My stepfather was an ironworker who built bridges and dams. Later he became a logger. He drove a crawler tractor in the Cascade mountains above the Methow Valley in Washington State, skidding huge Douglas Fir and Ponderosa Pine logs along skid trails plunging down the steep, granite-slabbed mountainsides. His credo for remaining alive: stay “heads up” and always leave yourself a way out.
It seems absurdly simple but this wisdom is fatally easy to neglect when pressed by time or fatigue. In my stepfather’s case, he was never seriously hurt on the job and he outlived most of his peers. Some died violent deaths in a moment’s carelessness. They failed to stay “heads up” and they neglected to leave themselves a way out.
It was a hot day in the marina when my wife and I returned from her first cruise into the San Juan Islands. We had been gone four days and now all she wanted was a warm, lingering shower. I stayed behind to tidy up the boat and to hear the latest gossip from my slipmates.
I noticed a tall, lanky young man in grey twill fatigues and a wide-brimmed canvas hat moving easily about the topsides of a 28- foot sloop three berths over from mine. He had just rigged a handsome tackle of brass-strapped hardwood blocks from the masthead, and was now fitting a rigger’s sling to himself. It was obvious that he was preparing to go aloft. A slender young woman in sandals and a long, form-fitting, cotton print dress emerged from the boat cabin to help.
I folded and stowed my jib, coiled the sheets, tied back both halyards, and watched this couple prepare for his going aloft. As competent as he seemed, she seemed apprehensive and unfamiliar with the confusion of lines and mast fittings. As he prepared to hoist himself aloft, he instructed her to tail the descending slack tackle line around the mast winch. He hoisted himself briskly, steadily upwards, while calling instructions down to her as he ascended. He paused to stand on the spreader bases, leaning back comfortably from his outstretched arm, the tackle fall squeezed fast in his hand.
He called down to her to take an extra wrap of the tackle’s tail around the mast winch. He told her how to stand, to brace herself just ahead of the mast, with her feet apart, the heavy line tailing off the winch held behind her. He told her to hold it firmly against her offside hip, tucked in against her stomach, and to guide the line off the winch with her near hand. This done, he pulled himself, hand over hand, up to the masthead.
I watched, vaguely apprehensive, my jib sheets dangling forgotten in my hand. I felt compelled to offer help, but he had refused an offer from another man. The young woman was nervous. A riding turn was jamming the mast winch. She struggled to free it. In time, he called down to her to remove the line and to rewrap it, while he held himself secured at the masthead. She did, but with doubting hesitation. Then, clearly and plainly, he called down to her:
“Belay the line to the mast cleat, but first, take out all the slack.”
She hauled the line tight at the winch, and holding the tail in her hands she looked about, hesitantly.
“Tie it here?” she asked, indicating a cleat on the mast base.
“Yes,” he said.
“There is something already tied off there. Should I remove it?”
“No. That’s alright,” he called down. “Just tie it off.”