No worries - the rig came down only on my terms! But yes, a huge part of the prep for this trip has been completed, and it took me nearly a month to finish, but finally I can stop spending time fretting over it and actually sit down to tell you about it! This will take a couple posts, and beware, this one is long and full of images, but hopefully you’ll find it somewhat fascinating as it’s not often a non-cruiser gets to see this side of boat work. So come along, let’s go head over to the shipyard where the masts are laying, and take a look…
My boat looks silly without her masts
For those of you who aren’t used to such intensive boat work, taking the masts down on a larger sailing vessel is typically done at the beginning of a term of ownership as a matter of proper course and prudence and thenceforth about every ten years or so as a precautionary maintenance item. Of course one would inspect the mast while it is standing on the boat much more frequently than that. Since I have been somewhat neglectful of my duties in this regard up until now, it was high time that, before I embark on a long voyage, I pay my proper dues. So down they came.
The mainmast masthead, just after I removed the VHF antenna.
Once they were down, it was a very significant amount of work to properly overhaul them - and try as I might, I still don’t think they are perfect. I did my best with the time, money, and resources I had available and I am definitely confident that they are MUCH stronger and in better shape now than when I took them down. Without going into excruciating detail, here are some of the highlights of what’s been done to them.
Typically when dropping the masts, one would look them over thoroughly for signs of corrosion, weak or damaged fasteners, evidence of excessive stress like dimpled metal when it should be flat, and other obvious problems. All major fittings are removed such as the mast head (the portion which holds the sheaves for the halyards), the spreaders, and the tangs for all shrouds. These are the major structural components which keep the rig up and allow the sails to maintain their shape and efficiency, and so they are of critical importance. Most corrosion is caused by galvanic action between two dissimilar metals such as stainless steel and aluminum contacting each other in the presence of seawater. This is all too common on most masts, since bolts and smaller fasteners such as tang plates are typically stainless steel and the mast itself is, of course, extruded aluminum. The common fix is to insulate any large objects (the tang plates, for instance) with nylon washers or a durable sheet of plastic, and to apply a goop called Tef-Gel to the threads of any screws or bolts that go into or through the mast.
Typical corrosion spot behind the spreader tang.
In my case, there was some corrosion in a few places, though not enough to be worrisome, which I was able to address by insulating the problem fitting with some nylon washers, plastic sheeting, and Tef-Gel.
However, there was one area where the corrosion was a serious problem:
Yep, that’s the bottom end of the mast, where all the weight and compressive force meet. It’s pretty critical that this part be solid, and in my situation, well, solid was about as far from the case as possible.
This was caused by the mast sitting in a stainless steel step on deck, which was not drained properly nor was the mast insulated in any way from the stainless plate.
The only fix was to cut about an inch off the bottom of the mast and route out some new drain holes:
My buddy Alex doing the deed with his spiffy skilsaw.
I learned a neat trick from the rigger who helped me out with this: apparently you can use standard woodworking router bits on an aluminum mast to make gorgeous holes, cutouts, and other openings. Once I saw how nicely and quickly it worked, I’m sold on this trick. It makes using a Dremel look like the hard, long way.
Pre-drain-holes, but muuuuuch better.
After that, I cleaned up the mast and the step and gave both the bottom several inches of the mast and the inside of the step a heavy coat of etching primer and two heavy coats of corrosion protective paint.
While the mast was being refitted, I took the time to strip off the old rigging which I was replacing, and to replace the stainless steel mast tangs with upgraded titanium parts to fit the new deadeyes for the upgraded rigging. This might sound straightforward but it represented a huge challenge: the bolts in my mast didn’t always match the holes for the tangs! I should note the tangs were what were properly drilled, my mast had sizing all over the place and it did not look like a thorough analysis of load weak points was given at the time of construction. One one shroud, the weak point was the clevis pin, on another it was the bolt holding the tang, on yet another it was the tang itself. Just no consistency at all. The new titanium tangs from Colligo Marine
really kick ass and I am thrilled to get a chance to try them out.
Old rigging wire and spreader tang about to be removed.
This mismatch was solved in three major ways. First, where the mast was larger than the tang, but the tang could safely be drilled out to match the mast, the tang was sent to a machine shop and drilled. There was no way I could have drilled the titanium, so I had to send it to a local shop. Lazlo, the machinist, was absolutely amazing and did excellent work.
Next, where the tang was larger than the mast, I simply drilled the mast to match the tang and upgraded the mast bolt. While this typically means that I am adding an overbuilt part and taking a weight penalty by doing so, I am saving so much weight switching to the lightweight synthetic rigging that another few grams on a larger bolt doesn’t make much difference. Not that it matters much on a 6600 kg cruising sailboat anyway!
Lastly, and most time consuming of all, were the tangs at the spreaders. On both masts the spreader fitting was welded or integrally made a part of the lower shroud tangs. I spent some quality time with a chop saw and a metal blade slicing the old spreader fittings apart and isolating the tang portion from the spreader support portion. After this bit of metal trickery, I was able to mount the new tangs on a larger bolt which just barely fit. Fortunately, no further fabrication was required… here.
You can see the new tangs just to the right (e.g. below) the spreader fittings here. You might have to click this image to see the full width.
The last major structural upgrade I made was to add a compression post between the spreaders. This is a typically critical modification made to prevent the inward force on the spreader from crushing the mast in severe conditions. My boat did not have this support and so I reamed out one of the spreader bolt holes just large enough to drop a thick-wall aluminum pipe in and have it come to rest on the other wall of the mast. By running the spreader bolt through this pipe, the compression load is taken up by the pipe and not the mast wall. I did this to both the main and the mizzen mast.
However, my fabrication efforts did not stop there. During my previous removal of all fittings and fasteners, I noticed a serious stress indicator on the forestay tang.
Note the oblong hole in the tang where a clevis pin went. Apparently the stress on this tang was so great that it exceeded the yield strength of the tang metal and permanently deformed the hole. This has weakened the tang, and it’s also evidence that the tang was not strong enough to begin with. So I went to source a new one.
Turns out nobody makes the part. Fabrication to the rescue!
Again sparing a lot of the details as to the why’s and wherefore’s, I had some chainplate stock left over from the chainplate replacement I’ll tell you about in another post, and using a combination of grinders, somewhat cantankerous old drill presses, and a copious amount of head-scratching, mathematical calculations, and consultation with the local rigger for sanity checks, I determined that the best route was to simply drill two chainplate bars and run the clevis pin between the two holes. So that’s what I did. Should be about two to three times the strength of the previous fitting at minimum.
My work with the masts wasn’t limited to just metalwork, fabrication, and preventative maintenance. I was also very interested in replacing the traditional bulbs on the mast lighting with LEDs for a huge power savings as well as greater visibility. The masthead lights are used for both navigation and to give notice when I am at anchor, so they are quite critical! In addition, there are other lights on the mast which are required when the engine is running and yet other lights which simply illuminate the foredeck so I can work in the dark.
New Bebi 2NM LED lights in the Aqua-Signal housing. Warm-white LEDs, so the green looks green and not blue.
In addition to the illumination, the masthead is where the VHF radio antenna goes, and that was in sore need of replacement.
On the mizzen mast there were no lights that needed work, but a bunch of wires indicating a forest of antennas had previously graced the top of this mast needed removal. My plan was to put a wind generator atop the mizzen in lieu of further radio communications, and so I removed the mizzen masthead and took it to a local welder who did a great job welding the requisite pipe onto it for a wind generator mount. The wiring for this was simple, or so I thought, and so I ran a twisted pair of wires up the mast and reassembled all of that.
New wind-gen mounted on it’s spiffy pole atop the mizzen.
I should note that running wires up a mast is not something one does haphazardly. In my case I needed to run 8 wires for power/lighting and 1 heavy cable for VHF up the mainmast and have various combinations of these wires exit the mast at no less than 4 separate points along the way up. In addition, I did not want the wires to hang loose inside the mast and clang around. Some folks prevent this by riveting a PVC pipe up one side of their mast as a conduit. I was wary of putting further holes in the mast, so I did the next best thing: tie three heavy-duty zip-ties around the cable bundle every half-meter or so, with each zip tie pointing in a different direction. When you shove this mess up inside the mast the wires end up suspended by the zip ties more or less in the middle of the mast and nicely cushioned by the spring of the ties. This prevents them from slapping all around inside the mast when the boat rolls around at anchor.
In order to get the cables to come out at the right exit points I used the existing wires as chases and pulled a separate chaser line of nylon cord to the foot of the mast from each point. I next laid out the entire bundle of wire alongside the mast, marking where each pair or set of pairs would exit. I zip tied the bundle together, and attaching each wire to the appropriate chase line I was able to iteratively snug up on each chase line and “slurp” the whole snaky assembly right into place. I would like to say it worked perfectly the first time, but it didn’t. I ended up having to remove the spreader bolt as somehow I got one conduit line on one side of it and the other opposite, forcing the entire bundle to get jammed right as the next set of zip ties hit the spreader bolt. After that it was pretty much a cinch. Another day of switching out the lighting, securing and corrosion-proofing the electrical connections, and generally ensuring it was a job meant to last, and I was done and onto the mizzen. Fortunately I only had to pull the old lines and run a single pair up the mizzen, so that was pretty simple after having done the crazy bits with the mainmast.
Thus endeth the prep work
So far, what I’ve described took about three weeks of at least half-time work and many of that was full-time days of fabricating, cleaning, measuring, prepping, etc.
I’ll come back shortly with more to this story, including a whole saga on chainplates and a nice interlude where I introduce the slickest rigging material you’ve never seen, before we get around to putting the masts back on the boat.