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When we were first getting ready to head out cruising, we received a lot of helpful advice from some folks who were already out there, making it happen. One cruiser in particular, Jeff, was very helpful, sending me countless emails, full of valuable info. I thanked him over and over again, but all he requested of me in return for his help is that, if I had the opportunity, I should assist others where possible, essentially paying it forward. Over the years, through this blog and in person, I have tried to do that as best I could.

Our friends Steve and Darla, ZTC’s new owners, are right in the thick of their own cruising preparation. In a little under two months time, they’ll be here in Grenada, readying their new home to return to the water. Exciting times for them! I have enjoyed hearing about the work that they have been doing to get ready, and have tried my best to share what we have learned. Hopefully, by doing so, they can avoid some of the mistakes that we have made since starting on this path.

As you might imagine, part of their prep has included a bit of a buying spree, purchasing new items to outfit their boat for cruising. Steve has asked me for a few suggestions, and I have made recommendations based upon my experience. In one particular example, knowing that I’ve been using a rock climbing harness to do any up-the-mast rigging work, Steve asked me what type he should get. While I am in no way an expert on these things, I shared with him my thoughts on the subject.

What we use is not ideal!

The rock climbing harness that we have been using is one that I had on hand from some sport climbing that I had done in the past. In retrospect though, for up-the-mast work, it is not ideal. We’ve found that our harness is definitely not comfortable if we have to spend more than 15-20 minutes aloft. Why? Because sport climbing harnesses are not designed to have you sitting in them for expended periods of time.

Note: While some sailors still use a nautical-type bosun’s chair, most of the riggers I see use some type of climbing harness.

Typically, rock climbers climb, and if/when they fall, the harness supports their weight. They either then resume climbing, or are lowered back to the ground. The amount of time spent sitting in the harness is limited. Those who do big wall climbing on the other hand, something that, for the record, I have never done, do spend a lot of time sitting in their harness. As such, the ones that they use typically have much better padding. If you’re going to be using a harness to work on your mast, it seems to me that one designed for big wall climbing, something similar to this one or this one, would be a better option than one designed for use in a climbing gym. I know that, if I was buying a new one today, that’s what I would go for.



  1. Here’s one I have been considering. Specifically for folks who like climbing in trees and sitting in their harness for hours at a time. No connection.

  2. No I’m not an aborist, ha! Let me know what your friend recommends. The aborists who climb in our trees are made of steel and rarely use anything but a waist harness. And they haul themselves up just with their arms!
    But my son the rock climber read me the riot act on our bosun’s chair and as he is crewing on our upcoming New England to St. Barths trip, I figured I’d better get a proper harness. Mike, do you like that ascender? What kind? Easy up AND down? Do you have to hold the gate open with one hand as you descend?

    • Our friend Cary recommended this:

      It’s a lot more money than what I recommended.

      The device you see is not an ascender. It’s a Petzl ASAP. I linked it several times here in the blog (just search ASAP). I have it rigged on a backup halyard, where it runs freely up and down without manual intervention. It only locks in the event of a fall (failure on the primary).

      Backups are good!

  3. We have a couple of harnesses, the newest of which is a Petzl Calidris – for quick work. Another older Petzl harness that came with the boat along with a standard bosun’s chair (I use the Calidris as a backup in the chair). You’re right, the harnesses are not for hanging up there if you have to do anything that’s going to be more than 10 minutes or so. If I had it to do all over again I’d get something like a Treehog (arborist type harness like Jonathan suggested). We’re sitting still waiting for parts for our mast/standing rigging and our riggers use one of the arborist type harnesses. I’ll get more info from them the next time I talk to them.

  4. I also use a Petzl Calidris. I have Petzl footapes also rigged so that if I get tired of sitting, or need that extra reach at the top of the mast I can stand in the footapes for a while. I have an ascender but wish they had the ASAP when I bought the kit, I have no backup on descent other than Linda belaying me.

  5. I would look into a rescue harness as they are designed to be sat in. Check out

  6. My legs definitely went numb last time I did masthead work in my climbing harness. Pretty much the equivalent of strapping a pair of tourniquets around my legs before going aloft… great if you sever a femoral while working but not great if you want to be able to resume walking once you come back to the deck.

  7. I assure you, you have gone above and beyond Jeff’s expectations.

    I don’t have time to completely reinvent the wheel, although I do enjoy tweaking it, just because it’s a guy thing 🙂 Whether it’s climbing harness’s, tethers, or PFD’s, there are so may options available, and as a newbie, you can only tell so much by a picture and description. Input from everyone helps with the decision process!

    You have a good following of cruisers and non-cruisers to solicit advise from.

  8. Hi Mike

    I am looking at a 1979 Amel and would like your opinion on it. Do you have an e-mail address I can contact you on this?

    • I thought your initial assertion was pretty clear from my post. The video you linked spells it out though. Were you trying to make a point?

      For me, when doing things that could result in my death, I am all about security. That means that when climbing a mast, or being winched up one (they seem to make a distinction between the two in the video), I’m sticking with a rock climbing harness, not something produced by a sailing company.

  9. The blood pooling the legs is no joke. There have been fatalities resulting from the legs falling too soundly asleep and then all that stale blood suddenly returning to circulation. It is far more of a problem in construction harnesses, which are practically designed to close off the femoral artery, than any climbing harness.

    I always carry a pair of etriers. Much more comfortable and more adjustable than simple loops, and they also provide improved leverage and stability, particularly if you can clip them to some part of the mast.

  10. ^^ Actually, easy to tie from 1″ webbing, though sewn is nicer. Google it.

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