Majestic square riggers require a fearsome head for heights, as Will Sofrin discovers in this extract from All Hands on Deck, introduced by Tom Cunliffe

The world of square riggers is obscure to the vast majority of sailors today. Yet nautical literature is rich in fine works describing the minutiae of what went on – and still can go on – aboard a real sailing ship. Anyone with a genuine thirst for knowledge in this regard would do no better than scour the internet for a copy of Eric Newby’s The Last Grain Race, an insightful and often hilarious read.

Where this genus of book differs from Will Sofrin’s new volume about sailing Rose, the replica of a Nelsonian frigate, is in the way the tale is told. Rose‘s crew are a very different bunch from the eclectic mix of volunteers and pressed men on HMS Surprise in the days of Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey.

The interaction of Sofrin’s shipmates with each other and the ship’s officers is explored in some depth, making this a very modern book. Where Newby takes going aloft more or less in a day’s work, Sofrin gives us the full drama. In this account he makes his first acquaintance with the alarming reality of tackling a problem up on the yards under the caring eye of the chief mate.

Extract from All Hands on Deck

Around 1030, the starboard side of the fores’l started to come loose. It didn’t take more than a few seconds for the sail to begin flailing around like a bedsheet on a clothes line in a tornado. It was evident that if left alone, the sail would shred itself to pieces and possibly cause a dismasting.

The wind had eased a bit and was hovering between 35 and 50 knots and gusting past 60 knots. We were in between squall lines, which offered us a brief opportunity to contain the sail before the wind picked back up. The only option was to climb aloft and shimmy out to the end of the yard to wrestle the sail into obedience. For some reason, Tony grabbed me and told me to go aloft with him.

I followed Tony forward to the base of the foremast shrouds. The sail was 50ft up in the air. The waves we were climbing were still topping out at 20 to 30ft. Falling from where we needed to get to could end up being a drop of 70 to 80ft. I read somewhere that window cleaners know falling from a height above five stories, or 50ft, is fatal.

As far as I knew, only one person had ever fallen from the rig of Rose, and it happened at the dock in New York Harbour. The chief mate, who was on deck, saw it happen and broke her fall by body-checking her into the water before she could hit the deck. She fell from a height of 50ft and cracked some ribs and a wrist but lived.

Before sailing on Rose, any work I performed aloft was always done from a bosun’s chair, which is generally how people go up a mast today. A bosun’s chair is a seat-like harness that is usually suspended from a halyard for the purpose of doing work aloft in the rig. Modern sailors don’t climb aloft to set or strike sail; in fact, most modern boats don’t have any means to climb the rig. That’s because free-climbing up a mast in the middle of the ocean in the middle of a storm is a horrible idea.

It’s like climbing to the top of a telephone pole using a rope ladder that gets smaller the higher you go. It gets to be so tight up near the top that you need to twist your feet so they can fit in the slots above the next ratline.

Most of my experience in a bosun’s chair was on Onawa, and she had a 90ft-tall mast. I went up that mast more times than I can count, spending hours aloft repairing metal tracks and making improvements to the rig. All of that work, however, was at the dock and usually in calm conditions. And for good reason. At the top, even a tiny wave sent the mast oscillating wildly. There was nothing I could hold onto up there, so I would wrap my legs and arms around the slippery varnished wood and hold on until the weather settled back down. I was always so scared the person holding me up would let go of the line and I would fall to my death.

Looking down from Rose’s main fighting-top at the quarterdeck. Photo: Rick Hicks

Now there I was, on the Rose in the middle of a terrible storm, and somehow the idea of free-climbing the rig seemed less terrifying to me than being pulled up a halyard to the top of a varnished mast. At least I felt somewhat in control of my life even if there was no safety line to catch me if I fell while trying to ascend the rig. Clipping in our carabiners could only be done when we got to where we were going, but climbing up or down the rig had to be done freestyle.

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We began our ascent by climbing out and around to the windward side of the foremast shrouds. I was now outside of the boat, standing over the water on the ratlines. I knew time was precious and moving slowly would only worsen the situation. Using the foremast as a line of sight, I started climbing while keeping my eyes locked forward on the mast to prevent me from looking down at the frothy waves below. We were not wearing lifejackets, and the likelihood of successfully being rescued from the water after falling from the rig was almost nonexistent.

The thrashing of the ship was causing the shrouds to tighten and slack quickly and randomly. I carefully put one hand over the other as I climbed, making sure to wrap my arms hard around the shrouds when the ship buried itself into a wave. Those moments made the rig shudder like we were slamming into a brick wall. Then the next wave would pick us back up, and we would surge ahead again until we were thrown back into another trough. We were being absolutely pounded.

The crew of Rose encountered ferocious weather only four days into their passage. Photo: Scott Hamann

Experiencing the violence of the storm from the deck was rough, but it was nothing compared to what it was like up in the rigging. The intensity of the wind grew, as did its roar, sounding like an express subway train rushing past a station.

I could feel the stinging pellets of rain through my foul-weather gear, hitting me harder and harder the higher I climbed. I felt like a target at an air rifle shooting range. On deck, the ship was rolling from one side to the other. From aloft, we were being thrown 60 to 80ft across the sky from side to side, every four to five seconds. The random rolling of the ship was like riding a 50ft-tall metronome that couldn’t keep a rhythm.

Rose sailing as HMS Surprise, the Royal Navy Frigate in the Oscar-winning film Master and Commander. Photo: Jerry Soto

Climbing up the shrouds was the easy part. Getting out to the sail was dodgier because I needed to take a small leap of faith off the rigging to get onto the yard and then out to the sail. Waiting for the right moment, I lunged onto the footrope while grabbing hold of the yard and began shimmying out toward the end.

I was first out on the yard, a situation I had never been in. Walking along a footrope was like using a long jump rope as a bridge. I held on for dear life, balancing my weight so my movements would be in sync with Tony’s when he climbed on behind me. We were standing on the same footrope, and any movement I made was felt by him. Laying on a yard in this kind of weather was the very definition of insanity.

The crew busy reinforcing lashings before nightfall. Photo: Scott Hamann

We reached the flogging sail, and I tried to grasp the task before me. Seeing the sail fighting to be released up close was far different from seeing it from the deck. There was no time to get comfortable. The wet sail was filling with rapid bursts of air and thrashing ferociously. It terrified me.

My plan was to jump onto the sail as if I was trying to take control of an angry bull at a rodeo. If I did it wrong, I could fall, taking Tony with me. The jerk felt by Tony from my lanyard trying to stop my fall to the deck would make it near impossible for him to maintain his footing. We had our safety harnesses clipped to the back rope with the lanyard, but our harnesses were called ‘backbreakers’ for a reason.

I looked over my left shoulder to see Tony just a few feet inboard of my position. I shouted at the top of my lungs, “How should I do this?”

Tony shouted back, “You need to punch it while jumping on it and wrapping yourself around it!” Then, with a second thought, he added, “let’s go back in and switch so I can jump and you can follow!” We shuffled back toward the mast and switched places.

The crew works in unison putting in a harbour furl before arriving in Panama. Photo: Blythe Daly

Tony headed back out as the lead, and I followed. In a blink, he got that violent sail into his arms. I came to take the rear, punching the sail with all my might to knock the wind out of it, and helped him gather and secure the sail, all the while shimmying farther out on the yard. Suddenly we were in control, and it felt great. With no time to celebrate, I started securing the sail so nobody would have to come back up until we were through this storm.

I worked quickly, and Tony told me to get back down to the deck. He didn’t need to tell me twice; the rolling and rocking had got worse. I took my time on the descent, bracing myself whenever the bow buried itself into a wave. Tony stayed up a bit longer, making sure everything was good.

Stepping back onto the deck, I was overcome by an immense wave of exhaustion. The ship’s motions on deck seemed so much milder than they had before going aloft: being on deck felt easy. I staggered back to midship, winded and overwhelmed by the moment. I’d joked about Planet Tall Ship up to then, but being aloft in that storm made me appreciate all I was learning.

We were on only day four of our passage, had travelled only one-tenth of the distance to our destination, and I had already seen more than I could have imagined or planned for. There was no off switch, no time-out, no opportunity to stop and take a break. That moment forever changed my understanding of how to handle adversity. The only way out was through.

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