Filed Under (Boats and Boating Gear) by Debbie on 12-06-2008

There are few things in life one can count on…death, taxes and if you own a sailboat…climbing the mast. I am preparing to climb ourboat mast yet again to check the spreaders as I feel there is too much fore and aft flex in them. The last time I climbed was a great learning experience and I’m thinking long and hard before going aloft again.

I think that while it’s a good idea to have a couple of ‘dock ape idiots’ around to grind the halyard winches, it’s a good idea too to have the right climbing equipment. This thinking process began a couple of weekends ago when a friend of ours at the club wanted to go aloft to replace his wind indicator.

My hubby Mike, bought a mast ladder a year or so ago. It’s one of those removable flexible web ladders that are hauled up the mast with a halyard, then made fast to your boom. We thought we’d use it along with the bosun’s chair but the sail slugs were the wrong size for our friend’s mast.

 flexi ladder

They were also the wrong size for our mast. We bought it secondhand and the original owner had a different set of slugs in it, we’re working on changing them out to the correct size. Granted this wasn’t conducive to getting our friend up his mast, but it showed us we needed to change out the slugs. Something we hadn’t realized before…better to find out now when we didn’t need to go aloft!

Our buddy has a bosun’s chair but wanted to back it with something else for safety since the ladder wouldn’t go up his mast, a sad fact after Neptune claimed his sail track stop. Although, trouper that he was he had a backup plan. He wanted use a second halyard and to try a ‘Prusik knot’. , I have to say it worked fairly well. It’s kind of the same concept as the ‘Top Climber’ although it’s really a rock climbing type of knot and has no mechanical device involved. He used a second halyard and had one knot for his feet with loops sorta like stirrups and another for his bosun’s chair. Then with feet in the stirrups, he’d stand up on his feet and slide the ‘bosun’s chair’ knot up as far as he could reach, sit on the chair and pull up his feet as far as possible and slide/adjust the ‘foot/stirrup’ knot up as far as possible.  Then repeat until he’d reach the top.

This worked pretty well but we were going to hoist him with the main sail halyard on the bosun’s chair and use his ‘rock climbing’ knot on a second halyard as a way to reduce the effort required to get him aloft. In the end he was pretty tired out from the ‘test climbs’ and not comfortable enough to climb to the very top of his Catalina 36’s mast. I have to say however, the knots worked really well.

Now, on a side note before I continue with this, I have to tell you about our attempt to set up the spinnaker. We’ve not set ours before and tried to put it together in our slip, a good idea with no wind. We didn’t do too badly until we tried to put things away. At which point we had a ‘failure to communicate’…that resulted in the topping lift swivel ending up half way up the mast at the end of the day as we were getting ready for bed…figures, huh?

So, what to do? Well, no amount of thrashing the halyard about did more than lower the swivel an inch or two. It looked as if I was going to go up the mast. It was at that moment the ‘sage words of some old salt’ sounded within my brain and I pulled out a triple barbed fish hook from the tackle box which I then taped to the spinnaker halyard and ran up the mast until I could ‘hook’ the topping lift and haul it all down. Yes, a cheat but much better than climbing up after having a beer!

view from the top

Ok, back to finding a way up the mast.  The mast ladder products on the market are nice in that they are easy to store away and they don’t add any windage.  The problem with them seems to be that some find it difficult to get their feet into the steps and then too if you’ve a fouled main sail halyard you can’t run it up, plus you have to take down the main sail.  But it seems to be a pretty nice way (at least for us) to back up the bosun’s chair.

There is also another mast ladder on the market that doesn’t need halyards, winches or other people to help you.  It’s a rigid system that you slide by sections into the mast sail track and it’s made from extruded aluminum and gives you a rigid step on which to stand.  You can go aloft to retrieve lost halyards without needing a halyard to do it.  The down side of both of these types of mast ladders is that you have to have the main sail tract available to be able to use them.

Of course, from a safety view you’d want to have either a harness attached to a different halyard or other fixed line.  The rigid system would give a bit of an avantage over the flexible in that a safety line could be looped around the mast from a harness as a backup because it would have the ability to hang up on the rigid steps.  Never forget climbing the mast is going to be one of the most dangerous things you’ll do on a sailboat.  Don’t use your halyards snap shackles, use instead a screw shackle or locking load bearing carabiners.  Be sure to go over each step with those who’ll be helping you from the deck before you go up.  It would be really bad if your orders got confused and someone let go the wrong halyard.

Of course there is the sit in the bosun’s chair and have someone winch you up, a popular choice.  That’s what we did the last time and I must say, I’d like to have a better system this time as I’m going up farther.  If you’re going to climb the mast this way then be sure to have your safety harness on and clipped on a different halyard.  Don’t depend on self-tailing winches to hold you and be sure your grinder ties off on a cleat too!  Safety first and foremost!  Broken heads can’t be replaced….

If you’ve power winches it would be simply a case of pushing a button to get them aloft.  However, you need to be really careful the last few feet to the top.  You could jam the shackle in the mast head halyard sheave or maybe rip out the rings in the chair if you’re not careful.  Which is why most of those I’ve talked with don’t suggest using the power winches.  Never forget “Murphy’s Law”!

I think folding mast steps would be nice, not that we have them.  They’d always be ready for use, could get you to the top and you wouldn’t need any help.  Although many complain about windage,  weight aloft, some think they’re ugly and then too there’s the potential of fouling a halyard if your steps don’t fold.  I also think that it would be hard to hang onto the pendulum swinging mast in more than calm waters.  So in any event, be sure to have a safety harness and seperate halyard with someone taking up the slack.  I still like the idea of a bosun’s chair so you can rest while your up there.

Another club member uses a block and tackle but you’ll need a line at least three times the lenght of your mast.  He has a 3:1 mechanical advantage.  He has an upper single block with becket, a lower single block and a 1/2 inch line (3 times his mast height).  You’ll need some kind of ratcheting block in the upper position.  He uses a rock climbing harness (I think I like this better than the chair) and then hauls the upper block up by the halyard and then shackles the lower to his harness with a carabiner.    Once he’s up, he uses a Munter Mule to tie off everthing.  I’ve not tried this so test it out close to the deck before you go up.  Here’s another view of this knot that has a good explaination of using it to ‘repell’ down the mast.

I am looking at rock climbing harnesses right now.  I think they would be much better than a bosun’s chair.  A well fitting harness is something you can’t fall out of unlike a bosun’s chair.

 climbing harness

My research suggest they are comfortable if you get the right one.  I know I felt I could slip out of the bosun’s chair without much effort and given how much a mast can swing about I’d like to feel ‘super glued’ into whatever I’m using.  The harnesses I’ve looked at have run between $32 US to over $100 US and of course there’s no tool bag but I think I could rig something.

top climber 

The Topclimber uses mountain climbing gear and your legs to get aloft, it is designed specifically for mast climbing and not mountaineering.  Basically, it’s a bosun’s chair with a pair of foot stirrups, a tether and two ascenders.  It comes with everything you need except the fixed line.  Like my friend’s Prusik Knot, you work your way up the line/mast slowly.  Then again for safety, have a harness and seperat halyard just incase.

 Another product I found interesting given you could use it for more than just climbing the mast is the Mastlift.  This is kind of a chain hoist with a 10:1 gear ratio but no chain.  It comes with an endless line that you pull on to go up or come down.  A double cam locking safety device lets you stop at different heights.  You just hook your bosun’s chair or climbing harness to the Mastlift and then hoist it up the mast by your halyard and of course you cleat off the halyard.  Then you just haul yourself up hand over hand with little effort.


The downside to this system is the size of the unit as it makes getting closer to the masthead more difficult, although the company has a workbelt similar to a lineman’s belt that is designed to get you to the masthead .  Then too, it’s the most expensive option.  However, you can also use it to bring the dinghy on board, haul up fuel or even a MOB. 

So what’s the best way to climb your mast?  Depends on your boat, your age and the money in your wallet.  Any way you come at it, climbing a sailboat mast is going to be a compromise and there isn’t going to be any one choice that’s right for every situation or person.  As for me, I think I like the climbing harness and a block and tackle the best… since I have a pretty shallow draft wallet.  Just remember to be really careful and err on the side of too much safety than not enough when you climb your sailboat mast.

47 Comments posted on "Climbing the Mast Again"
How to climb a sailboat mast on June 12th, 2008 at 8:50 pm #

[…] another post about the different ways you can climb the mast and the different types of equipment you maybe interested in.  So if this didn’t answer your […]

Going up the mast - advice needed - SailNet Community on August 11th, 2008 at 9:33 am #

[…] ask around and see if anyone near you has one you could borrow. I’ve chatted about options here Sailboat Mast Climbing I have a link in there to show how to tie the knot my buddy used to help us get him up…that […]

FORUM HOIST PVT. LTD on August 19th, 2008 at 5:12 am #

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Debbie on August 19th, 2008 at 7:20 am #

Hi Forum Hoist,

I did take a few minutes to look at your site. While I appreciate your visit, I think you might be ‘over kill’ for climbing the mast. Thanks for visiting.

Barry Devonald on May 21st, 2009 at 5:01 pm #

Do not use a sailing harness as a safety harness aloft. They are designed to prevent a fall overboard not arrest a vertical fall. Most of them state this on the packaging.

Do not rely on a bosun’s chair alone. It provides comfort, only a properly used climbing harness will provide safety from a fall used with or without a bosun’s chair.

Debbie on May 21st, 2009 at 5:45 pm #

Hi Barry,

Thanks for commenting!

I’ve used the safety harness as an ‘oh crap! Adrenaline backed momentary slow-down’ to allow the opportunity to grab the mast, different halyard or spreader. Anything is better than a straight fall to the deck.

Right now I’m fighting with the bosun’s chair and flexible web ladder to make my way up the stick. I climb the ladder and my hubby takes up the slack on the chair. Mostly I work standing on the ladder and use the chair to rest a bit.

I want a rock climbing harness. I’ve got my eye on one and am looking at a system that will allow me to hoist myself up with that harness. Then I’d like to have my hubby as back up with the halyard.

No matter how you come at it, climbing the mast is dangerous.

Karen Larson on September 1st, 2009 at 8:54 am #


Steve Christensen, an author with Good Old Boat magazine has pointed out to me that you used his article as a reference point for this article. He says you told him that you never heard of Good Old Boat magazine. Since that is the case, I’d like to send you a copy, if you’ll please send me your mailing address.

I expect that you found Steve’s article posted on the BoatU.S. site, where it has been for many years. We have no hard feelings about your liberal use of Steve’s text, since it was posted as a service to other sailors. But since you have done that, I would like to introduce you to what I think you’ll find to be a very interesting and useful publication. Please send me your mailing address.

Just FYI, I am the founder and editor of Good Old Boat. We have been happily helping DIY sailors since mid-1998.

Debbie on September 1st, 2009 at 7:42 pm #

Hi Karen,

Thank you so much for your kind offer but Steve is incorrect. I did not tell him I’ve never heard of your publication. I think over the last couple of years I’ve picked up one or two at West Marine. I appreciate your kind offer of a free copy but given the current economic conditions; it isn’t necessary…but thank you very much.

Since buying our Newport 30 I’ve looked at numerous print publications both books and magazine articles, several Internet forums, boat show displays and magazine ads that cover the limited products available to get up the stick. Plus I’ve talked with many club members asking for their input.

The first post I did regarding climbing the mast was not very informative for anyone visiting my blog. It was really more me chatting about going up for the first time and my reflections on it. I have since come to view it as a rather embarrassing post and wanted to provide a more informative one. The catalyst for the second post came about due to my buddy’s need to climb his Catalina 36’s mast and the discussion we all had that day.

I spent the next couple of weeks working on that particular post. Needless to say, I found myself quite upset with Steve’s email given the amount of work I’d put into it. In an effort to be polite I told Steve: There is only so much one can write in regards to climbing the mast and I think both you and I could look like we’ve taken from others who’ve written on this subject.

I know Steve feels differently but I didn’t use his article. I can say, I wish I’d used the other opening line I’d thought of. It was either ‘death and taxes’ or ‘not if but when you run aground’ to show the inevitable need to climb the mast.

Congratulations on eleven years with Good Old Boat!

harry nash on June 9th, 2011 at 11:51 pm #

dear sirs could you tell me where the beast place in sydney to buy a top climber for a slf hauling up the mast thanks harry nash .

Debbie on June 14th, 2011 at 7:27 am #

Hi Harry,

I’m in the US so I don’t have a clue where you could go, other than the Internet and just order on line. Anyone in Sydney know?

Pam Prentice on March 26th, 2012 at 11:16 am #


You have a great web site, very easy to find information. We need more climbers!

Check out my fun video:

Climbing the Mast


Please feel free to share my videos with others. It would be wonderful to link them on your web site and blog.

Kindest regards,

Pamela Prentice
Sports and Education Advocate, a Los Gatos, California Designer

Debbie on March 26th, 2012 at 9:14 pm #


All I can say is WOW!!! I should be so quick up the stick. My hubby and I are getting old so it’s definately a creak, squeek and slow climb up. Great job is all I can say! Also I have harness envy…. 😉

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