Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Falling From the Masthead: a Catalog of Methods

Many sailors are justifiably terrified of climbing the mast. Given that most have no background in climbing and roped access, they're smart. Some do have experience, take a small short cut--perhaps something they've done many times, and reason to be safe--and get the chop.

A list of ways to make the Darwin Awards:


Fell out of sling, 9-meter mast, Ontario.  Hit the deck and lived. Instead of using a harness he made a simple sling with some webbing.

  • Obviously, a proper UIAA climbing harness or harness + bosuns chair is needed.

Crewman fell to death while working aloft on the Appledore. (wooden schooner). The victim had been hoisted by a winch in a boson's chair, but he had unweighted the halyard by climbing in the rigging. When he fell, the belayer had failed to keep slack out of the line, was caught by surprise, and the turns jumped off the winch. The belayer was not wearing gloves and was unable to control the fall.

  • Belayers must pay attention.
  • Slack must be kept out of the line.
  • Belayers should strongly consider wearing gloves.
  • Belayer training was not adequate.
  • A secondary belay should be used. This is required by OSHA; given the potential for failure of rigging demonstrated in this and other examples, the precaution is warranted. The rigging is not designed for climbing (a climbing belay devise would not suffer this failure type) and is often not inspected prior to climbing.

A plastic mast head sheave crumbled and when the halyard dropped it was cut just enough to allow it to part under the shock load. Since he was not using a second halyard, he fell from the spreaders to the deck, destroying his sailors right leg and requiring years of PT, a new artificial knee, and multiple bits of titanium. "The scars on his calf looked like shark bite after the bone ripped his leg apart and from multiple surgeries. For years, that's what he told people; a shark bite." An experienced sailor.

  • Good practice and boson chair manuals always require 2 halyards. They often recommend internal halyards, because they seem more failure resistant (no swivel), but they are not failure-proof.

Attaching chair by incorrect fittings. Worker clipped the rope to an inspection ring (sort of like a key ring) rather than the structural tie-in point. Dead.
  • There were instructions, but he did not heed them. Read all of the instructions.

Attaching harness by incorrect fittings. Climber attached rope to elastic strap intended only for retaining belt tail. Also climber attached to anchor by accessory loops of harness. Both resulted in product recalls that involved removing harness accessories, because people were dumb enough to tie to them, in spite of warning labels. Read the warning labels. Several injured, one dead.
  • Read all of the instructions. 

Fell out of harness (harness still on rope). Several cases, two causes: did not double webbing back through buckle; did not have waist loop tight over smallest portion of waist and inverted.
  • Read the manual and ALL instruction tags. There can be design differences.
  • Harness or bosun's chair MUST fit correctly. All buckles must have adequate length, including spare length as required in instructions. Waist loop MUST be secured to the smallest part of the waist such that harness cannot be forced down under any amount of pressure; if the climber does not have a waist, they cannot climb.

Rope jammed, could not lower. In a more comical than serious incident, a man British sailor spent three and a half hours in the rain waiting for the fire brigade to work out a way to get him down when his pulley system jammed while he was at the top of his 13 metre mast. The existence of a nearby 10 metre lock allowed the fire fighters to sink the yacht, then topple the boat slightly with a rope and place a ladder against the mast to retrieve the embarrassed sailor. Quoted local Avon firefighter - 'I have never had a rescue like this before!' (should have been able to rig alternate). Boat was seriously damaged.

  • Have a rescue/lowering plan. He could have been seriously injured from circulation restriction in his legs. He was very lucky. He should have been trained in how to lower himself. There should have been a second halyard.
 Belay error. The sailor ascended to the top to do some work, climbing off line tension. For some reasons the original belayer was relieve by another. Finished, the sailor leaned back on the rope. Unfortunately, there had been a miscommunication, and the belayer was holding the wrong rope. The climber hit the deck from 50 feet, surviving, but breaking most of the bones on one side.

  • Test your weight before lowering.
  • Don't casually switch belayers.

Clipped to Spinnaker Shackle.
"30 years ago I had one on the spinnaker halyard of my half tonner (30'). I needed to go to the masthead to work on the instruments. I hitched it to my bosun's chair and asked a pal to haul me up. He, being wiser said "Don't go up on that unless you have taped it closed." We had no tape handy and I thought he was a buffoon anyway and said as much.

He hauled and I climbed. Then I began work. After about ten minutes, and feeling very confident, I kicked myself out and round the mast to get to the other side. Suddenly I was in free fall. Instantly I clutched on to the mast like a koala bear. It only slowed my descent as I watched the shrouds begin sawing through the tendons of my wrists. They were getting wider apart as I descended so were cutting deeper with every foot I slid. I had to decide whether to let go to save my wrists or to hang on even tighter in the hope that I could stop my fall before my wrists cut through and I would let go anyway. I hung on - and eventually stopped falling.

Feeling certain that my buffoon pal had not cleated the line off properly on the winch I hollered "Nigel put that line on the winch properly this time." There was no answer until I saw him a good 100 yards away out of earshot. Then I looked down and the rope was still properly on the winch. Then I looked above my head and saw the snap shackle - open.

Still wearing the bosun's chair heavily laden with tools in a bucket hung on and with a very slim mast section, I simply climbed back to the top and, hanging with one hand, re-clipped myself on. Of course that was an impossible thing for me to do, but that adrenaline is wonderful stuff!

Have I ever had one of these come open--you bet--but only once and never again! I believe the little 3" long rope tassel I had put on the toggle might have had something to do with it. Yes, these are wonderful for sail halyards, sheets and guys; but for people, never. I ran my mountain climber nephew up the stick in his mega-buck climbing harness. Verdict on why the shackle released? The lanyard was pulled into the sheave of the pulley at the masthead, and when the halyard got snug, it put enough tension on the lanyard to cause it to release.

So, no more lanyard for you! Replaced it with a smaller split ring. All good after several hoists! :-)"

(Actually, he's still an idiot. NEVER use a snap shackle to secure people overhead. Tie a figure 8 on a bight and use  locking carabiner, or tie the knot directly around the harness suspension points.)

  • Using a snap shackle overhead is dumb. Either tie directly or use a locking carabiner.
  • Climbing on a single line is dumb.
  • Wear Atlas Fit gloves for better grip on mast.

Unknown. BAY CITY, MI — A 77-year-old Bay City man is dead after falling from the top of his sail boat.
Bay County Sheriff's deputies, Bangor Township firefighters and McLaren Bay-Region paramedics responded to a 911 call at the Bay City Yacht Club, 3315 Shady Shores Drive, at 3:53 p.m. Saturday, July 12. Witnesses placed the call after Gaitis Skabardis fell about 50 feet from the mast of his boat to the vessel's deck and landed on his right side, said Bay County Sheriff's Lt. James Chlebowski.
The boat was docked at the time.
Skabardis' brother and son witnessed the incident. "Before we got there… he made mention to his son that he couldn't breathe after he fell," Chlebowski said. Shortly thereafter, Skabardis stopped breathing and slipped into unconsciousness.
Medical personnel attempted to save Skabardis, but were unable to, Chlebowski said.
Skabardis may have had a medical event prior to the fall, the lieutenant added.
"We know that he unbuckled his safety harness from the boatswain's chair prior to him falling for an unknown reason," Chlebowski said.

  • If assistance is available, keep them around. Presuming he has a heart attack or similar, he could have been quickly lowered. 
No training, poor physical condition, poor equipment. Thames River, SV Albatros, May 2004.
A 76 year old 230-pound passenger asked to climb the ratlines on a wooden schooner. He was given minimal training and was fitted with a safety belt (not harness) attached with a non-locking carabiner, which apparently clipped itself to the ratlines.

"The deckhand recalled that, at about 1450, Mr Kneller had climbed approximately 8 metres above deck level. He recalled observing that as Mr. Kneller was about to take a step upwards, he released the karibiner clip on his lifeline from the ratline, froze for some seconds, released his grip, and fell
backwards. He landed on the ship’s side railings above the gunwale next to the deckhand, before falling overboard into the sea"
  • Lack of training...
  • Improper harness.
  • Non-locking carabiner.
  • Not in suitable physical condition.


Please note that EVERY accident was preventable and all included some operator error. It is not the climbing that is dangerous, but rather poor training and inattention to detail; some of these climbers were extremely experienced, having ascended many times. The number of serious accidents as a result of climbing the mast, when compared to the number of rock climbing accidents and the far greater number of climbers, is orders of magnitude higher. Get some training.I've known too many people to get hurt.


  1. Every one of these scenarios is frightening to contemplate

    s/v Eolian

  2. Unfortunately, I watched two of them.

  3. A safety procedure I learned during mountain warfare training with the Canadian Army is to use a Prussik knot around the mast and the line tied or clipped onto your safety harness. To ensure that I am always secured to the mast, I always use two Prussik lines, one to go up to the spreaders and a second for above the spreaders. It's a bit slow having to slide the Prussik knot up and down the mast but it almost eliminates the likelihood that you will fall should the system you are using to ascend the mast fails.


  4. Colin: A good practice, particularly if there is only one line to ascend, and none available for a safety line. I did that many times on my last boat, which was 3/4 rigged and no topping lift.

  5. I would NEVER use a snapshackle. They are designed for easy release, NOT for life preservation.
    I always tie the halyard to the harness with a bowline. Then clip the snapshackle to the standing part just to tidy it out of the way.

  6. ^^ Agreed.

    I'm also not comfortable with them on safety tether, for the same reason. However, I understand monohulls with narrow bows (easy to go over the side and get trapped) and one sport boats (easier to roll) may weigh quick release more highly than absolute security. I understand that.