How to Climb a Mast

You know how in suspenseful movies there are scenes that cut back and forth between someone doing something dangerous and a piece of equipment involved in that dangerous activity? Like someone walking across a bridge, with cuts to a fraying piece of rope which the whole bridge is dependent on. Well, in the film that is my life that happened to me.

The adventure happened while sailing, so I’m going to provide some definitions to make this story as concise as possible. You probably know that a sailboat has a mast, that’s the really tall pole which the sails are attached to. The sails are attached to the mast by ropes, known as halyards, that run up through pulleys, called blocks. This makes it easy to raise and lower the sails. The sail in the front of the boat (the bow) is called the jib, the sail at the back of the boat (or stern) is called the mainsail. The mainsail is attached to another large pole perpendicular to the mast called a boom. The boom is how you change the direction of the mainsail. The mast usually has other devices attached to it such as cleats for securing halyards, and possibly a winch for aid in raising the sails. Usually near the top of the master there are spreaders which form a cross near the top of the mast, a couple lines, known as shrouds, run down on either side through the spreaders to stabilize the mast.
The events occurred while approaching the Bay Bridge.

With that out of the way. Here’s what happened. Our crew consisted of three: Adam, the skipper, me, the first mate, and our friend Celeste. We motored out of the port and into the bay. Once we were a ways out, approaching the Bay Bridge, it was time to switch to wind power. So we went on deck to raise the sails. I worked on the mainsail while Adam went to the bow to get the jib up. While I was untangling some lines, Adam called back to me and said that the jib’s halyard was down. And I was like, “What?” And he was like, “The line to lift the jib, it’s down here, it’s not up the mast. You’re going to have to climb up there and put it through the pulley.”

It took a few seconds for what he meant to set in. Neither one of us was very experienced, so our vocabulary was definitely wrong, but I eventually figured out the gist of what he meant. We had no way to raise the jib. Then the last thing he said struck me. ”I was going to have to climb up there?” “Surely you jest,” I said. Okay, I didn’t really say that exactly, but part of me thought he was just kidding around. It occurred to me that we really only have two options. Either I was climbing up there or we were going to motor back to port and call it a day. There was no way I was going to call it a day, so I made my resolve.

The plan was simple. I climb up the mast with the halyard, run it through the block. Then jump off the top of the mast and land in the water. In retrospect, the cliche, ”easier said than done,” comes to mind. I decided to go barefoot so that I could use the friction between my feet an the mast to get leverage, and changed into a swimsuit for the quick dive back down.
To aid in the climb, Adam mentioned that he had a “harness”. Now I’ve been rock climbing, so I know what a [[link: harness]] is. It features a belt loop and two leg loops. It’s designed to keep you upright. What Adam retrieved from stowage didn’t resemble anything I’d call a harness. It was basically two strips of webbing with a buckle on one of them. Apparently this is standard gear for climbing a mast, but we didn’t really know how to use it, so I just tied one of the strips around me, and attached the halyard for the mainsail to it, and wrapped the other strip around the mast. The idea was that Adam would belay me with the mainsail’s halyard as I top-roped up the mast. I also tied the halyard for the jib to the harness, so that I could bring it up with me.

Climbing a pole isn’t easy. In fact, it’s basically impossible. I might as well admit right now that the title of this post is a little misleading, because if you saw what I was doing you might not describe it as climbing.
Well, for the first six feet, you could call what I did climbing. I used the boom. I stood on the winch, I stood on the cleats (and let me tell you, standing on a cleat barefoot is not pleasant). All the while Adam used the winch to belay me. At that point there was really nothing more to stand on, and there wasn’t much friction between my feet and the mast. After struggling for a few minutes Adam decided to do all the work. The winch worked wonders as I was dragged up the mast. This is the part where the camera crew of my life was cutting to the block. Probably looking directly at the axle of the pulley and the bolts that attached it to the mast. Probably they were coming loose.

About fifteen feet later I was up to the spreaders. I grabbed onto them and pulled myself up. At least I tried to. Remember that I didn’t know how to use the “harness” so I had tied it around the mast, and there was basically no way to get it past the spreaders without taking it off. So I had to remove the harness for a few seconds, and tie it on again above the spreaders. I did this. (As I’m writing this I can think of so many ways I could have done things better). So I’m sitting on the spreaders. My hands are shaking because it’s so cold, and that’s the point where I looked down for the first time and realized that I’m about twenty feet up, and while falling and hitting the deck might not kill me, it would be rather unpleasant.

I realized then, that there was no way I’m diving off the mast to get back down. There was no way I could control a fall. There was really nothing to jump off of.

So I got the harness attached to the mast again, and I stood up on the spreaders. It was still about ten feet from the spreaders to the top of the mast. So I had to go up about six more feet to reach the block. I was tired. Adam had to lift me again. I made it to the top. Since Adam had been lifting me, the harness had been pulled up to the point where it was wrapped around my chest and upper back, lifting me by the shoulders. I could barely breathe. Also, we’re at sea, so the boat was rocking back and forth. My hands were shaking so badly that I had trouble untying the jib’s halyard from the harness. I was worried about dropping it. I didn’t want to go back down and bring it up again. I held the halyard in my mouth so I wouldn’t drop it. I was cold, though, so my teeth were chattering. I got it loose and ran it through the block. I quickly tied it back to my harness so I could bring it down with me and told Adam to lower me.

I climbed a mast! You can see the Bay Bridge above me.

It wasn’t easy for him to lower me. The winch is designed to pull the halyard one way. So he needed the rope loose in order to lower me. I had to climb up about four inches so that he could lower me one foot. I held onto the shrouds for support. I held onto anything I could. I was shaking. I got down to the spreaders and sat on them.

Adam shouted at me. I couldn’t hear what he said. He shouted more. He told me I had to go back up. I thought he was joking. He shouted some more. The jib’s halyard had come loose from my harness and it was blowing in the wind. I looked up and saw it. ”Crap,” I thought. I really did have to go back up. I told him I needed a break. I was so tired. I waited for what seemed like ten minutes to regain strength. I felt like Luke Skywalker when he was hanging on the antenna below Bespin. I just wanted to fall down to the Millennium Falcon, and have my hand sewn back on. Then I realized I still had my hand.

I stood up and told Adam to belay me again. I made it to the top. This time I tied the halyard to my harness with a square knot. I had to go through the same ordeal as before. Climbing up four inches so that Adam could lower me one foot. I made it to the spreaders again. I went through the same awkwardness coming down as I did going up, getting the harness below the spreaders. I got lowered some more. I ran into an issue where the halyard was on the wrong side of the spreaders. I had to go up again, adjust it, then get lowered again.

The whole ordeal was more than thirty minutes. It seemed like forever, but once I was on the deck I felt like everything was going to be alright. I collapsed. I couldn’t stand. I didn’t want to stand. I crawled into the cabin to put some warm clothes on. I was freezing. Adam said, “You’re a real man now.” After I collected my senses, we raised the sails. And that’s how you climb a mast.

Thanks to me we could set sail!