When someone goes up the mast, we think -- logically -- of their safety. But we also have to think about those on deck. Simple safety precautions.

Safety from the Top of the Mast

Having someone working 40 or 60 feet above the deck of your sailboat calls for serious safety considerations. When someone is going aloft, we tend to think about keeping them safe. And that’s good.

But there are some other important safety precautions as well . . . for the person(s) on deck and the boat itself. And even if you hire someone to actually go up the mast, you need to think about these to protect yourself and your boat.

What if the person at the top of the mast drops a tool or piece of equipment?

  • Dropping a hammer or any other tool from 40 feet up will seriously injure anyone it hits, either directly or on a bounce . . . not to mention the boat. Even bolts and screws can cause injuries when dropped from a height.
  • Dropped tools or parts are likely to bounce on deck and go overboard.
  • Dropped equipment is likely to break and/or go overboard.

Safety Practices

So we have a fair number of safety procedures we follow:

  • The person on deck stays as far away from the mast as possible.
  • If the person on deck has to go near the mast (say to send up another tool on a messenger line), the person at the top puts all the tools in the pockets of the bosun’s chair rather than holding anything in their hands to lessen the chances of anything falling. The person on deck looks up as much as possible so as to see (and dive) should something drop.
  • We tie keeper strings to everything possible, with one end tied to the tool or part and the other end tied to the bosun’s chair. We keep the lines long enough so that they don’t interfere with work but keep things from hitting the deck — we generally use a 6′ piece of 1/8″ line and use bowlines on both ends so that it ends up being 4 to 5 feet of slack. Dental floss works on washers and smaller screws and bolts — you can usually leave it on while bolting or screwing things in place and just cut it after installing the item.
  • Putting a blanket or quilt on deck around the mast can provide some padding and make it less likely that a dropped item will go overboard. Of course, you hope with the keeper strings nothing will hit the deck . . . (another good protector — although not the intended purpose — is Outland Hatch Covers, which saved a friend’s hatch when a hammer was dropped on it).
  • As a reader reminded me in an email, you can get an inexpensive hardhat for the deck person to wear — or if you have bike helmets aboard, they can wear one.


We use our Sena “My Team Talks” Bluetooth headsets to talk. Being able to clearly communicate (not shouting and hoping you are heard) is a big safety factor:

  • If another part is needed, the person on deck has a much better chance of sending up the right one the first time, reducing the time aloft for the person up the mast and the number of times that the deck person goes into the danger zone around the mast.
  • If the person up the mast needs to be raised or lowered a bit, it’s easier to get it right.
  • If we have to test a masthead instrument, it’s far easier to explain what to check and any problems seen.

These headsets are not cheap but they are lightweight, rechargeable, don’t have a big battery pack and don’t fall off. They are available several places (note that these are sold individually so you have to order two):

Bottom line is that much of cruising entails dangers, which can be mitigated by taking reasonable precautions. On one hand, we don’t want to be paralyzed by fear but on the other, we want to stay safe. Taking a few extra minutes makes many jobs much, much safer.

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