End of season debate: mast up or down?

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Those in favor of unstepping the stick sometimes say those who leave it up are lazy and not properly maintaining their boats. The mast-down proponents argue that leaving the mast up with the boat on the hard will stress the hull and rigging in high winds, cause potential damage to the rig due to vibration, and make lots of noise with slapping halyards in the boatyard. They also say it's dangerous to leave the mast up because the boat might topple from its jack stands during a storm, potentially damaging neighboring vessels.

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While there is no hard data to indicate that sailboats stored with the mast up are subject to more damage than those stored with the mast down, some experts I spoke with do indeed caution that there is some risk.

For example, let's look at the vibration issue for a moment. When the boat is on the hard, it is held in a rigid position. Wind gusts will shake it, whereas if it is in the water, it will heel to the gusts, reducing the pressure on the rig. Without this give factor, the boat's rig will be subject to an increased incidence of metal fatigue at vital fittings such as the chainplates. So, in some ways the mast-down proponents are right. In an ideal world, it is better to unstep the mast, but is it really necessary every winter?

On the other side of the debate, proponents of mast-up dry storage think the added stress on modern-day hulls made of fiberglass and other composites is insignificant. They point out that it's rare for boats with the mast up to topple during storms, and that mast-up storage is simply easier and more convenient with no added risk, which may or may not be true. Damaged, missing or stolen equipment while moving the mast into storage areas and while stepping the mast in the spring is virtually eliminated, as are lost parts or unexpected problems arising from improper reassembly prior to launching the boat. Wet storage with the mast up offers these advantages, too.

Mast-up storage also saves many hours to a day's work in dismantling and reassembling rigging and electrical wiring. Since mast-up storage is quicker and a lot less work, total annual hauling and storage expenses are less compared to the cost of taking the mast down. Of course, everyone agrees that the mast may have to be taken down occasionally for maintenance purposes. Boatyard managers I've spoken with suggest unstepping the mast every other year, or every three years at most. They don't suggest leaving the mast up without a thorough inspection for years on end.

Some yard require boats of a certain size to have their masts unstepped each season.

My view is that mast-up storage today is done expertly, and is therefore a safe and reasonable option.

Mast-up by the numbers

A couple of winters ago, I went to 28 well-established boatyards from Clinton to Stonington, Conn., where I observed more than 800 sailboats with stepped masts - 565 on land and 250 in the water.

Of the 28 facilities, 23 had boats on the hard with masts stepped, 17 had boats with stepped masts in wet storage, and 12 had boats with masts stored in both the water and on the hard. At the time of my investigation, five facilities - Mystic Shipyard, Old Lyme Marina and Ragged Rock Marina in Old Saybrook, Spicer's Marina in Noank, and Thamesport Marina in New London - allowed mast-up storage only in the water. Noank Village Boatyard and the Shennecossett Yacht Club in Groton did not permit any mast-up storage. In stark contrast, Pine Island Marina, which was located next to the Shennecossett Yacht Club and had virtually identical land, wind and water conditions, stored 86 percent of its approximately 50 sailboats on the hard with masts stepped.

Dry storage with masts up

At eastern Connecticut shore facilities, five yards accounted for 56 percent of boats with masts up: Brewer Pilots Point Marina in Westbrook with 94 up compared to 64 down; Fort Rachel Marina in Mystic with 77 up and 41 down; Between the Bridges Marina in Old Saybrook with 58 up and 10 down; Crocker's Boatyard in New London with 45 up and 12 down; and Pine Island Marina with 45 up and 7 down.

Four yards each having 22 to 28 boats with masts up accounted for another 18 percent: Seaport Marine in Mystic (it's owned by Noank Shipyard); Riverside Basin Marina and Cedar Island Marina in Clinton; and Island Cove Marina in Old Saybrook.

Fifteen facilities, each having fewer than 20 boats with masts up, accounted for the remaining 26 percent: [Brewer Yacht Yard at Mystic, Gwenmor Marina and Masons Island in Mystic; Dodson Boatyard in Stonington; Norwest Marine in Pawcatuck; Noank Shipyard, Burr's Marina, Ferry Slip Dockominiums and Hellier Yacht Sales in New London; Port Niantic in Niantic; Brewer Ferry Point and Oak Leaf Marina in Old Saybrook; and Old Harbor Marina and Port Clinton Marina in Clinton.

Wet storage with masts up

Three facilities surveyed handled about 76 percent of the wet storage of sailboats on the Connecticut coast: 189 out of 250. Sailboats stored in the water rarely had their masts down. Spicer's Marina had 76 sailboats at its slips. Spicer's won't store sailboats on land with masts up because of their exposure on a hill along Fishers Island Sound. Brewer Pilots Point Marina had nearly 75 sailboats in slips. Fort Rachel Marina had 38 sailboats in wet storage. Twelve yards with 20 or fewer sailboats in wet storage totaled 61 boats .

Yard policies and benefits

Mast-up storage offers some benefits to the yard. For example, leaving the masts up will save on labor costs, and it reduces potential liability due to yard crew injuries that might occur when stepping and unstepping masts. Another benefit is lower costs in equipment investment and maintenance, such as not needing to invest in and maintain mast racks, cranes and mast-hauling vehicles. Some generally use the same number of jack lifts for boats stored with the masts up as for boats with the masts removed, such as Burr's Marina and Ferry Slip Dockominiums in New London, Island Cove in Old Saybrook and Pine Island Marina in Groton.

Several (Crocker's Boatyard in New London and Brewer Pilots Point Marina in Westbrook) regularly use two extra poppets, and a few (Dodson Boatyard in Stonington and Fort Rachel Marina in Mystic) may require more jack lifts depending on the boat size and situation. The nine largest facilities, storing 75 percent of the boats on land with masts up, put poppets on gravel surfaces. Some smaller yards put jack lifts on paved surfaces, generally in parking lots. Cradles and trailers were rarely used.

Brownell, a major manufacturer of boat jack lifts, states: "In windy or open areas, remove masts when boats are placed on boat stands." But the Guilford Yacht Club and Indian Neck Yacht Club in Branford contract with Brownell to haul and store boats with masts up on land on Brownell poppets. Some marina representatives regard the Brownell statement as a legal disclaimer. In this survey, almost all 565 sailboats stored on land with masts up were on poppets. Boats stored with masts up were grouped together or separated depending on the facility.

Standard liability insurance is sufficient for either mast-up or mast-down storage, according to marina representatives. A boater's insurance premiums are also the same for mast-up or mast-down storage. Liability waiver requirements may differ between marinas, but were the same for all boaters at that marina regardless of how the boat was stored, except for Crocker's. Its waiver requires owner responsibility for damage caused by the mast falling because of a faulty mast or rigging - that is, in case the mast falls but the boat doesn't.

Today mast-up storage is done safely. The benefits are numerous for the boatowner and for boatyards, while the disadvantages are minimal. So, if you've been thinking about leaving the stick up when your boat's on the hard, know that you'll have plenty of company if you decide to do it, even though some may debate the merits of your decision.

Tom Althuis, a scientist and retired Pfizer executive, has 20-plus years experience sailing from Connecticut to Maine. He is a member of the Connecticut Shoreline Sailing Club, Shennecossett Yacht Club and the Long Island Sound Catalina Association. In the winter he wet stores his 40-foot sailboat at Fort Rachel Marina in Mystic, Conn.

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue.