A device for stepping a heavy mast single-handed

When I was looking for the right design for the boat I would build and sail when I’m approaching age 70, I was concerned about my ability to raise a tall and heavy mast single-handed up onto the thwart or deck, balance it there until it’s plumb, then ease it down to the mast step.

The modern solution to this problem is the mast tabernacle.  The tabernacle is a hinged mast step that allows the mast to be attached at its base while the mast is still horizontal.  The mast is then rotated upward by hand or with mechanical devices to the vertical position.  On large modern sailboats, the mast tabernacle is located on the reinforced deck and can be a complex apparatus.

Mast tabernacle on a Vivier 24 ft Pen-Hir cruising keelboat

“Everything under control. It was all very simple.”

Howard Chapelle measured, documented, and published plans for dozens of Chesapeake Bay oystering and crabbing skiffs in three publications that are still in print.  In his Boatbuilding, he provided several crude plans and drawings for wood and iron versions of the tabernacle shown above for Vivier’s 24 ft Pen-Hir cruising keelboat.

In a series of articles he wrote in 1956 for Boats magazine [1], he published his own plan for a 14′ Chesapeake sharpie, based on a skiff that he measured in Coan, Va., in 1949.  His construction notes include this drawing and the text below.

Anyone who has attempted to lift an 18 foot mast into or out of the common small boat thwart and step, in a breeze of wind, knows it is a most precarious operation requiring strength and agility of no mean order. The Maryland Eastern Shoreman took a dim view of such strenuous pastimes so he devised a simple, effective solution.

Illustration from Chapelle's plan for 14 ft Chesapeake Sharpie

First, the mast thwart: this was placed so its after edge, hollowed out in a half-circle, came to the mast centerline when stepped. The mast was secured by a “clamp”; strap iron shaped as shown in the plan, secured by two staples made of rod driven into the thwart’s after edge. These staples would be 1/4-inch iron rod in this skiff and would be driven into the thwart about 4 or 5 inches; suitable pilot holes are bored for each leg. The clamp was slotted, passing over these eyes and held there by iron or hardwood pins or wedges.

This clamp business left the fisherman with the problem of getting the heel into the step. The Marylander solved this by a simple design; the step was made of two fore-and-aft plank chocks, each bolted to the bottom through the keelson, and just far enough apart athwartships to allow the mast heel to fit snugly between them. Through these chocks an iron rod was driven athwartships — near the top of the chocks — as shown in the plans. Now, the mast heel was slotted athwartships to fit snugly over the pin. Well, to step the mast, you placed the heel of the mast between the chocks with the slot over the rod and then walked the mast up until it came home in the thwart — after which you put the clamp into place, holding the mast in position by one shoulder. To lower the mast you reversed the process, with everything under control. It was all very simple.


[1] Gratitude to Craig O’Donnell and Duckworks.com for re-publishing the Boats article.  I found no other reference to this article on the Internet.

A French fishermen’s solution

Illustration from Chapelle's plan for 14 ft Chesapeake Sharpie
Illustration from Chapelle's plan for 14 ft Chesapeake Sharpie

These screenshots are from Roger Barnes’s Dinghy Cruising Companion channel, in his video “The Homely Dinghy” at 1:15 and 2:50.  This is the mast partner setup on his Avel Dro, one of the Ilur design by Francois Vivier.  Many of Vivier’s small boat designs are based on traditional sailing workboats of Brittany.  I’m waiting to hear back from Roger Barnes on whether this mast partner lashing was also common in Brittany.

I also write about sail-and-oar cruising on the Chesapeake: