Top of the Mast

Yesterday I climbed to the top of my mast and it was pretty much the most terrifying moment of my life.

About a week ago I took my brother Gabriel out for a sail, and there was absolutely no wind, so we decided to fish off the coast of Cedar Point. It was pretty boring, we weren’t catching anything, and it was hot out. After about an hour it started to get a little windy, so we decided to quit fishing and rig up the sails, both the main and the front jib, and head out.

In what felt like less than five minutes, we were sailing in extreme weather. Gardiner’s Bay turned into an angry soup of waves and white water, and the wind was blowing so hard that you could hear it singing against the boat. I’ve been in scenarios like this before, but Gabriel hadn’t, and he was getting a little freaked out. And then I got a little freaked out too, when the halyard holding up the jib (basically the front sail) snapped, sending the sail down into the water.

In about 15 minutes, we had found ourselves barreling north, headed right for the North Fork between Greenport and Orient Point. Both of us marveled at the speed in which the conditions changed, and we lowered the main sail, turned on the motor and headed back in, smashing into waves, getting soaking wet from the spray coming over the bow, and pretty much laughing like pirates the whole way back.

It was one of my favorite days sailing ever, but it was also one of the most frustrating, primarily because for the first time, in order to fix this damn boat, I was going to have to climb to the top of the mast.

The line that held up the sail that snapped was now all the way at the top of the mast, 40 feet up, and the only way to get it down was to climb up the mast, something I really didn’t want to do. But I psyched myself up for it.

My boat, which is docked at the Town Docks off of Three Mile Harbor, can be seen by anybody that drives down that road, so I decided I would hide it before I climbed to the top of the mast so nobody thought I was crazy for doing so (and it is kind of crazy). So I motored across the Harbor to hide from viewers on the street and began to psych myself up for the climb again.

At first, I decided I would climb directly to the top, barefoot, to get a good grip with my feet. I got halfway and then when I reached the spreaders (which is the cross part of the mast), I couldn’t for the life of me get my legs around the steel wires and I slid back down. Then I tried using a long stick to get to the line that I needed to get to; this was painfully unsuccessful, as there was no way I was going to find anything long enough to reach the top.

And then, I went to the bow (front) of the boat, and decided that I would climb directly up the front stay (which is exactly what it sounds like).

Bit by bit I climbed. My heart was beating a mile a minute, my muscles were exhausted, and I was terrified by the height. But I wasn’t going through the rest of this summer without a jib, so I kept climbing. I told myself not to look down (which actually works), got to the line, put it quickly in my teeth, and then continued to hang on.

At this point, there was so much lactic acid through my body that I could taste metal in my mouth and every muscle was burning. So I decided to rest at the top, which was a huge error, because it takes energy just to hang on up there. I twisted my ankle so that all of my weight was on my foot at an angle, and then realized that resting wasn’t exactly working, climbed down.

I could sense my arms losing grip from exhaustion – as well as my hands – so I locked my hand underneath my armpit and used my elbow as a harness and then slid down the front stay and made it to the bow.

It was a nightmare. I was so exhausted. But I felt like King Kong. I was also kind of bummed out that nobody actually saw my feat. After all, this was something to brag about. My foot had a terrible burn from the friction while sliding down, I had war wounds.

I got off and walked around Gardiner’s Marina and then ran into a guy working on his sailboat with his wife. “I saw you climb up your mast. That was pretty bad ass.”

I told him the story in a delirious state of exhaustion and then went back to my boat for a nap. Glad somebody saw it.


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