An Ode to Freestanding Masts

A week or so ago, for a minute, Lenny Pucci and I were thinking about jointly owning a sailboat. That immediately raised the next question: Well, what kind of sailboat?

I did not hesitate, and immediately suggested a Freedom 44. To me it is one of the most useful sailboats out there.

Fortunately, our boat owning fever subsided quickly, and we returned to our normal state of boat ownership immune response.

But, for a second, I felt a certain lightness in my heart about finally having my hands on a substantial sailboat with freestanding masts.

I love freestanding masts. They are a design miracle that continues to be ignored by the larger sailing community. To us regular sailors, there are too many advantages (my favorite is to be able to tack upwind in a narrow channel without putting my cup of coffee down).

What is most interesting is that the uninitiated always think that freestanding masts are highly loaded, but this is actually incorrect. Stayed masts induce large compressive loads, while freestanding masts induce large bending loads. It turns out the bending loads are much easier to deal with than compressive loads. No doubt you need beefy mast partners in a boat with freestanding masts, but those partners are simply a modest increase in size of the normal chain plate ring frame structure around a mast anyway. In addition, a boat with freestanding masts does not have to deal with the banana effect of the head and back stays. Bottom line, boats with freestanding masts are much easier to deal with structurally than stayed masts, and much easier to maintain. A freestanding mast is generally thicker and heavier, but only in extreme performance does that become a significant factor and, for those who are not looking for the last 1 percent in speed, it is of little concern.

Quite possibly the public resistance to freestanding masts is similar to the Hindenburg disaster killing off airships and creating a public fear for hydrogen. The disaster actually showed that hydrogen is safer than avgas, but the pictures could not tell that story. Removing shrouds and stays is scary, and not until we get people comfortable with that concept, will it generally catch on.

But how to get people to become comfortable with the idea?

I suppose we can never be sure, but back in 1982 there was a historical opportunity to make a lasting mark with freestanding masts, but it failed for a reason that had nothing to do with the masts.

The setting is the 1982 British Oxygen Challenge Around The World race. There were 17 entrants, but one was quite different from the others. That boat was Lady Pepperell. She was a modified Hunter 54 hull (compare with the picture above) and fitted with a cat ketch freestanding mast rig. The boat was sailed by Tony Lush who started the race from Newport with many a skeptic on the docks waving him off saying: “Those masts are not going to survive the southern oceans”. But, lo and behold, on the first leg he did pretty well, and most remarkably, he did it while he was reading his very sizable shipboard library comfortably perched in his beanbag in the cockpit of his boat. Meanwhile his competitors were raising and dousing headsails, and reefing the main, and generally worrying about all the things that are supposed to keep a conventional rig functioning and standing.

When the boat arrived in Capetown, Warren Luhrs, the builder of the boat, flew over and compelled Tony to surrender some of his library weight to increase speed because he was actually in the running for the gold. But on the next leg, something went wrong, and the boat pitchpoled in very heavy weather and the keel broke loose. Tony Lush had to abandon his boat. Each boat in the race was fitted with an Argos satellite transmitter (a first time that transmitters of this type were used for race tracking, and this was probably the first proto EPIRB rescue) and his coordinates indicated that he was closest to his fellow competitor, Francis Stokes from Moorestown, NJ in Mooneshine, who, with incredible seamanship, transferred Tony to his boat and made him his cook for the rest of the leg (it was a single handed race after all).

And the naysayers in Newport felt they were proven right, except for the fact that while the keel had broken free, the masts were still both standing. This is a rare occurrence after a pitchpole and actually a massive endorsement for freestanding masts. That means that if Lady Pepperell had finished the race, quite possibly, the world would have taken notice and freestanding masts would have trickled down into the general sailing community.

When one thinks about large airplanes flying very reliably without bracing wires, it only becomes logical to conclude that stays and shrouds on sailboats are so WWI.

So why has nobody ever made another attempt? As a matter of fact, a second attempt was made when Sebastian Reidl built a free standing mast cat ketch for the Velux 5 Ocean Race (the later name for the BOC) designed by Eric Sponberg (one of the world’s most experienced free standing mast designers).

This boat, called Project Amazon, also performed very nicely, but this time she did not complete the race due to a bizarre set of financial frauds in the world wide gold market and eventually she was cut up.

So will we ever get rid of spreaders, chainplates, stays and shrouds or do we keep on living with that unnecessary mess?

Truth is that the advantages of freestanding masts have been out there for ages. I regularly skippered the Adam Hyler, a very traditional 1800’s Barnegat Bay Garvey that we retired due to hull rot after almost 30 years of service. When we built a replacement hull (leeboard improved, btw), we simply took the Adam Hyler free standing cat ketch rig and popped it right into the new hull for what could be another 30 years of service. I have also written about America 2.0, a fiercely fast schooner with freestanding masts. And how about over 200,000 Lasers, and who has ever lost a mast on those? And then there are those Freedom 44’s.

I suppose the boats with freestanding masts have always been out there, but I suppose only discerning sailors covet them.

Maybe next time I catch boat buying fever it will be a more severe case, and I will get my hands on one of those Freedom 44’s yet.