Rigging sometimes means climbing, and climbing sometimes means falling. For all of my professional life, not a year has gone by that I haven’t heard at least one or two tragic stories about falls from aloft. It happens on construction sites, on mountains, on ships, and in theaters. It happens on rooftops, on bridges, in stadiums, on windmills. It happens wherever some combination of inattentiveness, poor training, defective gear, poor judgement, an unstable platform, unanticipated actions, fatigue, injury, and the inherent malevolence of the universe conspire to expose the climber to unimpeded gravity.
But I am not going to write about injurious nor fatal falls, not this time. As instructive as the saddest stories are, their very gruesomeness is what takes our attention, so instead of learning from the mistakes or misfortunes of the fallen, we tend to fixate on the fall itself. Stories of death or serious injuries from falls can be useful, but, like capital punishment, they aren’t necessarily good at getting people to change their behavior. So this time I’m going to talk about some near-misses, about times where things came out okay.
At deck level on this, the mainmast of the barque Sea Cloud, the shrouds are thick and stable, with fat ratlines.
Things are still good at the next level, the topmast, but not as good; the shrouds are thinner, and there are fewer of them, and their fore-and aft spacing diminishes as they go up.
At the third level there are few shrouds, and spaced so close together that they twist from my weight. My feet barely fit on the narrowing gaps between the shrouds.
When I am over 200 feet up, hanging on to the skysail lifts, which are the last bits of significant rigging on this mast, my goal is still several feet above me. It is the gleaming mast truck, the cap at the very top. It houses pulleys for flag halyards, and has always performed admirably, but the Yale Alumni Club is arriving soon, to cruise the Turkish coast, and they have sent ahead a huge Yale flag; the bosun is afraid that if the wind picks up, the flag might tear the truck off. So he has assigned me to lash a separate block on, right under the truck, just for that flag. But there is nothing to hang onto up there; I will have to shinny up and tie myself on before tying the flag on.
There is no safe way to do this job, but at this time, 30-some years ago, it is especially dangerous, because I have neither the training nor the knowledge of how to keep myself tied on at every moment. I will just try to hang on until I can get into position above the lifts.
By brute force I manage to get up. The boat is at the dock on a fairly calm day, but up here the mast is going through at least a 20 foot arc, back and forth. With one hand I reach for the lanyard on my belt that will secure me to the mast. My feet slip. The mast probably still shows dents from where I make a convulsive grab. As I hang there, an image pops into my mind of the obituary page of my hometown newspaper. The headline reads, “Local man dies hanging Yale flag in Turkey.”
I think, “No. Too embarrassing,” and I reposition, and get secure, and use my hands and teeth to secure the halyard block for the damn flag, and I get back to deck the gradual way.
This was the first part of the three-part “Not Falling Far” series. Keep reading for the others!
Enjoy the story? Looking for more? You’re in luck! “Falling,” which in includes all three of these stories along with other tales from aloft, both thrilling and amusing, is now for sale on Amazon.com in handy e-book form! Or click here to get it on Apple iBooks!
From dropped tools to collapsed towers to near-fatal falls, the litany of accidents and near-accidents is long… and the sometimes miraculous outcomes are both instructive and thought-provoking.
Not a technical manual, “Falling” is nonetheless a must-have companion in the library of anyone working at heights.
If you have a not-falling-far story that ends happily, and which might prove instructive and/or amusing, please Contact Me and I will try to fit it into the next installment.
Next week: The Bounce Test
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