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 single system works for every sailboat or for every skipper. If you’re new to mast stepping, you don’t like your current method, or you 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 years ago, 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 if you’re young, strong, and there are two or more of you to do the job.
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 overkill for the real 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. For me, it has to be secure enough to tow for a hundred miles over bumpy state highways and county backroads to my 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 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 the 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.
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.
If your sailboat doesn’t have the same style of gooseneck fitting as a Catalina 22 or you can’t use your boom for some other reason but you do have a spinnaker pole, you might be able to use it instead as this picture from a Westerly 21 owner shows. This picture also shows that a gin pole can be a great help with lifting the extra weight added by a furler.
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, when I’m setting up in a unlevel area, or on the water when 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 items 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 you 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.
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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.
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