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Old 05-11-2009, 12:17 PM   #1
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With the latest report of a single-hander going overboard while apparently trying to fix a halyard at sea, I am again pondering this issue.*

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Holicki said the photograph of the Sea Jade taken by a fishing vessel showed Robinson's broken safety harness up the mast.

"His life vest was not on board so we assume he went up the mast and the safety harness broke and he went overboard," he said.

Veteran yachtsman John Martin said the foresails had been lashed down, but the mainsail had had only one lashing.*

"It looks as if the mainsail came down very quickly," Martin said.*

"The main halyard broke or a shackle came undone, and he put one lash around the mainsail to stop it blowing away. Then he would have gone up the mast in some sort of safety harness to sort out whatever had gone wrong."
Should you go up the mast while at sea to repair something or retrieve a lost halyard? *Is there another tactic that can be used?

I've hauled Peter up the mast while at sea in order to fix a spreader. *I had to do it twice and even though the seas were extremely calm I refused to do it a third time. *As calm as the seas were, the pervasive ocean swell made the mast swing widely. *Peter had to hold on the entire time with one hand while working on the spreader with the other. *I could imagine about a dozen ways that could have gone tragically wrong, and thus insisted that we find some other option.

So, what to do?

Halyards - broken or lost.

I believe that a broken halyard shouldn't happen on a passage. *Before setting out, part of the pre-departure checkout should be of the running rigging, and replacing any rigging that is showing serious wear. *I also believe that shackles should be spliced to the halyard, not attached with a knot. *Knots are significantly weaker than an eye splice and are more likely to fail than a splice.

That said, the unthinkable can happen, and halyard or shackle could fail. *Then, I believe, there should be a spare halyard that could take up the mainsail. *Even the topping lift, if there is one, could be pressed into service.

If there is no replacement halyard, I guess I'd rather sail under headsail alone rather than risk a trip up the mast.

Standing rigging problem

This could be more of a danger, and perhaps a trip up the mast while at sea might be necessary, but we have used a spare halyard to stand in for a shroud occasionally when working on the boat, and I would want the seas to be very, very calm before attempting a trip up the mast to work on standing rigging.

Thinking about what can go wrong shouldn't deter one from going to sea, but it should encourage one to inspect all the boat's gear, including safety harnesses, lifejackets, and rigging, before setting out. *I think that it is also not a bad idea to do a little coastal sailing in rougher than normal weather to test gear and crew before taking on a longer passage.

I also believe that the longer a boat sits at anchor in a harbor, the greater the probability that something will break when it finally goes back to the sea. *Complacency has been the greatest risk that Peter and I have encountered in our cruising life.
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Old 05-11-2009, 08:07 PM   #2
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Having to get to the top of the mast to do repairs is something that both David and I are paranoid about being prepared for and doing safely.

We would never consider simply going up on a bosun's chair as many people do. Even at the dock, it isn't safe, IMHO.

What one can do to increase safe ascent and descent, include a couple things--

First--get some additional tangs welded onto your masthead, add a mast band, or do what you need to do to have AT LEAST two additional halyards/lines on blocks up there and available (on each mast) to you for your climbing OR for emergency use on the rig. Yes, these might be useful for other purposes with your rig, but their MAIN purpose is to get you safely up and down your mast(s).

As you may know, we're in the process of re-rigging right now--and making sure that we can get safely up the masts was one of our main priorities.

Lucky for us that a schooner rig, by nature, has scads of extra sails that can be hoisted and thus we find ourselves with tangs in place for topsails/fisherman, etc. This works beautifully for having extra halyards available. The previous owner of our boat also had two additional tangs put on the foremast for blocks to run multiple head sails--thus we find ourselves with the requisite 2 extra halyards/lines per mast without us adding tangs or a mast band to get there.

A proper set up with bosun's chair has a 3 or 4 or even 5 part tackle and this means you'd have to carry lots and lots of line just for using it. I suppose this is why many folks end up having a crewmate haul them up the mast using the sheet winches rather than letting one haul one's self up using a proper block/tackle and bosun's chair set up. However, there is a better way--use climbing equipment and methods that have been developed for use in industrial rigging, spelunking, mountain climbing, etc.

Once you've got these extra tangs in place, you can get a climbing rope (don't tear up your halyards with ascenders!), small rescue-style pulley to attach to your halyard, climbing harnesses (chest harness and seat harness), and ascenders (like those that rock climbers and cavers use)...finally, don't forget a good quality helmet to protect the noggin. Learn how to use proper climbing equipment--you might get a rock climber or spelunker to assist you in learning, or a professional rigger (industrial or sailboat) with climbing experience. It's not hard to climb rope safely (you can do this! Even if you're really out of shape, like me) but it is hard to learn on your own without help from other climbers. Both hubby and I are fortunate to have learned how to climb many years ago when caving.

After you've learned how to climb properly, NOW you're in much greater control of your destiny. Suddenly, safely climbing to the masthead isn't the big terror-filled experience that it can be when you're relying on someone else to haul you up a halyard using your sheet winch.

Plan on CLIMBING the rope using your climbing equipment--don't plan on someone hauling you up there. Our system is to attach a rescue pulley to a halyard (so your halyard must be strong even though you're not climbing on it directly), pull up the climbing rope with the halyard, secure it at the base of the mast using a rappelling rack (you don't need a rack, but it makes it possible for someone belaying you to lower you down safely if you are injured...else, you would run your halyard around a horizontal capstan on the windlass or to a sheet winch allowing a controlled lowering of the climber in case of injury). The biggest risk of injury with proper climbing is going to be a head injury if you're whipped around in the rigging--thus, you really want that helmet on your head.

Climb the climbing rope using your ascending gear (this can be mechanical ascenders such as Jumars, Gibbs, or simply tying on some appropriate line with climbing knots); if you're climbing properly and safely, you will be tied into/attached to your climbing rope in three places (at the chest harness and on a line/webbing loop attached to each foot) and with this you cannot fall--but you can ram into something on your boat and be injured--thus, having another person belay the rope is especially helpful (though not necessary) when you start your ascent.

The reason you'd like to have two extra halyards is because you can use the extra halyard--the one that your climbing rope is NOT attached to--as a back-up to the climbing rope. You can attach yourself to this other halyard by a climbing knot so that you have a "back up" to the rope you're climbing. From a practical perspective, it's hard to be climbing one rope and keep pushing that knot up the spare halyard--frustratingly too many lines around you--but it is possible. Else, you can just tie into the spare halyard with your backup knot/ascender once you get to the top of the mast (or whatever point on the mast you'll be working). Now you've got three points tied into the climbing rope (hoisted by the first extra halyard) and one point tied into the second spare halyard.

This is a very safe way to work aloft. Even folks like me (definitely out of shape, over weight, and not able to do any impressive physical activity) can safely and comfortably work aloft using a climbing system. Again--the biggest risk of injury comes from swinging around in the rigging without control and getting smacked by the mast, a spreader, etc. If you're alone, you'll have to take your chances on this; if you have at least one other person aboard, you can have them belay your climbing rope and/or strategically use your 2nd backup halyard to keep you better positioned in the rigging.

While we wouldn't considering going up the rig on a bosun's chair, we do realize that if you're is going to be working on the mast for some length of time, staying tied into your rope with your climbing gear, you'll likely wish to tie a plank seat in place (knot above you on the climbing rope...and simple board "swing seat" will do) to work more comfortably than you can work in a harness alone.

Once you're done with your work, you can reverse your ascent by using rappelling gear. The easy thing to do is to have something attached to your seat harness (in our case, its something we call a "figure 8") to rappel back down the rope. While rock climbers don't do it, you can keep yourself safely close to the rope with a carabiner at the chest harness, too. Further, someone can belay you (as long as the tail of the rope you are descending is taut, your descending equipment won't slide down the rope). In our case, since we have a nice climber's rack, we typically use it at the base of the mast to secure the climbing rope and then the person on deck can lower the person climbing down to deck level so the climber doesn't have to remove the three point climbing system from the rope.

All that sounds confusing. However, hope you can understand it.

Safely ascending the rigging is possible if you think ahead and have the right equipment aboard the boat to do the job.
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Old 05-11-2009, 08:12 PM   #3
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PS--the spare halyards can work very nicely as extra shrouds, too. However, once you've pressed them into this service, you need to inspect them carefully before considering climbing on them again.

Extra shrouds are a great thing in a cruising boat. Our main has one set of completely unneeded intermediate shrouds halfway between the spreaders and the mast head. It also carries running backstays (which can take a side load like a shroud) as well as the fixed backstay. The Foremast carries a set of jumper stays that act as an extra set of shrouds but do have a different purpose. And finally, we have twin forestays at the stemhead as well as the jibstay on the bowsprit. Extra, extra, extra is good.
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Old 05-11-2009, 11:20 PM   #4
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Good Idea to revisit this topic,

Don't forget Mast steps ( we've covered them a number of times - eg : Click here)

Minimum would be 2 either side of the mast to enable standing on them while working on whatever at the top of the mast. Another 2 to enable work on spreaders etc.
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Old 05-11-2009, 11:58 PM   #5
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Good Idea to revisit this topic,

Don't forget Mast steps ( we've covered them a number of times - eg : Click here)

Minimum would be 2 either side of the mast to enable standing on them while working on whatever at the top of the mast. Another 2 to enable work on spreaders etc.
Good point there. Strategic placement of mast steps is a key point.

I know that Jeanne's post was specific to the point of how NOT to have to climb up into the rigging by having extra halyards, etc. However, I am totally "into" inspecting the rigging and can't imagine undertaking a major passage without either hubby or I having inspected the rig up-close-and-personal. Further, I've heard many stories of folks having to get up into the rigging to prevent chafe/change a fairlead on a line, etc to keep things from chafing through--this while on passage. Therefore, I prefer to think of all the safest ways we CAN get into the rigging and do our needed tasks with safety and without fear.
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Old 05-12-2009, 02:07 PM   #6
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Most of the questions about equipment and parts failures on boats seems to devolve into two categories - those that are prepared to cast off and sail the seven seas, and those that are not prepared and do not really care. Sailing the coastlines and weekend sailing folks rarely get out of sight or radio contact with "rescuing" agencies, so they can ignore most things and just "blindly go where fools fear to tread."

Sailing the oceans is very much like venturing into outer space. You are really "on your own!" There is nobody to rescue you but yourself and your ingenuity and thoroughness of preparation. Such cruisers always inspect the rigging and all the other critical parts of their boats. They devise strategies and plans to cope with failures and unexpected problems before they haul their anchors. Secondary halyards, alternate steering systems, redundant bilge pumps, back-up power and navigation systems are the stock and trade of serious cruisers. When problems or disasters occur they are prepared or have at least planned how to handle any such problems.

I have sailed the Caribbean and coastal USA for the last 9 years and even with crew onboard, nobody goes out on deck at night and/or in heavy seas! My boat is rigged with back-up systems and alternative procedures to deal with any problems. Even when one dark and nasty night my main boom broke in half we were able to lash it against the pilothouse and proceed on engine, foresail and mizzen sail until daybreak and calmer seas. Planning ahead is what keeps you alive and able to enjoy many more years of exotic and beautiful islands. Granted it takes more time and effort to "do it right" - but - when you are "out there" by yourself the only thing between life and death is your brain and how well you planned.

I am consistently amazed at the growing number of cruisers who are venturing out with no-knowledge or planning. With a fancy new boat and a GPS they forge ahead into the abyss with only "blind luck" as their guardian. It is humorous to hear them on the radio calling for help from XX-island Coast Guard - when such island countries have no coast guard at all or if they do - it is not effective or able to deal with anything more challenging than parading in political rallies or events. Years of being "protected from yourself" by the USA Federal and other levels of government has resulted in new cruisers who have no idea of what the "real world" is like out here. Amazing!
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Old 05-12-2009, 02:43 PM   #7
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I totally agree that it's best to prepare before going out. There is a lot of people out there who are just just going out because they are stupid enough to think they are lucky and the bad things will happen to someone else, not them.

But there's a third category - the ones with limited budgets who cannot afford to have redundant systems for everything on board. I understand them a little - most of us we'd like to sail towards islands in the middle of the he ocean, and not all of us can afford it. The best thing here would be, thinking ahead and being prepared for the worst with the minimum amount of redundancy and the best amount of precaution and seamanship - what do you say ?

Many people have sailed tens of thousands of miles without lots of equipment - were they just lucky ? Maybe some of them, but not most!

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With a fancy new boat and a GPS they forge ahead into the abyss with only "blind luck" as their guardian. It is humorous to hear them on the radio calling for help from XX-island Coast Guard - when such island countries have no coast guard at all or if they do - it is not effective or able to deal with anything more challenging than parading in political rallies or events. Years of being "protected from yourself" by the USA Federal and other levels of government has resulted in new cruisers who have no idea of what the "real world" is like out here. Amazing!
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Old 05-13-2009, 01:57 AM   #8
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I'm with Jeanne: even with all our safety precautions, I'd rather try anything else than send my husband up the mast at sea.

When we bought our roller furling, we found a type that left the jib and staysail halyards free, which has been a boon for going up the main mast. We installed extra blocks so Michael can go up the mizzen as well. We tried Brenda's climbing route. As a matter of fact, I think we tried most methods, including a disaster called a Mastlift, a dangerous piece of equipment that locked up one too many times. Now we use a climbing harness attached to one halyard via an ascender and a bosun's chair attached to another one. Brawn for each mast comes via blocks and our electric windlass. In a pinch, there is the climbing gear and/or other winches. Michael has loops to stand at the mast head.

I love to do mast work -- in shore -- but most of it is more technical than I can accomplish. Hence, life made easier with the windlass. All this said, if the work can be put off until we're at anchor, then that's where it will be done by either of us.

And considering that we went from zero wind to gusts over 50 in less than an hour as we approached La Paz, I'd hate to grow complacent about the power of the sea to dislodge stuff, much less us. That trip cost us our bow planking, which had been newly installed only months earlier. We've decided its replacement will be less intricate, certainly more expendable. But imagine if we'd relaxed after those two days of gliding over glassy seas and weather reports of "light" corumels -- and gone aloft to fix something? Perhaps those sorts of freakish weather patterns don't happen in the middle of the ocean, but in the Sea of Cortez? Regularly.
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Old 05-13-2009, 04:53 AM   #9
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And considering that we went from zero wind to gusts over 50 in less than an hour as we approached La Paz, I'd hate to grow complacent about the power of the sea to dislodge stuff, much less us.
Complacency is our greatest enemy, I believe. *Cruising oceans is a lot about encountering new situations and learning new things. *When we start out cruising we "don't know what we don't know." *I think after a few harrowing experiences and successfully surviving something quite nasty that it is human nature to fool yourself into thinking you then know more than enough to survive "anything". *Since I remain a coward at heart, I'm not quite THAT complacent, but sometimes I can get pretty close. *That's when Murphy (or our personal Jumby) raises his head and says "gotcha!" and dumps something new and nasty on us.

We've learned a lot, some of which is knowledge that is transferable to others, some of it is not. *We carry spares, but not so many that budget and boat are overburdened. *We practice "what if?" games regularly. *The boat is always gone over carefully before starting a voyage, and we constantly review and revise our gear and our procedures. *

Does that mean that I expect that nothing bad is ever going to happen to us? *No, not hardly. *But with care and preparation, lots of bad things are just bad, not awful, because we are physically and mentally prepared for problems to arise.

And sometimes we are just extraordinarily lucky. *I like to believe it's karma.

Fair winds,
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