Swinging at the Top

By Tom Neale, 6/9/2011


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The top of our main mast is around 60 feet above water. I have to go up there far more than I like, to do things such as changing light bulbs, lubricating antenna connections and other jobs that the magazines call “routine” maintenance. To me, going up the mast is about as routine as flying to the moon on a tricycle. I don’t like going to the top of my mast. I’m afraid of heights. Also, I don’t like hanging from a little line. I don’t even like hanging from a big line. I don’t like hanging, period. I wouldn’t have made a very good pirate. There’s only one thing good about going up a mast and that has to do with all the boats circling around throwing wakes while I’m up there. I have a secret weapon. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Tom up the mast.

It used to be a real hassle to get to the top of the mast. Some poor soul would have to stand down at the halyard winch and crank till his eyes popped out. The entire way up I’d be hanging by that rope hoping that he didn’t have a heart attack and leave me dangling in perpetuity. Then I figured a better way to do it. This means I can get to the top of my mast fast and easy. But I’m not sure this is a good thing. We wrap the halyard a couple of turns around the halyard winch, using it as a fairlead to the anchor windlass. This is a mighty beast with remote control. Mel just has to hold the line (please, please) and push the button—and stop pushing it when I yell that I’m at the top (which has been an issue from time to time). I’m sure this must violate a million safety rules and regulations and please don’t ever do it yourself, but if I can make things easier for my wife on my way up to death, that’s the way I want to go. I’m closer to heaven when I get to the top and I want to make sure that’s where I’ll end up if something goes wrong. So up I go with the greatest of ease except for the fact that I’ve lost most of the skin off my hands and arms by the time I get to the top because I’ve been hugging that pole so tightly as I ascend into the upper realms of terror.

You may think I’m exaggerating when I use that word “terror,” but I’m not because that’s the way I feel. I mean, just stop to think about it. For example, think about Ospreys. You don’t see much about them in the “How to work at the top of the mast” wise seaman manuals. Well, you should. The only time I read about them is about how endangered they are. Have you ever ticked off an Osprey? They have a tendency to get very ticked off if they have a nest on a nearby mast. Even if they aren’t ticked off, they’re almost always hungry. I don’t like ticked off ospreys thinking I’m conveniently placed fresh meat but that’s what they seem to think when I’m up there. And I certainly can’t defend myself from the danger of being clawed, mangled, eaten and digested by a big bird. They’re protected.

I try to be very practical about hanging around up there. For example, normally when I’m doing a job I only have to worry about the fact that I know I’ll drop my screwdriver or multi-tool or whatever at some or, more likely, several points during the operation. When I’m swinging on the end of that stick I also have to worry about when and where I’ll drop it. I have to decide whether to drop it while I’m out over the water where it’ll fall harmlessly and be lost forever, or whether to drop it while I’m over the deck in which situation I’ll probably find it again, down below, beneath that new hole in the deck. All of this requires extreme concentration and I’m usually too busy concentrating on other things, like whether I’m going to die.

But there’s more. Even the slightest roll of the boat is accentuated a million fold (OK, maybe it’s only a thousand fold) at the top of the mast. And not only is the arc of the swing much greater, there’s also a distinct snap of motion as the pendulum of the mast reaches the extreme of its swing and begins its journey back in the opposite direction. I know that seamen of old went up the mast all the time. But I’m not a seaman of old. I’m just an old seaman. I’m also an old coward. And after an extreme point I begin to feel seasick. And I don’t like looking down and seeing water instead of my deck. Actually, I don’t know why I don’t like seeing water because I’d probably fare much better if I hit the water than my deck, but I know in my heart that there’s no way I’d be hitting the water with my mouth closed, which is the normal survival modus operandi when you’re diving into the water. I’d hit the water with my mouth wide open screaming in unmitigated terror. And I certainly wouldn’t have any breath in my lungs.

Tom’s Tips About Going Up the Mast

1. Always assume the line holding you is going to break.

2. Have at least a second safety line and have a deck helper regularly take up its slack as you ascend and let it out as you descend, keeping it secured at all times.

Click Here for More Tips

Dropping tools and breaking halyards while you’re swinging up there is bad enough under normal circumstances, but normal circumstances are never very normal when I’m up top. Inevitably, as soon as I get up to the top, the skipper of some motor boat full of people sees me hanging up there and says to all aboard, “Oh, look everybody, there’s a guy clinging for dear life to the top of that mast way up there.” I always know that they’re coming because they slow down to just the right speed to throw the most wake, and every head starts looking up. If it’s all adults aboard, I know what to do assuming I can unlock one particular finger from my death grip on the masthead. But too often it’s kids and, out of uncharacteristic decency, I just hang on and grit my teeth as the boat commences to circle and circle and circle.

The nice skipper always wants to be sure that everybody aboard gets to fully take in the strange sight of the nut up there screaming and yelling and waving (them off). As the normal rhythmic roll converts to an unceasing series of spasmodic high altitude sweeps, whipping back at the end of each arc, I stop worrying about where I’m going to drop my tools, and start concentrating on something else—my ultimate weapon for this sort of thing. It takes a little planning as you hang on, but it’s worth it. You have to time it just right for the fastest part of the swing. And you have to factor in the direction and speed of the wind. And you must keep track of that ever circling boat. But when you get it right, you’re almost glad you’re up the mast and a motorboat full of people is circling around and around and around pointing at you. It’s called barfing on the outswing.


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