All yachts should have the means to go aloft at sea – and a crew member willing and able to do so


What do you do if a halyard lock gets stuck? What if your spinnaker is wrapped? What if your mast track gets damaged and the mainsail won’t come down?

I’ve been running a webinar series based on various ‘what if’ scenarios with a community of performance catamaran sailors. Some participants were lifelong sailors, some first time boat owners, and some were preparing to start a new life as liveaboards.

Even the most experienced sailors might encounter new scenarios at sea. The best way to prepare for unexpected ‘emergencies’ is to break them down ahead of time, so it doesn’t feel entirely new in the moment. Hence the roundtable discussions.

We had been first addressing the immediate risk to the crew and boat of various ‘what ifs?’. Themes emerged. Most scenarios don’t pose imminent life-threatening danger or catastrophic boat damage, but if handled incorrectly, can quickly deteriorate.

One risk during any unforeseen situation on board is panicking crew. Most terrified people can be stabilised, if not calmed down completely, by a reassuring hand on their shoulder, looking them in the eye, calmly saying “It’s going to be OK”. Other tools include giving someone a menial task to follow so that they can regain a sense of control.

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Why waste time on a panicking crew member if your spinnaker is ripping itself to shreds? Well, you are unlikely to be able to solve that problem alone. Panicking crew don’t listen. They might pose a danger to themselves. Their mindset might be infectious.

And for the boat? Think about how to press pause and stop things worsening, eg don’t gybe or add excess side load to the track.

Figuring out how to stay safe and stabilise the situation was stage one of a three-stage framework we were using to tackle every scenario.

Stage two is to assess the situation. Collect data that you might need to take further action. We came up with questions for each scenario: did you hear a bang? Wind strength and direction? What jammers are open? Any knots in lines? Is it a forestay wrap, or is there a spare halyard in there too? Any collision risks?

Stage three is finding a solution. Ideally accompanied with a cup of tea and a biscuit to make up for the drop in blood sugar that follows a big adrenaline spike. To solve any of the three scenarios I set out at the beginning, this means figuring out how to get the sail down. And unfortunately, it might involve a mast climb.

Even for the most monkey-like riggers, going up the mast at sea is no fun. Keeping yourself stable enough to work up there is extremely physically demanding and requires engaging muscles that most of us didn’t even know existed. For short-handed crews, even just getting aloft might equate to an hour of CrossFit, either as the monkey or the ‘wincher’. It’s going to be high, exposed, and near impossible to communicate (headsets are so useful). Then add a wrapped kite, or an overpowered mainsail to the mix, and it becomes (if it wasn’t already) scary!

Initially, the horrified looks of the webinar participants didn’t phase me. Everyone has an expression like that when faced with climbing 40ft up in a 3m swell. But then I realised, this wasn’t just fear; it was a realisation that if they encountered a situation like this, they wouldn’t be able to solve it. Because none of their regular crew would have the physical or mental capacity to get up there.

When faced with an obstacle between you and your dream lifestyle, it’s tempting to brush it under the carpet. “We’ll wait until we get ashore,” or “We’re cruisers so we don’t fly spinnakers.” But things are going to get messy if you have a full main stuck up the rig with a gale on the way. Even for the most conservative cruisers there are scenarios that might require a trip aloft while offshore – rig damage, wiring issues or skyed halyards perhaps.

My closing remark to the webinar participants was straightforward. Any yacht out sailing must have someone on board who can, and is willing, to go up the rig at sea. They need to be in good physical condition for the task. There should be adequate equipment on board to go aloft and, ideally, the procedure has been practised.

If you own – or sail on – a yacht on which going aloft is not something you could currently cope with, then source the extra crew member, buy the necessary equipment, and do a ‘dry-run’ on the dock before you next slip lines.

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