Building a replacement wooden Mast

The old mast had a dark area just below the spreaders.

I wondered why our Mast was bending. I’d tuned the rigging until you could play it like a harp – but still couldn’t get rid of the ‘kink’.

Then last winter – when everything that isn’t varnished turns black – I noticed a ‘shadow’ halfway up the mast. I knew what it was even before I pulled myself up to it in the bosun’s chair. (I don’t know if the mast is getting longer, or I’m getting weaker). And there it was – a soft spot. Well – call a spade a spade – it was rot.

You can get your mast craned out for about a hundred quid. But the way I look at it, a hundred quid is a hundred quid …why have it lowered gently to the deck when you’re only going to take a chainsaw to it later? Save a few bob – why not let the rigging off, string by string, until there can only be one possible outcome?

A falling mast can do a lot of damage. It could tear the pin rail out of the deck. It could crash through the scuppers, taking the cap rail with it …along with some of the frame heads. Or it can fall on your head.

Unusually for me, none of these things happened. Foreseeing the danger, I unbolted the pin rail. But here – if you don’t mind me saying – was my master stroke: In order to avoid the mast foot sliding across the deck as it fell, destroying everything in its path, I tied alongside an old quay and waited for low water. With the Quay ten feet (3m) above deck, when the fifty-foot (15m) mast fell into it, the foot was lifted smartly off the deck – and clear of all obstructions. On the quay, the mast broke into six pieces. None of the breaks, I noticed, was on a glue-line.

When I announced my intention to build another one, myself, the more generous of my correspondents said something like – well, you’re a better man than I am. I feel uncomfortable when people talk like that; I wonder if they’re aware of a pitfall I haven’t seen yet. Then I reassure myself …not ‘better’, but ‘poorer’. It’s my poverty which drives me to undertake projects, myself. It can be quite interesting.

In February I felled a couple of Sitka Spruce. From those I cut three lengths of twenty-odd feet (6m) which seemed to be about the right diameter. Then they were sawn length-wise, like a Banana Split. Then they were hollowed. They dried for three months, both indoors and outdoors, according to the weather.

Split lengthways…

Then they had a birds-mouth cut in their ends. Back in the days of wooden boatbuilding the rule of thumb for joining straight pieces of timber together was to scarf them at 12:1. For every inch of thickness, the joint must be a foot long.

Top/truck varnished in the workshop, middle outside, foot in the distance.

I drove the three pieces 120 miles to Cornwall on my pick up, with the intention of gluing them on a pontoon. But the moorings officer said he wasn’t keen. Walkers on the quay, on the other hand, welcomed the sight of someone building a timber mast. Some of them even seemed to think I was a proper boat builder.

Only the top section left to glue.

When the mast was in three pieces, I could only lift two of them off the ground …and then needed to lie down. So there was a nagging worry about how I would lift the mast aboard when it was all in one piece.

John Leather says it alright to have a bit of aft rake. Fortunately.

In order to pull the joints together, whilst the glue cured, I installed the mast winch (which is normally located a couple of feet above the deck), tied a halyard to a mast band on the next section, and winched it tight. Because the upper section sleeves into the birds mouth, not much can go wrong, really …and winding the halyard up hard is all that is required. You can see the birds-mouth glue lines on the stick in the picture below.

Birds-mouth glue lines

In order to lift the mast on-board, waiting a few days for a spring tide …when the deck and the quay would be at the same height, really paid off. First I tied the stern close up to the quay – allowing the bow to drift out toward mid-stream. Then I straddled a baulk of timber between the deck and the shore, and lifted the mast foot across to the boat a foot at a time. I tied that in place, then let off the stern, and swung the Bow hard alongside. Hey presto.

Bow hard in.

Next week I’m going to get the mast stepped. I’ll probably pay someone to do that. It’ll be interesting to see if the joints hold. Would you like to hear how it goes?

If you’d like to read more tales of adventure which should have gone wrong, but didn’t (well…) consider investing in a copy of Phoenix from the Ashes; or Canvas Flying…

Thanks for reading this blog…

Justin Tyers

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