The Dangers of Storing With The Mast Stepped

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We are in the process of readying Morgan’s Cloud for out-of-the-water winter storage, and tomorrow’s fun job is to go up the mast and strip all the fragile gear that could be damaged when we unstep said mast.

And then of course there is all the work involved in slacking off the rig and disconnecting all the wiring, etc., not to speak of the pain of breaking the tune we did just a few months ago. Then once the rig is out, the considerable work of readying it for storage will start.

Of course the really depressing thing in all of this is that we get to reverse the process in just five months. Well, if you can’t take a joke, I guess you shouldn’t live in Nova Scotia where winter is, shall we say, aggressive…and long too.

(The reasons we haven’t just got aboard and headed south are the subject for another post.)

It would be so very tempting to leave the mast in the boat. And more and more sailors seem to be doing that. But I think that’s a mistake.

Fall Risk

The first reason we don’t like storing mast-in is the obvious risk to the boat from falling over in a storm. Further, I think that this happens much more often than many sailboat owners realize. The combination of the huge leverage of a tall mast on a boat balancing on a deep keel is just inherently unstable. (I envy the owners of French lifting keel boats like Ovnis and Boréals who don’t have this worry.)

And there is another danger lurking that can, when in cahoots with the above, spell disaster: the freeze and thaw cycle that is so common in many maritime climates, which causes the ground to heave under the boat.

This danger is often under-appreciated, but if you don’t believe me, try this test. After about a month of hard winter weather, visit the yard where your beloved boat is stored and check compression on each jackstand. You will be amazed: some stands will be so tight that you won’t be able to budge the handles on them and others will be loose and show light between the pad and the boat, sometimes as much as half an inch.

Uneven jackstands are not great on any boat, but on a boat with the mast stepped they are an accident looking for a place.

Freeze Damage

And that pesky freeze thaw cycle that is heaving your jackstands also has other ways of breaking your boat if the mast is left in:

  • Water getting into the bilge down the mast, freezing and damaging the step and its supports.
  • Water pooling in the mast itself and then freezing causing huge pressures on the extrusion.
  • Water flowing into swages or mechanical compression fittings (staylocks) and then freezing and blowing the fitting apart, or at the very least weakening it.
  • It is much more difficult to properly cover a boat stored mast-in, so all the fittings on deck are at a higher risk for freeze damage.

Conclusion

So there you have it. Based on my some 20 years of storing in harsh winter climates (Maine and Nova Scotia), I really believe and strongly advise that it is safer and cheaper in the long run to store mast-out.

But

Fine, nice and simple. But like most everything in boat ownership and voyaging, the decision is sometimes in fact not that simple. We have stored Morgan’s Cloud mast-in twice in the years we have owned her. Once here in Nova Scotia and once in Portugal. In both cases the decision came down to simple risk analysis: those listed above weighed against the risks of unstepping in a yard without the experience or correct equipment to do the job safely.

In this case we have another rule: if we must store mast in, we always build a cradle, and do not rely on jackstands. 

"Morgan's Cloud" as ready for a hurricane as we could make her in two days. Even this plethora of jackstands was not enough. Even though we were not able to finish it before the strike (aft supports not installed) is was the cradle that saved her, particularly the support in the way of the mast. Well worth the $700 it cost us!
“Morgan’s Cloud” as ready for a hurricane as we could make her in two days.

Back in 2008 this rule saved our boat when the yard she was stored in was hit by a hurricane, even though we were not able to finish the cradle before the blow (aft supports not installed).

The buffeting of 20 hours of screaming winds shook out two of the many jackstands we insisted on and loosened all of them, but the makeshift cradle that Phyllis and I built in two feverish days of work held. Well worth the $700 this cradle cost us!

This rule is also confirmed by our friends at Billings Diesel & Marine in Stonington, Maine, who require that any owner who wishes to store mast-in pay to have the yard build a cradle under the boat to backup the jackstands. And Billings didn’t just make up this rule as a revenue source, it was the result of several boats blowing over in a single winter storm some years ago.

By the way, it never ceases to amaze me how few jackstands many boatyards will deem adequate if left to their own devices. I would say that over the years a good 80% of the times we have been hauled (mast-in or mast-out) we have had to ask for, and sometimes insist on, more jackstands than the yard wants to use.

The problem seems to be that many yard workers do not understand that boats fall over most often when they pivot on the keel and therefore it is vital to place stands well out toward the ends of the boat to counteract this tendency.

It Ain’t Easy

No question, unstepping and then restepping the mast is a lot of work. But then as Phyllis and I always say to each other when faced with a task that we know is the right thing to do, but is also a lot of work and aggravation: “If it was easy, everybody would be doing it”. No truer words have ever been spoken about storing mast-out.

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John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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