Despite the temptation to sing about a ‘Stairway to Heaven’ (Robert Plant & Jimmy Page), this project page is more about the flip side of that, or rather, a way to prevent you from going to heaven prematurely, and to keep you ‘Sailing‘ (Christopher Cross).
We wanted a safe, convenient way of scaling Ariose’s mast. We hoped to only need to climb in calm conditions, preferably when secured to a dock, but things happen, and wanted to have the least scary option should one of us need to head up there even if rocking & rolling in heavy seas. (note: “one of us” = Tim)
This Projects Page describes our process of deciding on mast steps, and designing, creating and installing them.
Why would we need to climb our mast in the first place? Many, many times, a sailor has to get up there to untwist a line from the spreaders or from each other, or change a bulb in the anchor light, or repair the wind direction/speed indicator, or inspect the condition of the rigging. The list goes on.
Climbing the mast is also good for getting aerial views of the surroundings and especially important for VNR – Visual Navigation Rules – in the Bahamas and other places where shoaling or coral heads are an issue and the water is crystal clear.
There’s several ways to climb the mast, and as with all things sailing, no overall “best” way – each has it’s own pros and cons, with the unique characteristics of the boat, the conditions it’s going to be used in, the crew’s preferences and abilities, the budget, etc. determining what is “best”. Here’s a quick overview of what we considered in reviewing the options.
1)Mast Steps – Mast steps secure permanently to the mast to provide a ladder of sorts to climb. They can cause chafe to lines and sails, and even potentially catch and tangle lines themselves. This is certainly true with some, but not all designs. They do add weight, and cause windage for sure, which as cruisers not racers, isn’t a is a big problem for us. It still is a factor to consider in heavy conditions, when you don’t want to give the wind anything more than it already has to push you around. Even a mast has enough surface area at sea to keep you running at a good speed in a gale, so the added steps could be a problem, but we hoped to be well hunkered down if those conditions arose. Aesthetics is a matter of personal preference: some see them as junking up a boat, others appreciate their pragmatic beauty. It would be prudent to back up this option by a security line or by tying on.
2)Bosun’s chair – There’s lots of styles of bosun’s chairs in which you seat yourself and are hauled up, usually using the deck winches and another person. They run at about $150 at the low end, to over $500 for the fancy models. Most have built-in pouches to carry tools up – that would be a nice feature. We weren’t sure how much comfort factored in. Would it be better to be able to sit when up there for prolonged periods, or would it just be awkward to brace yourself when needing to use force?
We don’t have serious trust issues in our relationship, but still weren’t too comfortable with the notion of our life, literally, depending on the other person and the equipment winching you up. Seems like some people arrange a block and tackle set-up for solo ascents, but again, it’s the equipment taking your weight.Our boat is small and and has small winches. Even though the two of us are relatively light beings, it would be a scary thing to rely on them to haul and hold us up.
3)Climbing gear – Using mountain-climbing equipment on board seems to be becoming more popular. Usually, this involves a ratcheting mechanism and if I understand correctly, 2 ascenders. A loop for each foot is attached to the lower ascender and the upper one attaches to the climbing harness. To get up there, it sounds like you alternate bearing weight on your feet (while sliding upper ascender up), and then bear weight through the harness (and pull up lower ascender) as you inch your way up. This requires quite a bit of strength. Associated costs really vary.
4)Webbed mast ladders – These slide into the mainsail’s track, are lightweight and removable, and thus create no windage and can be stored out of sight. We dismissed this option quickly. We thought they would be tricky to insert your foot in, especially if you bouncing around, but the primary drawback is the need to to remove the mainsail in order to ascend the mast – that just didn’t seem practical. This runs at about $400, depending on length, plus the cost of sliders to fit the sail track.
5)Block-and-tackle system – We found descriptions of various self-climbing set-ups, usually involving a climbing harness or bosun’s chair (although sometimes little more than a bowline around the waist!) and at least 4:1 block and tackle set-ups with lots of line. The safety and ease of use of these would vary with the particular details of each.
And Our Decision? Mast Steps for us. We were sold by the idea of having an always at-the-ready secure method to scale the mast that would bear our weight and not rely on attachment points. Weight and windage isn’t a deal-breaker for us as cruisers, and we were fine with the look. So now, we had to decide what style would we go with.
Mast Step Research
I looked at many styles available on the market. They varied quite a lot in price and design.
1)Straight steps made from flat bar aluminum or stainless steel. Commercially available ones often have a teak pad for grip and comfort. We liked that they enclose the foot to keep it from sliding off the end. Fairly light and aerodynamic too. Fairly inexpensive to buy and easy to make. The main drawback? They could cause serious chafe.
2)Folding steps at 90 degrees from the mast. This seems to be the most common available type, made in either a nylon-fibreglass mix, or chrome-plated brass with stainless springs. There’s the straight ($30 and up) and also the oval (~$50/each) footplate designs. As you climb, you unfold the next step ahead of you . When you descend, you simply fold them up as you make your way down. Little to no windage when they are not in use and they shouldn’t catch lines, although if they did, they could be quite wedged in there. There are a few things that I didn’t like about these. I was concerned about the time and focus it takes to open/close the steps as a time when it’s so important to be concentrating on other things. Also, the steps don’t enclose the foot, and although the slight lip helps, we were concerned about the risk of slipping off in rough conditions. The spring/hinge mechanism also could be a weak link over time in the step’s integrity. These would be difficult to make and expensive to buy (vary in price from about $30 to nearly $50 each x 18-20 steps needed = ouch!).
3)Tripod-type design with U-base looked like a good ergonomic design to us, and nowhere to snag clothes, lines or anything. This step is formed by the use of a U shaped base that screws horizonally into the mast and forms the step. Another piece is welded to the end of the U which bridges over your foot and onto the mast. Another benefit of this style is that your foot can’t slide off of the end of the step! We’ve seen these made from flat bar and also from tubular steel (more comfortable on a bare foot and less likely to snag or chafe).
The tubular stainless steel option it would be. We weren’t able to find this exact design for sale, although we didn’t look too hard since we knew it was within our means to make. It uses readily available SS tubing and forms a molded, comfortable, and very strong step that can’t snag your lines or seriously chafe, and is convenient to use.
And was it easy to make? Here’s how I did it.
1. Materials. Purchased about 40′ of 1/2″ stainless tubing from a local machine shop.
2.I began by playing around to see if I could find a way to bend SS tubing. Initial attempts were less than successful and I couldn’t find anyone in our area that could do this for us. I found a bending tool, that when clamped in a bench vise, would allow me to shape ½” SS tubing by hand. SS tubing is more difficult to bend than its plain metal counterparts, so the equipment required to bend anything larger than this is pretty pricey. Luckily, this tool is under 200 dollars CAD!
I was very pleased at how easy it was and with a little practise and a few jigs and prototypes later, I had made myself the pattern for the perfect mast steps! Here’s how I did it:
3. I made a jig by first obtaining a profile of the mast using a piece of heavy solder wire that holds its shape when bent. I wrapped this around the curve of the mast to reproduce its shape.
Then I played around with some pieces of wood until I formed a jig in the same shape as the mast that I could use to screw the mast step pieces in order to simulate how they would fit. This later became useful when I brought the pieces to the welding shop. They were able to screw them to the jig and weld them together in the proper orientation which assured that they would be all the same shape.
4. I proceeded to refine my technique and find out exactly where the bends needed to be placed in order to make the pieces all the same. Alas, only a couple of pieces of stainless were wasted!
5. Calculating # of steps required and their spacing. Shirley and I tested out what would be a comfortable spacing for our leg length/strength. We didn’t want climbing to take too much effort, but at the same time, wanted to minimize how many steps we needed. We decided on 18″ spacing, alternating sides, then ending 48″ from the top with 2 level steps to allow secure standing when working at mast-top. We required 20 steps for our 35′ mast.
6. I then cut and bent the tubing for the 2 parts of 21 steps (1 extra… just in case): the U-shaped foot piece and upper support.
5. I carved the coving in each upper brace piece that would be welded to the end of the U that forms the lower part of the step. I did this by clamping the tubing in the vise and using an angle grinder to carve a concave “c” that would match the curve of the tube it would join.
6. Then I created a flattened attachment tab by crushing the ends in a vise and bending them to match the first pattern that I had created to fit on the shape of the mast.
7. Next, each tab was rounded with an angle grinder and drilled out to accept a ½ inch by #10 ss screw. The hole had to be big enough so that the screw threads didn’t contact the SS.
8. I brought the step tubing, and the mast jig to a local welder, who required about 2 hours of time to weld the top brace to the U-component of the 21 steps.
9. The mast steps looked grimy, especially with the welded joint blackened on most, but with elbow grease and metal cleaner/polisher, they have cleaned up nicely.
Finally! Getting the steps where they belong. We mounted them while the mast was down and secured to Ariose’s deck.
- Spacing. I measured out the 18″ intervals, which by chance, worked well to allow our spreaders to substitute for one step.
- I drilled the holes in the aluminum mast just big enough so that the threads of the SS screw contacted the aluminum to create the thread but wouldn’t break off. I had to buy drill bits for this that could only be purchased from a machine shop – they were a very specific size that hardware stores don’t sell.
- Finally, we screwed in the steps, using a dab of loctite (blue) that would help separate the 2 metals to prevent corrosion, and hold them in place, but not be impossible to remove if/when necessary. As we did so, we found we didn’t need 2 of the steps. We could step up from the deck onto the mast winch and climb from there, so didn’t need the lowest mast step, and by chance, the spreaders were at an 18″ interval from the previous step, so we also didn’t need a mast step at that level.
- An optional step I took, that you may wish to avoid, was to kick 2 mast steps off the deck, donating them to the bottom of the Hudson River. Thank goodness for extras!
The steps came to about $ 20/ step with the overall approx costs as follows for 21 steps:
$150 Bending tool + $100 40′ of 1/2″ SS tubing + $150 for 2 hrs of welding labour = $400 total / 21 = ~$20 per step
I didn’t track my time. It did take quite a bit of time experimenting, but once I had the design and the jig, they do go quite quickly.
As I mentioned, I’ve ascended the mast about 10 times since we’ve installed the steps. Fortunately, each time has been in relatively calm conditions.
I wear shoes, and a harness tied off to the main halyard with a bowline (don’t trust that snap shackle). As I climb, Shirley uses the winch to take up the halyard’s slack. She secures it once I’m at the level I need to be and for added security, I also use a short tether to clip on while working. Once done, she pays out the halyard, keeping it well wrapped around the winch, as I descend. (Shirley’s confession: There have been some days that I have been slightly tempted to leave him up there!)
I tied on a canvas grocery bag that we had on board to carry tools and supplies.
Overall, we’re really pleased with our mast steps, and many other cruisers have expressed envy. They were really affordable at less than 1/2 the price of what we would have expected to pay (of course, we’re not including my time here). Not only were they economical, when combined with harness & tying on, they are safer, easier, and more convenient to use, we think, than many of the more expensive options.
The steps’ weight (we forgot to weigh them before installing, but our guess is only a few ounces each) and windage probably do negatively affect Ariose’s performance, but hey, we’re not in a race, and the benefits seem to far outweigh any slight slowing. Never having sailed in these conditions without the steps, we have no comparison. We did get hit by one wild storm where despite being anchored, Ariose seriously heeled over from one side to the other, as the forceful winds battered us around. There’s no way of knowing how big a factor the additional windage of the steps played in that sleepless night.
After 9 months aboard in many different conditions , the steps have mostly not interfered. I say mostly because we have noticed that when we don’t maintain Ariose in irons when raising the mainsail, the wind can cause the ‘pockets’ or folds of the mainsail to catch on one of the bottom stairs.
A minor benefit has been the added attachment points they create on Ariose… for clipping on halyards, tying on clothes-drying lines, hanging extra docklines, etc.
Even with polish, the stainless tubing we used doesn’t quite bring our steps to up to the shine of other marine stainless hardware on board. If doing this again, we would first research if that is a different kind of stainless, or how it’s treated to get that shine.
A danger we hadn’t anticipated is the temptation to free climb. The stairs are right there, all the time, just begging you, in the heat of the moment, to climb them without any safety lines. I know, I’ve done it (but only a short way up!). Is that a coral head directly in front of the boat?…..a few seconds later and I’ve scaled the first 5 steps to make the assessment. Very handy, but risky.
And that’s it! If you have comments or suggestions, or mast-climbing experiences you’d like to share, we’d love to hear them. We haven’t figured out how to allow “comments” to our Projects Pages, so instead, please get in touch with us through the Contact Us tab at the top right.