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:
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.