Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Good and the Bad

There is much good to report from a losing effort, which was the result of our Cruising Spinnaker class entry in The Border Run race from Newport Beach to San Diego last weekend.

Our noon Saturday start among the leaders at the favored end of the starting line turned into a late-morning finish Sunday at 10:07:11. Only one boat was slower, albeit by more than three hours, which gives you a good idea of what happened to the wind Saturday night and Sunday. The first of the ten finishers in our class crossed the line at 2:23 a.m. Two more crossed during the three o'clock hour, two more during the six o'clock hour and the other three during the eight o'clock hour. Word afterwards was that boats that stayed close to the shore did better than those farther out.

We raced on PHRF handicap ratings, which ranged from 102 to 198. "Narrow Escape's" rating is 186. In our case the rating was no factor. We finished ninth overall and were ninth on corrected time by wide margins.

We sailed essentially a rhumb line course from the start off the Balboa Pier to the mandatory rounding of the "SD" buoy marking the entrance t0 the San Diego harbor channel. The wind was light out of the west, providing a beam reach on the apparent wind and a boat speed averaging around five knots during the daylight hours Saturday. That is less than our six-knot hull speed. We stayed with the 155% genoa, which was pulling well. Many other boats hoisted spinnakers, but nobody seemed to be running away. We even stayed close to a Catalina 320, a faster boat, much of the day, feeling good about that even though it wasn't in our class.

Last year there was a lull in the wind for a couple hours from about 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., then it came in strong and steady from the southwest and we finished at 1:17 a.m. We still were next to last place (fourth of five boats) but were only 39 minutes behind the winner on corrected time. This year we were nearly six hours behind the winner on corrected time.

Not that we didn't try hard. As the wind began dying we hoisted the gennaker and kept the boat going. When the gennaker began to go limp between the occasional zephyrs and the main was slatting side to side in the waves, we dropped the main to quiet the boat and eked out a few more tenths of a knot. Around midnight when the gennaker was no longer pulling, we hoisted the "windseeker", essentially a 100% jib sewed from spinnaker cloth. That kept us moving. When the wind shifted to a land breeze from port side, we got the boat into the two knot range and hoisted the main and rolled out the genoa again and doused the gennaker. But in twenty minutes it was calm again and we furled the genoa and hoisted the windseeker again.

Around 2:30 a.m. my watch ended and freshly-rested crew took over only to cope with even worse conditions. When I came back up in about three hours we had moved down coast three or four miles.

Such is sailboat racing.

What was the good?

A great, congenial crew of Nate Tucker, often first to finish Long Beach Harbor series races in the 1979 Catalina 30 he has owned since it was new; Hobby Hobson, who has far more racing experience than me, crewing on a variety of boats, and Geoffrey Vanden Huevel, who races his Capri 25 against Nate.

Good food rounded up by Nate, who abided by my simple commandment: "I'm not cooking this year." We ate cold KFC chicken and made cold sandwiches from ample mounds of deli meat and munched on SunChips and chocolate chip cookies, and breakfasted on our choice of cold cereal or hot oatmeal.

Nothing broke. Everything worked on the boat. Not that I didn't dream up some things to buy for the boat as soon as I get the chance.
The best photo ever of "Narrow Escape" by the photographer aboard the committee boat at the finish line. And there were no other boats to get in the way of taking a picture of our joyous moment.

Our guest tie-up at the Southwestern Yacht Club. It's beautiful new clubhouse had only been opened the day before. We enjoyed a fine lunch in the spacious dining room overlooking their docks.

A nice room at the Kona Kai Hotel across the channel and wonderful courtesy van service, not only from and to the yacht club, but also to a restaurant for dinner Sunday night.

Now I look forward to what "Narrow Escape" and I do best -- a single-handed cruise to Catalina in a few weeks.


As "Narrow Escape" made the long, cold journey north to Long Beach from San Diego after placing ninth in its ten-boat class in The Border Run race (another blog coming about that), these three birds joined us at separate times.

The first bird seemed exhausted, barely able to hang on to the dodger. It moved around several times during about 10 minutes and flew away. The second bird, all shades of black, gray and white except for the yellow spot above the beak, was more energetic and more curious. It flew in and out of the cabin several times and left the boat and returned several times before it, too, disappeared.

The third bird, with its brilliant yellow patches, seemed to enjoy the boat a great deal. It hopped around everywhere, including disappearing for awhile inside the cockpit coaming compartments. Eventually it ventured into the cabin, hopping down the companionway ladder step by step and then returning to the cockpit by hopping up the steps. Later it flew in and out of the cabin repeatedly, including two times when somone was going up or down the ladder. We crumbled a SunChip for it, which it enjoyed trying to crunch in its sharply-pointed beak. Finally the bird grew comfortable enough with its new surroundings to hop onto our feet, legs and arms as it moved about. But it resisted our efforts to feed it crumbs from our hands.

The third bird, too, flew away from the boat briefly many times but always quickly returned. Then it disappeared. About a half hour later I found it asleep on the cabin sole obscured by a trash bag stashed in a corner of the galley. Later it was gone, not to be seen again, leaving behind three small belly feathers.

To find out what these birds were and why they might be on our boat, I turned to my daughter, a bird biologist who is chair of the biology department at the University of Portland (OR). Below are excerpts of our correspondence.

Lazuli Bunting

Black-throated Gray Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

... What puzzled me is what happens to little birds like this when they leave the boat. Do they know how to fly home? Where is home? Are they social birds or lone rangers? Have they lost their families forever because they spent time on a passing boat?

Those are wonderful pictures Dad!!! The one with the little yellow spot between its eye and bill (called the lores) is a female black-throated gray warbler. Winters in Baja and central America and breeds in the Western US up to BC and over to Denver actually. Cutie pie! The last one with all the yellow on it is a full breeding plumage male yellow-rumped warbler. This is the western race, Audubon’s warbler. Same sort of wintering and breeding range so these guys are just migrating up to their breeding grounds. You probably weren’t that far off the coast so it looks like they were taking a break and perhaps ran out of a little gas themselves without any prevailing winds. The first bird has me stumped still. I’m going to send your pic to some friends and see what they come up with.

Wow – good thing I asked some friends. Ron LeValley, treasurer of Pacific Seabird Group and an avid birder, ID’d our mystery bird as a Lazuli Bunting, female. I don’t think I would’ve figured that one out, but sure enough, staring at the field guide now, I can see that it must be. I couldn’t see this well in the picture, but the rump is blue – kind of a gunmetal blue, but you can see a few of those feathers in your picture. Another species that winters in Mexico and breeds in the western US so it’s just migrating north. You were the easiest way to migrate for these 3 species! Pretty interesting stuff. I’ll look forward to seeing these pics and IDs in your blog Dad!

Great information Katie. And now I understand why no birds hopped aboard when we traversed the same waters headed south during the race. We probably were 8-10 miles offshore when these hitchhikers came aboard. What do they eat?

hey Dad,
They’re normally insect eaters – glean them off trees. The two warblers are forest birds and the buntings will eat seeds – more open country. I usually see them on the other side of the Cascades – Bend and beyond area. Definitely very cool to have them on board and so charismatic! Such great close up shots too. Love, Katie

Saturday, April 3, 2010

American Samoa

It has been ten months since my last post. There are some new improvements on Narrow Escape to report, and our upcoming second year to take part in the spring race from Newport Beach to San Diego (

But this posting is devoted to the three and a half months I spent in American Samoa after its devastating tsunami on September 29, 2009. I work on an as-needed basis for FEMA and was among the group of workers sent in to help with the American territory's disaster recovery. I was there through January of this year. The disaster took 34 lives, destroyed 276 dwellings and damaged another 2,650. Recovery is going well, but it is always a slow process and the losses can never be fully compensated.

American Samoa is a beautiful place populated with friendly, generous, family-oriented people. If you're familiar with Santa Catalina Island here in Southern California, imagine it in the tropics and covered with rain forest and you have a fair idea of the size and shape of the main island of American Samoa. Now put 60,000 people there, with a village on nearly every cove and a large dog-legged harbor in the center of the island complete with shipping docks, tuna canneries, a small shipyard, a large fuel tank farm, homes, shops, government buildings, churches, and very few tourist accommodations and the picture is more complete.

I work for FEMA's External Affairs Division, where my 40 years of journalism experience is put to use. In American Samoa I was a videographer/photographer for the recovery effort. I've included links to my official videos and photos on FEMA's website in case you're interested. There also are links to personal videos I took on my days off.

Immediately below, are photos taken from a sailboat in Pago Pago Harbor during the tsunami. I got the pictures from the island's public television station, KVZK-TV, but no information on who took them or the name of the boat. The most dramatic pictures, which show waterfall-like wave action, were taken when the water was rapidly receding after flooding the Pago Pago area to about 18 feet above sea level. The water is falling back into the harbor over the shore and docks, with disastrous effect.

Links to my FEMA videos:

"FCO Update 10-20-09 American Samoa"

"Power Restored in American Samoa"

"Private Property Debris Removal for American Samoa"

"Hazmat Recovery in Pago Pago Harbor"

"FEMA Region IX Administrator Visits American Samoa"

"Larger Tents for American Samoa"

"Interim Electrical Power for American Samoa"

"Temporary School Buildings in American Samoa"

"Damaged Cemetery Eligible for Federal Aid"

"EPA Cleans Up HAZMAT in American Samoa"

"Permanent Housing Construction in American Samoa"

"New Temporary Classrooms in Use in American Samoa"

"ICS in American Samoa, USCG"

"ICS in American Samoa, NPS"

"ICS in American Samoa, Governor and FEMA"

Other FEMA videos taken before and after my tour of duty in American Samoa are available at

Personal videos:

Christmas Caroling in American Samoa

Riding buses in American Samoa

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Escaped My Notice

It was a great afternoon a couple weeks ago. The wind out of the southwest was building. The 1-2 foot waves were growing and white caps were beginning to appear. I was on a close reach several miles south of the Long Beach breakwater aiming for the Queen's Gate entrance. The dodger had just proved itself, deflecting the spray from a particularly boisterous wave that managed to get past the remarkably dry, beautifully flared bow of "Narrow Escape", my 1968 Ericson 30.

Suddenly water was soaking through the back of my shirt as I leaned against the teak coaming on the windward side of the cockpit. A puddle of water was trapped against the coaming by the 20-degree heeling angle of the boat. And it was working its way through the caulked joint between the two longitudinal planks that formed the port side cockpit coaming. I looked across to the starboard side coaming and saw that it was made of a single plank. No joint to leak.

Funny I never noticed that difference before. After all, two years ago I had spent months crawling repeatedly over every square inch of this boat refinishing the fiberglass of the cockpit, deck and cabin.

But I didn't pay any attention to the teak coaming then. It was coated with old varnish, cracked and peeling here and there, but my attention was focused on a filigree of gelcoat cracks in the fiberglass. Wood refinishing could wait. When I finally did strip all the varnish and decide to leave the teak natural, relying on occasional washes with soapy water and bleach to keep it clean, I didn't pay attention to the differing construction of the two coamings. And I didn't recaulk the port side seam.

The other day I tackled the job. First I dug out the caulk between the deck and the coaming outside of the cockpit. Then I dug out the thinner line of caulk inside the cockpit between the two planks of teak.

Somehow it also escaped my notice that there was something inconsistent between the perfectly horizontal line of caulk inside the cockpit and the gently sweeping line of caulk on the outside between the coaming and a deck which doesn't have a straight segment to it.

My defective powers of observation got some help when I cleaned out the inside seam with sandpaper and a corner of the paper finally emerged on the outside, slightly above the deck. The seam was exposed on the outside for several inches just ahead of the winch pad before it disappeared beneath the upward sweep of the deck. Suddenly my wet back made sense. It wasn't the deck seam that leaked. It was that small, exposed horizontal seam, right where the pool of seawater collected.

As for the other question - why was one coaming a single plank and the other was two pieces? - the only answer I could imagine was that they ran out of wide teak and made do with narrower planks when they built my boat. I searched for some structural reason for the split on the port side and found none.

No matter. A couple hours of work and an entire tube of white BoatLIFE Life Caulk should keep my back dry for many years to come.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Losing Isn't Everything

Before the start.

A video of our race highlights is on YouTube at:

A week ago my three-man crew and I raced "Narrow Escape" to San Diego in the inaugural Border Run race ( It was wonderful. There was wind from start to finish, with a few brief lulls before midnight, and we averaged 5.1 knots. The handicap distance for the short course we raced was 69 miles, which we completed in 13 hours 27 minutes. We probably sailed less than a couple miles longer than that because the rhumb line course from the start off the Newport Beach harbor entrance to the San Diego entrance buoy "SD" was generally a reach the entire way.

Our competition was four other boats that finished the "CRUZ Spin C" race and we beat one of them. The Cal 27-2 that was the only boat with a slower handicap than ours, took second place. We never saw it during the entire race, a strategic mistake on my part.

We got a clean start at the gun on starboard tack at the leeward end of the starting line, while most of the other boats were crowded together at the windward end, which undoubtedly blocked our view of the Cal 27-2. There were three cruising classes racing the short course and all of us shared a single start.

Running the line before the gun.

This is a new race, competing with the venerable Newport to Ensenada race, which we've failed to finish in the two times "Narrow Escape" was entered because of light to non-existent wind. In fact, it appeared that I would not have a crew for a third attempt, so it was welcome news when word of the Border Run alternative popped up and my crew decided they would risk a shorter race.

A Columbia 50 passes quickly.

There was some acrimony between the two race organizers, which can be found with web searches, but in fact, they coexisted nicely and both races enjoyed great wind and nearly all entrants in both competitions finished. A record pace was set in the Ensenada race. And Randy Reynolds, the force behind the Border Run alternative, was first to finish the same short course we raced, in a blistering 6 hours, 7 minutes, 36 seconds on his Reynolds 33 turbo catamaran.

Nate Tucker at the helm.

We slowly pass a Catalina 30 - but it is racing in a different class.

Paul Barbe and Hobby Hobson: I prepared four-cheese ravioli with Alfredo sauce and Caesar salad,

During the Friday evening lulls we hoisted a gennaker, which we had not previously used, and were delighted with the 1-2 knot advantage it gave us over the 155% genoa. But when the wind freshened and stayed that way after 11 p.m., the gennaker was overpowering and proved difficult to take down. Had we ever practiced with it, we would have been able to unroll the genoa in front of it and then peel it down and under the gennie. But I feared something would go awry in the dark and we'd end up with two intertwined sails or pairs of sheets and be in trouble. So we brought in the gennaker accompanied by a lot of commotion -- ours and the sail's -- but no permanent damage to sail, gear or egos. It probably cost us 10 minutes. But we lost to the next fastest boat by 18 minutes and 10 seconds on corrected time, so we didn't defeat ourselves.

The gennaker gave us better speed but was hard to douse.

We spent a comfortable two nights at Southwestern Yacht Club in San Diego's Shelter Island basin, where we arrived about 3 a.m. Saturday morning. On Sunday we motorsailed to Dana Point in about 11 hours and a marina guest slip Sunday night. The motorsail home to Alamitos Bay Marina in Long Beach was another six hours on Monday. The Tohatsu 9.8 hp outboard performed flawlessly, consuming no oil and only about 15 gallons of fuel, including the four hours of motoring to get to the race course Friday and cruise around awaiting the start.

Relaxing Saturday in San Diego.

Coast Guard makes sure we stay away from Navy submarine returning to base Sunday morning.

The Ericson 30 is a comfortable and easy boat to sail, even if it isn't particularly competitive in PHRF handicap racing, at least under my leadership.

It has been 11 months since my last posting on this blog. Much of that absence is because I have been working disaster recovery assignments for FEMA rather than sailing. That includes time in Des Moines, Iowa for historic floods last summer, Baton Rouge, Louisiana for Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, and here in California for the wildfires of last November. I'll probably be deployed again soon, so there likely will be another gap in my sailing ruminations. But when I have more to share, I'll be sure to post it.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Fine Weekend at the Isthmus

Last weekend was the annual spring cruise to Isthmus Cove on Catalina Island for my club, Little Ships Fleet of Long Beach. We were also joined by the Port Royal Yacht Club from Redondo Beach. And a group, including some of our members, who charter their rides from Marina Sailing, a club with six outlets in Southern California.

Those charter boat guys miss out on some of the experiences of boat ownership. Not me. At 8:30 am Friday when I turned the key to start my engine, it made several weak revolutions and then stopped. Luckily, I had unplugged the power cord about a half-hour earlier, so my dead batteries weren't masked by the battery charger. Otherwise I would have had a couple of dark nights aboard at the island.

Just to make sure it was a battery problem and not an engine problem, I untethered my emergency starting battery from its stowage spot in the forward cabin and connected it to the engine, which fired right up.

The boat batteries were about a year old when I bought the Ericson 30 in the fall of 2005, so no surprise. I knew exactly what to do. Disconnect them. Wheel them up to my car in a dock cart and go buy new ones. Forget about the planned 9:00 am departure from the fuel dock.

I saved $52 per battery compared to West Marine's catalog price, by driving over to Wayne Electric Co. in west Long Beach and buying Delco Voyager deep-cycle batteries for $88.00 each. They were the same Group 27 size as my dead West Marine Sea-Volt Deep Cycle 90s. But they had an extra 15 ampere-hours of capacity and were noticeably heavier.

It was 1:00 pm that afternoon when I finally left the fuel dock with my tank topped up with gasoline at $5.19 a gallon. Sure glad I have a sailboat.

But that's another interesting topic. Sailing isn't always the easiest way to get to Catalina Island, which stretches in a generally NW-SE alignment roughly 25 miles south of the southern shoreline of Los Angeles County. The best way to get a sailboat to a Catalina Island destination is to leave in the morning and motorsail while the wind and seas are calm, arriving in mid-afternoon while there's still hope of getting a mooring, which are first-come, first-served unless you are lucky enough to have your own. The power boaters have all the advantages in the summer-time mooring lottery at Catalina.

Leaving in the afternoon often guarantees a long beat to windward, and several tacks if you're going to the Isthmus from my marina at the east end of the Los Angeles/Long Beach harbor complex. That Friday, the wind hit 20 knots in mid-afternoon and I flopped around for awhile hove-to trying to get a reef into the main. Finally I remembered to uncleat the boom vang and the reefing line easily pulled the new clew the last few inches to the boom. I like single-handing. But sometimes I could do with a better skipper to yell at me what I'm doing wrong.

Opting to motorsail the last few miles west along Catalina Island.

About two miles to go. Arrow Point is underneath the sun.

It took seven hours and 34.7 nm to get there. I tied up at mooring a little after sunset.

I needn't have worried about being shut out for a mooring. There were plenty on the preferred west side of Isthmus Cove, and the less-protected east side was nearly empty. It was still sparsely occupied Saturday night. To my eye, sailboats far outnumbered power boats in the mix. I think fuel prices may make life tough this summer for the Catalina residents who depend on boaters for their livelihood.

Moored in Isthmus Cove.

The comraderie of Saturday night's beach barbeque and Sunday morning's breakfast seemed to match everyone's expectations for the weekend.

The only thing lacking as we departed late Sunday morning was wind. For me it was a case of motoring for an hour, hanging out the sails for another hour hoping the zephyrs would link up into a sustained breeze, and then motoring some more. But by 2 pm it began to blow for real and by 3:30 I was flying on a broad reach straight for home at 6 to 7 knots. Before I got there I had one period of continuous surfing down three-foot waves that saw the GPS hit 8.4 knots. That's heady stuff on a boat with a 23.4-foot water line, flying a 110% jib.

The ride home took only 5 1/2 hours and covered 28 nm.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Uppermost Problem Solved

Top Climber is rigged and ready for me to climb to masthead.

Shortly after I bought my 1968 Ericson 30 in the fall of 2005, I sailed it single-handed to Isthmus Harbor at Catalina Island. It was a great trip until the end. I arrived with 12-15 knots out of the west, rounded up into the wind on the autopilot and went to the mast to drop the main sail. It wouldn't budge.

Eventually, after what was probably 15 minutes of swinging the external halyard back and forth interrupted repeatedly to maneuver the boat to avoid other boats and the shore, the sail suddenly dropped.

After I was on a mooring, I examined the external sail track with binoculars and saw that it was a little bent high on the mast. And one or two screws looked like they might be a little loose.

Later, I had a rigger climb the mast and check it out for me. He replaced the top section of track, but wasn't sure that it had been the cause of the problem. It wasn't, as I found later when the sail jammed at the top again.

The next suggestion was that one of the screws mounting the VHF antenna to the masthead must be too long and was catching in the halyard. The top of the halyard, about a foot down did show some abrasion. The recommended solution was unstepping the mast, removing the masthead fitting and installing shorter screws. It was the kind of job that could easily cost $4,000 because it made sense to replace the rigging, the masthead sheaves, repair any corrosion damage to the mast and have it refinished while it was off the boat.

The rigging was old but sound and I had figured out that the sail would fall okay if I gave the halyard a sharp yank before releasing it. There were other ways I needed to spend that $4,000 first.

When we arrived in Ensenada last month, however, after abandoning the Newport to Ensenada race and motoring in under main alone, the sail once again jammed in place and it was very difficult to get down.

Several weeks later I decided to go up the mast myself, remove the offending screw and take care of the problem. Assuming that the stainless steel screw had welded itself to the aluminum masthead casting, I bought a set of carbide-tipped drill bits and even practiced drilling out a stainless screw at home.

I've owned an ATN Top Climber for about five years and previously had made a trip up to the spreaders of the Ericson's mast. This time I went to the top and pulled up a heavy bucket of tools, bits, and a drill after me.

The problem screw was slotted, not philips head, which made the task of drilling it out a lot more difficult. In fact, I had only practiced on a phillips head screw. Also, it was apparent that the position of that screw was not in line with the path of the halyard over the front and rear sheaves.

Furthermore, I could see that the abrasion zone on the main halyard -- from which I was hanging -- began just where the halyard entered the forward side of the masthead fitting. Feeling with my finger, I found that a portion of the casting, which separated the main and jib halyard sheaves, was rough where the halyard touched it. It looked as if part of it may have broken off sometime, leaving a jagged edge.

My tool bucket didn't contain a small file, which I would need to clean up the casting. And I needed to be hanging from a spinnaker halyard so that I could move the main halyard away from the area that needed smoothing.

I lowered myself, which is a slow process with a Top Climber, and awhile later climbed up again, hanging from the spinnaker halyard, and smoothed the casting.

I already had a replacement halyard, a 3/8ths-inch Sampson XLS-Extra line, which is smoother, more slippery and has less than half the stretch of the lower-cost Sta-Set X rope that had been the main halyard since I before I bought the boat.

I had ordered the new line from West Marine several months earlier, but had not installed it pending my repair of the abrasion problem. Now I sewed the new line to the old and hauled up the mast, across the sheaves and down the front. As soon as the new line crossed the sheaves, I could feel how much easier it pulled.

There was a different problem, however. The new line was too short! The day I had bought it, West did not have enough line in stock at its Long Beach store. So I ordered it, and received it about a week later, coiled, secured with a wire tie, and packed in a box. It remained coiled and I cut the wire tie just before I sewed it to the old halyard that day.

I had ordered 80 feet of line. The one I received measured 60 feet. I took it to the store, without the receipt, which was in my file at home. Mine is a fairly familiar face at West Marine in Long Beach and a new line of proper length was quickly cut and soon installed.

The difference is remarkable. Partly that's because I've smoothed the casting and partly it's because the new line has a smoother structure. But probably the biggest difference is that the new line is 3/8ths instead of 7/16th like the old one. A telephoto picture shows that the new line does not touch the center divider of the masthead casting, unlike the old line.

New main halyard, left, doesn't rub against the center flange in masthead casting.

The Top Climber has advantages and disadvantages as a means for climbing the mast. It is based on the mountain climbing technique of using sliding jam cleats to ascend a rope. One advantage is that no assistance is required. I did my work alone and without anyone else on the boat or monitoring my progress. It also is safe. It might be possible to temporarily get into an uncomfortably awkward position. But I can't imagine a scenario in which I could fall.

There are several disadvantages. You must have a separate line available to climb, either 7/16ths or 1/2 inch, which is fastened to a halyard and hauled to the top of the mast. That line has to be threaded through the two ascender cleats of the unit, which is easier with 7/16ths line. The company recommends that the climbing line then be led to a sturdy snatch block attached to the base of a lifeline stanchion and from there to a jib winch and cleat where it can be tightened as much as possible to take the stretch out of the line and the halyard.

Top Climber requires its own climbing line, which is hoisted to masthead by a halyard. It runs through a snatch block at lifeline stanchion base, then aft to winch and cleat.

You aren't supposed to lead the climbing line to the base of the mast. The climbing technique requires that you be away from the mast. Your weight will cause the line to sag, no matter how tight you winch it, and that sag will allow you to easily reach the mast by the time you get to spreader height. From there up, it is not a problem being next to the mast.

Climbing line is tensioned on winch and secured to cleat.

The Top Climber consists of two ascender cleats. One is connected to the foot loops. The other is attached to the hard seat that forms the bosun's chair. In fact, that portion with its webbing back straps, thigh loops and hoist strap could be used as a traditional bosun's chair and hoisted aloft on a halyard if you had the crew aboard to do the work.

The principal is very simple. Stand in the foot loops and your weight locks the bottom ascender to the climbing line. At the same time, push up the upper ascender, which moves easily with your weight off of the bosun's chair. Then sit in the chair, raise your feet and push up the lower ascender at the same time. Then repeat. It does take arm and shoulder strength to pull yourself up at the same time you stand because you are hanging at an angle off the climbing line.

I can climb in six-inch increments, with frequent rest stops to enjoy the view. The company's on-line video shows it being done at about a foot at a time.

To descend, the process is reversed. When an ascender cleat is unweighted, the line-locking lever at the top can be pivoted up to release the climbing line and the ascender can be pushed down. It takes some care not to lower it too much, which is where you could end up in an awkward position. If you hold the lever up too long, the ascender can fall of its own weight. But all you have to do is let go of the ascender and it stops instantly.

The climber comes in a sturdy storage bag, which fastens to the harness to become a deep tool bag. I store the Top Climber and my climbing line in a cockpit locker, comforted by the knowledge that I could get up my mast alone at sea if I had to.