February 18, 2018

How I Climb My Mast - Singlehanded

Every sailboat owner, at one time or another needs to climb their mast for maintenance and inspection of all those components aloft – at least. Maybe a new VHF whip antenna needs to be installed or something of that nature. 

I had broken my jib halyard off, twice, and needed to inspect and repair the furler. At this time in my life, I usually sailed singlehanded so I needed to be able to climb aloft without having someone there to crank me up on a winch.

I did a lot of research on the internet and finally came to a solution that works well for me. I went to my local rock climbing store and asked for a set up that would allow me to ascend and descend a rope all on my own. What they gave me was:

one grigri

two ascenders

one 100 ft low stretch climbing rope

one climbing harness

two gear loops

three locking carabiners

Total Cost: appx $500

The ascenders and the grigri were a little foreign to me. I had never used them before, but as it turns out, they’re both very easy to use and the set up is quite slick. It allows me to climb the mast by using my leg power, then gravity to descend.

The setup goes something like this…

Step #1. Find the middle point of your climbing rope (I recommend going with climbing rope because the ascenders can and will chew up your halyard – also, the climbing rope is rated and designed to hold the weight of a human, I mean, it is your life and all). Tie a loop in it, then attach that to a halyard. Raise the halyard to the top of the mast and wrap around a winch, cleat off. Now you have two climbing ropes that go to the top of your mast.

Step #2. Attach the gear loops to the ascenders. The idea here is that you have one ascender that works with your feet, the other ascender works with your body/climbing harness. What I did was attach one ascender to a gear loop then attach that to the climbing harness. The other gear loop was attached to the other ascender by the middle, I just looped it through and knotted it off. Both of these ascenders will be attached to the same climbing rope. The ascender that is attached to your body will go on top. The ascender attached to your feet will go on the bottom.

Step #3. Attach the grigri to your climbing harness and the second half of the climbing rope. Actually, first, read the grigri directions, or better yet – get a pro to show you how to use it. It’s easy, but again, it is your life and make no mistake, if you fall from your mast you could die. Just saying. Ok, continuing on…I put the grigri on the second line, the one that will be slack while you climb. Every few feet, you’ll need to adjust the grigri up the line. It’s kind of a second life line, if one of the gear loops or ascenders fail or a seagull shits in your eye. Or something worse.

Step #4. Ok, now you have two ascenders on the rope you’ll climb, a grigri on the slack line and your harness on. The idea is that you inchworm your way up the one line you’re climbing, then descend the line with the grigri. Use the two loops on the bottom ascender to put your feet in, stand up, move the top ascender up as far as you can reach, sit down in your climbing harness, then do an ‘air squat’, move the bottom ascender up the line, stand up and repeat the process. You should be moving towards the top of your mast at an inchworm’s pace.

Step #5. You’re at the top of your mast, finished inspecting all the rigging and are ready to descend. This is the fun part. MAKE SURE YOUR GRIGRI is attached to your harness and the second slack climbing rope. If it is, take the weight off both ascenders by sitting back in your harness and removing your feet from the gear loops. Now you should be just hanging out in your climbing harness. Disconnect both ascenders from the first half of the climbing rope (I loop them across my body to keep them out of my way, or you can hook them to a carabiner, whatever you want).

Step #6. Use the grigri to descend. Easy as pie.

Some lessons learned. While at the top of the mast, I stood on the gear loops to do my work – make these loops less than 2-3 feet. This way you can get past the top of your mast with your upper body. Also, you can make these loops a little more comfortable by using PVC piping to stand on, or something of that nature. The gear loops will cut into your circulation after a little bit.

While you can get to the top of your mast all by yourself, I don’t recommend it. Mostly because if I fell and happened to survive the fall yet drown from being knocked unconscious from hitting the water, I wanted someone there to dial 911.

While this rig does cost a little bit more than some of the other products you can buy at your local boating store, there are some upsides:

  1. It’s a pure singlehanded rig (unless you’re a stickler for safety)
  2. It packs down super small and light
  3. It’s dual purpose!

The only thing I wouldn’t buy second hand, if you wanted to save some money, is the climbing rope. Talking to the climbing “experts”, they recommended a low stretch line because, if you fall, it’s not very far before you smack something with your body (bad day) and it will help prevent you from being speared by a stanchion or something of that nature. These climbing ropes are made to handle the fall of a human and also take the abuse of the grigri and ascenders. If you decide to go this route, I highly recommend talking to your local climbing shop and getting the rig they think will work best.

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