Over the Top

My tiptoes screaming uncle, my arm stretched as high as it would possibly go but still I was forced to watch helplessly as my halyard (the line that lifts and lowers the sails) passed beyond my reach climbing up and over the pulley at the top of my mast. In a rush to clean up my boat and head off to an appointment, I neglected to tie down the most paramount line aboard and now the only way to reattach the line would be to climb to the top of the mast. I don’t have a fear of heights but I do have a fear of masts, having had to dodge falling pieces of crumbling mast earlier in my career.

I typically like to do the work on my boat myself but I thought this was a task best handled by professionals. I told my yard owner what had happened, hoping he would send someone out to reattach it for me.

“No problem, we’ll send someone right out to help you.”

Half an hour later, and late for my appointment a man by the name of Benjamin (not Ben, Benjamin) strolled onto the boat. After a brief introduction he handed me a mess of plastic pieces and lines.

“Why don’t you just go ahead and get yourself strapped in there,” said Benjamin as he handed me a harness of sorts. My stomach sank to my feet.

Any question as to who was going to be climbing the mast was eliminated. I fumbled with the harness as Benjamin looked out at the harbor. His nonchalant attitude could be misconstrued as bored and uninterested with the task at hand. With virtually no assistance in strapping myself into harness, I finally had something tied around me that looked respectable.

“How’s this look?” I asked, trying to get my new friend to focus.

“Yeah, that seems about right.”

Not really the reassuring inspection I was hoping for.

I would later learn (which seems to be how I do most of my learning) that most seasoned sailors climb their mast once or twice every season.  I, of course, was not seasoned. And, if I’m being honest, the thought of being hauled up a 35-foot mast by my other halyard that spent the last few months in the trunk of my car, by a man I met minutes before scared the hell out of me. My mind raced with questions, “is the line strong enough to hold me, is the mast strong enough to hold me, is this guy strong enough to hold me and why the hell did I order a three-egg breakfast sandwich this morning?!”

I tried to sound calm as I asked, “What do you want me to do, just let you pull me up the mast?”

“Well is would be a lot easier for me if you just climbed it as fast as you can,” he replied.

A former collegiate wrestler, I have done my fair share of rope climbing in practice. I never thought I’d be saying this, but I was now thankful for that experience.

With a few deep breaths I jumped onto the mast and climbed it as fast as I could. I winced as my Sperrys scuffed the varnish of my mast but I didn’t slow down. I did a pull-up on my spreaders and continued my ascent to the top all with the halyard around my shoulder. The challenging part came when I finally reached the top. At 35-feet high the boat wakes that were a minor inconvenience on deck were now a big problem. I swayed back and forth like a giant pendulum. Looking down I saw a miniature version of Karen, snapping pictures of my turmoil from her phone. If I get killed, at least it will be well documented I thought.

ImageUmm, are you sure this harness is on right?!


Half a second later…Image

ImageNote (/not) the (right) techniqueImage

Ugh, crap, I looked down. 

I sat atop the mast for what seemed like an hour trying to untangle the line on my shoulder and feed it through the pulley at the masthead. I’m sure the fact that I kept one hand around the mast with a death-grip didn’t help my efficiency.

I would eventually reattach the halyard and be returned to my deck. Sweating and tense, I could have taken a page from the pope’s playbook and kissed the ground.

Later that day a neighboring sailor would approach me and say, “I saw you climb the mast before. I’ve never in my life seen anyone climb a mast like that and so quickly,” she said. “I took a video of it and was showing it to my friends.” I then discovered a nautical law of nature: when a boater is in over his head, there will be a crowd of people there to watch. Know what you’re doing however and there won’t be any onlookers. Go ahead, test it out, the next time you dock perfectly despite strong winds and current there won’t be a soul around to see it.

After some time, and a couple rum drinks, the tension in my back and neck would dissipate and my hands would stop shaking. I had survived a sailing rite of passage and I was proud of that…even if there is a YouTube video out there called “monkey-man climbs mast.”

3 thoughts on “Over the Top

  1. Great story! Hire Karen as a photographer for Yachting Magazine — she got some great shots!!

    1. Thanks, Pat! Karen is skilled with an iphone. Next time she’s going up the mast and I’ll snap some pictures in-between text messages 🙂

  2. Just had a thin layer of sweat develop while reading this. I’ve been contemplating my own trip up.. forgot the windex!!!

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