The following is something I wrote just a few days ago in response to the
question “What amazing thing have you done in your life?”
When I worked on a square rigged ship (brigantine) that sailed in the British Virgin Islands, we had to climb the rigging to loose the sails. The topmost sail on the Brigantine Romance was the Royal. It was about 75 feet above the deck and reachable only by climbing the ratlines on the side stays. The first set of ratlines run from the ships rail at midships to where the mainmast tops off and a second mast is clamped to it. This point was called the crows nest because the funny configuration of the ratlines. It is about 25 feet above the deck and to get up and over it, one must reach back up over ones head, climb hanging with ones back to the deck and clinging with hands and feet out, up and over the maze of stays, ratlines and wooden stretchers. To get the royal at the top, one must climb a second (smaller and more precarious) crows nest. We were in swells on the Atlantic side of Virgin Gorda when the captain ordered me aloft to loose the royal. The waves were about 6 feet from trough of wave to peak of swell. I looked aloft. The royal was bound tightly around its yardarm with small ropes called gaskets. On deck, we planted our feet and steadied ourselves but held on to something. Above our heads, and with each tilt of the deck, the royal traced an arc across the sky of 30 to 40 feet in a violent swipe across the sky. Take a pencil in your hands and hold it upright at one end between your fingers. Tilt it just a little and see how much the other end moves. Now make that pencil 75 feet long and imagine the length of the arc at the sky end as the bottom end tilts just a few degrees. As I mounted the ratlines, the captain yelled, "Jonathan - One hand for the ship and one hand for yourself. Always keep one firm grip on the ship. Do you hear me?!"
My stomach tightened as I climbed. I held on for my life as scrambled over the first crows nest. Two more sets of ratlines to go before I reached the royal and my work would begin. My fingers clenched the stays with all my strength at the top of mast. I lay my belly on the royal spar and gripped for my life on the mast. In this position, I had to stare down at the deck and the deep blue sea. At one end of the arc there was a pause and I stared into the ocean on the starboard side of the ship. Then my view swished across the deck and paused again on on the deep blue sea to port. I was afraid to grip with only one hand, but I had to in order that I could untie the gasket ropes that furled the sail tightly around its yardarm. I learned I could time my efforts with the regular and violent flingings of the the twitching mast as it seemed to try to flick me into the deep blue sea from 75 feet above the water. With the sail loosed, I started back down. It was more difficult than going up as my feet repeatedly failed to get a grip on the ropes. As I descended the last set of ratlines just above the deck, the crew and passengers cheered me. The violently pitching deck now seemed only to gently sway. As I manned the line to raise the royal, I looked aloft and gave thanks for the strength in my hands to hold me tight, the wisdom of the captain's words, my well-founded respect for the power of the wind and waves, and my courage to meet the challenge.
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