Mastering the climb

Tenacious Journey part 4

Climbing is something I’ve never done before, and I have to say something I’ve never really been interested in.  Many, many years ago, my friend’s flat mate went rock climbing and had a dreadful accident.  She fell and swung into the rock, and smashed her face.  I remember she was wired up for a long time, drinking from a straw, and never looked the same again.  I decided right there and then that I didn’t think climbing was a good idea.  That was a long time ago indeed.

So on Tenacious, the main mast is forty two metres to the top, and I figured if I was going to attempt climbing it would have to be that one.  The other two masts are not nearly as tall, and my reasoning was that I might only do it once, so best to do it properly.  The ship, even at anchor sways with the swells as they roll past, so climbing is a moving experience, no matter how calm it is.  

Tenacious – the main mast is the centre one, and even though it looks shorter than the foremast, is the largest mast on the ship

I was on watch on the day I climbed, but got permission to get harnessed up while one of my watch team filled in for me.  We were sailing at about two knots, that’s probably kind because I know we were sailing backwards for part of the night, that’s how calm it was.  I had already done the training climb (read my blog Tenacious Journey Part 3) so I knew about how to get into my harness and attach the safety ratchet to the carabiner in the centre of my chest.   Then get my harness checked by a member of the permanent crew, to get the okay to go climbing.  I was a little unsure about going up on my own, but Phil who was one of the other watch leaders, and had travelled many times with the Jubilee Sailing Trust, was climbing and Chas too, so I went up under their guidance.

First you need to get from the security of the deck onto the rigging, which means climbing onto the railing on the outside of the rigging, while attached to your safety line, then attaching your ratchet to the safety line, making sure it was up the right way, then releasing your first safety line so you can start moving.  That sounds a bit confusing.  At all times when on watch, climbing or in very rough weather, each voyage crew has a safety harness which goes around their waist with a rope and carabiner attached.  This is so if at any time you feel unsteady, or it gets hairy, you can clip onto lines available around the ship to steady yourself.  Branden used these a few times when the ship was swaying a bit, as it interfered with his balance.  The lines you clip onto are wire found near the safety railings, and the permanent crew can put up extra ones if the sea gets really fierce.  There was no need for any of that on our voyage.  It was really calm, an ideal way to be introduced to sailing but they were fabulous for our wet swim suits.

So there I am ready to climb, and I remember the instruction of three points of contact at all times.  That means if you lift your foot, you must have your other foot on a wooden rung or rope step, and both hands on the centre steel line that holds the mast in place.  The rope steps felt strangely bendy, and sagged as I stepped onto them, making my foot go at odd angles at times.  At one point I tried to put both my feet into the rope step as they got smaller towards the top, but of course they didn’t fit, and went through a bit of a panic not being able to get the second foot back out to move.  My lovely husband said ‘even your little needles?’. Yes, even my tiny feet, just one at a time please.  Some of the steps where hugely spaced and I had to use all my upper body strength to haul myself up, but I came to the conclusion that if a lady that had suffered stroke could do it, then so could I.  I had no idea I was so heavy, and made a promise to myself I would sort that when I got back to Bermuda.

The first crows nest is quite straight forward except when you have to climb up through the gap in the decking, you kind of are coming back on yourself so it feels like you’re hanging upside down.  I’m sure you’re not but it’s quite something.  On the way up at the halfway points, there are extra safety lines from the steel mast line, to the safety rope. I guess this is so that the safety rope can’t swing out and stays in place securely.  To get past these, they must be unclipped, while you hold on with one arm, and then clipped back on under your ratchet.  I struggled to do this on the training climb when everyone was watching me, but it was much easier once I knew what to do on this climb.  I watched one of the voyage crew take the ratchet off by mistake and held my breath while they attached it again securely.  No one panicked and they were gently reminded which one to move for the next stage.  Once at the first crows nest, the view was amazing.  I could see the whole island of Nevis, and out to sea.  The ship was looking a bit smaller underneath me.  Phil was great encouraging me to try the next bit.  So he went first and then up I went.  

The next stage to the second crows nest is similar, but the wooden rungs give way to rope steps as you get nearer the top.  It’s more difficult to get up through the hole in the decking to the security of the platform.  But what an achievement to get there, and an even better view.  I hadn’t really noticed the ship’s movement yet, as I guess my adrenaline levels were keeping me fairly busy up til then.  There were a few photos and waving to the ones on the foremast climbing too, and then I had to make a decision if I would go to the top.  I was likely to only ever have one opportunity to do this, and remembering my lovely friend who is Blind’s ‘Why not?’ said ‘okay then!’

The next part had to be on my own, because only one person can climb this at a time.  There’s no room to pass anyone in an emergency, its too narrow.  The steps get smaller and smaller and smaller until they are tiny, and even I struggled to get my foot into a step.  Then I just simply ran out of steps, and realised I’d done it!  I was as far as I could go.  I stopped and had a good look about, it was magical up there.  A gentle breeze was blowing, and the sun out shining, and birds flying around the rigging, and blue ocean for miles.  It was swaying a bit, but nothing too much to handle.  By this time all my muscles were screaming, so it was time to climb back down.  Some people talk about touching the button on the flag pole on the very top, but I couldn’t work out how to get up to that part.  Really I was very happy to have climbed the whole mast.  So off I went doing it all in reverse again to the bottom.  When I was nearly back, people were calling for me because we were taking a group photo, and I was missing.  No pressure, I just had to get down off the rigging, race down to the bunk room and find my Gustavia Yacht Club shirt, get in place for the photo, all with beating heart and jelly knees from the climb.

Fantastic feeling to get to the top of the Main Mast, Tenacious

The next day I was asked to climb up to the first yard arm and help sort out the sails.  Ah, no.  I had done my dash.  I thought I could climb it, but the way my muscles were feeling, I might not get back down again.  Anyway they had plenty of people to help, maybe next time.  

Back in Bermuda, we went to purchase some supplies for my lovely husband’s little boat restoration, and the staff of the shop seemed to treat me differently to when I went in last time.  They kind of snapped to attention, and were extremely helpful, not that they aren’t usually, just in a different way.  My lovely husband had a good chuckle at my confusion and said ‘You have your Gustavia Yacht Club shirt on!’.  Oh, so I have. They probably think I’m rich, lol.

Keep yourselves safe and well for now.

More soon – Sally



  1. Congratulations on your achievement of climbing to the top of the mast! That must have been so exhilarating and I loved your descriptive view from the top, I could picture it from my lock down in Dunedin! Well done Sally, again a very enjoyable read, thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Stephanie. Perhaps when the JST have the Tenacious up and running after this Covid-19 crisis ends, my experience might encourage people to go on as voyage crew and experience it too. I here it sails to New Zealand 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. An exciting and satisfying episode! I can imagine the feeling of exhilaration when you got to the top and ‘surveyed your kingdom’ as it were. An adventure you’ll remember for a lifetime, and certainly one to tell the grandchildren.

    Liked by 1 person

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