Home . Articles . Columns & Blogs . Full and By . Because they have to, sailors find ways to rise to the top

Because they have to, sailors find ways to rise to the top

2018 June 1

Jack tars in the Age of Sail were probably better athletes than today’s sailors. If they served before the mast, they had to be in order to survive scampering up the ratlines, crawling out on yards, balancing with toes on a cable, wrestling the thick, boardlike canvas of square sails, sometimes more than 100 feet above the deck, often in squalls, gales and snowstorms, with two hands for the ship and none for the sailor. Too often, topmen went to the bottom—of the ocean—directly in a fall from a yardarm or sewn in sailcloth and dispatched overboard after a fall to the deck.

Patrick O’Brien wrote of topmen plying their trade on a Royal Navy ship in a Southern Ocean storm: “A cruel struggle out there on the yard, cruel and long, fighting with canvas animated by such force, but they bent the sail at last and came down, hands bleeding, the men looking as though they had been flogged.” 


The physical demands of sailing have changed, but as long as sailboats have masts even recreational sailors have to venture aloft when duty calls.

Ratlines not being an option, my first trip up the mast as a callow recruit was on a board. You know, the original bosun’s chair, a board attached to a rope sling with an eye for the halyard. 

Actually, this device dates to the age of ratlines and yards, but then it was used to hoist landlubbers from a dock or small boat up over the side of a large ship.

Better that than using it to go up the mast. In any condition other than flat water at a dock, it’s a treacherous mode of travel aloft. Fortunately, bosun’s chairs have evolved.

Today you can get nice cloth bosun’s chairs that you sit in, rather than on. They’re quite comfortable. I wouldn’t be surprised if you can find a model that comes with cup holders and a smartphone receptacle. They’re fine for working aloft in fine weather, but they won’t do for racing sailors who have to make frequent, fast trips to the masthead regardless of the conditions.

Runaway halyards, halyards trapped by repeated spinnaker jibes, spinnakers fouled on the mast or stuck in a sheave and assorted other snafus require visits to the top of the mast as the boat races on. These are not leisurely ascents by slow winch-grind, but, rather, fast passages aloft powered by strong guys jumping the halyard or a pedestal winch in high gear. Once at the destination, in a seaway, the challenges, besides completing the task at hand, are to hang on to the mast (to avoid wild swings that can end badly) and to refrain from throwing up.

The training of astronauts for space travel included being strapped onto a motorized contraption that replicated the violent motion of a spacecraft leaving and entering the atmosphere. It was said that very few of the spacemen and women got through the experience without succumbing to seasickness. Rough weather work at the top of a mast describing 45-degree arcs across the sky is the sailor’s version of the astronaut motion machine.

Still, that’s a minor concern compared to the challenge of staying secure at the end of the halyard in those conditions. An East Coast sailor named Steve Lirakis solved that problem

Lirakis modified the safety harnesses he was making for wear on deck into a product he marketed as the Lirakis Bosun’s Chair. Not a chair at all, it was a harness with a robust belt, a heavy-duty attachment point and crotch straps. It was the bowman’s savior.

The rig was so secure that it was claimed the wearer could be flipped upside down and still be safe. Some Lirakis users joked that it was more comfortable working in an inverted state. This was a comment on the single drawback of the harness, which was the fact that the crotch straps had to bear most of the wearer’s weight, resulting in, let’s say, significant discomfort.

This led some frequent mast fliers to use rock-climbing harnesses that had leg attachments to relieve crotch strain. Marine versions followed, the most popular of which today is the Spinlock Mast Pro Harness. 

Some bowpersons, always at the ready for lofty emergencies, wear their harnesses for the duration of a race. Some, particularly the young male variety, keep them on during post-race socializing. I believe this is done in the hope someone, preferably a female, will notice the odd attire and say, “Wow, are you a bowman? It must really be scary up there.” Hair-raising tales of valor aloft ensue.

None of the iterations of the bosun’s chair are of any use to sailors who have no one aboard to winch them up the mast. Singlehanders do have some options, however. One is steps permanently attached on two sides of the mast from top to bottom. This may be a practical solution, but is it worth the aesthetic insult of installing hardware on a sailboat that looks like something scavenged from a farm silo?

A better solo sailor’s alternative is the ATN Mastclimber, a clever system that uses rock climbing type rope jammers and leg power to ascend in a comfortable seat guided by a static line that keeps the occupant from swinging away from the mast. If you haven’t seen the inventor, French-born Etienne Giroire, demonstrating the Mastclimber at sailboat shows, then you haven’t been going to boat shows. He must be approaching the 10,000th demonstration of his climbing machine.

You can get up the mast without the help of any device, of course, assuming you have some of the athleticism and boldness of those topmen of yore. One of my crew used to walk up the side of the mast when the boat was sharply heeled. There was no purpose to this. He just did it because the mast was there.

Lithe folks can shinny up the mast—the spreaders offer good resting spots. Climbers can also pull themselves up the headstay, with hands and feet gripping a stay covered by a head foil. 

After a Mackinac race, I witnessed mast climbing as performance art. Two gym-buffed studs wearing Speedo swim suits and flaunting matching  pecs, delts and other absurdly large muscles and shoulder-length hairdos, loudly challenged each other to a race to the top of a mast that looked to reach at least 75 feet above the water. 

They carried on their banter until a sizable crowd had gathered and then, after a ready-set-go from a bystander, took off hand over hand up the main shrouds. The duo arrived at the masthead together in a tie that may have been planned as part of the performance. Then they slid gracefully down to the top pair of spreaders, where (no kidding) they stood and took a bow.

That was an impressive show of strength and endurance, but I can think of a tougher test. Let these two specimens spend a half an hour at the masthead hanging in a crotch-strap harness, and then see if they feel like taking a bow.