Do you know how to reef your mainsail when the wind gets overpowering? If not, you really should learn how. If you already know, is your sailboat rigged so that you can reef and unreef quickly in high winds while underway? If not, besides a jiffy reefing line like I describe in Single line jiffy reefing, you’re going to want to install mast gates of some kind. I won’t get into all the nuances of reefing in this post. There are many other excellent resources for that. For a condensed, illustrated description along with many other sailing techniques, consider reading my review of Royce’s Sailing Illustrated Volume 1: Tall Ship Edition.
Without mast gates, one or more slugs will fall out of the sail feed slot when you reef the mainsail. That means someone has to go forward to the mast to reinsert the slugs when you hoist the mainsail back to full height. Mast gates either block or bridge the sail feed slot to keep the slugs in the track when you reef and unreef the mainsail. They turn reefing from something that you have to do well ahead of time to something that you can do as just another sail trimming option.
There are only a few aftermarket sources for mast gates but one stands out from all the others, mastgates.com. Mastgates.com specializes in innovative mast gate designs for all makes and models of sailboats. The company is owned and operated by retired nuclear medical field service technician and avid West Wight Potter 19 owner Tom Luque. Tom has invented a number of patented designs to fit different mast profiles and sail feed slot designs. He also has different styles for moored sailboats and quick release styles for dry-sailed boats. He was kind enough to send me three of his products for evaluation: a new internal tube gate, external tethered mast gates, and a quick release track stop.
An entirely new mast gate design
Tom and I met online first and then in person later when my first mate and I joined him and his wife Phyllis for dinner during Seattle Boat Show 2015. It was interesting learning from him the subtle differences in the masts of various sailboat manufacturers. He also showed us a prototype of his clever new bifurcated (split) tube design.
Tom makes the tube out of thin 316 stainless steel. It slides entirely inside the sail track and is held in place with a single small set screw. Two small ears keep the tube from rotating or falling down the track. Tom makes the slot in the tube the same width as the sail track in your mast. When the tube is installed, it restricts the sail feed slot but lets the slugs slide through unimpeded.
You can install the tube either through the sail feed slot (if your mast is stepped) or if you dry sail like I do, you can slide it up from the bottom while the mast is unstepped. After you find the best position for the tube in the sail feed slot, you mark the center of the set screw hole with a center punch and then drill and tap a hole in the back of the sail track.
You thread the set screw into the new hole until protrudes through a small hole in the tube just far enough to hold the tube in place. To remove the tube for maintenance or repairs, you drive the set screw in flush with the track to release the tube and then pull the tube out either through the sail feed slot or out the bottom of the mast.
Out on the water
In use, the tube works well at keeping the slugs in the sail track. I was able to hoist and douse the mainsail in various wind conditions like there was no sail feed slot.
The drawbacks to this design are minor but worth considering. You have to be careful to adjust the setscrew neither too far in nor too far out. Too far out and slugs will catch on it or the screw can fall out and allow the gate to open unexpectedly. Too far in and the gate can wiggle off the screw and open unexpectedly. This happened once to me overnight while at anchor and some of the slugs fell out when I hoisted the mainsail the next morning. It wasn’t a big deal, I just had to re-feed the slugs into the mast and reset the gate.
After I discovered the range of acceptable adjustment of the screw and stuck to it, the gate was reliable. You can avoid this problem by installing the gate with the ears at the bottom of the sail feed slot instead of at the top, but then you have to hold the gate up with one hand while you bend on the mainsail with the other hand.
You would want to keep a spare set screw onboard for easy recovery if the worst happens and you lose it. You can reduce the risk by applying blue (semi-permanent) Loctite to the screw threads or by crimping the threads slightly with a center punch mark close to the screw hole. You’d also be wise to keep a spare Allen wrench handy in case you drop one overboard.
The bifurcated tube mast gate is a good choice for sailboats that are moored when not in use or in masts for which a different style doesn’t work well. Having to use an Allen wrench to open the slug slot to bend on and remove the mainsail every time would be too inconvenient for dry sailing.
External tethered mast gates
Most mast gate designs by other manufacturers are variations of an external gate. They typically vary only in how they attach to the mast. One example is the mast gates that I designed and fabricated myself. Only mastgates.com offers an ingenious tethered gate design that uses small shock cord to attach the gates and act as both hinges and springs. Like all the mastgates.com designs, these are also fabricated from 316 stainless steel.
To install these mast gates, you drill four small holes outboard of the gate corners, insert the ends of the shock cords, and fasten them with plastic retaining pins.
Here’s a short video showing how to install them.
After installation, you simply push on the rolled outer edge of a gate to unlatch it from the sail feed slot. The gate swings out of the way by itself. To close the gates, just swing them shut until the folded outer edge latches over the sail feed slot again.
Here’s a video showing how easy they are to operate.
Out on the water
These mast gates also work well at closing the sail feed slot for easier reefing and dousing. Their tool-free, snap open, snap closed operation couldn’t be more convenient. However, at first, I did experience slugs catching on the gates inside the track on occasion. Since the gates are held in place only by the shock cord tension, they can slide down the track and foul if the problem slugs aren’t cleared. For these reasons, you want to be sure the gates fit as tight to the inside of your sail track as possible. Tom has a helpful video about this on YouTube.
The external tethered mast gates are a good choice if you frequently bend on and remove your mainsail, such as for dry sailing. They only take seconds to open and close. They would also work for sailboats that are moored if you prefer an external, tool-less design. UV exposure will limit the lifespan of the shock cord if it is continuously exposed to sunlight but Tom said that he has not had any failures in the four years he’s been making this design. Regardless, he also offers replacement cords and plastic pins for sale on his website. Order several replacements when you purchase your mast gates and you’ll be prepared in advance.
Quick release track stop
The final product from mastgates.com that I evaluated isn’t a mast gate at all but a handy accessory for your mast track that can help with bending on a mainsail or other situations where you would use a track stop. I like to use it to hold the boom at the right height during setup or for more headroom while at anchor.
Many masts have a track stop that can be moved in the sail slot and fastened in place with a knob. I hate my original track stop on Summer Dance. The knurling on on the knob is mostly worn off and the previous owner filed flats on three sides of the knob, which don’t help much. Together with the flat slide in the track that binds easily, the original stop is a hassle to use.
The Quick Release Track Stop (QRTS) from mastgates.com works on the same principle but with a round aluminum slide and a high quality plastic cam lever instead of a knob. You simply raise the lever to move the stop to a different position and depress the lever to clamp it in place. The round slide moves easily without binding.
The Quick Release Track Stop couldn’t be easier to install. No tools are needed. Just slide it into the mast track either through the sail feed slot or from the end of the mast. I found that, depending on which end of the slide I inserted first, I was able to get a lighter or firmer clamping action.
Tom gave me this handy tip on installing the QRTS. If you insert a short piece of round metal or plastic that has a smaller diameter than the sail track between the QRTS and the boom slide, it acts as a spacer to maintain just the right separation for easy operation. He will also make the length of the slide to your specifications at additional cost.
This track stop is so quick and easy to use, I’m not going back to the original stop. Now I want to replace every other knob on my sailboat with levers, such as the pop top mast lock on the first generation C-22s.
Both mast gate designs work well. The one that’s right for you depends on your mast profile and how you use your sailboat. Both come in kits with detailed instructions and all the parts you need to complete the installation. You might also need common tools like pliers, screwdrivers, allen wrenches, drill, bits, and taps depending on the gate model. You can find more demonstration and installation videos on mastgates.com and YouTube.
If you don’t have mast gates on your boat yet, you owe it to yourself to contact Tom at mastgates.com. He will go out of his way to set you up right, whatever your sailboat and whatever your needs. For current pricing, ordering information, world-wide shipping, and more, visit mastgates.com.