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 Ā 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 CompanyĀ uses aĀ 4ā€² endlessĀ liftingĀ loopĀ Ā most of the time. This is generallyĀ long enough for most mast diameters, but for larger masts a 6ā€² loop may be a good idea. We rig the loop with a ā€˜singleĀ basketĀ hitchā€˜, making sure not to trap any halyards. Then we have a heavy duty tag line into which we tie a largeĀ bowline. The bowline is then slipped over the basket hitch before it is attached to the craneā€™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, Ā 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, directĀ 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 ensureĀ 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 theĀ 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.

14 thoughts on “Un-stepping the Mast

  1. If I have an innerstay can that be removed completely before the mast has tension on from the crane? I have an IP40 and will be unstepping the mast myself very soon. Also do you know where the electrical junction box usually is on the Island packets from the 90’s?

    1. Hi Angus,

      Yes that stay should be okay to be removed. Generally anything holding the top of the mast in place is crucial. The mast being keel stepped is a another re-assuring thought as well. For the electrical mast junction it is likely under a settee, but I can’t say for certain….Should be near the mast butt.

      Thanks for the question.


  2. I have a very old CDI Reefer II furler on my Catalina 30, with a 150 genoa with flattening pads. The furler has several (maybe 7) 6 ft extruded sections pinned together around the head stay. The furler needs to stay relatively straight or must be disassembled to unstep the mast. Is it feasible to leave the furled genoa in place, and rely on the stiffness of the genoa’s furling pads to maintain alignment of these extrusions? Keeping tension on the furler, of course. I ask because disassembling the extrusions risks losing some of the alignment pins or internal bushings overboard is pretty high, and they are irreplaceable.

    1. You should be able to just take the sail down, like normal. Then unstep the mast from there. All furler parts should remain together, unless of course, something is already damaged or broken.

      I hope this helps.


    1. Hi Kevin,

       With wire there should be little to no problems. Rod will need to have a certain diameter coil (relative to it's rod diameter) to mitigate memory in the coil. Long answer, shortened, the bigger the coil hoop, the happier the stay will be stored. 

      Hope that helps and thanks for taking the time.


  3. Hi Matt, I have a 2002 Beneteau 361 and whilst trying to make a new forestay connect that is 7mm shorter than the one it replaced by using a halyard under a lot of tension part of the mast step broke away so needs replacing. Everyone that has seen a photo I took said the step was well oxidised and better it happened with the boat ashore. Im hoping that with the use of the marinas crane for a few hours I can prepare everything the way your site suggests but instead of total removal raise the mast sufficiently, tie the bottom off and swing the bottom a little out of the way, remove and bed in a the new step ( Beneteau are supplying an original replacement part ) without having to totally remove the mast. I just wondered what your gut feeling would be on this approach. The reasons for not wanting to go the full way are numerous, one being financial, the other and more importantly lack of expertise, the marina Im in is more of a fishing port, not many sail boats. The guys who operate the crane whilst good at that don’t get to deal with yachts that often! I would also be concerned that this lack of experience could lead to massive further damage, something I clearly want to avoid. Your view would be much appreciated, regards Lee

    1. Hi Lee. Thanks for asking us. This sounds like a reasonable approach. Obviously it would be best to completely remove it in case there are complications. This would also allow you to take your time with the step removal and install, deal with any other things that benefit from the mast being down, etc.. It would make for less pressure too, but if you have reservations, I understand. It has been done this way before. Obviously preperation will be everything here. Just make sure that everything is truly ready for the crane, you have all of the parts that you need (and they are the right ones). Perhaps do most of it even the day before. Set it up so that the stays are still secured until you are certain the mast is being supported by the crane. However you can set it all up so that the tension has been taken off and all cotter pins and clevis pins can be easily removed. Disconnect electrical, remove the mast boot and deck chocks (if present) and remove the boom just to avoid any hangups. Make sure there is nothing else holding the mast down i.e. deck tie downs. Try and avoid shortcuts. Be thorough in your prep. Have patience with the crane once it is there.

      Since the mast will be vertical the whole time it may be helpful to choose a higher than normal picking point, well above the balancing point. This will make the mast more tame in the vertical position. I say just above the balancing point when removing the mast completely so that it is not too heavy when the mast needs to transition to the horizontal position. NEVER pick the mast from below or near the balancing point. In your case especially, the higher the better.

      Start as early as possible, it will likely take longer than expected for the entire process.

      That’s all I can think of….Oh, and good luck!

      Let us know how it turned out.


  4. Dear Sir,
    regarding your very interesting post Un-stepping the Mast posted on February 11, 2014 I’like to have your advices regarding a mast on a 32′ sailing boat with furling genoa.
    It’s my first time doing this operation on a 32’sailing boat.
    I need to regulate the tensions of all shrouds and stays, let’s say starting from the beginig (starting as it was just step the mast by a crane). The mast is deck stepped and all shrouds and stay are in tensions, now. How can I release all turnbuckles in saftey way to safe the integrity of the mast. After release all shrouds and stays the mast will stay in position or will be in danger of falling down. I need to be in that position for re-tensiong all rigging.
    I thank You very much for your replay and wish You a good day.
    Best regards.

    1. Hi Charles,

      You will need to have a crane, gin pole, or tabernacle rig hooked up and tensioned, supporting the weight of the mast before you begin to remove any stays. You can certainly loosen everything, very loose if you like but DO NOT unpin anything until the mast is supported otherwise. The order in which you unpin is usually relative to the wind, the boat's natural list etc... There is not set method here. Just take your time and think every step through first. If you are still unsure maybe contact your local rigger for assistance. 

      Thanks for the comment.


  5. Hi I have a40 foot catamaran and going to remove mast at the base is a flat plate with 4 bolts in it and a cup style surround that the mast sits in do I have to remove these bolts or will that plate remain and the mast lift out of the plate cheers Brett.

    1. Thanks for asking Brett. It SHOULD lift right off. There are many different step styles out there. It would be best to send us a picture of what is there for us to be certain. It sounds like it is the mast step that you are describing and usually that will stay with the boat as the mast lifts off. You can contact us with pictures and more information via email @ Jimmie@theriggingco.com.
      Thanks for checking us out and good luck.


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