Working in a Bosun's Chair - SailNet Community
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Working in a Bosun's Chair

Not everyone is eager to tackle heights. Sometimes it's the one who draws the shortest stick that must hover above the boat.
It's a deal we made when we first got Safari. Larry dives under the boat. I go up the mast. He hates heights and I'd rather be on the water than in the water.

Don't think that I'm not afraid of heights too. In fact, in my mind, going up the mast comes only slightly ahead of paying a visit to the dentist. But one of us has to do it, and for me it beats looking over my shoulder for that shark I always figure is going to be lurking-kind of the lesser of two evils.

So, how does someone who really doesn't want to go up the mast do it and feel OK about it? Well, first I choose the deluxe model bosun's chair. That's the one with lots of padding, handy pockets and nice wide straps. No bare wooden plank tied with two bits of skin-chewing line for me. If I have to go up there, at least I'm going to be comfortable.

Next, I make sure that I'm secured with two halyards, should something go amiss with just one. Even though I know the sails place thousands of pounds of load on these halyards when under way, I'm always leery of them. I don't trust the snap shackles and I don't trust the splices. I always tie my own bowline to avoid these two possible weak links. As you can see, I'm taking no chances.

Trips up the mast have been for a variety of reasons, such as installing new fittings, changing light bulbs, checking or taping the rigging. It's always a good idea to take up a variety of tools with you. (See Extra, "Tips for Bosun's-Chair Work.") These are the basic things you may need if something catches your attention other than your reason for the trip aloft. It beats having to go up again if you can take care of it then. Also, it's a good idea to tie the large tools and any parts you are carrying up the mast to your bosun's chair. Butter fingers can be a common affliction when up 60 feet in the air.

It takes a little getting used to working on the spreaders. 
Once I've got my chair appropriately stocked, I go through the ritual of stepping into the contraption, carefully tying my knots in the two halyards, then wriggling around until I feel as comfortable as I'm going to be in this get-up. Larry is in the cockpit and starts to hoist me up. It's about then that he usually breaks into a rousing rendition of "Away, hey, and up she rises!"

I get back at him by not displaying much in the way of monkey-type abilities in helping climb the mast. He's stuck with all the work, and usually has to take a break or two. This is a job best done with two people doing the hoisting, if possible. Once I've reached my designated altitude, I wrap my legs securely around the mast and keep one hand grappled to the rigging, only reluctantly releasing it when setting about my task.

My least favorite maneuver is when I have to work at the outboard end of the spreaders. This requires releasing my iron leg lock around the mast, and free-floating until I can latch back onto a shroud. This definitely gives me the willies. You might take along a sail tie and tie yourself off at the shroud. This will make it easier to work without having to expend energy holding yourself outboard.

On each trip up, I make a point of looking for wear of any kind, making sure that all sharp edges are taped to avoid sail rips, and generally that things just look right. By the time I get two feet back on solid deck, my leg muscles are weary from self-induced tenseness. On the bright side, I think I'm getting a bit more confident with each mast-top venture.

Of course, there are different uses for the bosun's chair other than going up the mast.
Once in awhile I relax enough to take the time to really look around. I have to admit, when I do that, the view is actually quite spectacular. One time I spotted a school of large fish, so Larry naturally ran to grab his fishing rod and left me up there a bit longer-me and my big mouth.

I don't think there are many people who really like going up the mast, but it is one of the things that goes with the territory if you're going to live on a sailboat. Somebody on board better be prepared to go up should the need arise (and it will), just as someone better be prepared to dive under the boat, should your prop get wrapped (and it will).

So for us, I get a free ride up and try to enjoy the view and Larry? Well, he's stuck watching out for those mean little fish.

Tips for Bosun's-Chair Work

  • Always go up on two halyards, unless you have steps on the mast that can be your backup.
  • The person hoisting you should have experience, making sure to properly fair-lead the halyards and have plenty of wraps around the winches.
  • When you're at the top, halyards should be locked off and cleated.
  • Take a variety of tools with you each trip, such as: knife, screwdriver, pliers, tape, cotter pins, line, silicone and lubricant.
  • Attach the larger tools or parts you are carrying up the mast to your chair with a line. It's easy to drop stuff when you don't have two feet on the ground.
  • A bucket close by is handy for hoisting things up that you forgot- or dropped.
  • Sometimes you might have to tape things that don't tape well. A good trick we've learned is to put a dab of silicone on these areas.
  • A routine rig inspection should be made at least once a year. Go all the way to the top, then slowly descend and check all rigging and connections on the way down. If anything looks suspicious, and you can't analyze it yourself, it might be time to bring in a professional to check your rigging.


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