Tom Cunliffe introduces this extract from Around Alone, as a solo mast climb in the South Atlantic turns into a terrifying ordeal for Emma Richards

In 2002, Emma Richards (now Sanderson) was the youngest person and the first British woman to finish the ‘Around Alone’ race. Sailing the Open 60 Pindar, she was pipped at the post for a podium finish, but reading her book 20 years later, I realised again that the placing is less important than the character of the men and women who take up the challenges of the great single-handed events. The skill and sheer guts lie outside the experience of the rest of us, relatively normal sailors.

This extract from Emma’s Around Alone is by far the best description I have come across of the horrors of climbing a mast on a solo race boat. Read it and, as I did, ask yourself how you might have measured up.

For a vivid glimpse into this race, have a look on YouTube for videos from the 2002 Around Alone. Now, over to Emma…

Extract from Around Alone

We were a fraction south of the Tropic of Capricorn and slap bang in the middle of the South Atlantic when the main halyard broke. Namibia lay 2,000 miles due east, Brazil 2,000 miles to the west. They might as well have been a million miles away, I felt suddenly so isolated.

I’d planned to go up at dawn, but I ended up waiting to allow some black clouds to blow through. The wind was varying between 15 and 25 knots and I needed to make sure I had a sail setting to cover the range of winds while I was up there. I prepared the gear I’d need to take up. I took a knife to cut away the old dead end, the spare main halyard (240ft), some tape and a block in case the one at the top had been the cause of the halyard breaking. I put my video camera in my pocket, strapped on my helmet and psyched myself up.

The ascent would be via a length of rope stretched between the top of the mast and the deck, using a Topclimber. This consisted of a little platform seat and two stirrup-like straps, with loops for my feet. When I was ready, I climbed into the Topclimber, which was attached to the rope at waist height with a strap and a one­-way jammer. The jammer gripped the rope when you exerted downward pressure on it. When I let go – and therefore exerted downward pressure by sitting in the seat – I could lift my feet from the ground and the seat was supported.

The foot straps were also attached to the rope with a one-­way jammer. When I put my feet in them and stood up; I was able to release the pressure on the seat jammer, move it up a few inches and sit back down. Then I was able to release the pressure on the lower jammer by raising my feet, and move that up a few inches and so on. To come down, you reverse the process.

Unstable platform

It sounds so simple, and on a steady platform with a taut rope, it is. If your platform is Pindar in choppy seas and gusting winds, it becomes a different proposition altogether. The tiniest bit of slack in the rope multiplied the potential for a hard climb, so I wound it down to the deck as hard as I could. I was still uncomfortable with the thought of a big gust coming through while I was high up there. If the boat’s motion became too unstable, the consequences didn’t bear thinking about.

Scaling the mast when Pindar was in dock took a few minutes, and not long at all to reach the first spreaders. Pindar had three sets, spaced approximately 20, 40 and 60ft up the mast. It took me 20 minutes to get to the first spreader.

I’d lost my footing a couple of times already. The motion, though still relatively stable, was enough to be jolting me around. I was already bruised from being bumped against the rig and decided to make myself more secure before going any further. I thought I could do this by tightening the rope between the masthead and the deck so that I wouldn’t be swinging so much, if at all, with the motion. But to tighten the rope, I needed to be on the deck. I started to go back down.

I’d descended about a foot when I realised this was a stupid idea. I’d be hurting by the time I got to the deck, which would hardly inspire me to come back up again. I told myself I was procrastinating, trying to find some excuse not to continue. I looked upwards. The rope wasn’t deflecting too much, so I started up again. I reached the first spreader and sat on it to adjust my harness. I looked around for big clouds or gusts heading my way. There were none.

Long, hard climb

I took a deep breath, put my weight on my feet and pushed up again another few inches. It was starting to hurt and I was still swinging against the rig but I got into a rhythm for a while and was almost starting to feel good. Then the wind increased and the boat heeled over more.

Each impact with a wave jolted the mast, flicking me like a rag doll outwards and then back into the mast. Ouch. I stopped climbing and held on for a while, hoping it would last only for a set of waves. No such luck. I was going to be bounced all the way and I had to deal with it. My arms ached but the adrenaline was pumping and I forced myself towards the second spreader, where I was able to take another break.

The higher I got, the more exaggerated the movement became. Each wave had the top of the mast flicking like a whip. The clouds were getting darker as I pushed on to the top spreader. It took nearly all my effort and I arrived there battered, knackered and frazzled. Occasionally I had had to remove the safety line that kept me close in to the mast so I could move it past an obstacle.

Several times when it was unattached I was flung backwards. The violent motion spun me around and brought me crashing back into the rigging. My hips, spine, legs and upper arms all took a thumping and I began to contemplate the possibility of sustaining serious damage.

I made it to the last spreader nearly broken. I lashed myself against it, rested for a few moments and talked to the camera, as much to distract my mind as anything else. Then I panned the camera downwards. Watching it later, I was struck by the way my legs were hanging so limply.

After one more push I almost made it to the top. By now, the weight of the 240ft rope I’d been carrying felt like a couple of bodies. I’d been climbing for around two hours and I’d really had enough. Then I saw the black squall clouds coming my way.

I drew every ounce of strength I had left to hurry up. As I approached the top, movement became almost unbearable and the motion of the boat likewise. The G-force was so strong that my hands were ripped away, leaving instant blood blisters. The next time it happened I could feel the blisters burst. The skin on my hands felt raw. I blanked out the pain and carried on.

When I finally made it, I could only just reach around the back of the mast where I needed to do the work. I tied the spare halyard to the mast with more care than I’d ever tied anything. If I dropped it, I’d need to go down 80ft and get it. The very thought made me feel ill.

I tied myself to the mast, got my knife out and cut away the remaining foot of the old halyard. I put it in my pocket to examine later. The block seemed undamaged, so I left it there. I tied one end of the halyard to the dead end on the mast with a few hitches and secured it with plenty of tape. Every stage of the task seemed to take an age but I needed to do it carefully. I wasn’t going to be coming up again in a hurry. I checked the black clouds. They were nearly upon me as I started down.

It’s a long way down for Emma Richards dangling at the top of Pindar’s mast

If going up had been slow, descending was more painful still. I moved in even smaller stages than when I’d gone up. If I pushed the lower jammer down too far the foot straps would be too low to stand on. And if I couldn’t stand on the straps and take all my weight off the top jammer, it wouldn’t move. I was already in agony and in my rush to reach safety I was getting impatient. This only served to make the whole process slower because I was trying to hurry the jammers into working and they kept resisting. I just wanted it all to be over.

Squalls blow in

I was somewhere around the top spreader when the first big squall came in. Pindar heeled over and the autopilot struggled to keep her heading where she was meant to go. Each time the pilot tried to force the boat at an angle further from the wind, she heeled over more.

When she heeled, I was incapable of making progress. The mast was leaning over too much, with a more violent slamming motion than before. Sometimes I was hanging over the water, urging Pindar with every fibre to straighten herself back up.

Sailing solo around the world takes bravery, stamina and self-belief

I remember hoping that if I was going to be thrown from the mast, I wanted at least to fall 60ft to the deck and take my chances with the bump. I wouldn’t be in good shape afterwards but I’d have a better chance of survival than if I landed in the water and then watched the boat sail away from me on autopilot. Pindar had turned into something more like a powerboat, bouncing off every small wave.

Trying simply to hold myself against the rigging was no good. I was taking a full-body battering. The skin was being scraped from my knuckles each time I used the jammers and my hands were becoming numb. My arms, ribs and legs were being pounded. I could feel my back and shoulders bruising. My head cracked against the mast. Thank God I was wearing the helmet.

On a calm, stable sea I’d have expected to go up, do the repair and come down in less than an hour. That day, it was close to two hours before I wished I was anywhere else in the world but then somewhere in the region of four hours I stopped thinking properly at all.

I desperately wanted not to be there but I was and I had to deal with it. At times, I so craved respite from being thrown around, just needing to rest my burning muscles, that I lashed myself to the mast merely in an attempt to be still. But in those moments of ‘rest’, darker thoughts stole in. And beyond the fear of broken bones or serious head injury or being thrown into the sea I was ultimately most chilled when I thought about Mum and Dad.

They were waiting back in Scotland for a phone call that hadn’t arrived. The image of someone telling them their daughter was dead crushed me.

I untied myself and started inching down. After what seemed an age I reached the bottom and just lay down on the deck for several minutes. I took the camera from my pocket and told it I was okay but I’d had a nightmare. Then I unhooked myself, untied the new halyard, fed it through its own jammer on the mast and tied it around the winch so that it wouldn’t go anywhere. Next I scrambled across the deck, adjusted my course and sails and went downstairs to make some calls.

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