Climb the tree safely and without getting hurt: tips from the professional rigger


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Fabio Moncalli of NDT Rigging

How do you climb the ‘tree safely? Are you sure you are putting in place all possible precautions to minimize the risk of accidents? We reached out to Fabio Moncalli of NDT Rigging (one of G&G Rigging‘s trusted riggers), “forty years of age and twenty years in the trees,” as he calls himself, to go over all the steps involved in a ‘tree climb (and descent) without getting hurt.

Never mind the much-discussed requirement for a license for work at height under Legislative Decree 81/08 for those who climb masts for hire (an exclusively Italian requirement), since a shipowner is free to explore the masthead on his own, on his own responsibility. What matters to us is how one is to ascend.


“First of all, to climb (and descend) the ‘tree safely,” Moncalli began, “you need to have some awareness of what you are going to do. Be fully equipped with a harness, safety rope and a fall arrest system. Even before that, don’t forget to check the wear condition of the halyards.”

The rigger’s complete equipment: safety rope, fall arrest system, harness, mountaineering carabiners and helmet

The safety rope should be secured on the mast before starting work by hoisting it with a halyard. To this you then have to connect a fall arrest system (more on this later) that is connected to the harness. So you will need two halyards: one is used to hoist the person, the other to hoist the safety rope. Mind you, the latter is a halyard, but a semi-static mountaineering rope, which must meet certain requirements. It will have to be elastic (better not spectra, but polyester), to cushion in case of a fall. The breaking strength must be 2,200/2,300 kg.”

“It is good to make a periodic check of all harness seams, which should be of good quality.
It should not be the classic bowman’s harness, the one with the hook at the waist to be clear, but should also have straps on the back and chest.

Because in the event of a fall or any unconsciousness-causing ailment, the body remains balanced, upright and not upside down. The classic tablet seat (the bansigo, which is not standard for professional tree climbers), I would recommend as an extra accessory (in addition to the harness) if you have to operate for a long time at altitude and want to be more comfortable.”

How to tie a figure-eight knot in mountaineering style (source

As for
attachment points, “carabiners are the classic mountaineering ones, made of steel alloys with the triple safety (hook plus double unscrewable ferrule). These must also meet certain requirements (22-23 kN). For knots, I recommend the mountaineering-style “figure eight” knot, because you cannot open it even if it is loose (unlike the bowline): it should be made on the halyard that will take you up (a little before the carabiner, which must be hooked to the harness anyway) and on the point where you are going to attach the safety rope on the halyard: in this case, it is better to make the figure eight on the halyard as well and in the loop knot the rope: I strongly advise against reusing the shackle or carabiner of the halyard as an attachment point.”

A fall arrest device

“Finally, you must not forget the anti-fall system, which is a kind of shock-absorbing clamp; it is a caster that slides on the safety rope and if it suddenly increases the speed of descent, it stops (if it drops the halyard, you don’t fall).”

If you go up the tree, of course, it is to perform work, so you will need to bring the right tools with precise knowledge of what you are going to do. “I generally always tend to tie the bag (fanny pack or pouch) with the equipment I carry on (which should be no more and no less than I will actually need). I wouldn’t want anything to fall off, damage the boat and even worse, hurt someone. In the area below the mast, trite to say, no one should stop!”


Let’s get to the actual tree climb: “Caution, if you have an electric winch: to avoid bumping into any tree ledge and injuring yourself, always wear a safety helmet. Personally, when I climb, if I am on small trees, I stay close to the tree: I don’t climb like a ‘hanging bag’ of course, but I always try to point my feet, as if I were climbing a wall.

Taking care to stand with the body as ‘perpendicular’ to the tree as possible. On taller trees, better to go down and climb the side rigging, it’s an added safety because you have more handholds.” The descent is more difficult than the ascent: in the latter case you go up against the obstacles, descending it is more difficult to circumvent them, especially at points such as the cross bindings.

When you reach the desired spot, at any rate, I recommend hooking up with a safety line: if an illness comes to the person at the winch, you will have the security of not falling off. Should you need to work on the forestay, tie well to the forestay with a somewhat loose dyneema strop (so that you can work comfortably), in order to avoid the so-called ‘pendulum effect’ and go slamming into the mast.

The rigger’s signals: thumbs up means “let me go up again,” clenched fist indicates a request to stop, open palm means “spin the halyard and let me down”

“Very important, indeed critical, is to have a good contact person at the winch.

It would be best to be equipped with a radio headset system so that we can talk comfortably even in high winds or other noises (such as in busy port areas). The man at the winch must be someone you trust completely and must know the typical rigger’s signals: fist, means STOP, if you turn your finger, it means GET ON, open your hand, GET OFF. You have to be a team.

Another crucial tip for those at the winch: while ascending, do not put the halyard on self-tailing if you have the electric winch, but keep it in your hands at all times. In the unfortunate event that the winch gets stuck (it can happen). those at the masthead are likely to continue climbing without being able to intervene, and if this happens, the risk of injury is high. Those who maneuver to the win must always be ready to leave in case of need.”

Now that we understand the “how” of climbing the tree, we only have to ask ourselves the “why.”

Explains Moncalli, “It starts with the rig check. Starting from the base, check well (especially for a carbon mast) that the plates are well in place and that the tie rods (steel rods to be contrasted on the deck) are in good condition. Periodically check, especially before using the boat for a long time (such as on a summer cruise), the shroud turnbuckles on deck, stays and backstay attachments.”

Let’s go up a little higher: “Check the spreaders, the attachments to the mast and to the spreader rigging, again the turnbuckles. Then check that the cotter pins are in good condition or the beads are tight. There should be nothing loose (often this is caused by vibration while sailing).

The pulleys (and their pivots) should also be scrupulously examined (they must turn well), and the same should be done for the locking screws and cotter pins. Also check that there are no obstacles in the mainsail channel. Overhead, you will have to check the status of the various antennas, wind instruments, navigation lights.

The rigging is very important, checks on it should be scrupulous and periodic, it would be good to keep in mind the replacement of rigging according to the manufacturers’ recommended time frame (approximately 15-18 years for rope rigging, 8-10 for rod rigging). For carbon and PBO rigging, it is necessary to carefully check for injuries in the sock. In my opinion, it is not a wrong thing to have the option of periodically de-hulling, every 3-4 years.


It is always best to contact a professional rigger for more demanding work such as “those on the rigging and those related to changing the use of the boat, from racing to cruising and vice versa, such as replacing the more regimented forestay with tuff luff with one fitted with a furler and so on, replacing pulleys, lazy jacks, using messengers for blocked halyards.”

If you had to drill holes in the ‘shaft? “It really depends on the diameter of the hole. If it’s a small hole (such as lazy jacks) you can do it safely and in elevation, but if you have to drill ‘structural’ holes, such as those to install a sheave pin, or a ‘recess’ for a sail like code zero or a foresail, it’s always best to consult with whoever designed the mast.”

What you can do on your own is to “put guards on the spreaders with the various protective tapes; protect with Teflon tape the parts subject to creeping of the sheets and halyards, or affix protection on the verticals at the top to prevent the halyards of the spi, turning behind, from creeping and cutting the rigging.”




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