How to climb a mast safely

On your own yacht, you may think it is overkill to formalise a methodology and risk assessment but going through the process of climbing a mast carefully beforehand is both prudent and good seamanship.

Here are few things to consider when preparing for a mast climb;

What are the risks?

  • 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

How can you mitigate the risks associated with a mast climb?

Given the numerous risks associated with going aloft (especially at sea) it is  wise to always consider two things, namely (i) is a mast climb needed right now? And (ii) who should do it ?

In most cases it is sensible to restrict mast climbs to port but, as any experienced sailor will tell you, sometimes that is not an option. If someone needs to climb then that person should be athletic enough to do it safely and in a perfect world, have some experience. The lighter the better, especially if they are being winched up by you!  As skipper, scaling the mast at sea is a last option as you have an obligation to your crew and to the vessel. You are probably best on deck, controlling operations.

In any event, there are some basic precautions you can make to limit risk. They are;

  • Always use two halyards (one as a primary and one as a secondary)
  • Tie the halyards to your climbing harness / bosun’s chair using a bowline. Best to let the climber tie their own bowline and then check it. I like to clip the gib shackle onto another strong point on the hardness(not under load) and the spare halyard’s gib shackle to the lifejacket strong point.
  • Where a lifejacket with crotch straps fastened.
  • Never use halyards that run to blocks outside the mast. If the block fails the halyard falls - not a good idea.
  • Make sure both halyards run up the same side of the mast and clear inner stays, etc. You may need to run the secondary halyard around the forestay so you can use two winches cleanly.
  • Consider attaching a downhaul line that can be used to limit swing (if put under tension). You may need to run this through a snatch block at the bottom of the mast. If you can’t use a downhaul consider (7) below. On larger yachts a downhaul line is essential as the weight of the halyard might be greater than the ‘climber’, making a fast counterbalance driven ascent a frightening possibility!
  • Clip a lifeline to your lifejacket and run it around a free halyard and back to your jacket. If you come off the rig you will only swing a few metres. This will limit likely injury.
  • Wear a helmet (a skateboarder’s helmet is ideal), gloves and reasonably sturdy (but grippy) shoes / boots. Spreaders and shrouds hurt a lot when you swing into them!
  • Consider how you will communicate with deck (especially on masts over 60 feet) - perhaps take a VHF and lanyard, a torch or have some clear hand signals agreed.
  • If climbing at sea, consider a good quality climbing harness. These are strong and difficult to fall out of.
  • Take a bag (ideally canvas) up with you to keep items such as masthead bulbs, insulation tape, etc
  • Make sure tools are attached to you by a lanyard
  • Take a sharp sailor’s safety knife up with you and make sure you can access it when aloft.
  • Have a plan in case things go wrong and make sure the deck know what it is. For example, if the halyards get fouled, do you have another available to allow for a safe descent and how will you get it to the climber safely?
  • Properly brief the crew and winch handlers and have your best winch handler on the primary winch! Have your best helm on the wheel too.
  • Never leave anyone aloft unsupervised
  • Always watch the climber on the ascent (in case they catch a foot in the rig, etc)
  • If using powered winches be very very careful and use best winch handling procedures. Generally, don’t use powered winches for sending crew up a rig. They have no empathy and if you can’t stop the winch it will keep grinding - even if the crewman’s foot is caught in a swathe fitting!
  • If at sea, it’s usually best to climb the windward side of the mast, using gravity to keep you on the mast. Holding on is surprisingly tricky once you get higher and the mast is moving about more than at deck level!
  • When climbing watch out for radar housings (and make sure the radar is off!) and deck lights, windex, etc. It’s very annoying to ascend, fix and issue and then break something else whilst up there!

Finally, remember to double check everything before you go up and check there are no squalls or other potential hazards about to challenge the vessel’s stability or course.

Of course, sometimes stuff happens at the worst time. There is where experience will serve you best when making the right decision. Sometimes doing nothing is the right thing to do. Sometimes things just can’t wait. Always be thinking about the potential risks you are managing.