The Perfect Solo Mast-Raising System for Small Sailboats

Side view of the sailboat with the mast raising system ready for use.A side view of the sailboat with the mast raising system ready for use.

I have seen lots of different techniques and contraptions used to raise and lower the masts on small sailboats. All suffer from the same problems for solo sailors, and I recently came across a system that solves all of them neatly and for a fairly low price.

 

While not tremendously heavy, small sailboat masts are long and awkward to handle, tending to sway to one side while being lowered or raised. It is possible with most boats to stand at the stern and pick up the mast and just start walking forward and pushing it up. The problem comes when you have to step up onto the cabin top while holding a heavy mast high above your head. It's usually a long step, and most people can't do it.

Instead of lifting the mast by hand, many opt for a gin pole or A-frame and use the boom vang to get the mechanical advantage needed to pull the mast up.

 

Some trailers are fitted with a tall pole, allowing the trailer winch strap to be led to a halyard and used to crank the mast up and down. The A-frame support tends to hold the mast over the center of the boat, but gin poles on the boat or on the trailer will allow it to sway back and forth unless stabilizing baby stays are used.

 

Using the trailer winch to crank the mast up and down means that singlehanded sailors can't see what is going on up on the boat, and it obviously precludes raising and lowering the mast while on the water.

 

These difficulties are further compounded by the fact that small sailboats are covered with winches, cleats, boarding ladders, small outboard engines, etc., all of which tend to snag the shrouds or backstay as the mast goes up. If something snags, a sailor who is rigging the boat alone must find a way to hold the mast in a partially raised position while clearing the snag.

 

It is important that the solo sailor be able to keep a sharp eye on all the rigging and stop immediately if any resistance is felt. A snag can mean moving from your position on top of the boat or at the trailer winch all the way to the stern of the boat, where the backstay has managed to catch the rudder or boarding ladder. It is often impossible to leave the mast precariously hanging in the air, so it must be lowered to fix the problem.

 

The terminal fittings on the ends of the shrouds are strong when in position and tensioned, but they can lodge themselves sideways as the mast is coming up and bend when placed under load. The fittings that hold the upper ends of the shrouds in the mast must rotate as much as 90 degrees as the mast goes up, and if they lock up instead of turning freely, it is easy to bend the swage fitting when they come under tension as the mast is nearly stepped. Down at the deck, the fittings must also rotate as the shrouds go from lying aft on the deck to standing up straight. Singlehand sailors must watch the ends of the rigging carefully to ensure that all of them are operating as intended while the mast is going up. If a fitting binds up, once again it becomes necessary to either leave the mast hanging or put it back down to correct the problem and try again.

Boats with roller furling jibs present an additional problem, as the jib furler drum tends to bounce down the deck and the sail itself acts like a giant snake having a seizure. The furler drum and forestay end fittings can scratch the deck of the boat and can get snagged on bow cleats, opening hatches, and other hardware around the foredeck as the mast is being lowered. When raising the mast, the roller furling jib generally does not want to slide forward on the boat by itself, and must be pulled along and kept near the center of the boat to avoid kinking the forestay wire or binding up the fitting that holds the forestay to the mast.

Last but not least, the mast needs an appropriate place to land when it comes down, and a good place to start on its way up. Sailors must use a mast crutch of some kind, and for trailering a sailboat it helps if the crutch has two positions: a low position for holding the mast during transport, and a higher position to give a little head start when raising the mast. Having a roller on the top of the crutch is also handy for solo sailors because it makes it easier to move the mast back and forth from trailering position to the mast step.

 

The Mast Raising Solution for Single-Handed Sailors

 

I recently saw a solution that addresses all these problems and makes single handed mast raising on the water or on the trailer a fairly simple procedure. This system was in use on a Precision 23 sailboat, but can be used on any small sailboat. The boat has a mast raising pole for a MacGregor 26M with an ingenious addition to help manage the furling drum, a set of baby stays to hold the mast on centerline, and a small dinghy motor davit mounted on the stern and outfitted with a U shaped mast crutch. The owner of the boat put a lot of thought into this system because he wanted to sail his boat from his dock behind a low bridge from the harbor. Even though it uses a MacGregor mast-raising pole, this system can be installed on nearly any small sailboat.

Click on any photos for a larger view:

Side view of the sailboat with the mast raising system ready for use.Above: A side view of the sailboat with the mast raising system ready for use. This system can be installed and used on nearly any small sailboat to make solo mast-raising easier.

The MacGregor mast raising pole and how it is attached to the mast.A closer look at the MacGregor mast raising pole and how it is attached to the mast. The MacGregor pole is a tiny trailer winch mounted on an aluminum tube with a block and eye strap on opposite sides of one end and a fitting on the other end to secure it to the mast base.

The winch has a clutch instead of gears and a pawl lever, and can be cranked in either direction without flipping a lever. It can also be let go at any time without freewheeling, an important safety feature in this application.

A bail is installed in the mast about 5' off the deck. There is a line tied to the middle of the mast-raising pole that has to do with furler management, as the next pictures illustrate.

A line from the eye strap on the tip of the MacGregor pole leads to a large snap shackle that snaps around the bow rail. How the mast raising system is attached at the bow of the boat. A line from the eye strap on the tip of the MacGregor pole leads to a large snap shackle that snaps around the bow rail. The line from the middle of the mast raising pole, with a little slack left in it, is also tied to that large snap shackle after being led through a snatch block which is clipped to the furler drum.
The mast raising system attached at the bow of the boat As the mast is lowered, the furler drum rides up that piece of line and ends up suspended above the forward hatch when the mast is down. On the way back up, the furler rides back down the line, remaining over the center of the boat and safely clear of the deck. In addition to keeping the furler from scratching the deck or getting hung up on something, this little bit of rigging also tends to force the furled jib to hang above the center of the mast.
This picture shows how the MacGregor mast raising device is attached to the tabernacle mast base of the Precision 23. The plates used are actually a small boat hinged mast step available from Dwyer, and they happen to fit perfectly on the Precision 23 mast step, also from Dwyer Masts. One hole through the mast step on the 23 was all that was required to attach the unit. This picture shows how the MacGregor mast raising device is attached to the tabernacle mast base of the Precision 23. The plates used are actually a small boat hinged mast step available from Dwyer, and they happen to fit perfectly on the Precision 23 mast step, also from Dwyer Masts. One hole through the mast step on the 23 was all that was required to attach the unit.
This picture shows the upper end of the MacGregor mast raising pole and the attachment to the mast of the P-23. The line from the winch on the MacGregor pole is led through the block at the tip of the pole and attaches to a ring. Also attached to the same ring are the two stabilizing stays which prevent the mast from swaying. The ring is shackled to a bail through the mast, so the one shackle connects the two baby stays and the mast raising line to the mast bail all at once. This picture shows the upper end of the MacGregor mast raising pole and the attachment to the mast of the P-23. The line from the winch on the MacGregor pole is led through the block at the tip of the pole and attaches to a ring. Also attached to the same ring are the two stabilizing stays which prevent the mast from swaying. The ring is shackled to a bail through the mast, so the one shackle connects the two baby stays and the mast raising line to the mast bail all at once.

The mast raising baby stays on a sailboat must be positioned in line with the pin holding the base of the mast in the tabernacle. As the mast rotates up or down around that pin, the raising stays remain taut, preventing any side to side motion by the mast. The problem on a Precision 23 is that there is no point on the boat which is in line with that pin. This problem was solved with a pair of stainless steel chains attached to stanchion bases in front of and aft of the mast on each side of the boat. When stretched tight, there is one link of chain on each side which is aligned with the mast tabernacle pin, and the stabilizing stays are shackled to those two links of chain. This setup was made so that the mast raising system could be quickly disconnected but not completely detached. The mast raising pole could just be left to rest on the deck with all the lines and hardware secured to it while going for a short sail. In that position, the chains would clatter around on deck, so the owner installed canvas sleeves over the chains to protect the gelcoat on the deck and reduce the noise. The mast raising "baby stays" on a sailboat must be positioned in line with the pin holding the base of the mast in the tabernacle. As the mast rotates up or down around that pin, the raising stays remain taut, preventing any side to side motion by the mast. The problem on a Precision 23 is that there is no point on the boat which is in line with that pin. This problem was solved with a pair of stainless steel chains attached to stanchion bases in front of and aft of the mast on each side of the boat.

When stretched tight, there is one link of chain on each side which is aligned with the mast tabernacle pin, and the stabilizing stays are shackled to those two links of chain. A Com-Pac 23 owner suggested locating that point in space by putting a long dowel the same size as the mast tabernacle pin through the tabernacle and using it to locate the correct link of baby stay chain.

This setup was made so that the mast raising system could be quickly disconnected but not completely detached. The mast raising pole could just be left to rest on the deck with all the lines and hardware secured to it while going for a short sail. In that position, the chains would clatter around on deck, so the owner installed canvas sleeves over the chains to protect the gelcoat on the deck and reduce the noise.

This picture shows a small dinghy engine hoisting davit installed in the stern of the Precision 23, serving double duty as a mast crutch. To serve as a mast crutch, it has a metal V covered by a piece of hose on a custom support which is lashed to the tip of the davit by a few hose clamps. It is also in a good position to use for lifting the outboard engine off the transom bracket, and could be used for its intended purpose as a dinghy engine davit as well. This arrangement serves well for lowering the mast to go under a bridge, but for single hand trailering a much better solution would be to mount a roller on a mast crutch. The dinghy engine davit is an innovative solution, but an easier method would be a simple pole which can be set into a spare set of rudder pintles and gudgeons mounted alongside the ones in use on the rudder. The small offset from the centerline of the boat can be corrected by mounting the roller off center on the pole. This picture shows a small dinghy engine hoisting davit installed in the stern of the Precision 23, serving double duty as a mast crutch. To serve as a mast crutch, it has a metal V covered by a piece of hose on a custom support which is lashed to the tip of the davit by a few hose clamps. It is also in a good position to use for lifting the outboard engine off the transom bracket, and could be used for its intended purpose as a dinghy engine davit as well. This arrangement serves well for lowering the mast to go under a bridge, but for single hand trailering a much better solution would be to mount a roller on a mast crutch. The dinghy engine davit is an innovative solution, but an easier method would be a simple pole which can be set into a spare set of rudder pintles and gudgeons mounted alongside the ones in use on the rudder. The small offset from the centerline of the boat can be corrected by mounting the roller off center on the pole.
A mast support crutch with roller on a different Precision 23. The support can be extended for easier mast raising and lowering, then retracted for a lower profile when trailering the boat. On this prototype we discovered that it is important to install blocks on the pintel/gudgeon arrangement to prevent the whole pole from rotating. The roller works well when walking the mast forward and back from the step to its trailering position, but it only works well when it is aligned with the mast. Pintles and gudgeons are designed to make rudders easy to turn, and they make the pole much too easy to misalign. A mast support crutch with roller on a different Precision 23. The support can be extended for easier mast raising and lowering, then retracted for a lower profile when trailering the boat. On this prototype we discovered that it is important to install blocks on the pintel/gudgeon arrangement to prevent the whole pole from rotating. The roller works well when walking the mast forward and back from the step to its trailering position, but it only works well when it is aligned with the mast. Pintles and gudgeons are designed to make rudders easy to turn, and they make the pole much too easy to misalign.
This one was intended for use when the boat is on the trailer, so it just uses the same attachments as the rudder, but modifying the system for use on the water would just mean installing a duplicate set and offsetting the roller to remain on centerline. With an offset roller, it would become even more important to have some way to lock the pole and prevent it from rotating. Another lesson from this prototype was to avoid making tall guides/retainers on either side of the roller. We made them tall to prevent the mast from escaping, but it does not want to jump off the roller, and the tall guides hang up on the upper shrouds as the mast is moved fore and aft. The shrouds would ride right over shorter guides. This one was intended for use when the boat is on the trailer, so it just uses the same attachments as the rudder, but modifying the system for use on the water would just mean installing a duplicate set and offsetting the roller to remain on centerline. With an offset roller, it would become even more important to have some way to lock the pole and prevent it from rotating. Another lesson from this prototype was to avoid making tall guides/retainers on either side of the roller. We made them tall to prevent the mast from escaping, but it does not want to jump off the roller, and the tall guides hang up on the upper shrouds as the mast is moved fore and aft. The shrouds would ride right over shorter guides.

This system can be adapted to fit any small sailboat, and it makes stepping the mast by yourself a much easier task. If a snag occurs during mast raising, it is possible to leave the mast partially raised to go and clear the snag. The winch used on the MacGregor pole is self-braking and almost silent, and the operator can see everything while cranking it. The extra length of line to force the jib and furler to ride up and down the centerline of the boat is a stroke of genius. The addition of a properly designed roller mast crutch makes moving the mast back to the step by yourself easy for one person.

 

Update: May, 2012 - Since I wrote this article, many people have contacted me asking whether I sell this mast raising system or know where to buy it. The answer to both questions is no, at least not as a package. You will have to buy the various parts and put them together yourself.

 

You will need the following items to assemble the mast raising system:

  • A sturdy pole about 6 feet long
  • A small self-braking trailer winch and hardware to attach to sturdy pole
  • A way to attach the pole to the mast base
  • Some sailing blocks and snaps
  • Some low stretch rope
  • Some chain for the centering stays, if your boat requires these
  • A stainless steel bail to attach to the mast
  • Probably a few things I forgot, but that will become apparent along the way

 

The first three items on the list are to make your own mast raising pole of the type sold with MacGregor 26M model boats. I would simply buy one from a MacGregor dealer instead of making one, but you can probably make it a bit cheaper. I would not mention to a MacGregor dealer that you intend to use it on a sailboat other than a MacGregor, as they might have liability concerns.

Comments

  1. Thanks for a great article. I’ve been reading other articles about mast raising systems, but they never had enough pictures to help me visualize exactly how things worked. The extra line for the furler is also great as it solves a problem I’ve seen several people discuss.

    • Al Schmidt says:

      I have built one for my 1980 Macgregor 22. I would be willing to build one for the cost of materials plus $ 100 labor. It would be custom made for your boat. All you need to do is provide pictures of the mast base and tabernacle. You may contact me at: SailorByTheSea@gmail.com Leave a contact email or phone number.

  2. Bob McLellan says:

    This is the design I will follow for my boat. Thanks for the great documentation

  3. I’ve got a Luger Tradewinds 26. I recently looked at the MacGregor system at a local dealer. It sells for about $150.00. I was going to buy one but then decided to make my own. I bought a piece of 2″ electrical conduit, a 600 # winch and a small pulley for about half the price of the manufactured unit. My only issue is that I don’t have a hinged mast step so I’ll be fabricating a bracket that suits my setup. I’d have to do that with the manufactured system, too. When all is said and done, I’ll probably be about $50 to $75 cheaper.

  4. Great article, Ray! For those of you wishing to purchase the mast-raising pole, contact MacGregor Sailboats.

  5. Robert Taylor says:

    In the past 25 years, I’ve fabricated both gin poles and “A” frames to raise and lower the masts on boats from 21-28 feet. The 21 footer had a steel mast that was very heavy. My “A” from was made from 1″ square aluminum “pipe” with 1/8″ thickness. A bolt with eyes on each end passes through both legs with a bronze spacer between them. This functions as a hinge between the legs.
    One eye attaches to the forestay or topping lift and the bottom eye attaches to the tackle. The bitter end runs back to the cockpit/mast area where the skipper can control both the mast and the tackle. The bottom of each leg must hinge close to a line passing through the mast bolt and far enough apart to impart stability. Often, the cabin top is the only alternative. I placed eyebolts through the bottom of the legs with closely matching eye bolts on the cabin top. I used two eyes on the cabintop about 3/4″ apart. A simple pin with a keeper or a bolt passes through the 2 eyes of the cabin and the one eye of the “A” frame.

  6. Doug McKeever says:

    This is an interesting sytem. I’ve built and used one at the URL below. They obviously differ in a few ways but rely on similar principles. They also suffer from the same weak links, the attachment point for the pole to the mast or step in your case. And the auxiliary stay set-up.

    To be honest, I don’t like the idea of putting through holes in my mast for the bail or using my pintles for the crutch. The crutch is the easiest to work around. For that, I’ll take a piece of galvanized pole from the depot; try to find a cap for the bottom; drill two through holes in that to attach a pair of eyebolts which I can use to secure the pole laterally to the rails. If I can’t make a height-adjustable crutch so be it. I’ll fix it right above the cabin roof.

    For the attachment point. Since I’m using a system that attaches differently to begin with, I’ll leave that, but I have issues there.

    For the auxilliary stays. I’m really worried here. In a single handed operation this may be the weakest link. Perhaps this how the phrase “things starting going sideways” was coined.

    I like the chains. I’ll use them. I have chains for my stands, but it’s not easy to find guide wires like the one used here for the connection point. They look like old stays cut down. The process I used ties a tight line around the mast connected vertically to one of the halyards (instead of the bail on a through bolt), and attaches the baby stays there. I think I’ll try to find some low stretch line to make the connection from the loop on the mast to the chains. I think it’s really important that this be tight so clearly my idea of using the halyard suffers a bit (too much give).

    Here’s that URL for the gin pole: I put this together in 2 hours of twilight with a circular saw and my drill. I take no credit for the invention.

    http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://slowflight.net/upgrades/images/GinPole.jpg&imgrefurl=http://slowflight.net/upgrades/tips-GinPole.html&h=460&w=300&sz=32&tbnid=iyzi45IS37IlbM:&tbnh=128&tbnw=83&prev=/search%3Fq%3Dgin%2Bpole%26tbm%3Disch%26tbo%3Du&zoom=1&q=gin+pole&usg=__MAJzPBn9ofV8lK2r0D_01WD7ZQM=&sa=X&ei=p4bnTZCoCqnj0QGirvGCCw&ved=0CCgQ9QEwAw&biw=1131&bih=687

  7. great idea ,used to lift a 20′ pole in the ground. To put a light.
    Thank you sir.

  8. Pat Maundrell says:

    I agree, this is by far the best/safest/easiest “Mast Rising System” I have seen! I’ve been wanting to build this system for two years now. I finally was able to either collected/make all the necessary parts to put it together. Thanks for the head start! By the way, if anyone is interested, I can make them one and ship it to their house. I don’t have a price in mind right now, but interested parties can call me.

    Thanks Pat 513 891 5112

    • Hello,
      That system looks great! I am interested in putting something together for our Ericson 25′. There is no mast hinge currently so I need to piece together the stainless steel components. I’ve called Dwyer and they were unable to help determine the parts after looking at the photos on this article.If you could help I’d greatly appreciate it. Maybe Pat Maundrell could help? My cell # is (828)337-5899 and email is steelrootfurniture@gmail.com

    • randy boone says:

      Catalina, Factory Yacht, nor MacGregor will sell to the product.
      I have searched for at least 2 wks. I discovered the solo-mast raising system for small boats on Tropical Boating.

      Can you built one for me or any references.

      cell 434-242-1859

      Thanks,
      Randy Boone

    • Do you still make tis mast raising system

    • JEANNIE COATS says:

      I have a Catalina 22′ Sailboat & need a Mast Raiser. Are you interested in making one? If so how much would it cost?

  9. This link was sent to me today by the seller of the (Australian design) Castle 650 (21’4″) that I bought yesterday afternoon. He has always sailed with a family crew of 4 or more, whereas I almost exclusively sail solo, and mast raising was looming as the biggest problem for solo sailing the Castle that I hadn’t solved yet! With some minor adjustments to the baby stays I now have my answer.

    I’m not sure what to make of the “where do I buy one” type replies – it’s a bunch of standard components which you buy and build the parts you need to suit the boat you’ve got. The important stuff is the idea, how it works, not the particular set of parts used on one boat somewhere in North America! I guess its because I’m an engineer and because boat production runs in Australia are so much smaller, so no one expects to be able to buy complete complex systems designed specifically for their boat.

  10. Hello, excelent system, where can I get it, I really need it for a macregor 26 ’92

  11. I followed the instructions and now have a great mast raising system for my precision 23. I am interested in the small crane that you use to hold the mast for going under bridges. (I already have the pole for trailer transportation). Do you have a picture of its installation and what type it is and where you purchased it.

    • Angus, I have no other pictures of that small crane on the Precision 23 stern rail, but it is just a stainless steel dinghy davit that the boat owner bought at a marine store. He put a piece of rubber hose on it to prevent it from scratching the mast. I do not know the make/model of davit nor do I recall exactly how it was installed. I do remember that it was not custom built. It’s a commercially available davit that is used to pick up dinghies and hoist outboard engines on and off of them. Sorry I can not be more helpful! Good luck!

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