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Go Back   SailNet Community > Contributing Authors > Gear and Maintenance Articles
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  • 1 Post By Tom Wood
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Old 12-01-2003
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Upgrading Spars


Proper maintenance of your boat's spars can mean the difference between sailing a dog and sailing a boat capable of carrying a bone in its teeth.
Not too long ago a young couple nearing the end of an arduous refurbishing of their old classic Alden yacht invited me for a sail. I never decline such an invitation since there is always something to be learned when sailing OPB (Other People's Boats), and I have been fortunate in having many such opportunities.

The "kids" were exuberant. They had spent several years and many thousands of dollars installing a new diesel, refrigeration, air conditioning, and lovingly re-fairing the old hull into a glowing flag-blue beauty queen. Her sweet, old-fashioned lines were set off by a gold-leaf cove stripe and the ensign was flying from a newly varnished teak staff.

When we got to open water, though, it rapidly became apparent that the boat couldn't sail. There was nothing wrong with the gleaming hull or deck, but the mast, boom, and sail-handling gear were in such a state of decrepitude that setting sails was most difficult. Both the toppinglift and outhaul were meant to be adjusted from the boom's outboard end, making adjustment impossible while sailing. Ancient reel halyard winches with all-wire halyards, a heavy round wooden boom with an agricultural-looking roller-reefing gear, and wooden spreaders with telltale rust streaks at the roots did not inspire confidence.

"The owner had spent many thousands of dollars in a professional yard on new exterior teak, a shiny paint job, new radar, and acres of new canvas. And he hadn't as much as glanced at the mast and boom."
This is not the first time I've noticed this phenomenon. A year or so before this incident I had been asked to look at an older Morgan that had just had a major refit. The owner had spent many thousands of dollars in a professional yard on new exterior teak, a shiny paint job, new radar and chartplotter, and acres of new canvas. And he hadn't as much as glanced at the mast and boom.

Three things about this oblivious disregard for the operation and condition of spars intrigue me. All the hull paint, electronics, and fancy interiors in the world won't make the boat go—only the spars and sails can do that. Secondly, when something is dangerous or inconvenient to operate on board, I find it inconsistent with good seamanship to not correct it. But what amazes me most is the fact that repairs and upgrades to spars are among the least expensive projects any sailor can make to his boat. In fact, after building and restoring six boats of our own, I can categorically say that an all-new mast, boom, spreaders, rigging, and suit of working sails costs less on most boats than replacing the diesel.

Small wear creeps up on the spars of a well-used boat after only a few years. Plastic sheaves bite the dust and masthead sheave bearings start to creak. After a few more years, stainless parts begin to rust, spinnaker pole ends get stiff, and the finish on the mast and boom are begin to show some age. By the end of 10 years, shroud tangs and their bolts should be removed for inspection, mast lights and wiring are pretty well shot, and the paint job will be looking downright disreputable.


Sooner or later, the ravages of saltwater on stainless steel will mean having to spend some quality time in the bosun's chair for a thorough inspection of speaders, terminals, tangs, and other critical components.
Some parts, like winches and spreaders, live a long time, but even they eventually succumb and need replacement. Yet these are two of my favorite examples of parts that sailors just don't "see" after owning a boat for a few years. Halyard winches with wire scores halfway through the drum will fail shortly, and a few hundred dollars will replace most of them. Rotted wooden spreaders imperil the whole rig and can be replaced with a tapered, airfoil aluminum set for less than $250 a pair on most boats. And all it takes is a few weeks downtime from sailing, a cardboard box, and the right address.

When all the spars have gotten to a point where they are no longer functional or beautiful, it's time for a total strip and refit. This is the time to pull every fitting off the mast and boom, inspect them, and replace those found wanting. Worn out winches, dented track, and old lights and wiring can be replaced. This is also the time to add upgrades such as internal halyards, a mainsail furling unit, lazy jacks, flag halyards, internal outhaul, and improved reefing systems. When the spars are down to bare aluminum tubes again, old holes can be filled, corrosion remedied, and tough new coatings sprayed on in any color of your choice. When the project is done, you will have a virtually new mast and boom with the latest gear. It will not only look better, but will function smoothly, making sailing easier, safer, and more fun.


The choice is yours: will it be preventative maintenence now, or the chance of a serious snafu down the road?
Can you do this yourself? If you have the time, tools, and mechanical talent, there is nothing magical about most spar work. In fact, I did a total strip refit on the 44-foot mast of one of our previous boats. Except for the new spreaders, some spot welding, and the final paint spraying, I did all the work myself on weekends. Would I do it again? No way! It took forever and was hard work, especially grinding all the old paint off the mast and boom. I figured that I saved about $1,000 for 250 hours of labor—less than minimum wage. While I realize that some impecunious cruisers might not have a choice, I think I'd rather flip burgers in an air-conditioned Mickey Ds for a few weeks to raise the cash than do a spar refit again.

There are two other tacks that can be taken in the quest for upgraded spars, both requiring finding and hiring professional sparbuilders. Since they have the tools and knowledge, they can do a spar refurbishing job much faster than any boat owner could ever hope to, and to a generally higher standard as well. In addition, they can often make helpful or money-saving suggestions because they are in step with the latest hardware. A few have spar transportation networks established and can pick your mast, boom, spreaders, rigging, furlers, and spinnaker pole up at the boatyard and deliver them back in a few weeks in like-new condition.

And that brings up the rub with spar work, along with the introduction to the second tack. It's no secret—masts are very long. If they are over 35 feet in length, they can be nearly impossible to ship. Unless you are lucky enough to sail in an area where a spar builder operates, the cost of getting your mast to a professional, and him returning it to you in a crate for truck shipping, can be prohibitively expensive.

"There's not a great deal of difference in cost between refurbishing an old set of spars and building new ones."
So here's the sparbuilder's inside secret that most sailors, insurance adjusters, and surveyors should know, but don't—there's not a great deal of difference in cost between refurbishing an old set of spars and building new ones.

How can that be? When doing a total refit, the same number of new lights, the same paint, the same footage of electrical and coax cable, and the same labor to install the fittings after the paint job are required in both cases. If parts off the old mast, such as tangs, antennas, and winches, can be re-used on the new spars, these have no cost—if they require replacement, the cost of new ones would be the same in either event. Small parts that are reusable can be put in a box and shipped to the sparbuilder from anywhere in the world. When rehabbing older spars, however, there is a lot of labor to remove the old fittings from the mast, strip the old finish, make repairs, and prep the aluminum. If the old fittings have been on the spar a long time, they can be spitefully stubborn in their refusal to be removed, eating up the clock at $50 or more per hour. If the cost of shipping the spar to the shop is added to this excess labor, it often is enough to purchase new aluminum mast and boom extrusions, which are not terribly expensive in their naked state.


Spar makers like the folks at SailNet's Custom Spar Shop can recondition your mast, boom, or spinnaker poles, or easily sell you blank new spars for roughly the same cost.

So, what's involved in having spar work done? This is the easy part.

  • If it's a small part such as a broken gooseneck, damaged spreaders, or a worn out sheave, put it in a box and send it to the sparbuilder with your instructions.
  • If it is a boom or spinnaker pole less than eight feet in length, it can be wrapped in cardboard and shipped to the sparbuilder.
  • If it is a longer mast or boom, you'll have to calculate the cost of shipping both ways and decide whether to rehab the old spars or buy new ones. Several clever sailors have cut their masts into six-foot pieces, numbered the joints, bundled the whole thing into a crate, and sent it in for a new duplicate spar. This method gives the sparbuilders all the measurements and fittings they need. Otherwise, if you decide to have a new spar built, a good tape measure and the ability to make sketches and fill out forms will be necessary—but not too tough. You would also have to remove any salvageable parts from the old spar and send them in.

To get in touch with SailNet's Spar Shop, click here.

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