart cut somewhere near the other cable junctions. Most manufacturers of these radars, digital wind instruments, and antennas, offer product specific junction boxes, couplers or splice links. Once you have located the junction, make sure all of the wires are either color coded, make labels, maps, and/or take pictures of the wires so that you know where everything goes.

Prepare the mast step and/or the deck ring: If the boat is deck or keel stepped make sure there is nothing at the step that might keep the mast from lifting up, i.e. cross bolt. If the boat is keel stepped, undo the mast boot at the deck ring and remove any mast chocks(wedges), cross bolts, pins or anything else that might be holding the mast down, i.e. deck tie downs or Spartite. If the wedges or chocks are so tight that they cannot be removed, either from below or above decks, then make sure to stand by with a drift and hammer for when the mast begins to lift.

TIP: make sure all the rigging is very loose and try to shake the rig around by using one of the shrouds, this can help loosen tight chocks.

If your mast uses a Spartite you should score it along its seams at the deck ring and along the mast. Then, as the tip states above, wiggle the mast around by the rigging and see if you can notice it moving ever-so-slightly. This portion of the preparation process can be a bit of a gamble and a lot of the times you just won’t know what it’s going to do until you start lifting. Be sure to think it through and take every precaution necessary to make the lifting go as smoothly as possible (this keeps the crane operator happy ;-0).

Once you have completed all of these steps; the sails are off, the boom is off, the rigging is marked and loosened, the electrical has been disconnected, the mast step and collar (if present) have been prepped and you have double/triple checked everything, you should be ready to connect the lifting gear or the Tabernacle rig.

tabernacle mast step

A Tabernacle Mast Step

For using the tabernacle feature of your boat’s mast (if equipped) please see your users manual or consult an expert for specific instructions on how to lower the mast.

Unstepping the mast Rigging Company Style

Unstepping the mast with a crane: When rigging up the lifting gear via a crane, gin pole, gantry, gaff, or fork lift, it is important to step away form the mast for a view of it in its entirety and guesstimate the balancing point of your specific mast. This is usually somewhere around the halfway point of the mast. Always err towards it being bottom heavy. This will depend on many factors like; are there winches on the mast, or how far below deck does (or doesn’t) the mast go. Ultimately, and especially if you are unsure, you should consult a professional. It is of utmost importance that you establish a lifting point that isunstepping the mast, the rigging company above the balancing point, so that  the mast will remain slightly bottom heavy and cannot upend. This is VERY IMPORTANT! Sometimes (on masts with multiple spreaders) this will require a trip aloft to reach a lifting point that is high enough. Therefore you may need to leave halyard and winch available to go aloft via Bosuns Chair, or have a professional ride the ‘sky-hook’ (pictured left and right), so that you can attach the lifting gear above the spreaders.

The lifting gear is typically comprised of an appropriately rated lifting loop. The Rigging Company uses a 4′ endless lifting loop  most of the time. This is generally long enough for most mast diameters, but for larger masts a 6′ loop may be a good idea. We rig the loop with a ‘single basket hitch‘, making sure not to trap any halyards. Then we have a heavy duty tag line into which we tie a large bowline. The bowline is then slipped over the basket hitch before it is attached to the crane’s hook. Once the lifting gear is in place, at the appropriate lifting point, we tie the tag line down tight and secure it underneath something strong (i.e. winches, strong horn cleats, the boom gooseneck) at/near the deck. We do this using two to three half hitches and a clove hitch back to itself to keep it from spilling.

Stepping a sailboat mast

I re-posted this picture to show the sling, hook and tag line configuration that we use.

Now,  tension the lifting device’s cable. Keep your hand on the tag line, once your feel it become tight (not before!), you can begin to go around the boat and un-pin the various stays. In regards to the order of what is unpinned first and last will be dictated by the wind or the list of the boat.

You should ALWAYS have someone at the deck to bear hug the mast for dear life as an extra precaution…

…This persons job, although boring, is crucial and it is very important that they standby and hang on to the mast, regardless of how helpless they feel. They will want to help otherwise, but don’t let them move, reassure them “you are helping by just holding the mast”.

keel stepped mast

Next, begin by lashing all of the rigging to the mast. Now, with everyone in position: One person down below (keel stepped masts) watching the butt of the mast and wires, one person on deck (keel and deck stepped masts) controlling the mast, along with one (maybe two) person(s) holding the furler(s) off of the side of the boat, direct the crane to begin lifting.If the mast has not been un-stepped in 15+ years it might not come out like a dream (see image below) and you may need to get creative. Take your time, go slowly and make sure everyone keeps checking around to ensure that you haven’t forgotten anything and nothing is keeping the mast from coming up.

un-stepping corroded mas

A corroded mast step that had to be lifted it with the mast (or the mast would not come out), and cut off using a cut off wheel and grinder. NOT IDEAL!!!

Once the furlers have cleared the lifelines slightly, the furler(s) can be taken to the mast and secured. Then continue to lift until the butt is clear of the deck and lifelines. This should be the last step before the mast can be removed from the boat entirely and set down in the desired location.

Thanks for the read and good luck! Don’t forget to ask us if you need anything or have any questions.

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How to Tune a Sailboat Mast

How to adjust a turnbuckle. Tuning the mastHere are some general guidelines for tuning your mast’s standing rigging. Please see our blog on how to properly adjust a turnbuckle before you begin. As always we recommend seeking the advice of a professional rigger for more specific tips and tricks regarding tuning your boat’s rigging.

Your boat must be in the water. Begin by just slacking off all of the side shrouds as evenly as possible, so that all stays can be adjusted by hand. Once loose, try and adjust all turnbuckles so that they are pretty much equally open (or closed) from port to starboard respectfully. Also go ahead and line up the cotter pin holes (if present) in the studs so that they are in a pin-able position. Now is also the time to balance out the threads, between the upper and lower studs of the turnbuckle, IF they are not even. Do this by unpinning the turnbuckle from the chainplate – BE CAREFUL HERE –  to ensure the mast is secure before unpinning any one stay. Lastly, loosen all halyards or anything that may pull the mast to port, starboard, forward or aft.

1. Check by sighting up the backside of the mast to see how straight your spar is side to side. You can take a masthead halyard from side to side to ensure that the masthead is on center. Do this by placing a wrap of tape 3′ up from the upper chainplate pin hole on each upper shroud. Cleat the halyard and pull it to the tape mark on one side, mark the halyard where it intersects the tape on the shroud. Now do this to the other side, the mark on the halyard should also intersect the tape similarly. Please note: when the mast is equipped with port and starboard sheaves, instead of just one center-line sheave, it will appear slightly off to one side. Just keep this in mind……

2. Using the upper shrouds as controls, center the masthead as much as possible using hand tension only. Some masts are just crooked. If yours is(are) crooked, it will reveal itself when you loosen all of the stays and halyards initially and sight up the mast. Although you should use hand tension only, you can use a wrench to hold the standing portion (the stay portion) of the turnbuckle. If for some reason the shroud is totally slack and you still can’t turn the turnbuckle by hand then the turnbuckle may need to be serviced, inspected, and maybe replaced.

3. Tune the mast from the top shroud on-down, making sure the mast is in column. Remember: as you tension one shroud by adjusting the turnbuckle, to loosen the opposing shroud the same amount.

How to tune a sailboat mast

Image courtesy of Berthon Marina, UK. Click image to link to their site.

4. Once the mast is fairly straight from side to side, tighten the shrouds all evenly using tools for tensioning. Typically, for proper tension, the shrouds should be tightened using these guidelines; uppers are the tightest, and then fwd. lowers, then the aft lowers and intermediates should be hand tight plus just a turn or two. ~With an in-mast furler it is recommended to tension the aft lower a bit more to promote a straighter spar (fore and aft) for better furling. 

5. Now you can tension the aft most backstay (s). If the backstay has an adjuster it should be set at a base setting (500-1000 lbs). If the backstay simply has a turnbuckle then it should be tightened well. After this has been done, in either situation (adjustable or static backstay), one should site up the mast from a-beam and notice that the masthead has a ‘slight’ aft bias. If there is no aft bias, too much, or the mast is inverted (leaning forward), than the forward most forestay (s) will most likely need to be adjusted to correct this. If a furler is present then seek the council of a professional rigger or refer to your furler’s manual for instructions on how to access the turnbuckle if there is one present.

Image courtesy of UK Sailmakers. Click image to link to their site.

Image courtesy of UK Sailmakers. Click image to link to their site.

6.  Finally, sight up the mast one last time and make any necessary adjustments. 


Read HERE for how to use a LOOS & Co. Tension Gauge!

Here is a little vid from our friend Scott at Selden Masts (click the link then hints and advice for more info) on rig tune…..

Is your mast fractionally rigged, only has a single set of lowers or is just plain different? Be sure to leave any questions or comments below.

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