Master the Mast

Three champion mastmen offer their tips to ringing the bell. "From the Experts" in our November/December 2009 issue

Every big boat needs a good mastman, and as simple as this position may seem, it isn’t a job for everyone: the ideal mastman is tall, with the arms of an orangutan, capable of pulling the spinnaker halyard to the top of the mast so it’s at full hoist when the jib drops, the wool ties give, and the spinnaker pops open. Yes, jumping halyards at the mast may seem like basic stuff, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. We asked three winning mastmen for their advice, and what you’ll find is a common theme: it’s not about being quick, it’s about being aware.

Andreas Giacoumis

J/44 Gold Digger, Acura Key West Race Week 2009

To sneak or not to sneak? I’m a big fan of the sneak. How far and when depends mainly on the windspeed. In 15 knots of breeze, you can conservatively sneak an unbanded kite one-third the way up. The trick is timing it so that you go directly from the sneak to a full hoist. If you pause, the spinnaker can get blown out to leeward, hit the mark, or twist. So stay hiking as long as you can, leave just enough time to sneak and go into a full hoist as the boat is turning downwind.


Hand-over-hand? Hand-over-hand is much faster than full-body, but sometimes at the end of the hoist the spinnaker gets loaded up and you have to go to full-body-like a two-speed winch.

How to recover from a dropped halyard? If the halyard slips your grip, it’s probably because it isn’t being tailed fast enough and the spinnaker trimmer sheets in before the mast man yells “Made!” I’ll wait the couple extra seconds for the pit person to finish tailing before calling, “Made!”

Hogan Beattie

Pyewacket veteran and mastman for the King 40 Soozal, the most successful IRC program of 2009


To sneak or not to sneak? The pitman should perform most of the sneak from the rail while the mastman hikes through most of the offset leg. I prefer to sneak the tack to the end of the pole. Then, I start sneaking the head. How high to sneak the head is highly dependent upon the windspeed.

In light air, you can get away with quite a high sneak as long as the bowman controls the body of the sail and keeps it forward, behind the knuckle of the jib. As it gets windier, I tend to hike longer and sneak less of the head-perhaps only to half hoist or less on a 40-footer-until we get to the offset mark. Then it’s a fast hoist the rest of the way, being sure not to square the pole until the head is up or close to up. That ensures a nice “pop” when the sail fills.

Hand-over-hand? It’s faster to go hand-over-hand to the top, but if you have to jump, you have to jump. If the halyard slips, or you drop it, you just have to get after it as quick as possible. As far as body positioning, I plant my inboard foot approximately 1 foot from the mast, angled at about 45 degrees to centerline, and my outboard foot on the sidedeck, in line with the centerline, so I have a solid platform for balance. I tend to sneak from the rail, then go to the mast to hand-over-hand the hoist. Then, if I am jumping at the end, to sort of “fall” back out toward the rail.


The essential tips? The key is to be patient on the hoist, as it’s always better to have slightly less sneak than to have the spinnaker blowing aft as the head gets away from the bowman. Make sure the bowman pulls the jib foot off the leeward lifelines; you’ll be amazed how much easier that makes it to hoist.

Kevin Law

2009 Beneteau 36.7 North American Champion, Zingara

To sneak or not to sneak? Never, ever, ever. By cheating a spinnaker you start to create disturbed airflow on the backside of the jib, generally not fast. Another reason for not sneaking is that there’s always a risk of the spinnaker twisting. The risk-to-reward does not add up. The third and most compelling reason not to sneak is, if you have a boat to weather of you, defending your position by luffing will be difficult if your spinnaker is a quarter or halfway up. And reverse the roles: if you’re the weather boat and you begin to sneak and the leeward boat luffs you, your spinnaker will be everywhere, and there will be chaos.


Hand-over-hand? Hand-over-hand is way faster than full-body pulls. There’s never really a need to do a full-body unless your teammate on the guy decides to pull back before you’re at full hoist, or the sheet trimmer gets excited and decides to sheet a bit early and the chute fills. That’s when you quickly jump on the boom, grab the halyard at the highest point, and jump down, hopefully ringing the bell before you hit the deck. Otherwise you end up doing the hoist of shame, bowing or grinding the last 3 to 6 feet or so. Always start with hand-over-hand. You should be able to ring the bell. If you can’t in a normal set situation, you probably need to work on your back and shoulder areas (weight room).

How to keep your balance? I keep my feet at shoulder width. Since I lead the hoist with my left arm, I like to place my right foot slightly aft, 2 or 3 inches, of my left foot. I believe this position gives me the stability required in most situations. You want to keep your arm strokes long and straight.

The essential tips? Know how to do bow so you can provide an extra set of eyes for the bowman and be aware of many possible takedown scenarios. Also, if a quick jibe is called and the bowman is, for some reason, out of position, I will do the jibe. If the mastman doesn’t have any bow experience, he or she should spend time getting some. This will allow for perfect roundings all the time.

Also, communication is key between the bowman and the mastman and the mastman and the rest of the boat. The best tip I can offer is yelling “Made!” at full hoist. This allows the trimmers to confidently go about their business without consequence. It takes a bit of training for this to happen, but when they obey, the results are sweet. The one other thing I think should be implemented on boats is the “4,3,2,1, chute drop” call. Ken Read always did this on his Cup boats. As part of the bow team, the corners are where you live or die, so perfection is key. Hike hard, never leave the rail early, and work on your timing.


Mastman, executing a key role in the crew roster. Rolex / Kurt Arrigo