Climbing the Mast

25 Oct 2016


Boat (27) 
Not the Boat (12) 


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Note: I wrote this mid-september, a month ago, but neglected to publish it.
We got the mast up a few weeks ago, then took it down again. Once we were on the water we put it up again.

These would have been good opportunities to identify and fix the mistakes I had made at the masthead, but of course I didn't do that.

No, instead, I waited until the boat was on the water before I spotted the main one, which is that I had rigged the main halyard upside down: I had tied a bowline off at the top, and it wasn't until I noticed the spliced eye on the other end (the halyards were included with the mast) that I realised my error.

This is an idiot mistake which I can trace to my enthusiasm to get stuff rigged and my certainty that I knew what was going on. As it turns out I did not.

An extra five minutes fully assessing the system I was building before starting would have saved me a lot of effort.

There you go - if you're building a boat, make a note to that effect and learn vicariously from my mistakes. It's fair to say at this point I have just enough knowledge to be dangerous.

Unassisted climbing

GriGri2, Caribiner, Pulley, Ascender, Harness and Sling I haven't climbed a rope before and haven't descended one in about 15 years, so a mate who climbs sent me to Urban Rock in London. Tom was absurdly helpful and spent an hour with me lining up and explaining kit, which sadly we couldn't try out completely as they were out of stock of a couple of parts. These I picked up at The Honey Brothers on my way down to the boat the next morning, which is like Aladdins cave of climbing equipment. In total I got

  • Petzl Ascension. This is essentially a movable rope clutch, with a toothed cam that slides up the rope but not down. I slid this up the rope with my right hand, and tied it to a sling looped over my right foot. Standing up in the sling loop is how you climb; you remove the ascender completely from the rope when you're descending. The cam teeth are vicious compared to a yacht rope clutch, and were not nice to the rope cover.
  • Harness.
  • A sling
  • A few screw-lock carabiners
  • Petzl Grigri 2. The rope can be pulled through this when slack, but will lock if you sit back in the harness, or if you fall. It has a lever to release tension on the locked rope, allowing you to abseil down.
  • Pulley. To route the rope through the GriGri up in front of you, making it easier to pull through.

This is basically one of the rigs described by Allen Edwards and shown on his video here. He didn't seem to like aspects of it, although he was using the original GriGri. I do like it, and with my wife using the Halyard as a safety line I had no troubles at all going up or down.

For completeness, I also considered a Rope Wrench and maybe some Foot ascenders. This might have made a slightly easier climb. I had to remove the ascender I'd climbed on to descend, although given I was up there to replace the rope I'd used as a belay, I was always going to adjust something. Yachties always seem to look to yachtie solutions or rock climbers when they consider going up a mast, but the people we should really look to for gear are Arborists.

This equipment (particularly the GriGri) largely presumes a rope of 10mm, and my high-tech lines didn't meet the grade. The only two lines to the masthead were the 9mm Vectran Halyard I was replacing and the Topping Lift in 8mm yacht braid. I re-ran the topping lift with 10mm yachtbraid by sewing it on and pulling it through, then tied both ends to the deck with a bowline before climbing up it, with my wife belaying me on the Halyard I was going up to replace.

Having done this once I see the benefit of having two ropes to the masthead you can climb, so the 10mm Topping Lift will stay: I cut it long enough to run to the winch, so it can act as an emergency Halyard.

All in all the climbing was fairly painless. The boat was half folded, but it was a windy day and with my 80kg at the top of a 14m mast and the floats weighing about 150kg, I felt it prudent to tie down the unfolded side - with hindsight this might have been overkill. Working at the top in a climbing harness isn't very comfortable: they're designed to let you move freely but when you sit still, there's a lot of pressure on your thighs. I was up for about 30 minutes - the halyard jammed - and when I came down I couldn't feel my right knee. But we got the job done.

Climbing the mast is a right of passage for a sailor and I am glad I can do it. I planned exactly what to do when I up there and had everything I needed, down to two pre-threaded needles, and the setup I chose was fairly easy to use - solo if required. These were good decisions, but they don't make up for the bad decision that sent me up there in the first place.