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Climbing the Mast

Today, I am going to climb the mast. It is time. I am ready.

I have never had a head for heights: if I had to stand on a chair to change a light bulb, my legs would shake. However, I am getting better; sailing has been good for me. I can climb ladders now and it is not that I have become braver or am less of a wimp: faced with a new horror, I am just as wimpish. Give me a new ladder in a new situation and I will probably find some excuse and go and make the coffee, but, strangely, the regular horrors cease to horrify. The daily ladder is just part of what I do and I can climb 30 ft up onto the deck, when the boat is on land, and look down quite calmly. The vertigo simply doesn’t happen.

Sailing-Yacht Trompeta, Spanish for trumpet, is a 42 foot Hallberg Rassy fibre-glass sloop. One mast, triangular sails, roller-reefing jib and standard, haul it up the hard way, drop it down all over the deck in a mess if it’s stormy, mainsail. Modern, quite expensive as these things go, smart and comfortable. She is a cruising yacht, not a racer. Broad-beamed, roomy, robust. Cannot capsize. Might turn over, but would come up again, John says. She sleeps six, or seven at a pinch, eight if you like playing sardines. She is John’s dream-come-true.

John wants to sail round the world. He sold his house, bought Trompeta in Sweden after his retirement and his divorce and brought her to Britain.

I was still firmly at work, nearing retirement but with no thought of leaving yet, even temporarily. I had no desire to circumnavigate, or even sail. John and I did not expect to stay as an item and were more or less preparing to say, ‘Nice knowing you', although we hoped that I might be able to visit him occasionally as he made his way around the globe.

I joined him and a friend, Mary, for a week in Spain. Mary is an experienced sailor and I was not expecting to do anything, just be a bit of elderly deck fluff. The night I arrived, Trompeta was moored bow-to. It was after midnight and the bow was very high above the jetty.

'You climb up like this,' said John, and demonstrated by putting first one foot above his head onto the deck, then the other, so that he hung below the bow like a monkey, and then swung himself up into the tangle of ropes and anchors around the foresail.

'Can I go home now?' I said.

He fetched a box and helped me up. Once up, I could not escape.

Over the next few days I learned some of the rudiments of sailing. At the close of the first day's sail, John patiently showed me how to tie clove hitches over the guard rail and put out the fenders all along one side of the boat in exactly the right place to avoid damage as we came alongside the wharf. On the second day, as we came towards the dock in the next port of call, I thought, aha, I know how to do this, and I put out all the fenders, just so, without asking for guidance. I was very proud of my one-handed clove hitches. Too bad we approached from the other side.

The first time I took the helm it was of necessity. It was not one of my personal challenges. At the start of the third day we were sailing along nicely - bloody cold in my newly purchased inadequate wet weather gear but it was sunny and there were dolphins. Magic. They raced each other across the bows, back and forth, missing by inches and laughing as they came up for air.

And then John made the apparently sensible decision to go inside some island or other, between the island and the mainland, instead of the long way round the outside. He pointed out casually that we were now sailing on a lee shore. He and I were both keen for me to learn a bit of jargon. Being on a lee shore meant that if the wind came up, we would risk being swept sideways onto the rocks. Sure enough the wind came up. A violent storm. Quite exciting really. I felt safe with John. But then he decided we were going too fast and needed to reef the mainsail.

John and Mary buckled up their safety harnesses and went out on the slippery heaving deck to take the main sail down a bit and make it smaller. My job was to keep the boat heading into the wind to stop it moving forward and allow the sail to flap loosely, and to keep the boat off the rocks.

As a teenager I had sailed dinghies and I knew about pushing the tiller the wrong way and how to watch the little flag, the burgee, on top of the mast, to see how to line up the sails to go as fast as possible without capsizing. John’s yacht has a wheel instead of a tiller and no burgee. It is somewhat bigger than a dinghy. The sails are enormous.

I fell into my place behind the wheel and waited for instructions. Heavy rain and spray were whipping my hair into my stinging eyes so I could not see John, and whisking away his voice so I could not hear him.

I grabbed the wheel as the boat lurched. I forgot everything I had once known about keeping head to wind. What should the sails look like? Which way should I steer if I want to go that way? Is it like a car or backwards like the tiller? How quickly should I compensate if the boat swings too far?

Not knowing made no difference. I was not hanging onto the wheel to steer the boat, no chance of that. I was hanging on to prevent being washed overboard. Rocks? Can’t see them. Perhaps they’ll go away.

‘Well done,’ John said, as he pried my rigor’d fingers from the wheel, ‘isn’t this grand?’

I went back to work, leaving John to sail to the Canary Islands and then across the Atlantic. Various friends joined him along the way.

And now, here we are in Venezuela, a brief holiday for me and a change of crew for John as he meanders around the Caribbean, exploring, while he waits for the best season to pop through the Panama Canal and out into the Pacific Ocean.

And, today, I am going to climb the mast. I would like not to be a wimp. Climbing the mast is a significant step in the de-wimping process. Surely if I can climb a mast I will be able to do anything. There cannot be worse horrors. Confront your worst fears and nothing can frighten you ever again.

Conditions are perfect. The weather forecast is good. The sea is glassy smooth. The yacht is tied securely to the wharf in a sheltered harbour, it is rocking only gently and the mast is hardly swinging at all.

John has fitted my granny step at the base of the mast. I couldn’t even attempt to climb before. Without the extra step, I couldn’t get my feet onto the first mast steps at shoulder height. John can reach up and grasp the second pair of steps, bring his knees up to his chest and put both feet on the first steps, pause in his familiar monkey-like way, and then pull himself up to standing. Good for him.

I have everything prepared: the right stretchy tee-shirt and shorts and gloves that won’t stick or slip when wet with my sweat; the boson’s chair to prevent me falling when I slip; and my camera. I doubt if I will be able to let go with both hands and that is not part of the challenge but I’ll take the camera just in case - maybe I can operate it with one hand, or my teeth.

OK I’m ready. Time to tell John. He’s not busy. He’s finishing his coffee. It is the best time of the day. I am wide awake, feel good, not too much caffeine. Calm, steady. Right. OK.

‘John,’ I call.

He looks up.

‘I have decided . . .’

There is a thump on the hull and a rapid knocking. We both go to look. Three young men in smart heavy uniforms, in huge boots, carrying guns, are lined up along the quay. I don’t understand the Spanish but it seems they want to search the boat. Routine, John assures me. Guns? Stowaways?

They remove their boots. That’s nice of them.

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