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Mast Dancer

Oiling the Mast on a 19th Century Schooner

By Zach CruthirdsPublished 3 years ago 4 min read
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Oiling the Mast on a 19th Century Replica Schooner

I didn't think I was afraid of heights until I was roughly forty feet in the air. When you're that high on either mast if you move, the boat moves. The seventy foot twenty five ton wooden sailboat suddenly looks so small beneath you. It's unsettling. Every time I went up the mast it took me about ten or fifteen minutes to get comfortable.

Before going up the mast, there are a few necessary items we must have. First and most important, we must have a bosun's chair. A bosun's chair is a fabric harness-like seat that one attaches to a halyard (a line or rope on a boat that pulls things up the mast or in an upwards direction on a sailboat) pictured above. The best bosun chair has a firm board built into the seat of it. Second, we needed a lifeline that can be either in the form of a harness that wraps around your chest and attaches to another halyard or a line that wraps under your arms and around the mast. Third, we needed a spare line to pull things up from below on deck.

Once we had all of these items we were ready to go up the mast! In order to pull one up the mast, one or two people would stand on deck and pull them up on the throat halyard block (a pulley system which raises the gaff boom closest to the mast) while the other person in the bosun’s chair pulled themselves up. It was a very physically demanding task in which both people often had to stop to rest multiple times. Once the person in the bosun chair was to their desired height, the person on deck would tie them off on the throat halyard cleat and shout to the person up the mast "you're tied down," which assured them that they were safe to let go of the lines they were holding. Communication is crucial between the person on deck and the person up the mast.

The person up the mast cannot let go of the halyard and begin working until they are secured. If one person became tired when pulling someone up or lowering someone it was better to stop and rest than risk dropping someone. Safety is key when raising someone up the mast. Dropping someone from that height could cause a serious injury or even death. To prevent accidents, there are two simple procedures that must be followed.

The first is making sure the throat halyard was tied off properly after raising or lowering the person in the bosun chair. The second way is make sure that the person on deck keeps a wrap around the cleat when lowering the person in the bosun chair. Once raised up the mast, we would start the process by sanding as we slowly danced around the masts propelling themselves around off the nearby stays (wires or lines that support the masts) and halyards. When sanding, all one had to do was just take off the top layer of wood and old oil to allow the new oil to soak in. Sanding too hard would create divots and make the sails harder to raise.

To prevent dropping the sander, we would normally run it through a loop in our bosun chair that way if we did drop it it wouldn't fall far. The sanding process normally took anywhere from two to three hours depending on the experience level of the crew. This was a process that we normally took all day. The sanding normally took all morning. Once the sanding was done we would break for lunch and then go back up the masts and oil them in the afterwards.

After being raised up the mast a second time, those on deck would then send up a buck of oil and a foam roller on a line (pictured above). The person in the bosun chair would then tie the bucket off on their chair so that it hung about two or three feet below them. To prevent any accidental spillage the buckets were only filled with a few ounces of oil. There was never a precise amount but we never filled it with more than eight ounces. Applying the oil was the slowest part.

The biggest concern when oiling the mast was dripping oil on the deck below. The person on deck would usually keep a hose in hand and be constantly spraying the deck to keep any oil from soaking in and staining the white decks. The sails and sail covers were covered up with tarps for the same reason. To prevent oil from dripping when applicating, we would have to barely press down on the mast and apply two coats. If you oversaturated your roller and pressed too hard drops of oil would be squeezed out and fall either on you or onto the deck below.

Once this final process was done and the masts were dry the boat was ready to go!

This post is NOT intended to be an instructional guide on how to properly maintain the masts on a wooden boat and should NOT be followed as such. This is process only applied to a very unique type of sailboat that is likely inapplicable to other types of wooden sailboats.

Historical
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Zach Cruthirds

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