||Please send any comments to me.
This page updated: September 2012
- Hoisted by someone who cranks the winch:
Dangerous if you don't have safeties.
Requires 2 people.
- Mast steps:
Can snag halyards (and maybe sails),
unless you get removable steps, or run a light line
or wire down the outside of the steps.
Weaken the mast a bit.
Tempt you to go part way up with no safety gear.
Add clutter and windage to the boat.
2nd mast adds more expense.
Use your hands to hold on, instead of to do work.
FASTEP (seems to have disappeared).
From garbonzo on Cruising World
"use very stiff shoes or your instep will be killing you"
- Rat-lines up the shrouds:
Usually only go up to spreaders; need some
other way to get to masthead.
May tempt you to go part way up mast with no safety gear.
Use your hands to hold on, instead of to do work.
- Climb rope using ascenders or rachets:
On Rope 1
rope-walkers $250 including harness.
ATN TopClimber includes bosun's chair with hard seat no padding.
ATN TOPCLIMBER article in 1/15/2001 issue of Practical Sailor
Won't work directly on wire halyards, but you can use the halyard to raise
a rope to the masthead, and then climb the rope.
Must always leave an inch or two free above each ascender to
have room to release it from the rope.
From ATN 6/2012:
"The main improvement between the Topclimber and the Mastclimber are the new ascenders
which will fit OVER any halyard (from 3/8" up to 5/8"),
when the topclimber necessitated an extra 1/2" piece of line to be hoisted.
And the Mastclimber chair is more comfortable as well (better back support)."
"The Topclimber is a Dutch product that I altered and improved / imported it as the ATN topclimber for 10 years.
We parted ways in 2009 after I came out with my ATN Mastclimber (made in the USA)."
- Ladder that uses the mainsail track:
- Self-hoisting with tackle:
Using a block-and-tackle to hoist yourself using your arms: a lot of rope to haul, a lot of
weight even at 4-to-1, and your hands are fully occupied while climbing (unless you use a racheting block).
MastLift from Swiss-Tech
Mast Ascender, $150?, does not include bosun's chair.
- Emergency rope ladder:
Tie loops in a rope and hoist it with a halyard,
wrapping it around the mast as many times as possible.
From David Simpson on Cruising World
I installed "Mast Walkers" ten years ago. They are
what ABI copied to make theirs. Feel very comfortable and
secure on them (with climbing harness and halyard tended by my wife).
When folded, they rarely snag anything, and are vibration-free
when motoring. The only down-side I can find is the weight aloft.
From Dave George on Cruising World
We have permanent mast steps. This is a 50' (above deck) two spreader mast.
My wife and I sail double handed, there is no way she could hoist me up the mast
in a bosun's chair just with a halyard winch. I made my own steps out of aluminum strap,
and had them anodized. I have attached them to the mast with machine screws
in tapped holes. 18" apart is what I used, and is about right. I have two steps
opposite each other right at the top, so I can stand up comfortably to work on things up there.
I have also run a light stainless cable along the outside edge of the steps to
keep halyards from getting hung up. That works well.
I use the steps regularly. It is very handy to be able to run up and down to the
first spreader to aid in navigating through reefs. Going above the first spreader
I always use a bosun's chair and a halyard for safety, which my wife tends on the
winch, but I climb the steps.
One thing we make a habit of is a full visual inspection of all rigging fittings
all the way to the masthead before any kind of an offshore passage. The steps make
it easy, without them I would be looking for excuses not to have to go up the mast,
or looking for someone who could winch me up.
I am sure they add additional windage. We sail a medium / heavy 44' boat.
A little extra windage on the mast is the least of our worries. On a smaller boat,
windage might be a consideration. In our case the convenience far outweighs anything else.
About removable mast steps, from David Simpson on Cruising World
The problems I see here: you must have some sort of bag to hold these on the
way up and down ... must install and remove one-handed (both righties and lefties) ...
When raising the leg to take a step, it is VERY easy to kick the step up and
out and gone, and it will not be there any more for the trip down.
From Evert Volkersz on the WorldCruising mailing list
... Fastep mast steps, which can be
inserted in pre-drilled holes in the mast. The idea of going up the mast
with a number of steps that need to be inserted while you are bobbing back
and forth, or pounding, does not appeal to me. At the Atlantic City Boat
Show Alfred Gilbert, the inventor, said I would probably make two trips just
to put them all in. And I suppose two trips to take them all down, hoping
that none fall on deck or in the water.
From John / Truelove on the WorldCruising mailing list
I installed the ABI folding steps and I'm very happy with them. Damage
Control makes a similar step, except they come in different "sizes" to fit
various mast diameters. I used 1/4" aluminum rivets - be aware that two
lengths may be required as the thickness at the bottom holes is less than at
the top. I was careful to punch the steel mandrels out after riveting, and
sealed the holes with silicone. I originally contemplated doing this job "in
the air," and was happy that I did it with the spar on the hard instead. It's
a good idea to measure clearances to shrouds, etc prior to unstepping the
mast in order to avoid interference near the tangs. I had to offset a couple
of steps in this area to provide clearance. Regarding spacing, I used the
minimum recommended (18") because my 1st mate was short; I was happy I did,
because although I'm 6'+, I would not want it to be greater than that.
From Jan Bruggeman on the WorldCruising mailing list
I placed mine 1 m apart, but "out of phase": the ones at starboard sit just
in the middle of the 1m space of the port ones. But that's something you'll
just have to try for yourself. Important things are:
- choose a model in which you stick your feet "into them", and not "rest
- mount 2 steps at equal height in top of the mast, so you can rest on both
feet when fixing something in top of the mast. Somehow, the trouble is
allways at the top of the mast - except when the mast has been taken down,
then the problem will be inside the mast ;-)
Mine are homemade: just bend some strips of stainless steel or aluminium
and bolt them to the mast. Rivets didn't last.
Climb rope using ascenders or rachets:
From GeorgeB on Cruising World
I've got the Topclimber; once you get the rhythm for moving
your arms and legs it's fairly straightforward. However, the
effort is still the equivalent of climbing several flights of stairs.
From Doug Sterrett on the WorldCruising mailing list
[Re: ATN Topclimber:] No offense to ATN but I priced the components used in this set-up at my
local rock climbing shop and came up with $175 instead of ATN's $280 (with
inferior ascenders). Go buy the pieces yourself (get Petzl brand
ascenders) and save yourself some money. Cautionary note: Try this rig
out hanging from a rafter in your garage before you go up your mast. It
takes a little learning to get the knack of it.
From Bob Foco on Cruising World
My son is a mountain climber and gave me 2 Gibb ratchets.
They are like a cam cleat (but obviously safer and a bit
more sophisticated). They cost $40 apiece.
The first thing you do is attach the main halyard to the base
of the mast and tighten it bar-hard. Attach the 2 cleats to
the halyard, one lower than the other. Attached to the top
cleat is a climbing harness or bosun's chair. Attached to the
lower cleat is line with 2 foot-loops.
STEP 1 - You simply sit on the bosun's chair and
slide the lower cleat up until it hits the bottom of the
upper cleat. This can be done because there is no weight
on the foot straps.
STEP 2 - stand up (which takes weight off
the bosun's chair) and slide the upper cleat up the halyard.
STEP 3 - repeat STEP 1.
I have a 62-foot mast and go up and down it easily to spray
my sail-track, inspect shrouds, or do other maintenance.
They can be purchased at REI or any mountain shop.
The gibb ascender is "cleat-like". One end of the cleat
is a jaw and the other end is a lever. When you want to
come down you lift the lever which withdraws the jaw.
This can only be done when there is no load on that
particular ascender. If the ascender is loaded (weight on)
then it is "impossible" to lift the lever. I use 2 ascenders,
my harness is attached to the top one and a "texas tee" foot
strap is attached to the lower ascender. Advice from Al Hatch
says to run a safety strap from the harness to the lower ascender also.
My experience so far (6 climbs):
I put together an equivalent of ATN TopClimber from parts (ATN's is slightly more
expensive and I've heard their bosun's chair is not good).
Nice bosun's chair from SailNet ($75), small pieces of line ($10),
2 quick-links ($8),
rest from onrope1: 2 Petzl ascenders (2 x $45), foot loops ($45),
simple safety harness ($32), 60 feet of climbing line ($36).
Total $310 with tax, shipping.
I wish I'd gotten two right-handed ascenders instead of one right
and one left. I find it easiest to hold the mast with my left hand
and work the ascenders with my right hand.
From Tim O'Neil on the SailNet liveaboard-list:
For what it's worth, I was extremely discouraged with my ATN self Climber.
If you want to inch up your mast (it takes forever) plus struggle with poor
design of the handheld unit (after several feet up my right hand was
deformed and very sore), buy it!! By the way, I jog daily so my legs were up
to the task.
I'm back to a static / safety line and my mate yanking me up on the main
grinder in the ATN chair and harness. I'm sure other "rock climbing systems"
are more effective.
Ascenders from REI
I made a climbing rig with ascenders and a bosun's chair
It works fine.
But getting anything done at the top of the mast is frustrating !
I don't get quite high enough on the spare halyard,
there's only one mast step to stand on at the top,
stays and shrouds get in the way,
I often need one hand to hang on and
two more to use tools, standing up there in awkward positions and holding on is tiring,
and most of the 30-year-old hardware at the top of my
mast is frozen/galled in place.
From Ron Rogers on the SailNet liveaboard-list:
... these devices [ascenders] eventually chew the outer layer of the rope. They were intended for use with
kernmantle/braided rope with an abrasion-resistant outer shell ...
From Rob Patt on World-Cruising mailing list
Do not connect ascenders on the main halyard! Ascenders eat ropes. In climbing we retire ropes
more often than in sailing. When using the main halyard as a safety line tie it off with a figure
eight, do not use the shackle, as this has been the most common failure point for accidents that
have crippled or killed people climbing masts. We would actually use two halyards for mast climbing
for a secondary safety; make sure there isn’t slack that could create a fall distance. The person
going up can take up slack if you are limited by the number of people.
From Al Hatch on Cruising World
Ascender safety: Always have a safety line from each ascender
to your harness. Falls usually happen on the way down, when
you're tired, maybe cold, thinking you're almost safe on deck.
The safety line from each ascender to the harness should be
short enough so if you end up falling onto it the ascender is
still within your reach.
Self-hoisting with tackle:
From De Clarke:
... I splurged on a Mastlift, figuring
it for a lifetime investment (it will get me up masts when
I am 70 and doddering, I hope). It is a fine, though somewhat
spooky, device. By "spooky" I mean only that when you are
30 ft off the deck and rising, there's a tendency to look
up at that anonymous can and wonder how sturdy is the little
pawl that is keeping you from falling down again :-)
I have been up a 37 ft mast three or four times with it, though
not all the way to the very top. Though it was a heckuva lot
of money (ouch!) it means that I can do mast work any time, on
my own schedule, without needing some large and trustworthy
gorilla to handle the halyard for me (I'm too old and fat
and lazy to climb up the hard way, for sure!). I do have some
doubts about using the mastlift in a seaway though. It tends
to swing and bang about while being hoisted.
My technique for using it is not as the mfr recommends, of
course :-) I find the little winding handle they provide
to be absolutely useless either for winding up or unwinding
the gizmo. What I do (so far) is attach a weight to the
free end of the lifting line -- a 5 gal jug of water does
fine -- and then hoist the whole shebang up. I use the
"endless loop" hauling line to control the swinging of the
unit as it goes up. When it gets to the top, the 5 gal
jug gives me enough tension that I can just whale away
on the hauling line to bring the business end down to
deck level again. I find this much easier than trying to
unwind the lifting line on deck and then deal with 40 ft
of that plus 40 ft (doubled) of hauling line -- a real
The disconcerting thing about this gizmo is the little hiccup
when you reverse direction and start going down. There's about
a half-inch or so of free-fall before the clutch bites firmly,
and of course the first time this is a real adrenaline rush :-)
but after a while I got used to it (OK, I still grit my teeth
a bit, but at least I know what to expect). The very best thing
about it is the enormous reduction (10/1 or so) which means it
is slow but almost effortless to get 30 or 40 feet off the deck.
I made two trips in one day, with a lot of drilling and futzing
around at the top (installing lazy-jacks) and apart from the
nervousness of working high up with unknown gear, I felt
rested and relaxed at the top, rather than exhausted. And
(dig this) it can be worked one-handed.
A buddy of mine bought the topclimber device -- the harness which
allows you to "inchworm" your way up a taut rope using cam
cleats. We both tried it out. We found that it was far more
tiring to use than we had anticipated. I found it seemed more
difficult for a short person -- something about the design of
the harness and location of the cleats. The vendor claims it
is "easy" and will not tire you out, but we disagreed after a
couple of practice climbs. It is $310 if you recall -- not
cheap, but less than 1/3 the price of the mastlift. We
did not achieve a consensus on who got their money's worth :-)
The only bad thing I will say about my unit is that it arrived
a bit rusty (the internal reduction gears). Probably nowhere near
as rusty as it may get when stored on a boat for months, but it
does warn me that regular maintenance with white-grease will be
an absolute necessity for the "gearbox". I have not yet taken
it apart :-) as I am somewhat afraid of breaking it and/or not
knowing how to verify its function properly before trusting it
again after reassembly.
So that's it for the mastlift -- ridiculously expensive, but it
really delivers on the promise of near-effortless mast climbing and
(after a little experience to win my trust) a feeling of security.
From Warren Johnson:
After having tons of work done by Brion Toss we
picked up a great and simple system for going aloft. It simply
involves using: Brion's safety harness (very comfortable -- I spent
nearly two hours at the top of the mast drilling/tapping/installing a
new LED tri-color before taking off, however it's pretty pricy), a
single racheting block from Harken (need one that will take at least
9/16" line) and approx 110' (depends on your mast -- I went with more
than I needed so I could help out friends) of 5/8" yachtbraid cordage.
To set up, you simply reave the 5/8" line thru the block and take it
aloft -- one end of the line is attached to a carabiner (via a butterfly
or becket bend etc) on the climber, the other (which should be lead
through a carabiner on the climber so it won't get away) is used as the
'hoist' and should be flaked on deck.
The use of the above system is pretty self explanatory, just remember
that you always have another 'safety' line as well -- this is not used
to hoist (unless the climber gets pooped near the top etc) but is keep
taut in case the other line fails and is not used to lower climber
(they do that on their own).
Also, IMHO (and Brions' crew) it's a mistake to use a 4:1 setup for
the block and tackle to get to the top of the mast -- too many lines
to foul. 2:1 works FINE and you get a pretty good workout (I
generally take a little break on my way up at the spreaders).
This setup fits very nicely into a large gym bag for quick deployment as needed.
From Richard Dixon:
I use my anchor winch with its long (14 m) cable with controls on.
Easy as pie in my bosun's chair (home-made) and the mainsail halyard
(max loading 750 kg), safety line is an abrasive rubber sleeve which
locks around the mast (stages) and hangs going up ... very quick and very
safe as the rope is around the winch rounded part not in the chain dep.
> you run the anchor windlass from the bosun's
> chair, or does someone on deck run it for you ?
I run it myself, mainly because the last owner put a 13 meter long thick cable on
the up-down thing/box, that enables me to go up using the
outer ring of the winch, and not the inner, which is formed to take a
chain, the outer is like a drum with an edge, which
takes rope/halyard around it ... the whole point being I am often alone on deck
Only thing that is unsure (when alone), is the fact of the rope slipping
off the side of the winch whilst turning.
> rope could slip or jam on windlass,
> or control switch could stick on or off.
Bosun's chairs, and harnesses:
From Michael Rich on the SailNet liveaboard-list:
... I have a bosun's chair, the board type, and
find it very unsafe. You can slip out of this chair quite easily and I
wouldn't recommend it to anyone. There isn't any secure feeling sitting in
this type of bosun's seat. ...
Bosun's chair makes it hard to use your legs to help climb, and to protect from collisions.
Want hard-bottom, not soft-bottom, bosun's chair.
Use harness (instead of bosun's chair) from
But Amanda Neal says they may not dry very well, and may corrode, since
they are not intended for marine use.
Maybe Brion Toss's "Bosun's Harness"
Want your chair/harness knot low enough on the chair/harness so that when you get
to the top, you can reach the masthead.
A downhaul tied to the bottom of the chair/harness
can be used to minimize swinging around.
From Robert Hutchinson:
Any of the ascender-based systems count on the attachment to the climber's harness
to be above their center of gravity. I once used a lineman's waistbelt while
climbing a tree with Jumar ascenders. On my way down from a strenuous climb,
I found myself losing arm strength, and within a few feet of the ground,
slowly inverted, as the harness attachment was below my center of gravity.
Hanging upside down looking at my buddies brought smiles to their faces
and much useless advice, but had it happened sixty feet higher, there
would have been little they could do to save me. Be sure to consult
with an experienced climbing expert when selecting a harness, and
give it a lengthy test at low altitudes.
From Robin Lidstone:
I go up a fixed rope to the masthead using Jumars (mountaineering stuff) and find
the best bosun's chair to be my old paragliding "harness".
It provides comfortable seating and good attachment points; an older and out-of-date model
could probably be picked up through a paragliding club or magazine.
SailNet - Sue and Larry's "Working Aloft In A Bosun's Chair"
Mast-climbing article by Bill Springer in 7/2004 issue of Sail magazine
Sail-World's "Another mast-climbing death - Nine Rules so you are not next"
Article by Frank Lanier in 11/2008 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes magazine
From Seahwk on the SailNet liveaboard-list:
- If using an assistant, work out a set of hand-signals.
- Practice climbing when in a slip in a marina.
Then practice it again when anchored out in a swell.
- Reduce the boat motion as much as possible.
- After rigging the hauling setup, climb up 2 or 3 feet, then jump and
come down hard 3 or 4 times, as a test.
- Want some shock absorption in the system.
Normal rope should have enough; wire halyards won't.
- If you climb using a halyard with a snap shackle, tape the snap
shackle shut so it doesn't open accidentally. Or, instead
of using the shackle to attach halyard to chair, use a knot,
and then the shackle as backup. Rope/shackle joint
is most likely failure point.
- Wear tight-fitting and rugged/protective clothing.
- Wear sneakers or sea boots or SCUBA boots (with hard sole)
for better grip on mast.
- At night, tape flashlight to forearm.
- In heavy weather, wear life-vest to soften
collisions with spars and rigging.
- Carry a knife in case you get tangled.
- Carry extra tools; better to carry them up and down
needlessly than to get up there and not have what you need.
- Wear a fisherman's vest for tool storage.
- Safety device:
- From Gary (rigger in FL):
- Bosun's chair that comes with ATN Topclimber is not good.
- Want bosun's chair, not soft-bottomed harness,
if you are going to spend more than 5 minutes up mast.
- Solo-climbing gear usually requires a tight rope,
so you can't swing out to spreader tips.
- Solo-climbing is made more difficult by all of the tools
and parts you'll have attached to the bosun's chair.
- He and his rigger buddies climb using a special rig they designed;
it has a 4-1 block and some expensive special ratcheting Harken block in it.
Design is not available; not a commercial product.
Anyone who has
been in a climbing harness for any period of time, knows that some can be
very uncomfortable after a short period of time. I suggest a padded harness
will be worth its weight in gold by the time you come down. Also, it is nice
to attach 1" tubular webbing to the ascenders, which form the foot loops. A
should be the only knot used in tubular webbing. Other knots
may slip or come apart. Any time one is suspended in a harness, there should
be a completely separate back-up safety line clipped into the harness.
OK, shocking news, it is recommended that your system should have a 15
to 1 safety ratio the best that I recall. In other words, a 200 lb. person
would need a line and system rated at 3000 pounds minimum. I don't know what
ratings the pulleys in the tops of mast have but I would caution all going up
to not overload any system. I can only imagine the effects corrosion and
even ultraviolet light has on components. The reason for what seems like an
extremely high rating is the "shock load" which a system may experience if
one drops suddenly. Picture 200 lb. free falling 5 or 6 feet and suddenly
stopped by the system. I know you can't picture this happening when
everything is right, but when something goes wrong, this could be the
situation. Sorry if I sound pessimistic but I have gotten this way due to my
profession over the last 25 years. I also feel anyone in a bosun's chair
should be in a harness and clipped in with a completely separate back-up
These are only my own opinions and extreme caution should be used by all
going up any mast.
From Larry Dill on the Morgan mailing list:
I know that many folks prefer climbing ladders to dangling from ropes, but
my preference is to use the bosun's chair. Using ladders or mast steps
requires considerable focus.
Disagree? You've never seen folks slipping on ladders? Look at that oft
played tape of the invasion of the Davidian compound at Waco -- it appears
that one of the BATF guys shot himself in the foot as his foot slipped
whilst rapidly ascending a ladder. He probably never did THAT before, but,
he was under unusual stress. I'll concede that in the cool of the evening
when all is serene, climbing a ladder may be okay, but you may be required
to go aloft in nastier conditions, under stress.
I like knowing that my hands are free (if need be). The chair gives me a
great deal of comfort, and I can comfortably sit at the masthead for as long
as I like (spent over an hour up there as night fell one evening last
season -- nothing to it).
Some don't totally trust their halyards to carry them to the top. I dunno
what is the maximum load my halyard experiences in heavy air, but I'll wager
that my 200 lbs (with chair and a few tools) is relatively insignificant.
This brings up a nice question, methinks: Anyone out there know of anyone
falling while using a bosun's chair due to equipment failure? I'll hazard a
guess that any mishaps are a result of neglect or oversight, not from
Last time I climbed an antenna tower, I had this uncanny realization that if
I missed a grip, the descent might be rather brief. As I swayed at the top,
I wasted much of my energy, applying greater force to my grip than was
necessary. I'll concede, that if I were to spend more time aloft, I may
become more comfortable hanging to a swaying mast, but acquiring such skill
is not high on my list of priorities.
Though probably unnecessary, when riding a chair, I hang on and assist with
my arms. At the top, I can attach a harness to the masthead, if I choose.
I have never felt insecure on a chair (but have on a ladder).
As a bonus, with the chair, I typically swing out to the ends of the
spreaders on the way down, and have a close look at all rigging, just for
the heck of it (okay, maybe I do it just because it's fun).
From William Holbrook on the SailNet liveaboard-list:
[In the ATN TopClimber,] the main device used is a rock climbing tool,
generally called a "jammer". The first ones were made by a company called
Jumar, so many climbers call them "Jumar jammers". Probably the biggest
sellers now are made by Petzl, a company with a long history in rock
I have a climbing harness and a pair of jammers (they are made in left and
right for ease of use with both hands). I went to REI, probably the largest
seller of climbing products, and got advice from a climbing instructor. My
initial setup was just like climbers use; each jammer had a webbing strap
with a foot loop, all hooked to the climbing harness. I would climb by
putting my weight on one foot and sliding the other jammer up the static
line as far as the webbing loop allowed; then I would climb one step by
shifting my weight to the other foot and repeating the process with the
alternate loop. Although experienced climbers may find this easy; for me
it was tiring and difficult.
My current setup uses a bosun's chair and a five-part tackle with one
jammer. I use a spare halyard to raise the upper block in the five-part
to masthead, and tie off the halyard. I then attach my bosun chair to the
jammer and the lower block in the five-part. The line running thru the
jammer is the running line of the five part. I can then use the 5:1 ratio
to raise myself up the mast. I pull one arm length on the running part
with my right hand, and slide the jammer up with my left. The jammer then
holds me while I move my right hand up the running part for another pull.
Coming down, I hold the thumb lock on the jammer with my left hand and tail
the runing part with my right, If I move too quickly, or wish to stop the
descent for any other reason, I just let go the thumb latch, and I stop
instantly. I find this setup easy to use, and I can go up and dowm without
By the way, I used this setup while installing mast steps. Since my aim
is cruising, I don't mind the windage from the steps. I still prefer the
bosun chair setup for lengthy jobs, although I must use the steps for
anything on the masthead (I can't get high enough in the bosun chair).
When I go up using the steps, I wear my climbing harness and use a jammer
on a static line as a safety measure; if the boat rolls suddenly, or I
slip, I am held by the harness. I generally tie a loop loosely around the
mast also; this prevents me from flying away from the mast in the event of
a fall, etc.
A final word on the climbing harness: A climbing harness will
hold you even upside down. A bosun's chair will not!!
After 8 years aboard, my thinking is:
Remove everything from the top of the mast, so you don't have to climb
the stupid thing (except to fix rigging issues). I got tired of climbing
to fix the anchor light every 6 months; now I hang an anchor light inside
my pilothouse, which is much more visible to high-speed skiffs traveling at night.
How to choose which crew should climb the mast:
- Expendability. Think "Star Trek security guard".
- Who snores the loudest ?
- Who tells the worst jokes ? Punners go to top of the list.
- Whose loss will cause the least paperwork ?
- Who drinks or eats the most ? Provisions aren't unlimited, you know.