Cruiser’s Notebook: Mastering the Mast
By Cyndi Perkins

Stepping and unstepping the mast are necessary tasks for sailors planning to cruise eastern North America’s canals and rivers. Count on Captain Scott breezily assuring all who ask that it’s a piece of cake, nothing more than a half-hour job. Count on me rolling my eyes behind his back when he offers these words of wisdom.

It’s true that the stick goes down or up in short order. The basic requirements are a crane and willing hands. It’s the work before and after that is time-consuming. The 47-foot deck-stepped mast of our 32-foot DownEast Chip Ahoy has been through 10 steps/unsteps. I was on hand for each, with the exception of the initial raising when Captain Scott bought the boat at Brennan Marine in Bay City, Michigan.

More than a decade after Chip Ahoy’s launching, our 2006 sailing explorations found us slowly chugging against an opposing current on the Hudson River, homeward North during our second navigation of America’s Great Circle Loop. By this time, lowering the mast - as well as dealing with the inconveniences of carrying it on deck - was Old Hat. Not fun, but not a heart-thumping ordeal. And this time we had extra help. Our 24-year-old son Scotty had joined us at Solomon’s Island on the Chesapeake Bay to complete the journey to Lake Superior. This would be his first experience taking down the stick.

As we hung a left off the Hudson and entered Catskill Creek in upstate New York, my first priority was not mast-dropping in preparation for entering the Erie Canal. I was on a mission to find a hot, clean shower. The last time we’d stopped anywhere with shower facilities was on Saturday, May 27 in Annapolis, Maryland. It was now Saturday, June 3. Going even one more day with dirty hair was not to be endured. Skipping regular shampoos makes a cruising woman crabby. And a bucket bath or sunshower won’t suffice in chilly, rainy weather.

Our sail up the Chessie and through the C&D Canal was relatively uneventful. But we’d had a romping, rough sail skirting the crab pots down Delaware Bay followed by a grueling overnight passage in pea-soup fog coming into New York Harbor. After a night of tensely tracking and reporting our position to avoid colliding with considerable shipping traffic, we hove-to off Sandy Hook in the damp dawn, biding our time until the fog lifted from zero visibility to a pathetically better-than-nothing five feet. Entering the giant NY port half-blind was made even more dramatic when exiting U.S. warships jammed our radar and GPS and sent police boats zipping over to warn us against venturing closer to the impressive behemoths. Chip Ahoy skimmed just outside of the buoys, giving the military flotilla a wide berth. A cabin cruiser disoriented in the murk without radar meekly trailed in our path.

We rested just one day at the Statue of Liberty anchorage before traveling up the Hudson to the Haverstraw Bay anchorage where we were blasted by a spectacular thunder and lightning storm. Another day of slow travel with a top speed of only 4 mph brought us to the rickety but welcome floating dock of Mariner on the Hudson Restaurant at Highland Landing, across from Poughkeepsie, New York. Here a night’s sleep can be had with purchase of dinner. There were no entrees under $18 on the menu, but price be damned, Captain Scott and I greatly enjoyed our Lobster for two garnished with shrimp, mussels, clams and pasta. We also splurged on Blue Point oysters while Scotty pronounced the mozzarella sticks with fresh marinara sauce the best he has ever had. And my, the cold beer tasted fine!

On the previous Loop we had taken care of mast business at another Catskill Creek facility, Hop-O-Nose Marina. Its shower wins my vote as the worst on the entire Loop. There were other spider-infested and unspeakably filthy contenders, but Hop-O-Nose’s decrepit bath house won by virtue of a faucet that spewed freezing water into the shower stall and refused to turn off. I was chilled to the bone by the time I got out of there. New marina owners in 2004 had promised a better facility was in the works, but that was still not the case in 2006. This boater doesn’t always mind roughing it, but if I am going to pay $1.75 per foot per night for dockage, I darned well better be able to take a decent shower. So we decided to switch it up and try Riverview Marine Services, where venerable Lake Superior cruisers Bonnie and Ron Dahl had been berthed when we passed by on our previous trip.

Boaters should be prepared for a powerful current on narrow Catskill Creek, especially during periods of heavy rainfall. When the creek and tidal Hudson are approaching flood stage, the tides become unpredictable. Call or radio ahead to your marina of choice to request docking assistance and watch out for other boaters who may lose control of their vessels in the unexpected swirls and eddies. As we docked in close quarters we had to fend off a small power boat caught by surprise and swiftly pulled into our stern.
Riverview’s bathhouse-laundry room was as immaculate as promised with plenty of hot water. Consummate New Yorker Mike and his fine crew couldn’t have been more pleasant or accommodating during our two-night stay. We enjoyed roaming around the hilly town, where fuzzy white windborne seeds snowed upon us and the landscape was green and blooming, scented with apple-blossoms, early roses and budding peonies. The old-school brownstone and gingerbread Victorian architecture is lovely, but there are areas where one should not venture alone, especially after dark. We stuffed ourselves at the Village Pizzeria downtown on a super-sized authentic New York pie and spicy chicken wings.

Between loads of laundry and a stab at provisioning - there is only a small convenience store with very little grocery selection downtown - we unhanked and stowed the sails and re-assembled the mast cradles that Captain Scott built in Hammond, Indiana on Lake Michigan at the start of our journey. The three supports at the bow, deck center and stern are easily bolted and bracketed together. We had to take a very expensive taxi trip to a lumberyard to procure our materials. Some facilities that step masts actually have cradle “graveyards” where boaters may forage for suitable lumber or existing cradles. One of our previous supports was acquired at Hop-O- Nose after a boat named Indian Summer made use of it. We later left it for recycling at Wardell Boat Yard at the end of the Erie Canal. Like Indian Summer we left our name and travel path magic-markered on the cradle. Who knows, we may see it again in future travels!

Experience has taught us to carry a saw and power drill aboard. Captain Scott also has cradle dimensions sketched out to ensure the structure height will allow us to keep our full dodger up. On our first Loop we traveled the entire river system without any shield from the elements. It was quite uncomfortable at times.

Disconnecting and bundling the rigging is a painstaking job that requires organization and attention to detail. We have specific containers for cotter pins and the like to ensure that everything that is taken off goes back on just so. Down in Florida on our first Loop we met a couple who lost their mast in the middle of the night on the Gulf of Mexico. The captain had not heeded the warning at Turner Marine Services to double-check his cotter pin replacement.

While I bow to Captain Scott’s acumen in handling all of Chip Ahoy’s operating systems, I do admit to extreme displeasure with his untidy habits. We have seen many boats carrying their masts neatly, even attractively, with every strand of rigging immaculately secured, padding perfectly placed, decks cleared for easy access during locking. Not on our boat. We’re as unkempt as the Beverly Hillbilly Clampetts, loops of rigging spaghetti popping out everywhere, old pillows shoved under the mast, odd bits of rope, bungee cords and sail ties holding everything together. We duct-tape a plastic back over the mast bottom to keep out nesting birds and insects. Maneuvering around the mess takes some getting used to. It really doesn’t matter, as long as everything is secure. But it gnaws at my anally retentive nature!

Captain Scott just laughs at me. And I must admit that he has a point. We had to assist two boats transiting the Erie Canal with us because their beautifully presented mast-carrying systems did not hold up in waves and wake. In one case there was so much stress on the cradle supports that it cracked one of them. A sailboat traveling with its mast down is extremely vulnerable. As Captain Scott points out, you are really nothing but a “slow power boat with a battering ram.” The slightest motion could tumble mast and rigging overboard. Some boaters carry their mast on the port or starboard side. But this limits your ability to tie up on whichever wall is open in the sometimes crowded locks and places the mast in close proximity to the water - where you don’t want it to end up if you get rocked.

Mike himself mans the crane when it is mast-stepping time at Riverview. After consulting on a good tide time for pulling into the well, we cleared the deck of jerry cans, our trusty bike and other flotsam, positioning the dinghy where it wouldn’t get in the way. In the well, Scott disconnected the stays. He had loosened them in preparation for the drop but always waits until the last minute to take them off.

With true chivalry Mike suggested that Scott and Scotty stay aboard with his crew member while I put the camera to use ashore. I was more than happy to be excused from my usual duty of stabilizing the mast amidships while it is being lowered. Mike’s number-one concern is safety, so he doesn’t permit anyone forward after the crane strap is secured and the initial lifting/lowering begins. After the mast was freed, he calmly instructed the guys to guide it into horizontal position. For us the trickiest part of this process is preventing the mast top from clunking into the wind generator and solar panel astern.

Mike’s biggest piece of advice? “Keep a cool head. Nobody should get excited.” He asked us to “send a few more boats my way,” and we are happy to oblige. If you stop at Riverview Marine Services, be sure and tell Mike that Chip Ahoy sent you!

When traveling with a mast on deck, be prepared to sit out anything but nearly flat or totally calm seas. The term “canal” is deceptive. You will encounter sections of wide-open water. Bone up on your charts and guidebooks so you’re ready. If you see any whitecaps when approaching these areas, definitely stay in port. Much to Scott and Scotty’s chagrin we were delayed by rough conditions on Oneida Lake in the Erie Canal system. The lockmaster at Lock 22 had warned us about the waves but my two bold and impatient men remained willing to stick our nose out on the small but feisty lake until a couple of sailboats ahead of us tested the waters and were forced to beat a hasty retreat. We stayed two nights on the free pier at Sylvan Beach. We were delayed another day when attempting to exit the Oswego Canal for the necessary jump across Lake Ontario into Canada’s lovely Trent-Severn Canal. On our first try, Chip Ahoy and a buddy boat manned by singlehander Todd O. Smith of Wabasha, Minnesota bashed into two-to-three foot seas that had looked deceptively calm until we passed the harbor breakwater out onto the Great Lake. I couldn’t even bear to look at the teetering mast until we inched our way back into calm water. We licked our wounds at the $1 per foot Oswego Marina where I took advantage of another good hot shower and clean Laundromat while Scott and Scotty further reinforced the cradle system and shifted the mast back to a stable position.

Should your mast be subjected to any stresses, I highly recommend that you use your time in port to make necessary adjustments. In any case, the entire mast cradle system should be checked thoroughly several times per day as part of your maintenance routine.

Putting the mast back in its proper place is always a relief. On Friday, June 23 we stepped at the excellent Bayport Yachting Centre in Midland, Ontario just off Georgian Bay, located next to our accommodations at the hospitable Midland Sailing Club, where we were hosted by friends Doug and Helen Hill of Misty Blue II. The club has its own crane for do-it-yourselfers but it is a members-only service due to liability. No worries, Bayport’s staff made the process as easy as possible. Scotty’s young muscles came in very handy when it came time to attach the backstay. A sailboat again, we were set for our next big leg of the journey, across Georgian Bay into Lake Huron and from there up the St. Mary’s River to the Soo Locks and our own sweet Lake Superior.

Ups & Downs

Here are some major considerations to take into account when stepping/unstepping your mast:

Cost: Prices vary considerably and by region, ranging from roughly from $4-$9 per mast foot - more, if you are also going to pay to have it prepped and secured for travel. Some yards charge a flat fee for crane use, generally $50 per hour and up, and a flat rate for personnel, also in the $40-50 per man per hour range. Tuning the rigging is often an additional charge but worth it if you have an expert available who can teach you how to get the most out of your sailing system. Tipping for a job well done is also appreciated. Even if you do not choose a do-it-yourself stepping/unstepping option you’ll want to be on hand to lend a hand and take care of any last minute details, for example disconnecting any wires at the base of the mast.

Mast Transport: Some boaters choose to ship the mast to the location where they will be putting it up. It is expensive, but advantages include not worrying about the stability of the mast on board, having plenty of wiggle room for docking and locking and not hitting your head on the darned thing! Trucking fees vary. On our first cruise down the rivers we met two Ohio sailboaters who teamed up to ship their masts down to Turner Marine on the beautiful Dog River near Mobile, Alabama, splitting the roughly $1,800 cost. Boaters may be charged a mast storage fee at some yards if the mast arrives before they do.

Communications: Obviously you can’t sail with your mast down, but also remember that anything you have mounted on the mast, including the marine radio antenna and mast light, is also disabled. A radio is essential for contacting locks and finding out the intentions of tow-barges and dredges. Captain Scott mounts a spare radio antenna on the aft mast cradle. When anchored we hang a portable, strong white light as high as it will go atop a jury-rigged pole of PVC pipe on the stern. Since our radar is independently mounted off the stern, that isn’t a problem for us, but would be a consideration if your radar is mast-mounted. On the up side, when the mast is down it is an opportune time to replace light bulbs, wiring, spreader boots and any other accoutrements that need attention.

Anchoring/docking: Anchoring is a different beast with the rigging down, especially when winching up. Be mindful of the shift in stress points on your vessel and when at all possible make use of marinas or free docks. When docking, be cautious of your temporary “battering ram” and attempt to keep it from protruding over walkways. We attach a red cloth to alert fellow boaters and passerby to the obstacle. The flag is also a handy “spot” to help you compensate for overhang off the bow when docking or locking. Be extra careful when moving around your boat; you may be surprised at how many habitual hand-holds disappear when the rigging is down. The only thing left to grab on Chip Ahoy’s decks are the lifelines and bowsprit railing. Boarding and departures from the boat also present additional safety concerns.

Facilities: Other cruisers are the most up-to-date source for deciding where to raise or lower the mast. When and where you can raise the stick will also be dictated by current water levels and bridge clearances, so keep an ear open for the latest news on the waterway. For example, on the last Loop we could have stepped at Kentucky Lake, but water had already been let out to winter flood levels and there was four feet or less in available wells, not enough for our five-foot draft. After raising the mast in Demopolis, near the end of the Tenn-Tom waterway, we encountered a bridge that was supposed to open on demand but was closed down and unmanned due to construction of a new bridge. Two sailboats with shorter masts led the way under and helped us eyeball the situation as we scraped through by mere inches, brushing but not breaking the radio antenna.

Freelance writer Cyndi Perkins and husband Scott, Houghton County Harbormaster, have been sailing Lake Superior for 14 years and completed two circumnavigations of America’s Great Circle Loop aboard their 32-foot DownEaster Chip Ahoy. The couple is planning their next extended cruise south in 2008. Cyndi will be sharing top boating destinations with readers in her regular “Cruiser’s Notebook” feature. Comments, suggestions and questions (short text messages with no attachments) may be directed to her at