The sun was setting on our first day at sea—a radiant orange ball descending into the limitless blue to the west. Fifty miles south of Cape Fear, North Carolina, the peak halyard on our foresail gaff had chafed through. The sail hung limply by its throat; without it, our disabled schooner wouldn’t balance on her course and steer properly. Saint, Sinbad and I assembled at the base of the foremast, while Captain explained what had to be done.
“Someone has to go up there and run a new halyard through that block,” he said. “We need to get the sail back up before it gets dark. The wind is picking up. I don’t want anyone to have a rough night of hard steering, especially on the first night standing watch. If no one volunteers, I’ll go, but I wanted to give one of you the chance to first.”
Oh! That sounds majestic, the romantic sector of my brain though, recalling a chapter from Melville. Let’s do it, body! This is a good idea!
My body was having none of it.
We’re not used to the motion of the boat yet, my body argued.
The white top of the thick wooden mast is impossibly high up off the deck. It would be like scaling a barkless three-story tree without the luxury of branches to hang on to. What happens if we fall? The disabled gaff taunted me from the top of the mast, swinging with the motion of the ship like an ominous pendulum.
You worry too much, body, my romantic brain quipped. We need to do this. It’s happening.
Before my self-preservation instinct, or the Saint or Sinbad could say anything, my hand was up and the words, “I’ll do it,” escaped from my lips.
Captain nodded. “Go get your harness and an adjustable wrench.”
I did as he asked and returned to find them uncoiling the working halyard from its home on a belaying pin. The bitter end of the line waited for me like the head of a snake.
“Tie your knot,” Captain said.
I tied what I thought was a bowline.
“That’s not right,” he corrected. “Your life depends on this knot. Do it again.”
I slowed down, focused my mind on tying it correctly rather than quickly and tried again.
“That’s better,” Captain noted. “Now you’re going to have to step outside of the lifelines first. We’re going to hoist you up together down here, but you’ll still be in charge. We’ll only haul on the line when you say pull; we go at your speed. Once you reach the top, tie one of the spare lines on your harness around something sturdy in the spreaders so you have a safety line in case anything happens. And at all times, keep a good grip on the shrouds. They’ll be what saves you if you fall.”
Saint and Sinbad held the other end of the halyard. “Don’t drop me, guys,” I said with a nervous chuckle, wishing I had been nicer to Sinbad that day.
“Don’t worry about us,” Saint said with a smile beaming from under his beard.
It was time. Captain explained all that he could; it was up to me now. I lifted one leg, then the other, over the lifelines which guarded the threshold to the void. The ocean burbled beneath as we sailed along, velvet blue in the dying evening light. My feet planted on the purple-heart railing on the bulwarks. My fingers gripped the shrouds—the thick painted steel cables that supported the mast. I was standing on the edge of life, the event horizon. It was time to make the ascent.
“Pull!” I cried. As Saint and Sinbad hauled, I jerked toward the sky, pulled from the harness around my torso. My fingers clutched the shrouds in the grip of a man who loves life. I hugged my body close to the only tangible thing in the wide, open air. Foot by agonizing foot, I slowly rose up the rigging. My gaze was fixed on my destination: The top of the mast seemed to scrape the bottom of the clouds with its crazy arrhythmic motion. As I moved higher up on the boat, the motion of the sea became amplified; a slight wobble on deck extrapolated into a wild bucking motion aloft. Rising to the top of our little ship, I felt every bob, dip, roll, and sway. I felt like a cowboy, grasping the scruffy mane of a mad bronco.
I chanced a glimpse at my friends below. From nearly three stories up, the Saint and Sinbad looked like action figures, their bodies worked like pumps to haul me still higher. The piercing blue eyes of the Captain stared up at me from the wooden deck, watching for any sign of danger. After a certain height, my cries of “pull!” were lost to the wind and the dull crashing surge of our hull charging through the sea. I had to fully concentrate on my hands and legs so I didn’t get pitched off. My forearms and hands throbbed with an ache I remembered from the monkey bars of my childhood.
Finally, I reached the top. I tied my lifeline to a spare shackle bolted into the mast, then paused to gaze out over the vast sea that stretched to eternity before me. I knew they were visions I would die remembering: endless waves marching toward the distant horizon, surging through the deep bottomless blue of the offshore Atlantic. The tiny pitching ship beneath me, a toy boat in the largest bath on the planet. My friends and my lover below, miniature on the deck. A motion that never stops.
The sky above the horizon turned pink. Purple clouds obscured the last rays of the setting sun. My view from aloft was monumental in its vastness and sublimity. Yet, it was so simple. The sea, the sky, our boat: That’s all there was in this cosmic and wave-tossed world, all there ever would be.
My task, my challenge, was there in front of me, for me alone to complete. No one else—not my mates holding the halyard, not the guiding voice of the Captain, not the girl I loved, steering the ship below me. No one could help me now; I had to do it alone—as we all do, sometime or another. I knew I had to so we could keep going, keep sailing, keep living this wild waking dream. Upon completion, I could unleash the magic I discovered in moments of overcoming life’s challenges. The question that can only be answered through action was asked of me in the rarified wind. My hands answered, working with love and with care.
My romantic brain was right. I needed to do this. I tugged on the halyard and signaled my friends to lower me to the swaying deck. I gently returned to sea level, grounded by my new knowledge of the sky.
John Wolfe is a licensed captain who still gets seasick in rough weather, but goes sailing anyway. He holds a BFA in creative writing from UNCW. When he’s not writing, he can be found on the water, playing music or drinking beer. “Going Aloft” is Wolfe’s nonfiction serialized piece, to be published in encore every other week in 2016.