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Mast steps prove useful in dismasting

Jan 1, 2003

I took a special interest in Christopher Robinson's recent account of his dismasting in the Caribbean ("Losing a mast on a day sail," Issue No. 84). My wife and I were aboard Rising Star when her mast came down off St. Vincent.

In thinking about the incident in retrospect, I was struck by the extreme utility of the mast steps Christopher had installed on the Valiant 40's mast and believe it is worth emphasizing the irreplaceable value of these steps in rectifying the situation in harbor.

I must say that I have never been a big fan of mast steps on aesthetic or practical grounds. On those rare occasions when I am forced to go up the mast of our Nordic 44 Legacy (at 64 feet above the waterline, it seems like an awfully long way up), I much prefer to travel by bosun's chair. I attribute this both to exceeding laziness (why climb when you can ride?) and to the fact that I really don't like going up the mastif I am going to have to do so, at least those left down on the deck are going to suffer with me as they hoist my corpulence aloft.

In the case of Rising Star, the steps were invaluable in allowing us not only to go up the mast (at anchor) in order to tidy up miscellaneous items but also to get the upper part of the mainsail out of the track of the bent mast section without significant damage. I don't know how this could have been accomplished otherwise unless one cut off all of the slides, or waited until the entire mast was pulled out.

Even that advantage is a secondary consideration compared to the ability to stabilize the mast stump and cut away the broken piece. As Christopher noted, the dismasting of Rising Star happened close to shore and in relatively calm conditions, so we were able to motor to a safe harbor. Had it happened offshore, however, as it easily could have, we would certainly have wanted to use the stump (probably about 20 feet high) as the basis for a jury rig. However, I know from experience (having climbed it after the dismasting) that, with effectively no shrouds or stays, this stump was highly unstable. Indeed, it swayed alarmingly enough under my weight that I was quite uneasy about the whole thing. While with no other alternative we would have tried to set a sail on it and hoped for the best, it clearly would have been much better to rig at least fore and aft stays and perhaps shrouds as well.

One can look at the pictures of the mast and wonder what one would do if that had happened, say, 500 miles out of the Azores or California near the start of a 2,500-mile downwind passage with little or no possibility of being able to turn around and power back to windward (if only because of limited range under power). Certainly one would want to cut away the broken part of the mast, but, again, there is no way to get up there without steps or a bosun's chair!

Assuming that the mast is likely to break, if it does, at or below the spreaders, this seems to argue for steps at least to that level. I don't know what the implications are for those of us with double spreader rigs (or triple spreaders for the high-performance fraternity).

In short, those of us going offshore, and anticipating various sorts of disasters with our wooden plugs, cable cutters, EPIRBs, rafts, and the like, perhaps should spend some time thinking about how we would get up the mast if we couldn't use a halyard. While I'm not going to run out immediately to put steps on Legacy's mast, I will certainly consider it seriously before our next offshore trip.

David Kantor and his wife Carolyn have sailed the East Coast and voyaged to Bermuda and the Caribbean. They live in Annapolis, Md.