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Cape inventor creates mast ascender

By Staff | Nov 6, 2014

Cape Coral idea man extraordinaire Mark Hendry and his son, Ian Lukas, CYNTHIA?WILLIAMS

Cape Coral resident Mark Hendry has invented a mechanized mast-climbing device that he says is the first of its kind in the world.

The Mast Cat Ascender will go into production in early to mid-2015. Some of the largest sailboat manufacturers and marine supply retailers in the country are waiting for this product, which he says will be assembled in a 4000-square-foot, Cape Coral facility that will employ 15 to 25 people. Parts manufacturing is expected to begin in February.

“In the past,” Hendry said, “the only way to get to the top of a mast was to have someone wench you up there by a halyard. You’re sitting in a kind of harness and walking yourself up like a rock climber. By the time you get to the top with your tools, your back is hurting from sitting in the bosun’s chair and all you want to do is finish as quick as possible and get the heck back down. And if you get up there and realize you’ve forgotten something, you’ve got to go all the way back down and climb up again.

“That’s why you can go to any marina and you never see anyone climbing a mast. You’ll see them scrubbing the deck, varnishing, checking the engine, but the most important features of a sailboat are the mast, the sails and the rigging. The only way to check on your pulleys and lines and lights is to go up the mast.”

A self-taught sailor and a perfectionist who must “keep everything in order,” Hendry was always climbing his mast to do repairs and preventive maintenance and he got to thinking that there ought to be some way to get up there more easily. So about a year ago, he designed a mechanical mast ascender. “It was crude, but it worked.”

Hendry next found a mechanical engineering company in New York (Adept) and the perfect engineer for the project-an amateur rock climber. But Hendry had no idea what he was getting himself into. He had built something in his garage that propelled him up to the rafters and brought him back down again and he thought, “Works for me. Let’s go with it.” But manufacturing a device upon which a user’s life depends requires “countless hours” of collaborative design and redesign, governed by the most stringent testing guidelines the engineering industry requires before it can be manufactured.

The Adept engineer first designed a device upon which the ascender motor, in all its electrical and other parts, could be computer tested. Among many computations were the tensile strength of different types of ropes and the motor temperatures at different run times.

“There’s a tremendous amount of fear involved in climbing a 60- to 70-foot mast,” Hendry said. “You may be an avid sailor, but are you an experienced rock climber? You may know how to tie a knot, but do you know how to rapelle down a 70-foot mast?

“And you have to trust that the person pulling you up isn’t going to let the rope slip. Whenever I’ve gone up a mast, I’ve used my own rope because I know it’s not frayed or dry rotted.”

Among the safety features built into this revolutionary ascender is a braking mechanism that won’t allow the ascender to fall, an 8-wrap wench system, and a 4000-pound rope capacity that will accommodate a 350-pound weight maximum. And yet, remarkably, the all-aluminum Mast Cat will measure only 18 inches long, 3.5 to 4 inches wide, and weigh only 8 to 10 pounds. Its cable drums or pulleys are only 3″ in diameter. As sleek and sure as a panther, its name reflects the design of both the powerful machine and its anodized casing.

“It’s a simple design,” Hendry said. “Kind of like an airplane motor, which is actually simpler than a car engine.”

Hendry should know. He is a private aircraft pilot, who never had any interest in sailing-“I thought it was too slow,” he laughed-but when friends interested him in learning to sail, and taught him “what sailing is really about,” he realized that sailing is not unlike flying. A sailor is harnessing the wind, and the slightest tension on a line can have a powerful effect.

Born in Fort Myers, Hendry was raised in Naples. His father, the Collier County sheriff for 17 years, taught him how to build things-race cars, swamp buggies, air boats-and Hendry has been building things ever since. He buys distressed houses and refurbishes them, develops site plans for distressed commercial properties, and seven years ago, when he moved to Cape Coral, he began to buy and refurbish boats.

“My passion is to refurbish things,” he states passionately.

So when Hendry needed a device that would propel him up a mast, he made one. But it was “mind-boggling how time-consuming, complicated and expensive the project would become. At times, he thought it was all just too much, but then his son, Ian Lukas, would toddle into the room and lift his arms, and Hendry would remember why he must see this project through.

His eyes filling, Hendry says simply, “I’m a single Dad, I’m 57, and he’s only 2. I am doing this for him. I want to make sure that when I’m gone, he will have something to hold on to. He is my inspiration.”

It is Ian Lukas, then, who will make this idea fly, for Ian is the wind beneath his father’s wings.