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The Official Magazine of the Bluewater Cruising Association

Going Aloft – Accident Prevention

Ken Gillstrom

Voyageur 10.10
45' Custom Aluminum
December 3rd, 2015

Thirty five years ago I entered the construction industry, owning a company for most of that time. In the early days, I would walk on certain jobsites and cringe. Quite often, a single 10” wide cracked and splintered plank would be spanning an open staircase with a tradesman balanced on the middle. He would teeter side to side while installing a light or some such item. The tradesman seemed oblivious to the dangers of the situation. It wasn’t that he was being forced to complete the task in this precarious manner. He decided “his way” was the simplest and most efficient.  Workers with this mentality were on jobsites everywhere; quite often at their employer’s direction, implementing precariously unsafe practices to get a job done. As you might imagine, there were accidents…yes…lots of them.

The workplace on construction sites has become safer over the years. One of the biggest obstacles, though, was to change the attitude of employers and on-site workforces. It has taken time, legislature, and money to enable this. Today, we have a new generation of workers; onboard with the mindset, Safety really is Job #1.

When I see residents working on their house, and many times when walking the docks of marinas, I also get that queasy feeling in my gut . . . yes, that same feeling I got 35 years ago. It appears that as soon as humans get into an unregulated environment, we regress to old-school behavior and forget about our safe well-being.

Climbing your mast is one of the most dangerous things you can do on your boat; possibly more dangerous than anything you will ever do in your life. There are many opportunities for things to go wrong, and the smallest mistake can lead to serious injury or even death. So we need to proceed with the task with the right attitude regarding safety.

Nobody feels comfortable at putting themselves in dangerous situations, especially when it involves heights. If we perceive high risk, then we will avoid the task – natural human behavior. However, frequent mast inspections are crucial to reducing the risks of rigging failures and completing safe passages.

On Voyageur 10.10 we go aloft before every passage of more than a couple of days. We try to do this inspection a few days prior to departure to allow time for minor repairs. Rarely is there an occasion where nothing is found during an inspection. We also complete a full inspection after a rough passage with excessive winds. More importantly, rigging may be impacted to a greater extent in conditions other than strong winds. For instance, when the boat pounds into the waves for an excessive length of time or when the desired course subjects the vessel to an unrelenting beam swell in light winds. These conditions produce hundreds of loading cycles in an hour, putting incredible stresses on the rigging. There are so many reasons to go aloft on a regular basis.

In order to feel “somewhat comfortable” going up the mast you need to reduce the risks of accident and complete the task in a safe manner.

Setting up for success

A.    Plan of Action

Before you head up the mast, you need to come up with a plan of action that describes the tasks you want to complete. Make a list of the tasks and assemble the equipment and tools needed to carry out the work. Organize the crew and assign a job to everyone involved.

Planning to go up the mast.

Planning to go up the mast.

B.    Communication

Review your communication methods. Communication between crew is essential to the overall success of the hoist. However, this environment is not conducive to effective communication. There is an increasing distance between parties, varying degrees of background noise, and the voice may not be focussed toward the respective crew member. With this in mind, both parties must also concentrate on being good listeners.

Another barrier to good communication between crew, while climbing the mast, is restricted visual contact between parties. Communication is always more successful when we have visual contact. In a hoist, deck crew are rarely in a direct line of site with the ascending crew member. The crew aloft will be on one side of the mast or the other, behind a spreader or the winch operator may be under a dodger or bimini.

Before the hoist, review the list and the anticipated sequence of commands that you will employ. Each command needs to be followed by a response that indicates that the command has been understood. For example; Command “start lowering”, Response “starting to lower”.  Commands should be short, loud and concise.

C. The right tools, equipment and clothing


  1. Helmet: Your helmet may well protect your head in a fall, but its most important use is to protect against impact if you swing into the mast. I do remember going up the mast mid ocean to replace the main halyard that had chaffed through. On deck there was a gentle roll that was almost imperceptible. Ascending the mast, that gentle rocking developed into an incredible force that ripped my clutched legs off the aluminum pole. While trying to grasp the mast as I swung like a pendulum back towards it, I knew I was going to get hurt. Fortunately, not seriously injured, I had learned an important lesson. From now on, I always wear a helmet. Install a Go Pro on your helmet. The camera on the helmet keeps your hands free and allows you to photograph problem areas, for future assessment by professionals or comparison to previous conditions.
  2. Harness: Carol and I have tried many varieties of boson’s chairs and harnesses over the years and concluded that the Spinlock climbing harness works the best for us. It gives the wearer complete freedom of movement, which is crucial when trying to inspect and work on any part of the rigging. The harness should be attached to a halyard that runs inside the mast and around a sheave at the top of mast. Do not use an external halyard that runs to a block that is shacked to the head of the mast. If that shackle fails, you may fall to the deck.


  1. Safety Line: You absolutely need a backup or safety line in case something goes wrong on that lifting halyard. We aren’t just talking about the unlikely event of a halyard breaking, but it is more likely that the person hoisting makes a mistake or gets distracted. We have utilized many options here, and what we found works best is a brake attached to a separate halyard. The person aloft has to purposefully release the brake in order to descend. This eliminates the need for a third person to control a safety line.

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  1. Tool Belt: Use a secure tool belt to hold basic tools that you may need on the mast. The tools required depend on what is attached to your mast. Basic tools usually include pliers, screw drivers, allen keys, knife, tape and adjustable wrench, to name a few. Once you have inspected your mast a couple of times, you should create a list of the tools and sizes that work on your mast fittings. However, it is also crucial to have a messenger line attached to the tool belt or harness, leading down to the deck. Sure enough, you will need something that you didn’t take up with you.
  2. Appropriate clothing and footwear: Give some thought to this before going aloft. You may have to be hugging the mast with your legs, standing spreaders or pushing off with your feet. So long pants and protective footwear may be required.  Consider the length of time you will be aloft. Will you have protection from the elements (sun, wind, cold/heat, rain)? A lot of effort has been spent to get up the mast, you don’t want to have to cut the exercise short because the crew aloft was ill prepared for the elements.

D.    Hoisting

Take a look up your mast to be aware of all the protrusions; spreaders, shrouds and fittings. Every one of those items is a hazard. Getting a body part wedged between a shroud and the mast, or caught on a fitting is a common occurrence. Now combine these hazards with an environment that is not conducive to good communication, you can be on the path to disaster.


Hoisting the person using a manual winch can be exhausting, so we start to look for an easier method. DON’T even think of using that electric winch or capstan on the windlass. An electric winch introduces more background noise and the electric winch is seldom mounted on the mast, resulting in more distance between crew. Both these factors reduce your ability to communicate effectively.

The electric winch will hoist at a rate of a foot every couple of seconds, much faster and easier than you will hoist manually. This sounds good . . . quick and easy. Not really! Picture yourself going up the mast, and a piece of you gets caught in the rigging and you yell “STOP!”. The best case scenario is they hear you immediately and take their finger off the switch. The process is going to take a part of a second, leaving that body part stretched at least a couple to a few inches. Even worse, your first cry goes unheard, now that body part is 12 inches or more behind you. Get the picture!


Yes, a manual hoist is tiring and slow, but it does reduce the chance of injury. To make the hoist easier you should be doing the inspection and repairs on the way up. This gives the grinder a rest every few feet. The person going up can swing from port to starboard, inspecting shrouds and fittings. Take your time and check everything, the grinder will appreciate the slow process.


On the way up, the hoisting halyard runs through a closed rope clutch then to the winch, which probably is self-tailing. The person going up has had their rope brake always engaged on the secondary halyard (safety line).

Descending the mast is the most dangerous part of the operation. On the way down, all of the safety features have to be disengaged . . . .the rope clutch opened, line removed from self-tailing device and the crew aloft must manually open his rope brake. Mistakes can escalate quickly, if the winch operator becomes distracted. The operator must maintain focus, concentration and communication.


If the crew aloft needs to stop on the way down, re-engage the rope clutch ahead of the winch ensuring that the crew aloft is secure. To begin the descent again, carefully release the rope clutch, ensuring there is proper tension on the line and you have adequate wraps on the winch. It is advisable to place pressure on the wraps of line around the winch with one hand while the other releases the halyard. If available, have another crew member tail the line.

One last hazard that needs to be addressed, is boat motion. Try to minimize movement on deck while the person is hoisted, an insignificant rocking at deck level can relate to a huge sway at the top of the mast. This can be easily controlled while at a dock and somewhat controlled if anchored. Also if you are going to encounter the wake of another vessel, let the crew aloft know so they can secure themselves.

If at sea, you still need to minimize this rocking motion. Keeping one sail up with some power in it will help stabilize the boat. You can also change course to reduce wave-induced motion.

Mast Steps

Although I do not favour mast steps, I do realize the importance of them for some crew or solo sailors. Single-handers obviously need a way to ascend the mast. However, the mast steps do not replace any of the safety considerations we covered above. Also consider that you are not just inspecting what’s on the mast. You will need to safely move out toward the end of spreaders and shrouds. Mast Steps alone are not safe enough. You must wear a climbing harness and add a safety brake attached to a halyard that has been locked off. If you have another crew on board, that person should be in control of a separate hoisting line.

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In the workplace, we have safety boards to regulate safe practices. Outside of the workplace we make our own decisions about our safety and that of friends and family.

Boat maintenance is an integral part of making our voyages successful. The safety procedures that we adopt for dangerous maintenance activities, such as mast climbing, are very important. In the case of an emergency, medical assistance may be hours or days away.

We must be vigilant with regards to safety in everything we do. When working on our boats we must take safety to the next level. Increased safety leads to reduced risk in completing a task. If we reduce the risks associated with a task we will be more apt to carry out these tasks. Mast inspections, maintenance and repairs are crucial to the success of our passages and our well-being, but “safe practice” really is JOB ONE!


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  1. Avatar David Smith says:

    Very good article Ken. On Nuage we have opted for folding aluminum mast steps for several reasons.
    1) I’m not a big guy but even so it is very difficult for my wife to winch me up our 50′ mast. Sometimes it is necessary to go up a down the mast a few time in a morning to complete a job and I certainly can’t expect her to muscle me up each time.
    2) Another problem with winching a person up, at least on our boat, is that the winch required for this process is directly below the person being winched up. This means that if the tool pouch gets snagged on a spreader or stay a tool can get dislodged and come down on the person below. You didn’t mention them wearing a helmut – perhaps they should.
    3) On my climb up the step steps my wife loosely tails the bosuns chair on my rump. She stands well back from the mast, three wraps on the winch and watches me as I go up to make sure I’m progressing well and the chair is tucked closely under me, my legs through the chair. When I’m secure in the area I want to work. I snap on my two halyard safety harness – one I kept from my construction days – onto a secure point on the mast. My wife hardens the bosuns chair, I test it and she gets far away from the bottom of the mast in case something happens to fall. We use a two way radio for communication, mine clipped to my bosun’s chair.
    4) You didn’t mention painters on the tools you are using and I think these are necessary not only to save your tools, but your boat ports, deck and your marriage. Loosely tied tool painters are very important as I have seen many cruiser loose a valuable tool down the mast, one bounce off the deck and inevitably overboard. And when I mean valuable I don’t just mean monetary value, it may be the only tool of it’s kind on the boat.

    Like you I’ve done a lot of construction work in high places and I’ve seen a lot of injuries to people that didn’t think it could happen to them. I’ve had a few myself so I’m extremely cautious when safety is concerned, especially away from paramedic response like we have in Canada.

    All the best,

    David Smith
    SV Nuage

  2. Avatar Yvonne Harwood says:

    Good Day Ken:
    Welcome Home.
    Thank you for a great article. Having sailed, built and generally been around sailboats for the past 56 years and, being female and therefore lighter than the male counterparts of most crews, I have often been the one to be hoisted aloft. As you mentioned, communication can be a major trial. Wind, distance and the clanging of rigging of other boats in a bay or marina can make it very difficult. There are however a number of two or three-way communication devices available which make the communication difficulties almost disappear, one of which I have on my boat for just such events. A headset with attached voice-actuated microphone negates the need to yell for the whole marina or bay to hear.
    I often also employ the devices when anchoring. When anchoring, our vessels are usually bow-into-wind; the bow-crew member is facing forward watching either for a good place to anchor or the anchor dropping or coming up and the helmsperson is looking about to avoid a collision with another vessel, rock or dock and with a dodger, mast and other obstructions making hand signals difficult to monitor, the voice actuated headsets are an absolute boon. They take the stress out of communicating, not to mention keeping said communication private and aboard my vessel rather than being shared with the gawking, critiquing crews of already anchored or moored vessels.