Spars, Spreaders, Removal and Replacement

One of the new spreader brackets, just after its installation
Spreaders are crucial parts of the rig on most types of sailboats. They are the arms or crosspieces that extend outward, port and starboard, from the mast. Together with the shrouds - the wire cables that run from the top of the mast to the deck - the spreaders give the mast stability and thus help to hold it up. If one of them should ever fail, especially when the rig is under a heavy load, then the mast itself can fail. It's for this reason that the owner of an aging sailboat should not neglect to inspect his spreaders, and if necessary replacement them if they are found to possess any flaws. I found flaws in the spreaders and spreader brackets of Oystercatcher, my Ericson 25. My removal of these old and flawed spreaders and my replacement of them with new ones is the subject of the present article.
I purchased Oystercatcher in the fall of 2009 from a person in the Pamlico Sound region of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. He cleaned her up just before the time of sale, but it was clear that for many years she had lain neglected.
The mast and the spreaders seemed to be the only two parts of the boat that he had ever modified. He had added mast stairs/steps for going aloft, and he had added spotlights to the spreaders.
These spreader lights, however, did not work. The same was true for almost all other parts of the electrical system, not just on the mast, but throughout the boat.
For these and other reasons, I was able to purchase the boat for a price significantly less than the asking price.
My friend and I spent two nights aboard the boat in our transit from the owner's personal dock to Oriental, North Carolina for haulout.
From there we trailered the boat to my home in Charleston, South Carolina.
One of the first things I did after I got back home was to build four sawhorses to support the mast and rigging.
An avid Ericson 25 owner from Wisconsin, whom I had met on the Ericson Yacht Owners forum, had advised me on a plethora of subjects throughout the buying process. Not long before I had met him, he had suffered a dismasting on account of a spreader bracket that had failed under sail. Somehow, despite being miles from the shore, this owner was able to recover his broken mast and return to safety with it lashed to his deck.
He explained to me that the spreader brackets for the Ericson 23, 25, and 27 had a history of problems. In the picture below we see a failed spreader bracket from another Ericson 25 owner's boat.
The owner from Wisconsin said that, in addition to repairing his mast, he replaced his spreader brackets and spreaders with ones that he had purchased from Dwyer Aluminum Mast Company in Connecticut. He said that he had used the Style D bracket and the DH 2503 spreaders.

This Ericson 25 owner from Wisconsin also provided me with some pictures of his work. To repair his mast, he used an aluminum sleeve. He then used rivets to join all of this together. After he had completed this work, he installed the new Dwyer brand brackets. He noted that the mast buckled precisely at the point where the old spreader bracket had failed.
At his advice, the first thing I did after I got the mast on the sawhorses was to remove the old spreaders. He urged me to replace these before I sailed the boat again.
When I removed the spreader brackets, I found a hole underneath them. The Ericson 25 owner said that this hole was there for the aluminum anti-compression sleeve. The purpose of the sleeve was to prevent the spreader bracket nut and bolt from compressing and thus denting the mast whenever someone tightened the hardware. This anti-compression sleeve was missing from this hole.
Through the center of the hollow spreader bracket ran the wiring for the spreader lights. This was the previous owner's sloppy work, and it was indicative of the sloppy work that I would find in almost every other part of this boat.
More troubling than anything else was the weld that I found on the side of one of the brackets. This bracket had already failed to some degree in the past. The previous owner's solution was to have someone weld the crack rather than replace the bracket.
I took this bracket to a buddy who is a specialist in marine welding, especially aluminum welding. He said that this repair had done nothing more than make the bracket weaker than it originally was. That's when I knew for sure that I had no choice but to replace these brackets (and spreaders).
While I'm at it, I'm going to discuss briefly the other problems I found. As I said, the spreader lights did not work whenever you flipped the switch inside of the boat. These were self-sealed halogen lights, so there was no way to replace the bulbs. After I had removed them from the spreaders, I tested them on a car battery. One of them worked. The other one didn't. I threw them both in the trashcan.
The previous owner had used lamp cord to wire these spreader lights . . . yes, that's right, lamp cord. No wonder they didn't work whenever you flipped the switch inside of the boat. This is a perfect example of how crappy, corner-cutting work is nothing but a waste of time and money in the long run. Throughout the refitting of Oystercatcher I made quality my guiding principle - quality work that was both practical and aesthetically pleasing.
These problems and others that I discovered after I returned to Charleston with Oystercatcher in the fall of 2009 made me realize that this refitting, if I did it properly, would not be a brief endeavor. I was still caught up in a lengthy remodeling project in my house. Therefore, for the next two years I focused on completing the house. Whenever I found the time, however, I would research problems on the boat, and I would plot courses toward fixing them. All the while, I was gradually making small purchases toward these goals. Sailing did not go away. I just did it on other boats.
Two years later, in the fall of 2011, I felt that I could begin to lay hands on Oystercatcher once again. A good way to start was by replacing the wire-rope halyards with all-rope halyards. This involved removing the mast head.
I mailed the masthead along with the masthead sheaves to Washington state.
There, at Zephyrwerks, The Sheave Factory, the masthead of Oystercatcher received new sheaves - ones that were compatible with the 3/8 inch rope that I would use for the new all-rope halyards.
For more on this, see my article, "Rigging, Running, Wire-Rope Halyard to All-Rope Halyard Conversion."
At this same time, in the fall of 2011, I stripped all the old standing rigging off of the mast. It appeared to be original, and it was in bad condition.
The mast stairs/steps also disappeared at this time.
The old rigging.
With this old rigging in hand, I paid a visit to Charleston Yachting.

Randy Draftz, the owner of Charleston Yachting began to make new rigging for me at this time.
Randy also helped me in my replacement of my old furling system with a new one.
For more on my replacement of the standing rigging and the roller furler, see, "Rigging, Standing, Removal and Replacement," and "Rigging, Standing, Roller Furler, Schaefer Snapfurl CF-700."
In early 2012 I began talking to Joe Waters, the owner of Waters Sails in Columbia, South Carolina.
Joe would eventually be the man who'd cut new sails for Oystercatcher.
Joe was fond of Charleston, so one weekend in early 2012 he and his wife, while visiting this fair city, paid a visit to my house. Joe wanted to take a look at my rig. Since I'd not yet received all of the new standing rigging from Randy Draftz, and since I'd not yet obviously replaced the spreaders, I temporarily reinstalled the old stuff at this time, just so Joe could get a sense of things and take some measurements.
The pictures I took at that time gave me an opportunity to reflect on the issue of the spreaders and the spreader brackets. These original spreaders were 3 inches wide. The Dwyer brand spreaders that the Ericson 25 owner in Wisconsin had installed were 1-7/8 inches wide. This made me think that perhaps the Dwyer spreaders were inappropriate as replacements. I called Dwyer and the person on the phone assured me that the DH 2503 spreader was the right one for boats in the 25-27 foot range. Not wanting to take this person's word as the gospel, I did some research. I considered a spreader system that incorporated an aluminum bar that passed through the mast. I knew that Doug, an Ericson 27 owner in Oregon, had used such a system. For more on this, check out the link to Doug's blog on the homepage of my blog. The link is named, "Ericson 27 Refitting." Doug used Ballenger Spars in Watsonville, California. I spoke with Ballenger Spars, and I also spoke with JSI Custom Spreaders in St. Petersburg, Florida. Both of these companies specialize in the spreader-bar system. I likewise spoke with an Ericson 27 owner in Louisiana. He had purchased a spreader and spreader-bar kit from Rig-Rite in Rhode Island. Specifically, he had used the Kenyon brand SP2.2 spreader, the 0 degree spreader bar, along with the reinforcing plates, pins, and rivets in the K-SP2.2KE27 kit. Thinking that the spreader bar system was the better one, I searched far and wide on all sailing forums attempting to find someone speaking of the virtues of the spreader bar system versus the traditional system. From the questions I asked and the answers I received, I ultimately concluded that both systems worked well. I also concluded that since Ericson used the same spreaders and spreaders brackets for the Ericson 23, 25, 27, and perhaps the 29, that the original spreaders on my mast were larger than they needed to be.
Therefore, I concluded that I would stick with the traditional system sold by Dwyer. Not only had Ericson 25 owners used Dwyer, but also Ericson 27 owners. Aside from this, the Dwyer spreaders and spreader brackets were much more affordable and far easier to install. If you opt to retrofit your mast with the spreader bar system, you must cut a large rectangular hole in both sides of your mast. I can say, though, that if I were to buy new spreaders from Dwyer today, I would probably opt for the new DH 2504 spreader, which is 2.375 inches wide and thus closer to the 3 inch size of the originals. At the time that I purchased my spreaders the DH 2504 spreader was not an option.
Having settled on the traditional system, I now needed to figure out how to create a new anti-compression sleeve. Remember that at some point the previous owner had lost this important piece of hardware.

At first I considered a piece of copper tubing.
I did not, however, think that it would be good to mix the two metals. The tubing, though, did give me a good idea of the proper size aluminum tubing that I needed to order. Yes, that's right, no one locally carried the right size.
I would end up having to order a one foot section of aluminum tubing from
In addition to ordering this tubing and the appropriate spreaders and spreader brackets from Dwyer, I ordered a heavy duty riveter from Yes, that's right. Your standard handheld rivet gun is not sufficient for the installation of the Dwyer spreader brackets on the Ericson 25 mast. In preparation for the installation of the spreader brackets, I spent some time practicing with the heavy duty riveter. The stainless steel rivets that I had ordered from Dwyer were 3/16 inch. Into a scrap piece of aluminum I drilled a 3/16 inch hole.
I then loaded the rivet into the heavy duty riveter.
The riveter had no problem whatsoever setting the 3/16 inch stainless rivet in this aluminum plate.

I cut the anti-compression sleeve a little long, just so I had some spare material to work with. The other part of the aluminum tubing I would use for the new anti-compression sleeve for the bolt that supported the tangs for the upper shrouds. More on this in my article, "Rigging, Standing, Removal and Replacement."
I used a sanding disc on a grinder to remove small amounts of material from the sleeve.
The first time I tried to dry-fit the brackets, I discovered that I had not removed enough material from the anti-compression sleeve.
Therefore, I had to disassemble the parts and hit the sleeve again with the grinder.
That did it.
Now, with the brackets temporarily installed I could mark the mast for the drilling of the pilot holes for the rivets.
I used the pencil to help me eyeball the alignment of the bracket relative to the mast. I knew of no other way to align it and thus keep its sides perfectly parallel with the sides of the mast.
I used a 3/16 inch drill bit, just as I had when I drilled the practice hole in the mock-up.
After I had drilled the first two holes, I temporarily installed two screws to help hold the bracket true. I also slipped the spreader onto the bracket. This served the function that the pencil had earlier served: it helped me keep everything aligned.
Here's what I'm talking about. The spreader is perpendicular to the mast.
After I had drilled the other holes I removed the brackets in order to clean up the area that would soon be covered.

Then I broke out the Tef-Gel, a product designed to inhibit the corrosion created by the contact of dissimilar metals, especially stainless steel and aluminum.
I applied the Tef-Gel only to those areas that would be in direct contact.
Then, with the help of a friend, I got to work with the riveter.
My friend did most of the work while I preserved the moment for posterity.

The riveter and the stainless steel rivets (from Dwyer) did just what they were supposed to do. The bracket was now firmly secured to the side of the mast without the least bit of wiggle in it.
We then flipped the mast over and did the same thing to the other side.

Now that we had riveted both of the brackets in place, we could install the bolt, the anti-compression sleeve, and the two tangs that would support the lower shrouds. I had purchased new tangs from Dwyer to replace the old ones, because I had upgraded the rigging from 5/32 inch to 3/16 inch. This upgrade required large pin holes for the tangs.
A close inspection revealed that the Tef-Gel had spread evenly throughout the relevant areas.
Afterwards, we cleaned up the excess with mineral spirits.
Tef-Gel is very sticky, and it can create quite a mess on your hands, tools, and everything else that you might come into contact with. Just as with oil-based paints, soap and water does little to remove this stuff. Mineral spirits are a must.
One pass is not sufficient. It takes multiple passes.
Having installed the brackets, it was now time for me to install the spreaders themselves.
These spreaders were designed to fit onto these spreader brackets. There was no way that I could use the old spreaders. Besides, they had their own problems. Their edges were worn thin in some places from years of abrasive action from the wire-rope halyards.
The first thing I had to do was to cut the spreaders to their proper length. To find out the proper length, I placed one of the old spreaders next to one of the new ones.
Holding the two spreaders side by side, I was able to mark the new spreader appropriately.
To double check myself, I also measured up from the mast.
I determined that there were 1-1/4 inches worth of difference.
I then measured up 1-1/4 inches from the base of the spreader.
It was here where I would make the cut.
To make sure the cuts were clean and square I used my miter saw.

Afterwards, I sanded away the burrs left over from the cut.

Now I needed to drill holes through both of the spreaders. These holes were necessary for the hardware that would hold the spreaders to the brackets. The holes in the stainless steel brackets were pre-drilled by Dwyer. This company had not, however, drilled holes in the spreaders themselves. They had left this up to the consumer, so that he could custom cut the spreaders to the appropriate length.
When I drilled the holes in the spreaders, I did not drill all the way through the spreaders at one time. I only drilled halfway through. This allowed me to ensure that the pre-drilled holes in the brackets lined up with the holes I had just drilled halfway through the spreaders. Once I saw that everything lined up well, I drilled the rest of the way through the spreaders. To accomplish this task, I relied upon my Milwaukee Tools right angle attachment. I've talked about this tool over and over on this blog. I believe it's one of the most useful in the refitting of a sailboat.

Now it was time, once again, to break out the Tef-Gel.
See the wound on my thumb? That's from a drill bit that slipped off of a metal surface, then broke off, and then punctured by thumb down to the bone. If I remember correctly, I was working on the boom at the time. Cuts on the hand and bruises on the head were the norm throughout this refitting. It was not uncommon for me to get questions from people like, "hey, what happened to you?" With a shrug, I would usually say something like, "oh, it's nothing, I just drilled a hole in my hand."
The machine screws for the spreaders were longer than I would have liked them to have been, but I didn't want to cut them off with the Dremel.
Therefore, I installed acorn nuts on the ends to cover the rough ends of the screws.
When I ordered the spreaders, brackets, and tangs from Dwyer I also ordered some stainless steel wire for mousing the shrouds to the tips of the spreaders.

Having moused both of the shrouds, I could now install the spreader boots. These I had ordered from Defender in Connecticut. The boots would protect the sails from the mousing.

To secure the boots I used Gorilla brand duct tape. Fortunately, my local hardware store stocks the white stuff, which is perfect for boats. The black would have made the job look half-assed.
I could now call this project complete.
This ends this article on how I removed and replaced the spreaders on Oystercatcher, my Ericson 25.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this! I have to do my E23 in the near future and I will be ordering from Dwyer also.