A mast that will never go to sea

Saturday 1 April 2017

The Whittle Marine Boatyard just outside Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, has long experience in refitting, restoring, repairing and building boats and manufacturing wooden masts. However, over the past winter, the company produced a mast spar that will never go to sea.

Just east of Yarmouth’s Royal Solent Yacht Club (RSYC), in a stunning, private, waterfront garden, there is a 35ft-tall mast alongside a single-storey, wooden hut with windows facing offshore directly over the town’s ancient sea wall. Known as Grants, or simply ‘the starting box’, this marks the start and finish location for many of the races run by the RSYC throughout the sailing season. Within the hut the RSYC’s Race Officers set the course boats will take during a race and a series of painted and coloured boards are displayed next to the starting box showing a selection of letters, numbers and signals indicating the buoys and racing marks to be included in each race.

While a series of air horn signals warn competitors of the timing until the start of a race, the signal flagstaff gives a visual display of the timing countdown using signal flags raised and lowered on lanyards from the flagstaff’s crosspiece, or yardarm, and visible to the boats waiting for the start. The signal flags also indicate which class of boat is due to race to avoid confusion and the prospect of differing classes clashing on the start line. There are around 30 flags and combinations of flags that may be hoisted to the yardarm before or after the start of a race including a postponement (Answering Pennant, AP); Individual Recall (X); General Recall (1st Sub) and the shameful Black Flag of disqualification. The signal flagstaff is, therefore, a vital component of successful race management.

At the conclusion of the RSYC’s racing season last year it was found that the flagstaff’s yardarm was showing signs of rot in the central section from which the heavy spar is suspended and the mast was no longer safe. A yacht club’s signal flagstaff replicates the mast arrangement on a square-rigged ship with the yardarm representing the spar attached to the upper edge of a sail. While many yacht club yardarms are fixed and bolted in place to the mast, the RSYC’s yardarm at Grants is, unusually, slung from a halyard and can be raised and lowered similar to a true lifting yard on a square-rigger. With the yardarm’s strength compromised, Whittle Marine was commissioned to build a replacement spar over the winter.

The team at Whittle Marine chose to build the 22ft-long replacement yardarm from Sitka Spruce imported from Canada, a timber that is straight grained with an extraordinary stiffness and strength-to-weight ratio and the choice of mast and spar material for almost every classic yacht restoration or refit. The team worked hard on the detailed, leather-lined collar which forms the contact point between the yardarm and mast and reinforced this area to ensure the fixing point for the spar’s supporting halyard was extra strong and rot-resistant.

Last week, Nick Whittle handed over the new yardarm to the RSYC and following some final gloss work and reattachment of rigging by the club’s Boatman, Brandon Holmberg, the spar was hauled up the signal flagstaff at Grants ready for the RSYC’s first race of the season on Wednesday 19th April.

Text: Oliver Dewar

The RSYC signal flagstaff at Grants

The yardarm’s reinforced area around the collar and halyard lifting point

Traditional leatherwork and copper nails protect the yardarm’s collar


(left to right) Hamish Fletcher (RSYC Club Secretary); Brandon Holmberg (RSYC Boatman); Peter Spink  (RSYC Sailing Secretary); Nick Whittle

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