The slightly welcoming yet subtly disconcerting smell of near-dock water fills my nose as I recline on a deck box, the docklines bouncing rhythmically on their anchors and the bumpers creaking and grumbling as they keep the ship from hitting the pier. At long last, the all-hands call has expired.
Most of the crowd has vanished as the scorching heat drives them back to the cool shade and air-conditioning. A brown piece of canvas has been hoisted over an idle rope above deck to give us a tent-like shade spot, but the breeze is enough for me at this moment. I stand and look over the side of the ship, feeling like it’s been a year since I’ve seen that deep green color of grass or heard the sounds of anything technological — cars, cell phones, the whole bit.
I hear a rustle of fabric behind me and see Billy, his ever-present clipboard and walkie-talkie held like a baby to his chest.
“We’re dock stowing the sails,” he says. “We need you outboard up on the maintopsail yard.”
“I’ll be there,” I say and slide off of the box. Hefting the huge wooden lid of another deck box near the vent for the cooking fire, I snatch a black tangle of a harness and begin to unwind it. My first real time aloft, I muse, slightly nervous yet slightly excited. Captain had trained me to go aloft safely some months ago, but never before have I been up in the rigging for a purpose.
Let’s do this.
I glance up into the rigging, where Jeffy and Jesse are already hard at work furling and stowing the sail.
Hooking a foot onto the shrouds, I begin my wobbly and slightly disconcerting “first real climb” into the rigging toward the maintopsail.
I soon become accustomed to the wobbling of the shrouds and climb confidently, pausing only when I finally reach the futtock shrouds — more ladder-like rope, the only difference being its direction. Backwards.
In order to reach the platform at the maintopmast yard, I’ve got to grab the futtock shrouds underneath the platform and climb backwards, like a spider clinging to a ceiling. After a few moments’ pause to gather myself, I take a firm hold on the first futtock shroud and muster up my best spider monkey impersonation.
One knee finally down on the maintopsail fighting top, I take a few moments to catch my breath and look back down on deck; the ship seems a much more manageable size from up here. I can’t imagine what it’s like looking down from the three sails above me!
I see the empty spot I guess I’m supposed to fill way out at the very tip of the yard — outboard, as it’s apparently called. Looking down, I see the unyielding cement of the dock smiling back up at me — from where I’ll be outboard, where the yard and the sail reach outside the ship’s edge, a misplaced step will send me straight to a splattering end.
Casting a quick glance over the other crewmembers already working the sail, I see them standing and balancing like cats on a single rope about the width of a broom handle. I creep toward the edge of the platform, and the sailor two out from me on the yard looks from under his blue bandanna.
“Laying on,” I say, preparing a hesitant step onto the rope.
“Lay away,” the older man closest to me says with a smile.
I let my weight sink into the rope, dropping the other four sailors as I find my balance. Fumbling with the carabiner on my harness, I latch on to a rope higher than but parallel with the one I’m standing on. It won’t keep me from falling, but at least it will ensure that I only get seriously hurt instead of dead.
It takes some determined and clumsy shimmying, but I slide past the other four sailors and find my place outboard on the maintopsail yard. To my left is a girl I’ve heard called Amy, her hair tucked under a baseball cap and her intense eyes fixed on me, the newbie.
I smile at her, and she points to the sail. “Wrap your knuckles into it and hold hard.” For the first time, I notice that the rest of the crewmembers on the yard are waiting for me. I grab a handful of the stiff sail, noticing for the first time how coarse and unbending the canvas is. How am I supposed to get a good grip on this?
“We’re going to roll it back, like we’re rolling a sleeping bag. Tight.” I nod.
“Three two HEAVE!” I throw my weight back, drawing up some sail with me.
“Three two HEAVE!” We yank again, the entire crew chanting.
“Three two HEAVE!”
“Three two HEAVE!”
We pause, and I lean forward over the yard, refusing to let go of the somewhat satisfactory grip I have on the sail. If I let it go, I’m not getting it back. As I lean, the balls of my feet wobble slightly to keep me balanced on the rope. Amy looks over at me.
I pause, confused. “No I’m not.” I’m not. Really. Actually, I like this even more than standing lookout!
“Yes you are,” she snorts.
I inwardly roll my eyes. Yes indeed, because you are me and you know exactly how I feel. “No, I’m really not,” I retort. She scowls but says no more.
“Ready…” I hear from the sailor closest to the fighting top platform inboard. I wrangle with the canvas in my grip.
“Three two HEAVE!” I yank back again, and Amy frowns. “You’ve got to pull on it!”
“I am!” I nearly shout back, partly because she’s a little distance away from me in the wind and partly because she’s irking me quickly.
“Three two HEAVE!” I give it even more gusto this time. Amy leans over and sinks her long fingers deep into my section of canvas, wrestling with it to yank it back, as I am obviously completely inept in her book.
For a moment, I stand and watch and actually enjoy myself as she jerks at it, her frown turning into a scowl and then an all-out snarling growl. That’s because I have the piece of sail closest to the outside, where the sail meets the yard, I giggle to myself. There’s not as much for me to pull, so it’s harder to pull.
“Three two HEAVE!”
I pull back again, but I can feel that the canvas is no longer moving. As far as I can see, I’ve pulled my part as high and tight as it will go. I give it a couple more testing jolts, but the canvas won’t budge. After a few more heaves, the crew rests again, their arms draped forward over the canvas-covered yard. I lean forward again, the balls of my feet ever compensating for my standing on a moving inch-thick rope. I hear Amy give an irritated and obnoxious sigh.
“We’ve got to get her down!” she shouts suddenly, reaching toward me. “She’s scared.”
“What?” I ask, stepping further outboard away from her groping hand. I sink my feet into the rope, relishing in this newfound excitement at being aloft. You wanna dance? I grin, sure of my balance — this is where I belong!
“I know you’re scared!” she snarls.
“I AM NOT SCARED.” We glare in silence for what seems a few minutes before she finally snatches a handful of my shirt.
I give her a hard look before slinking behind everyone again. She watches me set foot back on the fighting top, and I cast her another scowl before slipping around to the other side of the mast. Here, on the port side, is another set of crewmembers also working on stowing the sails. I crouch down next to the first of them.
“You need any help?”
He looks over the yard, then says, “Sure, we could use one more.”
I grin as I take my place on the opposite yard, hidden from Amy’s sight by a tangle of ropes and shrouds and the thick mast.
Funny, no one over here thinks I’m afraid.
It was on this day that I learned of my passion for working aloft, I’ll tell you that much!
Quotes from this day’s ship log:
“Was outboard on the maintopsail.”