Yachting – The art of mast climbing

Some of us are better suited than others to being hoisted aloft, as Jonty Pearce discovered, but good team work and thorough preparation make mast-head jobs go smoothly

The title of this blog should really be ‘The art of mast climbing’. However, being not insubstantially built, if I do venture up the mast I do rather remind onlookers of Mr Blobby on a stick. For this reason I avoid going up to such heights and instead send my dear wife – who likes such aerial activities – up aloft instead. Once there, whilst she has the confidence to work high up in the air, she unfortunately doesn’t possess my technical know-how and strength. Thus a certain degree of good team working and communication is necessary in order for us to do the varied tasks required as part of mast-top maintenance.

Typical work needing to be done includes adjustment of the Windex indicator (after seagull landings), replacement of the anchor or tricolour bulbs, rig checks, retrieving lost halyards, and the regular job of bringing down the wind sensor for bearing replacement. The last time Carol performed the latter task was some time after the yard had installed our new Raymarine system (using a crane). They had unexpectedly wrapped self amalgamating tape all round the thread which confused my advice to Carol. She tried to describe what she found to me, and it was only once I’d finally understood the situation that all was resolved with the aid of a Stanley knife and a pair of mole grips sent up in a bucket on a spare halyard.

There are various ways to ascend the mast. The classic method is undoubtedly by bosun’s chair, though bespoke climbers, mast ladders, mast steps and just being a mast monkey have their supporters. On a recent trip to Holland we were entertained by a Dutch lady who was winched up their catamaran’s mast by her husband. It was only after her return to the deck when she started to unwrap the cat’s cradle of rope from her waist and thighs that we realised that they evidently had no bosun’s chair on board; Heath Robinson techniques had been required. ‘Sooner her than us’ we all agreed. However their demonstration made us realise the degree of effort involved in using a winch to hoist somebody up the mast. If Carol tried to winch me in this fashion it would be a non-starter.

We choose to hoist a bespoke mast ladder up the sail track – it has its own sliders that sit securely in the slot to stop it migrating sideways or backwards whilst being climbed. It is attached at the boom before the hoisting halyard is cleated off tightly. The ladder uses the first halyard – a second is needed to tie a bowline to Carol’s harness or bosun’s chair, and we choose to use a third as a safety halyard. A fourth halyard would be useful to enable a bucket to be lifted and lowered, unless this were done freestyle with a length of loose line. Never use a snap shackle to attach a harness or bosun’s chair – they cannot be relied on, and a bowline is acknowledged to be far safer.

When aloft, stability, security, and the ability to work looking down are vital. I am never brave enough to go adequately high to be able to look down on the masthead equipment, but I’m glad to say Carol is. We are careful to tie lanyards to any tools used aloft lest they be dropped, and also to keep them in a hoisted bucket for ease of access. Being a suspicious cove, I ensure that the cabin roof and windows are well protected by bunk cushions so that if anything does fall it won’t end up making a dent in the deck or a hole in the glass.

Any task or job that needs to be done aloft needs careful planning and preparation. My last trip up the mast was whilst Aurial was dried out on a beach. I was able to attach the new removable inner forestay to a Selden fitting I had installed several years before. It had required both drilling and the cutting of a slot in the mast – not something I would fancy doing aloft, though it had been a doddle with the mast flat on a couple of bearers. I had also taken the opportunity to photograph all the mast top fittings; a pictorial catalogue that simplifies explanation of maintenance tasks to those going aloft.

Finally, consider the placement of the boat in preparation for an ascent. I prefer to be safely moored alongside a finger birth in a quiet marina or to be dried out securely on the beach. Those boats unable to take the ground will be denied that the latter stability, and those on a mooring would do well to choose a day when there is no swell – what may feel like a little ripple at deck height can be a swinging experience at the mast top. I take my hat off to hardy souls such as Ellen MacArthur who ascend the mast during ocean passages – and she was single-handed!

As for me, I’m best at deck height. I am not the correct shape for jogging, rock climbing, mast climbing, or ballet dancing. However, I can grind a winch in a very satisfactory way whilst assisting my dear wife who does all the dangerous bit. Long may our teamwork continue!


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Is piracy still a threat to ocean cruisers and sailing yachts?

The Red Sea has been closed to sailors for almost a decade, but is it getting any safer, and what about piracy closer to home? Theo Stocker investigates


A fast skiff approaches a commercial ship with a boarding ladder ready to deploy

Is piracy still a threat to ocean cruisers?

Where the word ‘pirates’ once conjured images of Long John Silver, we now think of high-speed skiffs and armed gangs. Piracy is as real today as it has ever been, spurred on by war, failed states, and countries unable to police their seas. Most of us try to stay clear of trouble, but popular sailing locations are increasingly affected, as well as more remote bluewater sailing routes.


Gerry Northwood is an expert on counter-piracy and now works as a security consultant

Yachting Monthly spoke to Gerry Northwood OBE, retired Royal Navy captain, founder of the Indian Ocean counter-piracy naval force and security consultant with Maritime Asset Security and Training Ltd, to find out what this means for sailors.

Are the seas around the world getting safer or more dangerous?

The world’s seas are getting more dangerous. We live in a post-Cold War era in which numerous national powers are jockeying for position, as well as non-state organisations and terrorist groups looking to take advantage wherever they can.

The bi-polar world of the Cold War has disintegrated and there has been a huge shift towards globalisation. Things are much more complex now, fuelled by the stark contrast between rich and poor, living in close proximity. There is a larger incentive to criminality, particularly if law and order is not in place to control it.

In some parts of the world, the seas are largely unpoliced and unregulated.

Where are the hotspots for maritime crime and piracy at the moment?


MAST Ltd’s risk map shows incidents of marine crime and piracy, or attempted piracy, since 2014

Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean and West Africa are ‘red-light’ areas at the moment – places to avoid completely. The Caribbean is ‘amber’, requiring caution.

Isn’t the situation in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean improving?

In some ways, the Indian Ocean is now one of the safest areas in the world for commercial shipping at sea. This is due to the immense efforts to put a security system in place that is effectively stopping pirates.

The Indian Ocean High Risk Area was also recently reduced in size, reflecting the fact that Somali pirates are unlikely to stray as far offshore as they once did. That said, compared to commercial shipping, yachts are soft targets and pirates may be tempted by the opportunity they present. Further afield, the Seychelles are totally safe within the archipelago, though routes to the islands could involve risk.


Pirates can be heavily armed and have used rocket propelled grenades to attack ships


Will the Red Sea be open to yacht sailors again any time soon?

For the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden to be safe for yachts without additional security measures, we would need to see Somalia becoming a normally-governed, peaceful state with rule of law ashore and with some sort of coastguard capability at sea. There is now also a knowledge base on how to conduct piracy in Somalia, and this is likely to persist for some time. There would also need to be a conclusion to the Yemeni civil war.


Pirates often use small skiffs that are hard to spot until it’s too late

What is the security situation in the Atlantic?

The Gulf of Guinea in West Africa is dangerous. The region is dominated by Nigeria, but there is poor coordination between states and countries, and no single authority is willing or able to deal with distress calls in international waters. Political divisions within Nigeria don’t help. In territorial waters, countries’ abilities to manage their seas are extremely variable.

A vessel was attacked off Liberia, but there have been no incidents to the north of this and Senegal and the Cape Verde islands remain relatively safe.


MAST Ltd’s risk map of the Caribbean shows incidents of marine crime and piracy, or attempted piracy, since 2014

There have been reports of criminal activity against yachts in the Caribbean. How can sailors avoid problems?

Yacht sailors need to be very cautious in the Caribbean. Some parts are safe as houses. In others, people could come to serious harm, as we saw with the murder of two German sailors in St Vincent in March 2016.

The same goes for southeast Asia. It is a large, complex and diverse area and some places are safe while others are very dangerous. Anyone planning to sail there needs to do thorough research before their trip and to follow advice carefully, as there have been a number of incidents involving yachts in recent years.


Armed security guards can be hired, even by yachts, but it’s likely to be expensive

The Mediterranean has been in the headlines a lot recently, with migration, terrorism and the Syrian civil war. Does any of this concern sailors?

I recently heard the account of an Italian sailor who had been at sea on his yacht with a couple of friends. Early one morning they came coming across a sinking migrant boat. Deciding it was better to help rescue as
many as possible rather than let them all drown, he rescued 42 people from the water. He was worried for the safety of own boat and couldn’t rescue any more and was faced with watching as many of them drowned. It weighed heavily on his
conscience that he couldn’t do more.

The story brought home the fact that it is easy to assume ‘it won’t happen to me’ but it is important to consider what you would do if you came across migrants in the water, and to have a plan. The advice may be to steer clear and report it to the authorities, but as sailors, we also know there is an obligation to save human life at sea. We are not a community that sits back and ignores those in trouble.

It is probably better to avoid places where you could end up in that situation in the first place. Once you are there, however, you should feel compelled to something about it, but doing it badly could put your own lives in jeopardy. You need a plan.


An undefended yacht by itself at sea can be a tempting target for pirates

Is there any sign of terrorist or pirate activity in the Mediterranean?

There has been little sign of terrorism spreading to the sea so far, but there is a real risk that migrant boats could have on board someone who means harm.

There was a report in the last couple of months of a raft found at sea with two dead bodies on board. A Turkish Coastguard vessel went to investigate and the raft blew up, killing one crewman, and injuring the crew of a fishing boat that originally found the raft.

This was a isolated incident, and it’s not clear who was behind it, or what the target was, but it adds another layer of complexity to the humanitarian work being done in the Mediterranean. You certainly don’t want a gun turning on you if you go to help a stricken vessel.

Where should sailors be particularly cautious in the Mediterranean?

The crossing between Turkey and Greece has been a major route into Europe, although there have been concerted attempts to stop this. Consequently the route from Libya to Italy is becoming more popular again, and sailors should take extra care here. Search online for ‘European Naval Force Mediterranean’ for current advice.

Finally, some sailors decide to carry guns on board. What’s your view on this?

Yachts are fundamentally soft targets, compared to fully-crewed commercial vessels with armed guards on board. Yachtsmen are also highly attractive targets, as they are perceived as being wealthy and able to pay a ransom. Most small yachts are not in a position to afford or carry additional security personnel for long cruises, but they could be worth it for short passages.

Before carrying a gun on board, you need to be very clear about your competence, and in what scenarios you might use it. This would dictate what kind of weapon you would want. If you are not confident in using a weapon, it could go badly wrong for you.

You also need to think about the legal ramifications if you do use the weapon and kill someone. There are so many variables that it is impossible to give general advice, so think through the complexities.

Gerry Northwood OBE


Gerry keeps his Beneteau Oceanis 41.1 Frostbite in Annapolis, Chesapeake Bay

Gerry is the chief operating officer at MAST Ltd (Maritime Asset Security and Training). Gerry reached the rank of Captain in the Royal Navy and played a key role in creating the British-led European Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) in the Indian Ocean, for which he was awarded an OBE. He commanded a UK counter-piracy task group, counter-narcotics patrols in the Caribbean and the UK presence in the Falkland Islands. He also served in the First Iraq War, the Iran-Iraq war and Northern Ireland.

Gerry learned to sail at school and began yacht sailing at Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth.



Yachting at Oxwich Bay, The Gower

Despite being a popular beach destination during the summer months, the anchorage at Oxwich Bay can be far from the madding crowd, as Jonty Pearce describes

Oxwich Bay

The bay is so extensive that there is ample room for all

Oxwich Bay, The Gower

Between Tenby and Swansea the choice of anchorage is limited. Diverting across Carmarthen Bar into the estuaries of the Taf and Towy, or across to Burry Port, is not always convenient, and the Gower coast is mostly inhospitable in the prevailing southwesterly winds until you turn the Mumbles corner into Swansea Bay. However, there are two exceptions – Port Eynon and Oxwich Bay. I favour the latter even though the beach itself is popular during the summer months;
it is so extensive that there is ample room for all.

Those seeking the anchorage in the north-west corner will be far from the madding crowds, and the true peace of this anchorage develops as the sun starts to dip and the call of tea disperses the day visitors to leave this lovely stretch in the hands of a few fishermen, dog walkers, and yachtsmen. Out of season, Oxwich changes its personality and becomes a haven of peace and wildlife.

The anchorage is well sheltered from the north through to the south-west – if the wind has north in it, anchor in the southern part, and if the wind is southwesterly, anchor as far north as the depth allows. If a southerly or easterly is forecast, it’s time to move on.

The approach is hazard free as long as the wreck close to the western shore is noted. Coming from the west, give Oxwich Point and its overfalls a wide berth, whilst from the east the bay is open. The best anchorage is between the moorings and the shore – calculate the depth and drop the hook on firm sand with good holding. Do not be tempted to use the moorings. Many of them are marked ‘Keep Off’, which is always a good hint – returning local fishing boats might need the mooring at 0200, and some of the outside buoys are actually lobster keeps.

However, if the weather is clement, stretch your legs ashore and enjoy not only the beach, but also the Oxwich Bay SSSI and Oxwich National Nature Reserve behind the dunes, where flora and fauna include everything from orchids to otters and boardwalks meander over the marshes and reed beds that host a wide range of birdlife including rarities such as the bittern and Cetti’s warbler. On one evening visit we were entranced by a murmuration of flocking starlings performing fantastic group aerobatics that painted shadowy shapes against the twilight sky before they settled into the trees for their winter roost. The spectacle left us humbled, and we had to visit the excellent Oxwich Bay Hotel for a small libation to help fix the memory permanently in our minds.

Apart from the beachside hotel, Oxwich offers few facilities. The village has a shop and café and there are toilets in the car park. Local buses do serve the area and allow exploration further afield. The main local hub is Swansea, although those wishing to avoid the hotspots should visit the adjacent Three Cliffs Bay, chosen by the operatic diva Katherine Jenkins as her favourite view.

The unspoilt and beautiful Gower Peninsula was rightly one of the first places designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty under the 1949 Act, and Oxwich Bay provides a yachtsman’s gateway into this glorious domain. It’s all there waiting for you…


Yachting essentials – sprayhoods and cockpit covers

When it comes to cost, it all depends on the kind of sailing you do and your willingness to be self-sufficient, says Jonty Pearce



Aurial, our Southerly 105 ketch, had spent a year in the Mediterranean before we bought her a little over eight years ago. The sun is strong in the Med, and ultraviolet had wreaked havoc on anything left on deck. A plastic container used for the stern anchor fractured at my touch, and the sprayhood stitching had virtually given up the ghost; I hardly dared touch it in case another seam started to split.

The trouble was, we’d pretty well scraped the barrel dry when stretching ourselves to buy her. My accountant, a lugubrious soul, had told me that I could not afford a yacht. He was, of course, right, but the statement was red rag to a bull and the purchase was duly agreed on my 50th birthday: a classic midlife crisis. However, I think his accountancy vision of yachting was that of posing on a half-million 50′ world girding yacht moored against the quay in Cannes, replete with skimpily clad blondes (some of them male), while wearing smart deck shoes, blazers with brass buttons, white shorts and a peaked cap clearly labelled ‘Captain’. The Welsh equivalent in Neyland Yacht Haven fortunately does not demand this standard of attire, and those dressed in such a manner would be the focus of considerable interest. No, in Neyland anti-foul splattered shoes, torn and stained trousers, and unsavoury shirts that have survived accidental holding tank spillage are totally acceptable. Not that we can’t scrub up well when we need to; it’s just that smart clothing does not stay smart long when scrabbling around in the bilge after dropping ones mobile phone under the engine during its service. Contrary to my accountant’s vision of fully serviced yachting, mine is one of do it yourself, and I have proved my bean counter wrong by following the self-sufficiency mantra.

Which brings me back to the sprayhood. Remember the sprayhood? It was the rotten one. Rather than investing half a grand or more on a new one, I spent £100 on a tough sewing machine that not only coped with restitching every single sprayhood seam but also let me make instrument covers, a binnacle cover, an anchor windlass cover, and spray dodgers. Luckily the material and windows of the sprayhood had been sound, but the cloth itself has now reached the end of its life even though the stitching is still strong. It looks wrinkly (think Norah Batty), tatty, grey, mildew stained and unsavoury, so I know I have to blow the dust off my wallet and commission a new one.

At the Southampton Boat Show we wandered the aisles and interrogated the canvas makers for quotes and ideas. Our specifications were for a replacement sprayhood that extended into a combination bimini and cockpit tent, whilst not inhibiting deck access or preventing us using the genoa winches. Oh, and Carol didn’t want any holes drilled for new fasteners. And we did not want any bulky folded canvas and poles where we sit on the cockpit coaming. And Aurial is a ketch with the mizzen mast sitting right on the forward edge of the rear deck. Needless to say, we came away disillusioned. No existing designs really fitted, so we bought the excellent Habitent cockpit tent instead while we thought about things.

This winter I am determined to put my own ideas to test. The mizzen mast’s presence can be turned to advantage by using it to tension and support a cockpit tent/bimini. The spinnaker winches that perch on the coamings level with it are to become the bases for the rear cockpit stainless steel hoop. The forward end of the cockpit cover will zip to the lip of a new replacement sprayhood, and the sides and rear section will be detachable to provide shade or shelter when we don’t require a full tent. I’m not sure of the detail of the side doors or windows yet – but I’m sure all will become clear after I visit Aurial with a length of alkathene piping, some old sheets, and my trusty sewing machine to construct a template that our local canvas genius will be able follow at a fraction of the cost of a bespoke supplier.

I find yachting is at its most satisfying when self-sufficient inventiveness and skill an be merged into a satisfying solution at a minimal cost. Especially when it proves the accountant wrong.