Offseason Spar Care - SailNet Community
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Offseason Spar Care

This article was originally published on SailNet in October 2001.

The impending winter might mean the end of the sailing season for some sailors, but it also presents a great opportunity for boat maintenance, particularly when it comes to rigs and spars. Look at it as your chance to get everything right and ready for next season.
The fall and its unavoidable onset of cooler weather can be a lamentable time for many sailors in the US. For most boat owners who live north of the 38th parallel, winter means taking the boat out of the water and dealing with the many annual maintenance issues that non-sailing prompts us to consider. If you find yourself in this camp, take heart, all you need is an attitude adjustment to discover that this time of year presents some unique opportunities for maintenance and upgrades. Once you get past that mental hurdle, you can take advantage of the downtime to ensure that youíll enjoy enhanced sailing when your boat is back in the water the next season.

One aspect of annual maintenance thatís easy to overlook is spars. Itís hardly necessary to point out just how critical these components are to our pastime, but many sailors tend to ignore their care and focus on other areas like sail-handling systems, engines, and paint jobs. To offer you a better handle on the basic steps to take in caring for your mast, booms, and spars in general, we tracked down Jack Corey, a sparmaking expert with nearly 30 years experience. In the following interview, Corey offers some important advice for DYI spar maintenance.

SailNet: Letís say a boat owner plans to take his boat out of the water. Given the choice of stepping or unstepping the mast (or masts), should he or she do one or the other and why?
Jack Corey: I think you should unstep your mast or masts every three to four years to check things that canít possibly be checked while the spar is in the boat. You really need to examine the condition of the bottom two to three inches of the mast, particularly if you have a keel-stepped mast. Weíre finding that thereís a lot of saltwater corrosion that occurs here in boats of a certain age. Sometimes you can get an indication by looking around the base of the spar, but often times the worst corrosion is inside and you wonít be able to see it with the mast stepped.

Electrical instruments, mast lights, sheave boxes, and tangs are all easier to maintain and upgrade with the stick out of the boat and down near the ground.

A lot of masts will hold water because they donít have weep holes at the base. The water comes in from the masthead around the sheave exit boxes, so youíre always going to have water in the mast. Another reason to unstep the mast is so you can have a good look at things like the spreaders, particularly the tips, which can be in serious need of repair or retaping. The old-style spreader boots that are tapped with rigging tape will retain water inside, thereby corroding the tip. What happens is youíve got a combination of the stainless steel shrouds that pass through the aluminum spreader and the moisture there accelerates the electrolysis that naturally takes place between those two metals.

SN: If you intend to leave your mast(s) up while your boat is out of the water, should you loosen the rig or do anything else for the long period of non-use.
JC: I think simply loosening the backstay is enough to relieve the compression load that the headstay and the backstay combine to put on the rig. But thatís probably already done for you because with most travel lifts, the headstay has to be disconnected so that the boat can be hauled. But I wouldnít leave the rig too loose. I went to school in Boston for four years and I know there are some hellish winter storms that come through there. I live in Florida now and we donít take our boats out of the water for the winter, generally, but if I had my boat out of the water, Iíd want the rigging pretty snug for just that reason.

SN: If you are taking your rig down, what's the best way to store it?
JC: You need to support the spar at or near both ends and at the spreaders. Use something thatís sturdy, but easily moved around like sawhorses. These are also handy because they put the mast at waist height, which makes it a lot easier for you to inspect and work on it. Of course you'll want to cover electrical wires and that sort of thing so that they don't suffer from prolonged exposure to the elements.

If your boat remains in the water through the winter, there's obviously no need to unstep the mast, but all boat owners should plan to take their boat's mast(s) down for a thorough inspection every three to four years.

SN: What are the basic areas to examine regarding wear and tear and the general condition of the equipment?
JC: There are really three things you want to look at on most spars. First, you want to remove the headstay and backstay pins in the masthead and inspect the holes for elongation or for any cracks around the perimeter in the aluminum webs or plates. Then, you want to check the shroud tangs for the same potential problems. After that, check the base of the mast for heavy or excessive pitting or corrosion. That should be done particularly with keel-stepped masts. Of course some spars have furling systems in them, but that's really a whole other topic.

SN: What about the spreaders? Should they be removed or simply inspected in place?
JC: Removal is not necessary, but the outboard ends should be looked over carefully. Remove the spreader boots and check for corrosion of the aluminum spreader tips. And always remove the rigging from the spreader so that you can make a full inspection. You can coil up the rigging and store that indoors somewhere.

SN: What about the electrical systems that run through the mast, what's the best way to protect those throughout the winter season, and what should you check now that you've got the chance?
JC: Check all lights for evidence of water intrusion around bulb contacts. If you see corrosion there, you know youíve got to improve the seals. Also, check all the exposed wire for deterioration of the insulation. This is the time to remove and replace any of the wire if itís showing wear. And I would replace all bulbs and test them by connecting the system to a battery or by using an ohmmeter.

SN: What do you recommend regarding winches or line jammers that are mounted on the mast? Should they stay on the mast or be removed for servicing?
JC: Youíll want to remove the winches so that you can service them, and this is usually pretty straightforward. The clutches (or jammers) can stay on the mast, but should be checked in place for broken springs or other failures.

While you've got the rig down, you'll want to inspect everything you can, including the sheaves an halyard exit boxes. On this carbon mast, the sheaves are exposed accessible, but because it's a rotating spar, the running backstay terminals are house under fairings, and therefore a little more difficult to inspect.

SN: What about the masthead, should any particular maintenance be performed here?
JC: The most important thing to do here is to remove the sheaves and check them. If theyíre burred or worn unevenly, then youíll want to buy new ones and put those in. Iíve already mentioned looking at the holes for the headstay and backstay pins, so that should be about it for most masts unless thereís other gear involved like wind instruments or a radio antenna. For things like that you want to disconnect their wires and remove them because these are delicate items that can get broken while the mast is being stored. Just seal the loose ends of the wires with silicone for the off season. Of course youíll probably want to remove all the halyards and run messenger lines so that the halyards can be stored indoors out of the elements, but thatís about it.

SN: What about booms, anything different that needs to be done there?
JC: Itís really pretty much the same stuff, but some booms have internal outhauls that you want to inspect and some have vangs attached that youíll want to disconnect and bring indoors. Look over all the fittings and make sure none of the holes are elongated, none of the drift pins loose, and look at the sheave or sheaves that carry the outhaul and the reefing lines. For spinnaker or whisker poles, just inspect the end fittings to see that they function and arenít corroded and that should take care of it.

Suggested Reading:

Standing Rigging Storage by Jerry Hammil

Upgrading Spars by Tom Wood

Standing Rigging Basics by Mark Matthews


SailNet Store Section: Custom Rigging Shop

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