Sunday, November 11, 2012

Some Words on Rigging

[A post from Jeffery]

This past Saturday marked the end of the Zodiac 2012 season, as we started down-rigging the boat.  It also marked the second season for our new masts and rig.  Everything is looking great; the masts are seasoning nicely and all the bands and hardware have seated properly. 


Meanwhile, we received an email from the Captain of the WN Ragland stating they were dis-masted on their way down the coast to San Francisco last week.  Fortunately, there were no injuries, but they lost the entire rig as they cut away the wreckage.  As we understand, they are now safe in SF, beginning the process of rebuilding their rig.  

It seems I spend a fair amount of time contemplating rigging.

Following Zodiac’s dis-masting, and the loss of the rig on Pride of Baltimore II on 2005, the Coast Guard was prepared to impose new mandatory inspections on the tall ship world.  The original proposal was for independent, third party inspections.   

While at first blush this may seem reasonable, the problem is that actually there are very few parties that would be qualified to perform these inspections.   

The follow-on proposal was for the ships with similar rigs to perform inspections upon each other.  Finally, they settled on mandatory inspection cycles performed by the crews of each vessel.   

Throughout this process the USCG personnel we dealt with impressed me greatly. They were aware that inspecting traditional tall ship rigs was outside their area of expertise. They knew there needed to be a solution, and worked with us to find it.

The impact onboard Zodiac has actually been both minimal and valuable.  Our immediate solution was to put together a standardized rig-check form.  We now have a five-page document that itemizes every detail of the rig that can be inspected from the deck to the spreaders.   

For each item, the crew member that inspects has to initial the line, the entire crew involved with the inspection signs the form at the end, and the crew leader signs the document listing any maintenance performed or needed.  I believe in the business world this is referred to as “being invested in the results”.

As the lead rigger onboard, with a pretty intimate knowledge of our vessel, I can perform this check alone in about thirty minutes.  The first time I handed the forms to our crew, it took over ninety minutes for three people to perform this check.  

Why so long you may ask?  

The process of having to identify items by name, inspect and then initial said item as being ‘sea-shape’ was a learning process for all.  No longer was a crew member willing to say they’d checked, as they now had to sign a document that might be the last inspection prior to a failure.  The learning curve for many of the crew was steep, we were all better for it.

These rig inspection forms are kept in a rig-log onboard the ship, to be inspected by myself and the Captain and/or mates on a regular basis. We follow up on the required maintenance, insuring it is completed in a timely manner.  These inspections are still performed prior to every cruise. 

 In addition to the base rig-check, I perform an inspection to the mastheads on a monthly basis during the sailing season.  Again, this is documented and goes into the log.  The final components are the off-season refit schedules and the up-rig checklist.  It results in a lot of paperwork, but I’m confidant that if asked to produce our inspection documentation we would lead the industry.

We’ve also implemented new training and safety protocols.  Hardhats were once just made available, however they are now mandatory for all crew on deck when riggers are aloft.  We have a new training cycle to prepare crew to work up to spreader level, as well as training and restrictions on which crew may operate the windlass for work aloft or be in the bosun’s chair.

I work aloft on a hybrid static line setup I’ve put together.  It utilizes standard climbing and single rope caving hardware and techniques, giving me the ability to move anywhere in the rig, under my own power, without assistance.  It’s not a system I would recommend, unless people have prior experience with the hardware and techniques.  It’s a complicated setup, but I can operate independently of the windlass and generally accomplish the work of two aloft.  With this setup, I can easily get to the mastheads on a monthly basis and perform a complete rig check (again, signed and documented).

Rigs are complex things, with many parts that need to be inspected.  A failure in any one piece can result in a catastrophic failure.  Through our checklists, we are now a much safer vessel, and we lead the way in inspection and safety protocols in the tall ship world.

~ Jeff Carson


  1. Another safety component that was added on Zodiac last year, is the rigger's "ring". We have a bronze ring with a lock-out tag attached to it.
    All of our crew members are shown the location of this ring.
    The policy on our ship is, "If you see this ring on a belay pin. You'd better not be touching it unless the rigger aloft has specifically given you a direct order to do so."
    Once the rigger is aloft on the gantline, the mate or the rigger's assistant is designated as the spotter. One of the primary duties of the spotter is to monitor the gantline and lock-out ring.
    The rigger aloft and spotter use two-way radios with earpieces. Communication is immediate and direct between them and can be effectively relayed (without a lot of shouting), amongst the support crew on deck.
    This system has simplified our up-rig and down-rig processes significantly.
    The deck-hands have remarked lately how much safer everybody feels when the amount of back-and-forth shouting was eliminated and every detail has been standardized from year-to-year.

  2. Jeff, I am curious about your system for going aloft. I was a rock climber before I was a sailor, so the first time I had to go up my mast I treated much like an ascent.

    I've modified my system a bit since then, but basically I tie a static line to the main halyard and run that to the masthead (I use the main halyard as that positions me on the forward side of the mast, which is raked), then climb it using ascenders with attached stirrups. At the masthead I clip in with a PAS, and get to work. Once I'm done I remove the ascenders, put the rope on my rappel device and load it, remove the PAS and rap down.

    What I don't like about this system:
    * I am unprotected during the ascent and descent. If the halyard parts, I'm SOL. It's a very low probability event, but the consequences are high. I have considered trailing a dynamic line and clipping it in at each spreader, but that would require somebody on deck to belay me, which I usually don't have (and if I'm at a marina I don't want to just grab any random guy from the dock).
    * It's a fair bit of work, ascending like that, not nearly as easy as being winched up :). Better would probably be rigging up a 2:1 or 3:1 block and tackle, but I don't have enough rope for that.

    It sounds like you have a good system worked out; I'm keen to hear it if you don't mind sharing.

  3. Anonymous ; I'm going to direct you to Jeffery's email. He didn't want to put too many specifics about his hybrid rigging/ climbing rack online. The concern being people without the experience would attempt the same thing.

    What Jeffery didn't mention was that he's had decades of spelunking and climbing experience to draw upon. He uses his big-wall harness for extensive time aloft. (When the new masts were stepped, he'd be up there all day long during the several weeks it took to finish everything up).

    Jeffery can be reached for specific information at

    - Chris W.