Thursday, June 10, 2010

Top of the Mast

On Wednesday it was just Dave, Dave's daughter, and I for racing. We went over on the 4.15 tender to the QCYC club where the boat lives. We had a leisurely beer or two. Until race time started to draw close. As we started to rig the boat we ran into a huge problem. The sail cover on the Jib (the front sail) wouldn't come down. It fits over the sail like a sleeve, and is pulled up and let down with a halyard (a halyard is any rope used to haul something vertically--typically up and down the mast). As we looked upward with binoculars and our naked eye it seemed as though the halyard and been pulled up too far, and that some part of the sail cover had gotten hung up on the pulleys at the top of the mast. We tried some more tugging and other tricks to no avail. And race time was coming up fast.

So... Dave dug through a sail locker below and found a very simple harness. Right away I remembered the harness I used to tie around myself when wall climbing in high school gym class. I'm not sure if I would remember all the parts to the that knot, but it seemed like it would be better than this sad thing.

"Maybe we'd better have a safety line, too," Dave suggested.

"Yeah, that's probably a good idea!"

As I put it on around my hips I could tell that the harness would be uncomfortable, but not painful. The bigger problem is that it would haul me up below my centre of gravity, meaning that if I let go of the mast I would likely flop backwards and then fall out of the harness!

By now we were starting to gather a little crowd on neighbouring boats and the shore. One guy (who happens to have a lot of experience in open-ocean cruising) offered to help and Dave welcomed his assistance. I hooked up the main halyard to my harness and then double checked that the harness and halyard were secure.

For a safety, I made a quick bowline knot with another halyard looped under my armpits. I made a "safety" in the knot so that if the knot failed or slipped it should lock up, anyway. It would suck to be hanging by a slip knot around your chest!

Things were moving really fast. Dave had wrapped the main halyard around a winch on deck and his friend had then taken the tail of that rope and put it around another winch just in case. The safety rope was put through a rope clutch (kind of a one-way valve for ropes) so that it could be brought in but would arrest my fall (abruptly, if it came to that) should something happen with the main halyard.

Dave started winching by 200 lbs up the mast. As he did so, I tried to grip onto the mast with my legs and my arms. As much as I could I would pull myself up as Dave turned the winch. Periodically I would call out "safety" to have the slack removed from the safety line. I also had to have Dave pause a few times so that I could untangle myself from shroud lines.

I was pleased to notice at the top of the mast (38 feet up), that the boat wasn't heeling back and forth like I thought she might. Good thing we were still in the slip! The other thing I noticed was that I wasn't feeling afraid of heights. I was so focused on the mast and the lines holding me up that I really didn't have the mental effort to worry or even perceive just how high up I was.

I gave the sail cover a tug and the offending fabric immediately tore away (at a seam, thankfully), but then the halyard that had been holding it up retreated into the top of the mast. I could see it, but not reach it. So the guys hauled me up the last few inches and from there I could hook the end of the halyard with my finger and pull it out. I kept pulling until Dave's daughter could get it on the foredeck.

Now... coming down... The first problem I noticed is that the harness was making it hard for me to breath. Passing out would be very bad indeed, so I asked the guys below to expedite their process of figuring out how to get me down. I took some deep breaths and made some mental calculations about how long I could keep holding on to the mast (maybe five or ten minutes). More delay. It was probably only a minute but it felt like five. I wasn't worried about falling, per se, just passing out!

Then they started to lower me down. Easier than going up, as you would expect. On the deck, lots of at-a-boy's from the peanut gallery. I think Dave was relieved it all worked. Later he was able to sew up the sail cover tear and no harm done.

The race was okay. Our start was pretty good, but we had some bad luck with wind. We are still waiting for that new mainsail to arrive.


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