Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Up A Mast Without A Ladder

For those of you who aren't familiar with one, this is a mast:

Mast, shrouds, stays, spreaders, lights, lines, and radome, in no particular order.

It's the tall, skinny thing on a sailboat that the sails hang off of. There are usually an abundance of lines going from various places, especially the top (called the masthead) to the hull. This is all pretty basic stuff that anyone with even a passing knowledge of sailing should be aware of.

What a lot of non-sailors don't appreciate is that every so often, someone has to get to the top of the mast in order to do stuff. Stuff like add new instruments, fix broken parts, or run new lines. There are a lot of ways to scale a mast, but one of the most common is called a bosun's chair. It's a lot like a rock-climbing harness, and in fact a rock climbing harness can easily be used instead of a bosun's chair. In essence, a bosun's chair is some piece of sturdy material connected to some rope or webbing that is in turn connected to a line (preferably a halyard) running from the top of the mast back down to the deck.

Why am I going on about masts and bosun's chairs and halyards?

Because I just recently scaled a mast for the first time, that's why.

I'm getting ready to do my first open ocean sail with my friend Beth on her boat Solstice. As part of the prep work, she wanted to run a spare halyard up to the mast and back down to the deck for use in the event of an emergency. I was on the boat at her marina with her a couple of other folks, and seeing as I was both the lightest and most athletically inclined person on the boat at the time, I volunteered.

Mind you, I'm not afraid of heights and I'm not entirely unfamiliar with climbing equipment, having spent some time in college rock climbing. One huge plus that scaling a mast has over rock climbing is the presence of strong winches*. Scaling a mast when being winched up is less like climbing and more like assisting while someone else does all of the heavy lifting, which is very nice. But, unlike rock climbing, there are some nuances to scaling a mast that I had not anticipated.

First and foremost, I had to navigate the maze of lines. This was less like climbing and more like a vertical obstacle course. If I wasn't careful, I'd have gotten tangled in a wayward lazy jack or shroud and had to go back down a ways to fix it. Not fun.

Once I got to the top, I couldn't just repel down, I had to move myself around and maintain my balance while actually doing the work. This was much more work than I had anticipated, and my abs, butt, and legs got one heck of a workout.

And lastly, coming down isn't just like repelling down a rock face because not only do you have to navigate that maze of lines again, you have to do it with sore and/or tired abs and legs. Urk.

But all things considered, it was totally worth it. Not only do I feel better having that emergency halyard run, there's pretty much no place else where you can take pictures like this:

Hey, you, quit lookin' at my butt!


*There are also so-called self-climbing bosun's chairs that let you ratchet your way up, and then there's the damned fools who just free-climb the mast. I'll stick with the mechanical advantage thank you very much.

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