How to Step a Mast Single-Handed With or Without Using the Boom as a Gin Pole

How do you step the mast on your trailerable sailboat? With a gin pole? With the trailer winch? With the help of friends or family? With your fingers crossed? No one system works for every sailboat or for every skipper. If you’re new to mast stepping, don’t like your current method, or just want to simplify or speed up the process, this is for you. I must warn you though, this is a long post, even for me. To make it as short as possible, I’ve included five YouTube videos that show how this system works. By the end of this post, you’ll know everything about how I step the mast on Summer Dance single-handed in minutes, even on the water.

I’ll describe two ways that I step the mast, including one way that doesn’t use a gin pole at all. Both are fast and mostly use the boat’s own rigging and very little extra gear.

I’ll also explain some topics that lead up to and follow mast stepping, like how I:

  • Use a DIY telescoping mast crutch for easier stepping and secure trailering.
  • Tie down the mast and rigging for trailering.
  • Keep my mast in tune without having to loosen and re-tighten the shroud turnbuckles to step the mast.

What do you really need?

When I started trailering Summer Dance, I researched a lot about mast stepping. The Catalina 22 Owner’s Manual and General Handbook is pretty brief on the subject.

Walk the mast aft and drop the mast foot into the mast step on top of the deck, keeping the mast in center line of boat, insert the pivot bolt and locking nut.

One crew member should pull on a line tied securely to the forestay while another pushes up on the mast and walks from the cockpit forward. With the mast erect, attach the forestay and forward lower shrouds.

Poorly written but pretty simple, huh? One crew member pulls on the forestay while another pushes on the mast. That’s how the mast was designed to be stepped and it works well.

But what if you don’t normally have a second able crew member? What if you need to step the mast on the water but you don’t have enough dock space in front of the boat? What if you want to lower the mast to go under a bridge? What if you or your crew have a physical impairment that prevents them from performing one of the tasks? That system may not work for you and you need an alternative. If you believe in the rule that you should have a backup for every critical part and system, then you also need a backup mast stepping plan even if you normally step the mast with the factory recommended method.

I’ve read about lots of different systems. Maybe you have too:

  • Factory-built gin poles, braces, guy wires, and mast-ups
  • DIY wooden gin poles with winches, bridles, and brace poles
  • Blocks attached to the pulpit to reuse the trailer winch cable
  • Electric winches on the trailer or in the tow vehicle
  • Jumbo bungee cord connected to the forestay
  • Assorted Rube Goldberg variations on all the above

They all struck me as over-thinking the problem. What do you really need once you have the mast bolted to the step? What do all these system have in common? Some mechanical advantage to raise the mast and a way to keep it from swinging too far sideways until the shrouds tighten.

If you’ve read this blog for very long at all, you know that I’m really big on reusing or repurposing things for other uses. It’s something of a prerequisite to be a stingy sailor. If you’re lucky, it’s in your DNA and it comes easily to you. Being an armchair engineer qualifies too.

Let’s see. Sailboat design is all about capturing, multiplying, and redirecting forces for mechanical advantage: the hull, keel, rudder, mast, sails, rigging, almost everything. What’s the most compact, portable piece of gear on a sailboat that creates mechanical advantage? The main sheet or the boom vang typically multiplies the force applied to it by four times. What are all gin poles in their most basic form? A big stick. Is there already a long, stiff, portable, stick onboard? The boom. Can we raise and lower the mast single-handed with the main sheet and the boom?

As it turns out, it’s really pretty easy to do. But it’s not very easy to describe in words, so rather than write an entire book about it, I’ve made a series of short videos that each show a different aspect of my mast stepping system. I’ll give you an overview of each aspect in the text below but to really get it, you should watch the videos.

Getting it to the water

Besides being simpler, one of the basic principles of this system is to make launching and retrieving the boat as quick as possible while also being safe. That starts with securing the mast and rigging for trailering. It has to be secure enough to tow for a hundred miles over bumpy state highways and county backroads to our favorite cruising spots. This is in north Idaho, mind you, which is relatively remote compared to the Florida coast or southern California.

I use a combination of DIY mast supports, motorcycle straps, and inexpensive ball cords to secure the rig. The mast is supported on both ends and in the middle. This follows closely the Catalina 22 Owner’s Manual and General Handbook recommendation.

Tie the mast and boom securely to the bow and stern pulpits. The spars should also be supported in the middle by the cabin top. Pad the mast at all contact points to prevent damage.

No tools or knot tying are needed for my system and any one of them works in seconds and stows easily either onboard or in my pickup.

Here’s a tour of the rig tied down just before I step the mast.

The previous video mentions my DIY mast stepper, also called a Mastup by a popular online Catalina parts retailer. I haven’t yet devoted a blog post to it but it was pretty easy to make. If you’re interested in a fabrication drawing and materials list, keep reading to the end of this post and a special offer.

I bought the steel myself from the cutoff pile at a local metal distributor. I took the metal and my drawing to a local welder who works out of his garage and advertised on craigslist.com. I painted and assembled it myself. The total cost was half the price of the commercial version and in some ways, works even better. I especially like the D rings, which make it simple to secure the top of the mast stepper to the aft mooring cleats while trailering. It holds the mast very solid that way. And because the pintles are welded in place instead of adjustable, they can’t accidentally loosen and drop the mast.

Following is a close-up video of just the mast stepper. You can see it in action in the last two videos.

Setting up the boom as a gin pole

The basic theory of a gin pole is to lift a heavy object below one end while it remains stationary at the other end. Support lines called guys position the lifting end over the object that is raised. A mast raising gin pole has one end stationary near the base of the mast, uses the forestay to support the lifting end, and uses a winch or a block and tackle to theoretically raise the bow of the sailboat to the end of the gin pole. In reality, the bow stays stationary and the entire gin pole system including its base (the mast) are raised towards the bow.

Most C-22 gin poles use one of two methods to attach the gin pole to the mast:

  • A peg on one end of the pole that fits in a hole in the mast (the factory system for 2nd generation C-22s)
  • A saddle on the end of gin pole that fits around and is strapped to the mast (most DIY systems)

Neither of those gin poles serve any purpose after the mast is raised. They’re useless extra weight that takes extra storage space.

The system I use relies on a small right angle bracket. I fabricated it out of a piece of scrap aluminum I already had. One side of the bracket is bolted through the mast step and the cabin top in front of the mast. The other side the bracket points upward and has a 1/4″ hole through it to act as a hinge for the gooseneck (stationary lower) end of the boom. If you’re a follower of this blog and have the password, you can find a scale drawing of this bracket on the Downloads page.

Gin pole (boom) hinge bracket. It also makes a handy place to connect a spinnaker halyard when not in use as shown here

I connect the gooseneck fitting to the bracket with the same quick pin (drop cam or toggling bimini type) that I use to connect the gooseneck fitting to the mast slide while sailing. The pin is tethered to the boom with a stainless steel lanyard so it can’t get lost and it’s always near at hand.

I connect the forestay to a shackle on the top side of the (upper) end of the boom. On the opposite (bottom) side of the boom from the forestay, I connect the end of my main sheet tackle that doesn’t have the cam cleat. This is the same configuration as when the main sheet is attached for sailing. I connect the other end of the main sheet (that’s normally attached to the traveler car) to the stem plate where the forestay is normally attached.

To hold the boom vertical during raising, I use two pieces of pre-tied accessory cord. They connect to the sides of the boom with clips through the eye straps where my boom topping lift and jiffy reefing lines attach. The other ends of the cords have loops tied into them that I tie to the upper ends of the midship lifeline stanchions with girth (cow) hitches. The mast step is nearly in-line with the tops of the stanchions, so the cords rotate around the same pivot point as the mast and the boom.

That’s kind of hard to visualize, so here’s a short video that takes you on a tour of the setup.

This is a stickup with a boom!

After I rig the boom like shown above, the hard part over. The rest is just pulling the main sheet with one hand while I steady the mast with my other. I also watch the stays and shrouds to be sure they don’t catch on anything as they raise off the deck.

With the main sheet cam cleat at the stem plate, I can easily stop raising the mast at any point, cleat the line with a sharp tug, and then clear snags or move to a better lifting position. I uncleat the main sheet at the stem plate first and then hold light tension on the main sheet while I get into position to resume raising the mast.

The mast only needs to be held centered until it reaches about a 45° angle. Then the upper shrouds begin to tighten and they hold it centered the rest of the way up.

When the mast is vertical, I reconnect the forestay and forward lower shrouds using quick release levers. The mast is back in tune and requires no further adjustment. I disconnect the boom from the system and attach it in its normal place between the mast slide and the topping lift or backstay pendant. I disconnect the main sheet and attach it to the traveler car. All I need to put away are the two accessory cords.

I use this method when it’s windy, I’m setting up in a unlevel area, or on the water and its choppy. Here’s a video showing the entire process completed in about 4 and a half leisurely minutes.

Single-handed speed stepping

In good conditions (light breeze, level area, or calm water), I skip over using the boom as a gin pole entirely and just use the main sheet to pull the mast up by the forestay. It saves several minutes and is nearly as easy to do. It’s the single-handed equivalent of having a crew member in front of the boat pull a line attached to the forestay. Bystanders seem to enjoy watching me raise the mast by myself in seconds.

Here’s what it looks like when it’s done on the water.

Back to the beginning

At the end of a trip, I never look forward to tearing down Summer Dance, pulling her out of the water, and tying her down for the ride home. I’ve had a great time but I’m tired and there’s many miles to go before I sleep. I don’t want to spend an hour lowering the mast and tying the rig down. I want it to be quick and simple.

Almost always, I lower the mast without using the boom as a gin pole even if I raised it that way. A gin pole is just not usually necessary so long as the mast comes down slow enough and lands in the crutch. You might not want to do it that way your first few times, so here’s what it looks like using the boom as a gin pole.

Then I tie it all down in a few minutes like shown in the first video.

Special offer for blog followers

Whew! That’s a lot of info. If you stuck with me through it, I really appreciate it. I want to thank you by offering not one, but two free bonuses to my blog followers.

The first is the launch checklist that I use to prepare and launch Summer Dance. It’s two pages of details that can help make sure you don’t forget something important for your next cruise — everything from an umbrella for the first mate while she waits for me to step the mast to step-by-step instructions that you can have on deck for the gin pole method described above. Use it as a starting point to add and remove items to make your own checklist.

The second bonus is a dimensioned drawing and materials list for my DIY mast crutch that is described at the beginning of this post. Use it to build your own and save some money for something else.

If you’re not already a follower (subscriber) of this blog, sign up right away and you’ll also receive my next newsletter, which will contain links to download the bonuses I just described. It’s free and you’ll join the hundreds of other stingy sailors that receive exclusive info, news, and offers like this one. Just enter your email address in the box at the bottom of this page and then click the Subscribe button. You can unsubscribe at any time and I won’t share your address with anyone, ever.

I hope you’ve picked up some tips from this post that you can use to optimize your mast stepping system and spend more time on the water.


Would you like to be notified when I publish more posts like this? Enter your email address below to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email. You will also receive occasional newsletters with exclusive info and deals only for followers and the password to the Downloads page. It’s free and you can unsubscribe at any time but almost nobody does!

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Advertisements

30 Comments Add yours

  1. Barry Leeder says:

    Love your vids on raising mast. Could you send a pic of quick release on forward shrouds and forstay and the pin you spoke of in vid.

    1. Hi, Barry

      Stay tuned here for a separate post on the quick releases and maintaining mast tune that’s coming soon!

  2. Tom Luque says:

    I like the idea of using PVC tube & fence to make mast supports.

    1. Just some scraps I had on hand; lightweight, strong, and they don’t look too ghetto.

  3. capnrehab says:

    Hey $tingy,

    Thanks for another great post.

    You mention the newsletter. I am definitely a long time blog follower, and look forward to every post, but I have never gotten a newsletter. Could you add me to whatever email list you use? I don’t want to miss any more.

    1. Hi, CapnRehab

      You weren’t receiving the newsletter initially because you’re a WordPress user so if you follow, my posts should show up in your Reader list instead of by email. But I added your email address to the newsletter recipient list back on May 11. The last newsletter went out on May 21 titled What’s Your Favorite DIY Project? Did you get that one? I’ll probably shoot out the next one at the end of the month. If you don’t get it, I don’t know what more I can do on my end.

  4. mike says:

    Brilliant repurpose of mainsheet. I’ve struggled with this procedure for years, just man-handling it up there. Can’t wait to try this!

    1. Hi, Mike

      I hope it works for you. Let me know how it goes!

  5. Ben Rouse says:

    For mast raising and lowering, I have it a little easier with a 16ft boat, and can raise the mast single handed juat by manually lifting and walking forward in the cockpit and onto the keel case with the hatch slid forward, although I usually have my wife tension the forestay for some extra assurance.

    I like your use of the “ball ties” for securing the rigging on the trailer. I usually use the halyards to tie everything up, but that takes more time than it should. I use some “sail ties” which are very similar to your ball ties to secure the sail on the boom and the boom is stowed inside the cabin. I think I will either get some more sail ties for securing the rigging on the trailer, or make up some velcro webbing straps. At the bow, my mast is tied down using my bowline and the DIY timber A frame mast crutch tied down at the rear with a rope tied to cleats on either side of the transom. The boat is held to the trailer using a stern ratchet strap and a turnbuckle on the bow, and the winch cable attached.

  6. Rich Weston says:

    I really like the idea of using the boom as a gin pole. Brilliant. I wonder if you could post a picture of the L-shaped aluminum bracket that you fabricated and how it is attached to the boom? Making that may be the tricky part for me to get this thing. I could not really see a clear picture of it in your videos. Thanks!

    1. I’ll add a close-up shot of it soon.

      1. I added a close-up picture of the hinge bracket about midway through the post.

  7. Richie says:

    Excellent blog and report. I struggle with the mast raising and have an assistant. I will give your system a try. I finally understand the function of a gin pole and how to use it.

    1. That’s awesome, Richie. I’m really glad it helped. In the case of a sailboat, it’s just a long, temporary lever. Aha moments are great!

  8. Michael says:

    Excellent report and diagram on the mast stepper. What would you think about using aluminum to build it instead of steel?

    1. I think aluminum would work great so long as the wall thickness of the tubes is adequate. You wouldn’t need to be concerned about painting or rust. The critical area is where the outer tube overlaps the inner tube when the crutch is extended. Depending on how close the fit is and how much overlap, when you’re rolling the mast back to set it in the step, there can be considerable strain on that “joint.” A thin wall or soft aluminum might deform so make it beefy there.

      Thanks for your comment, Michael!

    2. Michael says:

      I spoke to my fabricator friend about using aluminum and, him not knowing about the stepping process was most concerned about the hinges holding weight while trailering over the road. He also suggested using a beefier thickness if choosing aluminum just like your suggestion.

      thanks for all you do!!!

      1. The gudgeons can easily handle the weight so long as the pintles on the crutch are sturdy.

        Send us a good picture of the final product and I’ll add it at the end of the post as an example!

  9. Jim says:

    Great post. Just started following your site. You have a lot of good projects on here. Where did you find such thin-walled square tubing for your mast stepper? All I can find is telescoping 1-3/4 & 1″ tubing. I don’t think I need that much strength or weight. Also, I receive the posts by e-mail but I never received the password for the download section. Thanks

    1. Hi, Jim

      There are a couple of industrial metal suppliers in my area that sell their cut-offs retail to the public by the pound. One of them also sells small quantities of standard sizes. I found all the sizes I needed with very little cutting. You definitely don’t need much strength and as little weight as possible. Aluminum would be even better if you can get it welded.

      I’ll send you the password by email.

      Thanks for your question.

  10. Jim Mathews says:

    I really like the simplicity of raising the mast without a gin pole. I use a gin pole now but prefer a simpler approach. How to you lower your mast? Do you use your mainsheet tackle when lowering? Thanks for the great video.. Jim Mathews

    1. That’s right, Jim. I lower the mast by the same method but in reverse, which helps to remember the steps in both directions.

      Thanks for your question!

  11. Jim says:

    Hi. I’m making the mast crutch and downloaded the drawing. How far down is the second hole in the 1″ tubing? ie. the hole where I would put the lock pin when the crutch is raised. Thanks.

    1. That’s an excellent question, Jim, since it wasn’t shown on the drawing. I’ve since revised the drawing to show the hole 2″ up from the bottom of the inner tube.

      The distance isn’t critical but depending on how tight the fit is between the inner and the outer tube, the hole might work better even farther up the inner tube. Try it at 2″ and if the top tube is too loose for you and it wobbles around, drill another hole farther up the inner tube, say at 4″ and try that. The mast will sit 2″ lower but it shouldn’t affect how you step the mast other than by making the crutch sturdier. Then you will have two holes to choose from. You can even drill more holes at different heights for different purposes.

  12. Pedro says:

    Hi
    Thanks for the blog.
    Some pretty interesting ideas here, I’m borrowing some, especially related to the sails…
    Seeing your “system” to step the mast, I’m trying to adapt it to my boat, a ’82 French Rocca Super Chausey.
    The mast step has no pin to lock to the mast foot, it just falls into place between two pins that limit its longitudinal travel. Hence, nothing for the mast to pivot on.
    Any thoughts on how I could achieve that effect?
    Thanks.

    1. Hi, Pedro

      If you have the tools and the ambition, you could replace your existing tabernacle with a custom made pivoting one. Find a piece of heavy gauge aluminum channel that you can cut into a shape similar to the C-22 tabernacle shown in the picture above. The channel should be just wide enough for the mast to sit into and the height a couple of inches. Cut slots in the sides for the through bolt to slide up and down. Cut the channel long enough and drill holes in the bottom of the channel to fit your existing deck bolts.

      Then drill a hole through the base of the mast to accept the through bolt. It should be close to the bottom of the mast, 1/4″-1/2″ from the bottom. Angle the aft edge of the end of the mast so that it will rotate without binding in both directions. As it rotates backward during unstepping, the bottom end of the mast and the through bolt should ride up in the slots. Put a wingnut on the end of the through bolt for easy removal and you’ve got a pivoting mast.

      If you don’t have the resources to make one yourself, maybe you can find a friend or a metal fabricator to help.

      Good luck with your projects and thanks for your question!
      $tingy

  13. Steve Steen says:

    When installing the gin pole hinge bracket you drill through the cabin roof. Have you experienced any water penetration through this hole?

    1. Hi, Steve

      I sealed the plate and hole perimeters with butyl tape, so no problems.

    2. Ed in Gig Harbor says:

      My Venture 21 tabernacle and mast look like yours (sans the plate for your swivel blocks) and I have often wondered if there is wear on the trailing edge of the mast foot after repeated raising/lowering? Or does yours have some reinforcement?

      Also, have you ever noticed the boom baby stays pulling too much on the stantions? I wonder if mounting the ropes at the base would be less apt to damage them if the mast were to go somewhat off-center (to the exrent the upper shrouds allowed)?

      Love your site. I shared the 2017 DIY competition on Small Craft Advisor Magazine’s Facebook page and I noticed the 10 most popular projects link…most of which are on my to-do list!

      Cheers!

      1. Hello, Ed

        There is a tiny bit of wear after 36 years but not enough to matter. Tying the baby stays to the stanchion bases would be more solid but then their pivot points would be too low. The reason that I tie them up at the top of the stanchions is so that the baby stays keep in relatively constant tension throughout the range of motion of the mast/boom. They’re almost perfectly aligned with the tabernacle. The stanchions aren’t in much danger because the boom doesn’t weight much and it can’t wander very far at all since it’s held in tension between the forestay (running aft) and the main sheet (running forward). They really just help to hold the boom vertical while you’re setting the system up until you begin to raise the mast. The mast can wander side to side some until its raised about halfway, then the upper shrouds come taught and keep it centered.

        Thanks for the share!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s