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Lowering the Mast on a Small Boat with The Resourceful Sailor

I recently lowered the mast on Sampaguita, a Pacific Seacraft Flicka 20 sailboat, for the third time — the first two times in her slip in Seattle, and the last in Port Townsend, WA. It’s a good, low-budget maneuver to know if you own a small sailboat with a deck-stepped mast to effect inspection, maintenance, or emergency repairs, or pass under a low bridge.

Is your boat a good candidate for this maneuver? If it is small enough to put on a trailer, whether or not you do, it probably is. (If you have a trailered sailboat, you likely already do something like this.) The mast of a Flicka weighs 60 pounds and is 26 feet long. Add the standing rigging and hardware, and you might be pushing 100 pounds. Not a daunting weight, but awkward

The tricky part is keeping the mast straight along the centerline of the boat. On a Flicka and many others, this means creating a bridle on each cap shroud to keep tension on the mast as it comes down. I hadn’t figured that out the first time I lowered the mast solo. It threatened to swing over to one side, and upon correcting, swing the other way. There is a lot of momentum at the end of a 26-ft pole, and I feared it would tear the tabernacle right off the cabin top. A dock mate came to the rescue, got the mast under control, and we guided it down the rest of the way without damage.

The result of Sampaguita‘s third mast lowering — at rest in its cradle with the standing rigging removed.
© 2021 Joshua Wheeler

By the second time, I had discovered The Sailor’s Sketchbook by Bruce Bingham, who, coincidentally, was also the designer of the Flicka 20. One of the many sketches describes how to lower the mast of a boat while on the water. It provided the missing knowledge I needed about creating a bridle to keep tension on the shrouds. It is an easy read and has excellent, entertaining, and easy-to-follow sketches. The Sailor’s Sketchbook is out of print, so you would need to source it from the library, borrow it from a friend, or buy it used.

The key was to seize a stainless steel ring to each cap shroud on the same horizontal plane as the hinge of the tabernacle. All three would act as pivot points. I tied a tight line from each ring to the same-side aft lower stay chainplate, another to the forward lower stay chainplate, and a guyline to the end of the boom. These three lines created opposing forces on the rings, holding them stationary as the mast came down. In turn, this provided enough tension on the cap shrouds to keep the mast centered through the process.

The boom served as a gin pole, a supported pole for lifting, or in this case, lowering, a heavy load. With the main halyard shackle attached to the boom end, there was enough angle and leverage to act as a backstay for the mast. The mainsheet, also secured to the boom end, was an extension of that halyard to the stern rail traveler. The previously mentioned guylines attached to the pivot point rings kept the boom centered during the procedure.

port bridal
Stainless steel rings are lashed to the shrouds on the same plane as the base of the mast. The bridle attached to these pivot points keeps the shrouds under tension and the boom centered as the mast descends.
© 2021 Joshua Wheeler

I lowered the mast by removing the aft lower and backstays, leaving the boom/gin-pole system to support it. I loosened the cap shrouds a little and took position in the cockpit. The mainsheet was uncleated, but I kept a secure hold on it. Using the other hand, I pulled on the aft-led headsail downhaul, which ran through a block at the end of the bowsprit and connected to the headsail halyard. Simultaneously, I eased the mainsheet. The masthead pulled forward until gravity took over, and the weight was entirely on the boom/gin-pole system. The bridle kept everything centered, and a controlled lowering of the mast was achieved by simply easing out the mainsheet.

I fashioned cradles for the lowered mast from scrap plywood, foam and carpet, and lashed them to the bow pulpit and stern rail. The bow cradle received the mast as it came down. Once the mast was down, I removed the boom, unpinned the base, and slid it into the aft cradle.

A simple bow pulpit mast cradle slides onto the pulpit.
© 2021 Joshua Wheeler
Plywood, a hole saw, pipe foam and a spare line make a simple cradle for lashing to the stern.
© 2021 Joshua Wheeler

The boom, another part of the puzzle, serves as a gin pole and provides the necessary leverage while lowering and raising the mast. It has guylines connected to the shroud-bridle pivot points, which keep the system centered and triangulated. The main halyard and sheet connect to the boom end, from the masthead and traveler, respectively.

Lowering the mast
Success. Moments after lowering, the mast rests in the cradle.
© 2021 Joshua Wheeler

The following video is a first-person view of my third lowering. It does not capture the entire rig, but it does show a controlled descent and how the bridle keeps tension on the mast and boom. I recruited a tall friend whose role was to hold the mast when it just about reached the bottom. (My hatch has a solar vent in it and is an awkward obstruction to work around.) While I can lower the mast myself, it was better with a helping hand. Raising the mast is essentially the opposite action.

If you are interested in trying this procedure for yourself, The Resourceful Sailor strongly encourages you to seek out a copy of The Sailor’s Sketchbook; Bruce Bingham’s instructions are top-notch. It feels good knowing you can lower and raise the mast with the tools onboard. Triple-check that your load points and lines are secure; and it helps to have a confident friend with you. Remember, keep your maneuvers safe and prudent, and have a blast.

7 Comments

  1. PJ, now in Mexico 2 months ago

    Reminded of the days when I did the same thing on a Catalina 27. Learned from others from the Fresno YC.

    Several of us trailored Cat 27s and a couple of guys even trailored Cat 30s!; at least one of the 30 owners built his own trailer!!!!! ALL WAS DONE WITHOUT A HOIST ( freshwater lakes don’t have them). The big difference was using hinged poles, one on each side, between the cabin top and the blocks connecting the main-sheet and the main halyard’s lower attachment. The poles kept everything from vertically collapsing when the mast was coming down to rest on the bow pulpit. The length of the the halyard to the pole connection was adjusted to keep the hoisting angles between the mast and the poles to around 90 degrees (close is good enough).

    Has been too long, but it seems that the boom was tied in such a way as to limit (most of) side-to-side movement…

    • Joshua Wheeler 2 months ago

      PJ,
      Thanks for reading. I’m so happy to have taken you down memory lane. Also thanks for the alternate approach for other readers. It think my research had turned up some images of the two pole variation.

  2. Bill Sikich 2 months ago

    As another small boat owner, I was thoroughly impressed by the simple yet efficient method you’ve developed for lowering and raising your mast. I recently hired a rigger to climb and service our boat’s mast. I was very happy with their work, but next time I will seriously consider the Resourceful Sailor’s technique to do the job. Thanks for enlightening us!

    • Joshua Wheeler 2 months ago

      Bill, Thanks for reading and the kind words. It seems to improve with practice. Take your time and triple check everything. My first time I partially lowered it and brought it back up two or three times before I went for the final drop. Once you get confident with the set up, have a full comprehension of the forces at work, you make gravity do all of the heavy lifting.

  3. Bud Kerner 2 months ago

    I have lowered my mast on the water. I did it once just to see if I could. Of course I have a West Wight Potter 19 and every time I use it I raise and lower the mast at least once. The Potter comes with baby stays to keep the mast straight, and a block and tackle to help raise and lower the mast.

    • Joshua Wheeler 2 months ago

      Thanks for reading Bud. Those are cool little boats. It’s great that they make it all part of the kit. I totally get the “just to see if I could” thing.

  4. Bud Kerner 2 months ago

    Those baby stays do work. Some years ago I was laying out a two day sail for the Potter Yachters. I do it every October and call it the Bridges Sail. I try to take them under as many bridges as possible without duplicates. This particular time I was heading up the Sacramento River and in Walnut Grove turned onto Georgiana Slough. I radioed the swing bridge and when she tried to open it wouldn’t work. I went back to Walnut Grove to a dock and tried to lower my mast. I didn’t have the baby stays with me. On the way down I couldn’t keep the mast centered and it went off to port. Bent a bunch of stuff, so I got everything in the boat and motored homet

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