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Aloft and Furl

July 30th, 2018 · No Comments · Adventure

Karen Wright overcomes misgivings and climbs up a very tall ship.

When you work on a traditionally-rigged sailing ship, the most fun is going aloft to furl or unfurl sails. But when I first started, everything about the foreign world of traditional ships intimidated me. Their size…massive, their height…lofty, their power…a stout wind. I hung back during sail training; slacked a royal or t’gallant brace, nursed my blistered hands, and always stayed on the back end of a line just in case it slipped. Timid is definitely not my style, but timid is what I was that first summer.

Several of the bolder women braved the ratlines to the royal, but not I. “Climb 103 feet in the air on a little half inch ladder of rope? Surely you must be joking? Not on your life! I’ll just stay here on deck, cook, and haul the slack out of these bunts and clews. You guys go ahead, I like it right here.”

In truth, I really didn’t like it on deck. It was horrendously hot and everyone seemed to have so much fun going aloft that I really felt left out. But I couldn’t conquer my fear. We are talking about a very tall mast and a very short woman!

By the next year, however, it was generally agreed among the powers that be that a sail trainee had to be able to go aloft. Most of the core crew practically fought for the privilege. I thought the hot Texas sun had addled their brains, but I was jealous and annoyed with myself for not being able to get past this one stupid stumbling block. The challenge was there and I had never before let a challenge go unanswered.

I was terrified for days. Everyone was tolerant and patient, offering to take me up. I knew they were chuckling behind my back at my cowardice.

Finally, just like everything else I’ve ever done, I decided I had to go it alone. One afternoon when hardly anyone was around I strapped on a lifebelt. These were one-half inch thick lengths of nylon line tied around the waist and attached to a large clip. They were used, not to keep us from falling, but to keep us dangling in midair so we didn’t squash some hapless individual below us on the deck if we slipped and fell.

With this minute piece of equipment, I began my journey into midair. My heart beat in my throat, my knees shook. I went up one ratline at a time. By the time I reached the first platform I could feel the pulses pounding in my temples. The sweat, both from the fear and from the miserable summer heat, ran down my back and face in steady streams. My T-shirt and shorts stuck to my body like glue.

The platform, or top, which is about one-third of the way up the main mast, had to be broached. In order to do so, I had to climb out at an angle close to lying down on my back in midair, and then, catching the edge with my knee, pull myself onto the platform (historically the ‘flying top’ where the Marines took aim at hapless sailors in other boats.) It looked easy when Errol Flynn did it; it even looked easy when the sail trainees did it. It did not look easy to me from my semi-prone position,

But it actually was!

After hanging under the platform for a good five minutes verbally kicking myself for being such a coward, I began talking myself through it. I knew the mechanics; I knew I was strong enough.

And sure enough, up and over I went.

“Thank the gods,” I said aloud.

I stood on the top holding onto the shrouds with white knuckles. I waited for my heart to return to its normal position in my chest instead of in my throat.

When I was calm enough I surveyed my next Mt.Everest – the tops’l yard. It did no good to get up on the top if I couldn’t go out on the yard. The yard is the stick that crosses the mast and it stuck out some forty feet horizontally on either side of the mast. I had to climb out to the end of the yard on half-inch footropes attached to the yard.

I was more confident now. I had to overcome clumsiness more than fear this time, though my knees were still rather like Jell-O. I pulled myself up one more section of ratlines until I was lined up with the yard.

I grabbed the shrouds, put a foot on the footrope under the yard and pulled myself out. It swayed under me ever so slightly. It seemed sturdy enough, much less rickety than I had imagined. I laid my belly across the yard and began inching out in the crab-like sideways shuffle I had watched so often from below. Unbelievably, I was there in just a few shuffles.

As the breeze aloft dried my perspiring body, I looked down. I could see the whole City of Galveston and for miles and miles out to sea. Fisherman on the shrimp boat next to us waved and I released one of my hands long enough to wave back. I couldn’t tell if the funny feeling in my stomach was from fear or exaltation.

They were right; it was the coolest place to be!

 ©Karen Wright Used with permission. Born and raised a high desert rat and cowgirl near Virginia City, Nevada, Wright cooked for hay crews, round-ups, and then finally for tall ship crews. She began sailing with her husband in 1982, and between sailing trips was a writer, editor, and bookseller. Married, with two kids, two stepchildren, and four grandchildren, Wright is one of nine partners in the Booktown Books cooperative in Grass Valley, California. She also operates a long-time online bookstore at www.thewrightbook.com


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