Last night, while hanging out on the foredeck with Shelly and the cook, Chad Pelletier, I expressed an interest in going aloft. In this mad, season-long quest to experience firsthand the knockabout lives of schooner bums, I’d logged — at least to my mind — some notable achievements: I’d tacked headsails in a gale; demystified the myriad lines of standing and running rigging; climbed the head rig to furl canvas while underway; practiced all manner of knots and coiling techniques; learned to identify windjammers by their rigs like an ornithologist observes plumage; and even suffered cold, wet weather in bare feet like a bona fide deck ape. Going aloft seemed like the next step in a natural—albeit slow — progression.
While most reasonable people go to great lengths to avoid heights, the average schooner bum fervently seeks them. Part of the appeal of climbing the rigging, I’m sure, is pride. A schooner bum who fails to mount the ratlines would be as cowardly as an outlaw who never drew his gun.
Theatricality plays a part, too. I’m sure there’s something satisfying about fearlessly teetering atop a swaying mast while a gaggle of lubberly onlookers gasps below your feet.
And, naturally, going aloft to furl the headsails or inspect the rigging is as much a part of the daily routine as dropping anchor or swabbing the deck. The fearful need not apply.
Still, when you talk to schooner bums, they never couch the task in daring terms. Instead, they mention the allure of peace and solitude found on high. When you live and work aboard a cramped windjammer, going aloft may be the only time you’ll find yourself utterly alone. Solitude is a rare commodity in this seagoing life; a privilege that mates and deckhands vie for. And, once up there, the schooner bums invariably find reasons to lengthen their stay.
I, on the other hand, have an unsteady relationship with heights. When I was younger, heights weren’t a problem. In my college days, however, I lost my nerve when I broke my collarbone jumping from a train trestle into a swim hole far below.
Last night while talking to Chad, my gusto had been amplified by a mug of red wine; today, I’m all too happy to forget the conversation ever took place.
Unfortunately, Chad has not forgotten. When the Deer Isle-Sedwick Bridge comes into view, Chad approaches Captain Mike and says, “Ben really wants to go aloft today while we pass under the bridge. Is that OK?”
“No problem,” says Mike.
Chad Pelletier raises the Maine state flag.
In these litigious times, it’s surprising that captains in the Maine windjammer fleet are so obliging. If, for instance, you’re a thrill-seeker aboard the Angelique, Heritage, or Isaac H. Evans, you can go aloft simply by asking. The spirit of adventure lives on in this windjamming culture; insurance premiums be damned.
As we draw ever nearer to the bridge, deckhand Chris Sherman instructs game passengers on how to climb the head rig onto the bowsprit. The first to go is a 15-year-old girl from Massachusetts. Minutes later, her 10-year-old sister takes a turn.
Surely, if these young girls can step with great ease onto the web-like cables and ropes that suspend them over the cold waters of Eggemoggin Reach, then a grown man like me should have no problem climbing the glorified ladder that is the ratlines. Right?
Emboldened, I approach mate Dennis Gallant for a brief tutorial on going aloft. Dennis explains the importance of spreading your weight onto as many different parts of the rigging as possible. First, you should always keep your hands on the ratlines — the vertical cables, or shrouds, that lead from the hull to the top of the mast. Second, you should never place both feet on a single ratboard—the horizontal boards that form the ladder’s steps — because the concentration of weight could cause the wood to break. Third, always keep three points of contact.
“If you fall to your death, it should be the boat’s fault — not yours. I want to be able to pry open your lifeless hands and find pieces of the boat that shouldn’t have given way,” Dennis says with a laugh.
Suddenly, I’m shaken.
But it’s too late to chicken out now. Too many people know about my plans; the specter of death is strangely more appealing than the surety of cowardice.
The reason for going aloft today is simple: the Angelique is too tall to fit under the Deer Isle-Sedgwick Bridge without first lowering the forward topmast. The bridge at high tide has a clearance of 85 feet. It’s high tide now and the Angelique’s forward topmast stands 95 feet over the water.
Dennis climbs the ratlines on the mainmast, pulls himself onto the crosstrees (horizontal timbers that create a perch atop the mast), and awaits Captain Mike’s order to house the topmast.
It was my interest in witnessing this procedure that spurned last night’s conversation with Chad, so, if I’m going to climb the rigging, it’s now or never. I walk to the mizzenmast — the (substantially less tall) aft mast — and begin my ascent.
Even the first steps are unnerving. To get your feet onto the ratboards, you must first step onto the rail and swing your body outboard over the water. So, while the first steps onto, say, a step ladder will take you mere feet from sweet terra firma, the first step onto the Angelique’s ratboards puts my feet about 10 feet over the cold, dark sea.
Don’t look down, I remind myself.
I continue climbing, and, for a while, things go well. The problem, however, is that the higher you go, the narrower the ladder becomes. The ratlines are not parallel lines: at the Angelique’s rail, the ratlines are spaced a good four feet apart, but they grow increasing closer until they reach a vanishing point on the crosstrees. As a result, the ratboards allow less and less space for my feet the higher I climb.
I get about three quarters of the way up then abruptly decide I’ve climbed far enough.
Then I suddenly remember what every schooner bum has ever told me about going aloft: it’s not scary if you have a job to do.
Pumpkin Island light.
I have no job—no task to bully away the panicked thoughts swirling in my mind—other than to watch Dennis house the topmast. Unfortunately, Dennis completes the work far too quickly. The topmast slides downward into its brackets and now there’s nothing to do but sit and wait until we cross under the bridge.
Next, I make the mistake of looking down.
When you’re on the deck of a windjammer, it’s impossible to see the water lapping against the hull on both sides of the vessel simultaneously. From up here, however, I can see the water on all sides without even moving my eyes. Seeing so much water in my line of vision makes me feel far removed from the boat — the Angelique’s deck suddenly seems as distant as patchwork farmlands viewed from an airplane. My pulse quickens, my breath grows shallow, and my grip tightens. I wrap my limbs around the ratlines and squeeze like I’m wrasslin’ a gator.
When I see Dennis scurry upward from the crosstrees and balance atop the mainmast, I nearly poop. The vicarious peril is too much to bear. The world around me narrows to a tunnel, and my thoughts become preoccupied with a hundred different hypothetical situations that all end in the same morbid conclusion.
Worst of all is the creaking. Each time the Angelique pitches under the gentle following sea, the cables all around me groan from the strain. Over and over, the lines creak and pop in a slow, haunting rhythm. Good Lord, I want down from this thing.
As we inch closer to the bridge, Dennis cracks jokes that we might not make it. This is common practice among the windjammer fleet. Even if the tide is out, or the boat is substantially lower than the maximum clearance, the crews will still play up the danger. After all, when you’re standing on deck, a 20-foot gap between the rigging at the bridge platform looks perilously close. Why not conjure a little derring-do?
On this trip, however, our proximity to the bridge is nothing to joke about. Even from my vantage point in the ratlines, it honestly looks as though our topmast is going to collide with the span and tear down our rigging—the very lines I’m dangling on.
Alas, we pass under the bridge without incident, and I return to the deck with all due haste.
Shelly asks me if I liked it up there. When admit I was utterly terrified, I receive my final piece of advice on climbing the rigging.
As if acknowledging that, yes, going aloft is inherently scary, and, of course, fearlessness is sheer pageantry, Shelly turns to me and says, “C’mon, Ben. You have to sell it.”
Chris raises the penant.