Stepping the Mast

By Herb McLeod - Ottawa, Ontario - Canada

I am a dedicated shallow water sailor having built and sailed a couple of sharpies over the last 20 years.  Sadly, my last sharpie, a Michalak designed AF3, succumbed to rot.  I am without a sailboat while my current project (OliveOyl) is stalled in the garage waiting for me to finish some home renovations.

My friend John is planning a move to a southern Ontario Great Lake adjacent to a large shallow bay and I have been extolling the virtues of a sharpie sailboat to explore this area.  John is a dedicated online searcher and found three sharpies for sale near to where we live.  The first two were rejected for various reasons.  Then last fall a Norwalk Island Sharpie 18 came up for sale in the Montréal area.  So down we went to Baie d’Urfé to have a look.  The NIS 18 was a beauty and apparently, it was the first of the species ever built.  We could not pass up this opportunity and the boat was purchased late last fall.  Sadly, it was too late in the season to do anything but store it in John’s barn for the winter and dream about sailing.  One of the questions we had when buying the boat was how to step the 30-foot-long 65 pound un-stayed mast into a 4-foot-deep mast well in the bow of the boat?  In my small Ohio Sharpie, I could wrestle the 45 pound main mast into place by myself but that was years ago and I was younger and stronger then.  Stepping the mast in the AF3 was easy because of the slot top.  I knew with certainty neither technique was possible for the NIS 18.

We asked the builder how he stepped the mast and his answer was the club that he sails from has a crane.  He also said that one time he had stepped the mast by setting it off from a bridge.  On Lac MacA we have neither a crane nor a bridge so another solution was needed.

I suggested that we build an A-frame crane on the boat and use a block and tackle to raise it.  John was having some difficulty visualizing my idea so I quickly cobbled together a scale model to demonstrate it. The idea worked on the model but we realized that if the A-frame was set at too acute an angle there would be a lot more compression in the A-Frame arms and tension in the supporting lines.  John had some spare time on his hands last winter to the model ended up sanded and with a coat of marine paint.


Summer arrived and it was time put the theory to the test.  The A-frame was constructed from a couple of 16 foot 2X4s joined at the top with an salvaged door hinge and a 12-inch bolt placed a couple of feet down from the hinge.  To attach the A-frame to the deck we used 6-inch-long ¼ inch screw eyes into the bottom of the 2x4s and on the deck a couple of Racelite Deck Plates (RL-216) purchased from Duckworks.

The first try did not work out well as we used cheap line that stretched like a bungee cord and we could not adjust the A-frame position with precision.  Our neighbour Michael came to the rescue with some nautical grade pre-stretched line and a lovely antique block and tackle.  With no further fuss or fanfare, the mast was hoisted and stepped.  We were surprised how well and smoothly the whole system worked.  The next day we realized that we forgot to attach the telltale and that we should have cleaned and lubricated the sail track before stepping the mast.  We did not hesitate to take the mast down to perform these needed steps but it was here we also learned another valuable lesson that must be passed on.


VALUABLE LESSON:  Do not let the center of balance of the mast go aft of the balance point of the A-frame.   Also, whoever is manning the block and tackle should be standing in front of the bow of the boat not standing aft of the peak of the A-frame.  If the mast weight and the force from the block and tackle is too far aft, everything will come down fast!  Really quite fast!  In our case, nothing was broken and no one was hurt so we were lucky.  To prevent this, I recommend an additional line be attached from the 12-inch bolt to the bow ring of the boat as this will prevent the A-frame from swinging backwards toward the stern if the centre of balance is passed.

Our scale model helped us determine that our scantlings would be up to the task but if one is going to attempt this with a heavier mast I would recommend a vector analysis be completed to ensure that all the components are strong enough for the job.  A collapsing crane with a 250-pound mast would be dangerous event.


  1. Very cool. Looking at the pic and imagining the crane tilted forward, level with the gunwales… wouldn’t it look nearly like a bowsprit (well, bow-triangle)? Maybe the idea could be expanded in that direction, so you have a foldable bowsprit that is a mast stepper at the same time. OK probably this would rather end up being a Rube Goldberg contraption than something real useful, but who knows…?

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