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What’s the best way to go aloft solo?

2014 January 14

Dear Boat Doctor,

I need a way to climb the mast on my Valiant 40. I'd like a system I could use alone, but my main goal is to make life a little easier for my wife; apparently it's no easy task to grind me up the rig. I'd like to avoid mast steps because they are so unattractive.

Joe Noakes

Bellingham, Washington

Dear Joe,

Going aloft is one of the basic skills that every sailor needs to master, and I applaud you for planning ahead rather than just expecting someone will be there to haul you up.

I recommend a proper climbing harness; you can fall out of a bosun's chair but it is difficult to fall out of a properly fitted harness. You can find a nice one for between $250 and $500, a minor investment in safety and comwfort.

While I agree that mast steps are unattractive, they are also a great place to snag rigging and sails and they aren't even all that easy to climb. I would, however, recommend putting a pair of folding steps at the top of the mast so you can stand up to work on the masthead.

Use a simple block and tackle system to make things easier. A 2-to-1 system is a good compromise. I rig this with a single becket block at the top and a single bltock on the harness, meaning there are three parts going aloft, almost 165 feet of line for your boat. You can rig more parts, but the line gets very long. If someone on deck is pulling you up they see a 2-to-1 advantage, but if you are pulling yourself you see a 4-to-1 advantage because your weight is actually helping to pull you up.

Get the largest blocks you can afford. I like the Harken Classic Mid-Range Blocks, which are a nice 3-inch ball bearing block at a decent price. I'd use a 1550 at the top. This is a ratcheting block with a becket. The ratchet makes it easier to haul yourself up, it will hold the load when you stop to rest. I recommend a 1540 on the harness.

You'll also want to use good-sized line such as 7/16-inch, since you'll be handling it. You'll need at least 185 feet to allow for knots and a tail to pull.

If you have help, you can lead the tail to a winch and the hauling will be pretty easy, but if not you just haul yourself up. One caution, when you get to the top of the mast, you'll have almost 100 feet of line lying on deck that will have a tendency to snag on things.

If you haul yourself, you'll need to belay once you get to the location you need to work. You can use a munter hitch on a carbiner or a Petzl GriGri, a belay device that you can also rappel on.

There are also self-climbing systems on the market that work well for some people. Regardless of what method you choose, make sure to practice with spotter standing by.