Going Aloft Like the Pros

This may seem a little long winded, but going aloft on a sailboat mast is serious business and should not be taken lightly. Serious injury or death can occur, so please take every precaution. I would like to take a moment to talk about some of the methods that we use to ensure our safety when we go aloft.

The Rigging Company Aloft

Typically, we have to go aloft on boats that we have never seen before. Because of this we have to be very cautious about this process. The first consideration is, that the boat must be in the water, at T.R.C. our company policy is that the boat must be supported in its natural environment (water) to allow for the righting moment of the boat to be effective. We will never go aloft on the hard. The second consideration is, if the boat is too tender, i.e. boats around 27′ or less depending on displacement, you may be better off taking the mast Unstepping small boat mastsdown instead of attempting to go aloft. You should be especially leery about fractionally rigged boats where you need to access the very top of the mast (i.e. J-22), due to the top of the mast lacking support. Also wooden spars can present an¬†inherent¬†safety issue and that is rot, more¬†specifically¬†non-visible rot. When in doubt about an on-the-mast winch like in the case of the wooden mast, it is always recommended to lead the halyard aft to a through-bolted primary jib winch, always ensuring a fair lead.

Once we have determined that the boat itself qualifies to go aloft, we will proceed to inspect the rigging at the deck to ensure all pins are in-place and there is nothing suspicious going on. Ultimately you need to make sure that your mast will not fall over while you are aloft.

"Reel Winch" or Wire Halyard Winch - DON'T USE!!!
“Reel Winch” or Wire Halyard Winch – DON’T USE!!!

Next, we will choose an available halyard that offers the safest possible method to go up the mast. NEVER go aloft on an external halyard that utilizes a hanging block, always choose a halyard that passes through (or into) the mast. Preferably, the halyard should run through a rope clutch before the winch. We will also give the winch a good spin and ensure that the trademark ‘clicking’ sound is present and well pronounced. This lets us know that the pawls (which keep the winch from spinning the other way) inside winch are springing back nicely. We also lift up on the winch drum to ensure that it is securely locked down and will not lift-off during the belaying process. If there is any doubt as to safety of the winch, it is highly recommended to either service the winch, re-lead the halyard to a more suitable winch, or¬†find a more suitable halyard and winch altogether. Also, we never go aloft on a wire halyard or a wire winch. Wire or Reel winches typically don’t have pawls and utilize a metal band (called a Brake) which applies friction to the drum and acts as a brake to keep the drum from spinning the other way. These metal bands have been known to break and down you go!

Since most boats have vertically furling sails of some sort, like in-mast, behind the mast or foresail furlers, the halyard will be occupied most of the year as the working end is attached to the sail at the top of the mast. Sometimes another spare halyard (i.e. boom topping lift or spare jib) is the only option. If nothing else is available it may be necessary to douse one of the furled sails in order to have access to a viable halyard.¬†Unless the halyard looks very new, we will always use a dedicated climbing line. We do this by using the existing halyard to ‘pull-in’ our dedicated climbing line. See your local rigger, or¬†read our blog about methods of attaching the new line to the old one, as there are a number of ways to achieve this. ¬†If we decide to use the existing line, we will run the line to check for any chafe/weak points. We do this by attaching the bitter end to the working end and running the line to the top of the mast and back down to inspect the full length of the line.

Now that the we have ticked all of the safety check points and a safe halyard is in place we will connect our Bosun’s chair via a bowline with a half hitch in the tail to keep the knot from spilling. Other climbing knotsBowline with half hitch to prevent the knot from spilling are also acceptable, just be sure that you are confident in your knot tying skills. RIGGERS RULE: “Always, always tie a knot and never, ever use a splice of any kind, even if you spliced the line yourself.” The benefit of the knot over the splice is that you can visually ensure that it has been made correctly.

Riggers Bosun's Chair

Choosing the right Bosun’s chair or harness is also critical to ensuring safety when going aloft. Make sure you abide by the manufacturer of your choice’s weight and usage guidelines. If you are a large person like myself (6’5″¬†285 lbs.), that doesn’t meet the requirements of any manufacturer (at least not to my knowledge), a custom chair or¬†harness may need to be made. It may also be an option to modify an existing design to increase the weight restrictions. Please seek the council of your local rigger before tackling this project by yourself. Whichever chair or harness that you use¬†make sure that it is rigged with a Dyneema safety tether and heavy duty snap hook (like pictured below) or climbers caribener.Bosun's Chair Safety Lanyard

Here are some DO’s and DONT’s to highlight:

  • DON’T¬†use a halyard that is external and utilizes a free hanging block
  • DON’T go aloft on a boat that is on land
  • DON’T¬†use a worn, old, or even remotely suspicious halyard
  • DON’T¬†use a snap or quick release shackle as an attachment
  • DON’T¬†use a line that has a splice of any kind in between you and the winch
  • DON’T¬†use a wire halyard or a reel winch
  • DON’T use a winch that isn’t securely fastened via drilled and tapped machine screws, through bolts, or tight rivets
  • DO¬†tie a safe and secure knot
  • DO¬†make sure that the winch you are using is safe and functional
  • DO¬†make sure that the halyard you have chosen is safe and lead properly
  • DO choose a halyard that runs to a rope clutch before the winch, if that is available
  • DO make sure that your chair or harness is equipped with a heavy duty, chafe resistant safety tether and snap hook
  • DO make sure that you are using an adequately rated chair or harness
  • DO use a new halyard (that has been thoroughly inspected) or a dedicated climbing line
  • DO make sure that you rig (and use) a safety tether by clipping it back to itself whenever you come to a stopping point and as you descend

The Climbing Technique:¬†When we go aloft we use a two man ‘heave-ho’ (or ready-go) method. One man in the chair and one man belaying at the winch. The winch should have no more or less than 2-3 wraps on it and the rope clutch (if present) should be clutched down so as to not let the line slip the other way. This technique takes more coordination than strength. When done correctly this method is the easiest and most effective way to get to the top. The man in the chair finds a good foot hold and hand hold and then says “ready”, pauses, and says “GO!”, with a short pause and then pulls. The short pause after the “GO” is crucial and allows for reaction time by the person belaying on the winch to pull hard at the EXACT same time the person in the chair pulls hard. ¬†The idea is to move the knot up with every “GO”. This method will take practice between the two individuals. Timing is everything!

CHECK THIS OUT!!!! I just found this little handy device on YouTube, you can make yourself (probably should so that it fits your feet). This will provide the essential foot hold which can be hard to get if you are not used to climbing masts. Although I may add padding to the back of the plate so that it won’t damage the finish of my mast..

Once you reach your desired height, engage your safety tether by clipping it back to itself. The person belaying you on the winch should put full wraps on the drum, all the while maintaining tension on the line.¬†Do not allow the line to go slack at any time. Then go all the way ’round and through the self-tailer (if present) and cleat the bitter end to a secondary cleat or¬†belay the winch.

The Winch Handle (or Electric Winch) Technique:¬†This method is the most common and does not require much effort on behalf of the person in the chair, but a lot of effort on behalf of the person (or e-motor) doing the winching. This method is also the slowest, yet most dangerous. The person on the winch needs to stay focused and pay attention. Don’t get bored by the monotony of it all. Here, the winch needs to be loaded full of wraps before going to the self tailing portion of the winch (as it should always be or one could damage the self tailer). Again, the rope clutch, if present, should be in the clutched-down position. If the winch is not equipped with a self-tailer then you will need to employ the services of a third person to tail the line while winching, no exceptions. If using an electric winch it is of utmost importance to STOP before sucking the halyard, chair and the person going aloft into the mast head, into the lazy jacks, runners or any other part of the mast. The person operating the electric winch needs to use extreme caution and the person in the chair needs to use his/her outside voice to communicate loudly!

Once you reach your desired height, engage your safety tether by clipping it back to itself and have the person belaying you on the winch go all the way ’round the self tailer and cleat the bitter end to a secondary cleat or belay the winch.

Going Aloft on a self hoistThe Solo Technique: Going aloft alone adds yet another dimension of danger. There are several products out there to help you achieve this in a safe manner, the ATN Self Climber and the Petzl Ascender, just to name a few,¬†are rope grabbing mechanisms that assist you in climbing a static line. There are also a few other styles of mechanical advantage systems whose names elude me at the moment. We (at T.R.C.) use what is called a self hoist, which is essentially a The rigging company self hoistblock and tackle that lives in a crate and uses a thick dedicated control line to give it a nice hand. Of course this line needs to be long enough to reach the top of the mast, multiplied times the amount of purchase. We utilize a 4:1 purchase (3:1 is acceptable) which is comprised of a double block (as the turning block, attached to the halyard, pictured top right) and a ratcheting Becket block (as the purchase block, attached to the Bosun’s chair/ harness, pictured left). The ratchet block allows the user assistance one way (up) and provides friction in the other direction (down). The use of gloves is recommended.

With any of these systems, be sure to follow the manufacturers guidelines to secure yourself aloft. Additionally, engage your safety tether when you reach a stopping point by clipping it back to itself. When using the block and tackle (self hoist) method, simply tie a clove hitch over the tackle (as pictured below). You can add another half hitch for added safety.

How to hoist yourself up the mast

There are also other options like soft ladders, mast walkers, mast climbing steps, etc…..I discourage people from using these for several reasons. The mounted types involve drilling, screwing, tapping, or riveting dissimilar metals into/onto your mast every 3′ or so along its entire length. They also have a tendency to snag things, trap halyards or rattle (and that’s a lot of things rattling). Soft ladders (like the one pictured below) that are hoisted into the air via halyard, hurt your feet incredibly. Most importantly all of these provide a false sense of security and you should never solely rely on them to go aloft. Make sure that even if your boat is equipped with any of these items that you still use a chair and follow the aforementioned safety guidelines.

Mast Mate Mast self Climbing systemTHE¬†DESCENT:¬†This is one of the most important aspects of going aloft. If someone is belaying you it is of utmost importance that they maintain tension on the bitter end at ALL times. If a clutch is being used, make sure it is the last thing to become un-cleated. The person belaying the winch should remove all but three or four wraps form the winch, all the while remembering to maintain tension on the bitter end (this is VERY IMPORTANT). Once the person belaying the winch has everything un-cleated and the weight of the line is in both of their hands, they should yell loudly “OKAY!” and wait for the person aloft to reply signaling that they are all clear to descend. The line should pull out of the hand of the person who is belaying.

IMPORTANT! If the you have to push the line off of the winch, STOP! Close the clutch (if present) and remove another wrap from the winch. Always maintain tension on the bitter end of the line. 

DO NOT¬†let the line run through your hand. Instead lower the Bosun hand over hand, slowly and smoothly. If you encounter a twist in the line, pause and patiently work it out, all the while maintaining tension on the line and focusing on the task at hand (pun).¬†NEVER take your eyes off of the winch and listen clearly for any signals from aloft. If utilizing one of the solo aloft devices follow that manufacturer’s guidelines for descent. If using a self hoist, lower yourself hand over hand slowly. Don’t hesitate to take a few breaks on the way down to make sure you aren’t becoming fatigued. Take time to become comfortable with the sensation.

Jimmie Cockerill The Rigging Company going aloft alone
Self Hoists Make You Sweat! Click the Image to Learn More about the Author.

3 thoughts on “Going Aloft Like the Pros

  1. Good article
    We pull the spare halyard tight beside the mast, then put a Prussik knot on it. This is attached to the bosun’s chair, and is slid up and down by the climber. Thus a totally independent safety
    We like, and use, our folding mast steps, but with or without them the chair is hoisted by a self tailing winch, line through a jamb cleat for ascending and sitting at work.

    Before going up, the climber gets about 4 feet up, halyard is tightened and he jumps off. The shock load is well over his weight, so we are fairly sure the halyard will not break
    We have 12 mm dyneema halyards and Andersen 52 winches, so the safety margin is larger than on smaller boats

    Not all pros are like him. The only pro we have had in ten years cruising was the mast builder’s man who came to help we amateurs install the mast. He simply asked one of us, who he had met first time a coupl of hours previously, to crank him to the top, worked away then back down a few times. I was annoyed at his lack of care, but he refused to change his style

  2. I go aloft by using a mountain climbing handle system similar to ATN (but cheaper). However I always use a second safety line made of a second halyard attached to my harness (no chair). That security halyard is “following” me up (manned by a second person to the winch) or I manned it myself using a Grigri if it is a solo climb. Going down is via the security halyard.

    1. Philippe,

      I'd say this sounds fine. You have a unique situation where all of your halyards hang from blocks externally, right? The only thing I might add is just be sure that you are tying a knot with this security halyard and not using the shackle or the splice to support your body weight.


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