Replacing a Mast

In a Hornblower story, the hero is in the Pacific and has a mast shot away. Since he knew he would be operating from home, he had a spare mast ready. He took the ship into an island, set up a shore battery, and Bush, ever resourceful Bush pulled the stub out “Like a rotten tooth*” and popped in the new one.

How could you do such a thing without a dockyard and using only primitive stone astrolabes?

Bonus, for a story I am playing with. My ship is blockaded. The Bad Guys can only see my masts over a low island. On a dark and stormy night, I pop out my masts. Then the Bad Guys assume I snuck out at night. Then they go looking for me.

Pretty neat, huh?

*Why do I remember that line?

Bush had, if I remember correctly, set up a sheers–an A-frame-- over the mast stump and pulled it straight up using block and tackle. Hardly practicable on a dark and stormy night.

The boat is floating, Bush goes on the island and get timbers. He sets up a huge A-frame that sits on the harbor bottom? Or a smaller A-frame on the deck that lets them pop the bottom of the mast into the Mast Retaining Assembly?

One solution seems darn big, the other too small.

All you really need is something to hoist up the mast. Doesn’t have to be as tall as the mast, either; an A-frame could be used to lift the mast up just enough so it can be guided into position. 90 degrees is not necessary; once you get the bottom of the mast positioned, you can pull it up horizontally.

If you can complete the entire operation while it’s dark and stormy (it’s not the work of a couple of hours, even on a calm and sunny day). There’s also the point that you have made yourself immobile and thus highly vulnerable.

Damn, I helped do this once for the Clearwater. That was an 80’ mast. I will try to dredge my memory; we had 30+ people and many block and tackles.

I recall it took about 4 hours, over two hours of prep and two carry the mast onto the boat and foot it at the mast hole.

We had a large, very strong barrier built to brace the bottom of the mast to so it had two go down into the hole as we raised up the far end. The mast lay aft of the barrier on Boom supports.

We had lines rigged to raise the top and lines rigged to haul the mast towards the bow. There were stays to both sides to help the mast go up straight and a pair of long lines to make adjustments port and starboard.

We very slowly heaved, hauled, and made small adjustments constantly until the mast was at about 45°. At this point, the rest of the hauling went much faster, with a heavy emphasis of limiting the speed at which the mast would slam home at the bottom of the boat. Another 45 minutes was spent adjusting and securing the stays.


I don’t have my copy of The Happy Return handy - but didn’t they careen the ship to do those repairs?

Veteran sailors in those days had plenty of experience stepping masts. It really isn’t that hard. Not in the same league, of course, but any HobieCat owner has stepped their mast more times than they can count. A few simple machines and a buttload of man-power is all it takes, and as the OP noted, they already had a speare mast. That presumes they knew what to do with it when they needed it.

Well small masts and large masts are different animals; we hoist our 20’ long stayless wooden mast on our sailing garvey regularly with either one or two crew. I would think the HobieCat is a one-person job. There is not too much involved in doing these small ones. A mast that is larger than a telephone pole does take a lot more work and care. I do agree that the sailors of the day were probably quite adept at raising the large ones. Heck 3 experienced crewmembers with 30 idiot helpers got the large Clearwater mast up when I was there. (I was one of the idiots :wink: )

**Paul in Saudi **: For what it was worth, this was a cold March day on the Hudson River with a light drizzle at one pint, so while not dark and stormy, you crew could probably drop the masts over night and then plan on a long operation to raise them all back up. Once the first one is up, it can be use to help raise up the other masts. How many masts does the ship have?


Ah yes, a round of grog for all hands tends to make the work go better (or at least seem to).

Yep, I ran out of edit window time, but it was an appropriate typo, as I recall it was St. Patty’s day and much Ale was drank that night and little during the raising.


I am still kicking the idea around for National Novel Writing Month. Probably a ship-rig.

Could I just unscrew the tippy-top of the mast? Were some wooden masts made in two pieces. (Although it seems my proposed trick would work in fiction at least.)

Look at the drawing of the Clearwater in my link. You will see this is a two part mast. The smaller Upper mast is disconnected and lowered to the deck first, before dropping the main mast. I was not there to see it put back on. I am sure it was interesting.

Good Luck,

Many of us have even done it before driving the boat under the power lines. :stuck_out_tongue:

One time we wanted to get a HobieCat under a bridge and into a second section of lake. So, while on the water we dropped sails/mast, then scooted beneath the bridge. Once on the other side we “restepped”/etc. After a few hours, we had to rinse and repeat to get back to the boat launch.

The schooner I just spent a week on up in Maine had tackles for the two topmasts so they could be lowered to go under bridges. They do it quite regularly.

Was it the Hornblower story, or one of the Aubrey/Maturin stories where they set the crane-affair up over a cliff, and lowered the mast down into the ship moored below?

I seem to remember the captain in question pondering about how the mast would go straight through the bottom of the ship if the ropes broke, so I’m guessing Hornblower (Aubrey didn’t really worry about that kind of thing much).

One would imagine that having other masts is likely to help as they would provide good lifting points.

You would not unscrew it, but you could certainly remove the top of a stepped mast. (It would be a lot safer than pulling up and removing the whole mast as it would mean that you would still have some mast from which to hoist sail if you needed to move.
(I have a vague memory that when the Royal Navy was chasing Teach around the Carolinas, one or the other of the captains involved unstepped his top masts so that he was not visible across the islands, but I cannot recall whether it was the pursuer or the pursued who attempted this.)

All my great ideas have been stolen by my predecessors!

Remember that in a ship, you have two other masts which can be used to assist in the hoisting of the new mast to be stepped. You also have hundreds of sailors highly experienced with ropes and rigging to make the damn thing happen.