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Boatyards weigh in on mast storage

Following up last month's opinion column by local sailor Tom Althuis on whether masts should be stepped or unstepped, Soundings asked a number of boatyards in the New England area on what customers prefer and what yard managers recommend. Boatyard managers say the variety of sailboats and the specific winter storage location means the decision should be made on a case-by-case basis.

Scott Masse, president of Oak Leaf Marina in Old Saybrook, Conn., says the yard's policy is to give the customer the choice as to whether to step or unstep the mast, but to keep the mast up requires a certificate of insurance. "Generally, people keep [the mast stepped] because it's more expensive to [unstep] them," Masse says.

"We just put more poppets around the boat if it is left with the mast stepped," says Jeff Dziedzic, general manager of Pine Island Marina in Groton, Conn. "Our biggest boat is about 40 feet and so many people choose to leave the mast in."

Dziedzic says if customers do choose to leave the mast stepped, they must specifically request that the rig be tuned and inspected in the spring, according to yard requirements. If they do not ask, it will not be tuned or inspected. "We do recommend that sailboat owners take the mast out every two to three years," says Dziedzic. "But it adds expenses to the storage bill."

Rives Potts, vice president and general manager of Brewer Pilots Point Marina in Westbrook, Conn., says his yard allows owners to leave their mast stepped if their boats are smaller than 40 feet, but any vessel larger than that must have its mast unstepped. Service manager Jeremy Maxwell says about 75 percent of the sailboats at the marina are unstepped. A flat rate of $12 a foot is charged for the round trip of unstepping and stepping, but that does not include any preparations that must be taken to unstep the mast.

Potts strongly discourages leaving the mast stepped in the long-term. "It's bad for the boat and bad for the mast," says Potts. "When a boat heels a little in the water, it gives a little bit, but it does not do that on land. ... leaving the mast in accelerates the number of what we call fatigue cycles [that] the boat goes through in storage."

The number of times the mast should be pulled for inspection depends on how much the vessel is used, Potts says. For instance, a boat used as the occasional cruiser will have much less wear-and-tear on the rigging than a vessel used more often for coastal or offshore voyages. Maxwell says general rule of thumb is to unstep at least once every two years.

Kathleen Burns, general manager of Noank Shipyard in Noank, Conn.; and its sister location, Seaport Marine in Mystic, Conn., says it depends on which yard as to whether customers keep the mast up or down during winter storage.

"In our Noank location, it is about 98 percent unstepped, but at Seaport, where there is less windage, most of the masts remain up," says Burns. Burns adds that the yard strongly encourages customers to unstep and inspect the mast every other year or every third year.

Both locations charge a flat hourly rate of $85 to unstep the mast. Burns' advice on saving money and avoiding complications during the unstepping process is to clear the clutter - inside and outside.

"[If] we have trouble getting to the mast it adds time to your bill - and that's true for any maintenance on power or sailboats," she says.

Dziedzic says either choice has its drawbacks. "We usually reinforce support for sailboats [left with masts up,] and that takes extra time and attention," says Dziedzic. "But taking out a mast can be tricky, especially when it comes to detaching the wiring - and headstays can be delicate.

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue.