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De-Masting your boat

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When a Sailboat is Not a Sailboat

Why would any rational sailor take something as beautiful and efficient as a sailboat and turn it, even temporarily, into a “stink-pot”? For a Great Lakes sailor like myself, it was the allure of the endless summer we could attain by traveling south in October. Or for East Coast sailors, it could be the pristine, fresh water cruising of Ontario’s North Channel or Vermont and New York’s Lake Champlain. Both of these options can be readily accessible if you can make it under 14 to 21 foot fixed bridges. With few exceptions, this “limbo” requires de-masting the boat and storing it on deck, then striking up the engine for a few hundred miles and powering through canals, climbing locks and scurrying across larger bodies of water that under normal conditions, we relish. Here are a few of the things we have learned about making the transformation successfully and negotiating these waterways safely.

Through countless summers and stormy winters, our mast towered like a permanent fixture above Sampatecho, our Beneteau 390. Sure, we tuned the rig annually and made a trip aloft to check for wear, corrosion or loose connections, but the mast had been vertical since we’d owned her. But in 1997, we’d decided to make the first of many pilgrimages to the balmy waters of Florida, the Bahamas and beyond. This meant de-stepping the mast and storing it securely on deck for the trip through the canals connecting the Great Lakes to the Hudson River and beyond.

De-masting / Re-stepping  101

De-stepping can generally be done on a do-it-yourself basis using a gin-pole or pivoting arm for boats of 30 to 32 feet or under provided the mast weight is under about 150 pounds. Beyond that, the weight and leverage can be dangerous should a line slip or if you miscalculate the balance point.  Larger boats should probably enlist the assistance of experienced marinas to step and de-step their mast. Accidents can still happen, but at least your insurance will recognize due diligence on your part.


Deck Support

Transporting your mast on deck is much more precarious than in its normal position. True, you’ll be traveling generally protected waters but you’ll still be exposed to some choppy sections such as Oneida Lake with a 19 mile fetch, rivers with conflicting tide, current like on the upper Hudson, and wake from power boats who don’t understand or don’t care about your vulnerability.

There are three factors for consideration when designing your supports (or cradle or horses) to secure the mast on deck for the trip through the canals:

1) stability

Your mast is inherently springy. It wants to bounce in the middle, twist on the unsupported ends and stretch the lines that restrict its freedom from un-natural bonds. Don’t count on gravity for any help. The rhythmic lifting of your bow will try to launch the mast from its cradle if not securely subdued. Consider movement in lateral, fore/aft and vertical directions.

2) visibility

Can you see around and over it from the helm?

detail of the bow

It may not be the prettiest thing but it WORKS and that's what matters.


3) mobility

Can you manoeuvre your boat? Can you get around the deck safely?

Even with your folding bicycle, fishing poles, etc etc on deck? Or is that just us?

Canals & Locks

From the tiny, historic Chambly Canal to the monstrous, commercial St Lawrence Seaway; the concept is the same but the procedures and execution are worlds apart.


With the constant water up and down those walls the lines and walls themselves will be green or brown and slippery. Consider gloves, an apron, or your old worn out clothes while handling the lines. 


Claustrophobics beware.

This was our solution for fenders. You don't want them slipping out of the way and letting your boat hit those slimy walls.

Ours have a towel-like cover and a board across to keep them secure. The fabric means they aren't slippery. Especially when wet.

The white tube above contains large charts. We recommend these waterproof tubes.

Maeve pushing the bow off the wall with a hook.

Thar' be Pirates

One of the greatest differences with being a power boat is the loss of independence. You need fuel at fairly regular intervals and of course need some help getting the mast up and down. Beware of the places that you have to stop anyway, such as to clear Customs. When we entered the Lake Champlain, we called the first marina in Rouse’s Point, NY. Another marina called Lighthouse answered and gave us directions to their dock, which we followed. I told the dock attendant that we needed fuel and a pump-out but first we needed to clear in with Customs.

By the time (10 minutes) that we had cleared in, the attendant had begun filling the tank, fortunately with diesel, but said he didn’t know how much it was. Neither did he know how much a pumpout cost but we had him do that too. The office and pump are a considerable distance from the dock so we proceeded without confirming costs (my mistake). Afterward, we were presented with a bill for $183.00 for what normally cost around $100.00. The diesel was $3.99/gal (while our next stop in NY was $2.69/gal) the pumpout was $15.00 (when everyone else charges $5-$10.00) and they even charge $10.00 extra to tie up when clearing Customs even though we bought fuel and a pumpout from them at the same time!

 Just a word to check the rates before tying up!

Some Interesting Rigs We Saw Along the Way

a lot of mast

just a shortened mast!

cruising locks tips

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