If you love boats and sailing as much as we do, then it’s essential to know your sailboat inside out. So you may be asking the question: What is a sailboat mast?
A sailboat mast is a cylindrical, long vertical spar mounted on the deck and supports the vessel’s sails. Masts are a distinctive feature of sailboats and hold the sails in place. Most masts for modern sailboats are made of aluminum or carbon fiber, while traditional boat masts are made of wood.
Masts are usually taller than the boat’s length, and the type of mast on sailboats depends on the type of sail plan they support.
Parts of the Sailboat Mast
The mast is just a pole and does not function without several important parts. The mast boom starts from the deck, which prevents water from flowing down the mast and into the cockpit.
The long ropes connected to the mast on each side are the stays that hold the mast upright under tremendous force. The boom is attached to the mast by a gooseneck. The halyard lines that run to the top of the mast are used to hoist and lower the sail.
How to Choose a Mast
If you have a production boat, then the choice will depend on the make and model. For a one-off boat without a designer’s sail plan, the main factors you will need to consider are:
- the characteristics of the mast step
- the vessel’s length and displacement
- the presence of backstays and running backstay
- the number and location of chainplates
If the mast is stepped on deck instead of on the keel, a picture of the step might be helpful to the mast manufacturer.
If you race often, you should consider a carbon mast for less weight and improved performance.
Single-masted sailboats are what most people think of as modern sailing vessels. Single-masted boats are popular because they are cheap to manufacture and easy to operate with one hand.
The most common types of single-masted rigs are cutters, sloops, and catboats.
Sloop-rigged boats are the most common type of sailboat today. Sloops have a single mast attached somewhere on 3/5 of the deck, but some boat designs deviate slightly from this. Generally, the mast of a sloop occupies about half of the deck.
Sloop masts are equipped with a large mainsail and a jib. The less common sloops with wing rigging have a much shorter mast and a four-pointed mainsail.
Sailboats with cutter rigging have a single tall mast and multiple headsails. Visually, cutters are easily confused with sloops. However, the mast of a cutter is usually taller than a sloop of similar size because it is equipped with multiple headsails instead of a single jib.
Cutters with wing rigging are far more common than sloops with wing rigging in many areas. Cutters are easily distinguished from sloops, even when the sails are set. This is because cutters usually have a long bowsprit and two forestays.
Catboats are unique vessels with a single mast at the bow and a long boom. Unlike sloops, catboats are rigged for only a single sail. Catboat masts are usually attached almost to the front of the boat and are usually short and fairly thick.
Catboats are usually equipped with gaff rigs. Hooked sail plans take full advantage of short masts and are easy to steer in a single-mast configuration. Catboats with gaff rigging have shorter masts than similarly sized Bermuda rigged boats, but are generally taller than gaff rigged boats.
Multi-masted rigs are less common than single-masted rig configurations. However, multi-masted sailboats are often elegant and seaworthy. But they offer more than just good looks: Multimasts offer speed and precise control for experienced sailors. Most of these boats have two masts, which are usually shorter than single-masted boats of comparable size. The most common varieties are the dinghy, ketch, and schooner rig.
Yawls are sturdy multi-masted vessels ranging in length from 15 feet and longer. A yawl has a long mainmast at the bow and a short mizzenmast at the stern of the boat. Yawls are usually gaff-rigged and were formerly used as supply boats.
Yawl-rigged sailboats can use the mizzen mast and sail as a form of self-steering. The dinghy is easily distinguished from other two-masted vessels because the mizzen mast is short and often only half the size of the main mast. In addition, the mizzen mast is located aft of the rudder mast.
At first glance, a ketch can be confused with a yawl. But the ketch has two masts of similar size and a much larger mizzen. The mizzen mast of a ketch is located forward of the rudder. Ketch-rigged boats are often also gaff-rigged and use topsails on both masts. Some ketch-rigged boats have triangular sail plans that reduce the need for topsails.
Like the dinghy, the ketch has a headsail, a mainsail, and a mizzen sail comparable in size to the mainsail. Ketch-rigged vessels can sail with one or more staysails.
Schooners are among the most elegant types of multi-masted sailing yachts. Schooners are much more similar to ketches than to dinghies. However, upon closer inspection, a schooner has a shorter foremast and a longer mast behind it.
Schooner masts are tall and thick, but usually shorter than those of similarly sized single-masted boats. This is because two-masted boats spread the sail plan over two masts and do not need the extra length to compensate for the loss of sail area. Schooners are usually gaff-rigged and often use topsails and spars that extend the height of the mast.
The Masts Of Large Ships
Tall ships are the classic sailing vessels that ruled the oceans for hundreds of years before the age of steam.
Large ships have three or more huge masts, often made from whole logs. Some of the larger ships have five or more masts. Tall ships are usually 100 feet or more in length, as the size and complexity of these square-rigged vessels make them practical only in scale. Tall ships have one or more main masts, mizzen masts, a foremast, and a gull mast behind the mizzen mast.
Sailboat Masts Materials
Sailing yacht masts are usually made of aluminum or certain types of wood. Until the 1960s, almost all sailboat masts were made of wood. This changed at the same time that boats made of fiberglass became popular. Today, aluminum is the most commonly used mast material.
Wooden Masts for Sailboats
Wood is the traditional material for many sailboat masts and is still used today for some specialty boats. Wooden masts are heavy but strong, and a well-maintained wooden mast can last over a hundred years. Wooden masts are common on boats with gaff rigging, as wood is an ideal material for shorter masts.
The most common wood used for masts comes from the spruce family. Douglas fir is widely used, but regional varieties are also well suited. Some sailboats use pine or redwood as mast material. Some varieties of cedar including Oregon cedar and white cedar are also excellent for masts and spars.
The most common material for modern masts is aluminum. Aluminum masts are hollow and therefore lightweight and easy to fabricate. Aluminum masts are also very strong relative to their weight and less costly than other mast materials.
One of the disadvantages of aluminum poles is galvanic corrosion. This occurs very quickly when salt water comes in contact with aluminum and other metals such as steel. Aluminum masts are most commonly found on sloops with Bermuda rigging.
Carbon Fiber Masts
Carbon fiber masts are a recent development in boatbuilding and offer several advantages over wood and aluminum masts. Carbon fiber is lightweight and extremely strong, making it ideal for large-masted racing yachts. Boats competing in the America’s Cup use the highest quality carbon fiber masts in the industry.
Unlike wood, carbon fiber masts are not particularly flexible. The stiffness of carbon fiber makes them strong, but stiffness is also a weakness. Under extreme conditions, carbon fiber masts can break and are difficult to repair once damaged.
Maintenance of the Mast
Maintenance of the mast and associated accessories is essential. Mast stays, lines, and halyards should be checked regularly, adjusted, and replaced periodically. Wooden masts should be painted and checked for signs of rot.
Aluminum masts are generally low maintenance, but signs of corrosion warrant immediate repair. Work with your local boat mechanic or boating expert to develop a comprehensive maintenance plan. And remember, preventive maintenance is always cheaper and easier than repairs.
After reading the article above, you will know what a sailboat mast is, the different types and materials of masts, and how to maintain them.
Masts are an imposing feature of sailboats because they are vertical and often longer than the sailboat. Masts also have the essential function of holding the sails in place so you can continue sailing to your favorite destinations.