My Tall Ship Adventures – Going aloft and overcoming fear

Inspired by Bucket List Publications – Catching sight of the shore from Bark Europa


The fear of going aloft on a tall ship is immense.  It is a true challenge, especially if you don’t like heights.  One of life’s opportunities that if you get it, go for it!  I read a blog last night which is a brilliantly written piece about the experience and feelings that a person goes through when going aloft on a tall ship.  The more I read, the more I was gripped, and the more vivid my memories of going aloft came back to me – it inspired me to write about my experience, to note those feelings, celebrate the achievements, and put on record my aspirations for the future.

Sir Winston Churchill - Schooner

The 3 masted schooner – Sir Winston Churchill, in the Canaries March 1998

I had similar feelings to the person writing “Catching sight of the shore from Bark Europa” when I went “up and over” in the Canaries on the three masted schooner, Sir Winston Churchill.  “Up and over” is an exercise that new crew members take during their first couple of days aboard a tall ship. You don’t have to do it, however I think it is all part of the experience of sailing a tall ship.  You are probably asking what I mean about “up and over” – it is where you climb the rigging on one side of the ship to the first crows nest platform and then go down the other side.

I remember that first step out onto the side of the boat to start the climb up the shrouds and that first step onto the ratlines (like rungs of a ladder however they are made of rope).  The pounding in my heart.  The lump in my throat. The encouragement from my fellow crew.  Then that hand over hand, foot over foot climb up the rigging.  Don’t look down.  Don’t look down!  I kept telling myself.

Just when I got the hang of going up, I could go up no further without going out.  Yes, going out at an angle like you are kind of upside down.  This is the tricky bit – the heart stopper.  For the first time on the climb I clip on.  The heart and the stomach well and truly in the mouth.  I can’t do this.  I can’t do this!  My inner self said.  The other part of my inner self said you can!  You will!  You may never get the opportunity again!  So I went for it.  Out onto the futtock shrouds I went – these lean backwards for 4 to 6 feet.  Hands and legs shaking I continued the climb.

The audible sigh of relief as I climbed over into the crows nest.  Legs like jelly.  The view of Santa Cruz amazing.  The view of the deck down below scary and beautiful.  Yes, I allowed myself to look down from the dizzy height and safety of the crows nest.

Climbing down the rigging on Sir Winston Churchill

Coming down the rigging on Sir Winston Churchill

Then it was the climb down the other side.  Over the edge of the crows nest.  The legs still like jelly.  Down the complicated upside down piece of the futtock shrouds.  Then down the main shrouds.  You will not believe how solid the side of the boat felt when I stepped off the bottom ratline.  Definitely more solid than when I stood on it for the ascent.  Then the little twist round the rigging and a drop to the deck.  Phew!  I survived.  I had done it.  I beat my fear.  I beat the inner “I can’t do it” voice.  I was elated by my success.  Overwhelmed with joy.  Amazed at my achievement.  “Wow”  I had climbed the mast of a tall ship!  What a thrill and such an adrenalin buzz.

This was over 17 years ago and I thought it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.  Over the years I became disappointed that I did not go aloft again on that trip and disappointed that I did not get out on one of the yards.  A missed opportunity, however I could not be too hard on myself as I achieved loads just going “up and over”.  So you can imagine my determination when I got the opportunity to go tall ship sailing again almost 5 years after my first experience.  It was with the same organisation, and the ship was the brig Prince William.

The Brig Stavros S Niarchos

Sister ship of the brig Prince William that I was on when this photo was taken. This ship is Stavros S Niarchos and Prince William was similar in look

The trip started as my last did, with the opportunity to go “up and over”.  Talk about a different person.  I embraced the challenge.  I had done it before.  I could do it again.  Up I went.  Yes, legs like jelly.  Yes, heart in throat.  Yes, butterflies in the stomach.  And yes, the same fear as before.  Again what an adrenalin buzz.

It doesn’t harm having fear.  In fact I think it is healthy.  It allows you to take a risk without being overzealous or having the attitude of “I am invincible”.  I knew I was not invincible and would certainly go splat if I did not concentrate and be careful.  My fear kept me safe.

On this trip I took my experience one step further.  On our return into Portsmouth the crew were asked for volunteers to go out on the yards for our arrival into port.  My hand went up.  Went down.  Then went back up again with determination.  I was not going to let this opportunity pass me by.  No definitely not.

Going aloft on the brig Prince William

Going aloft on the brig Prince William

This was definitely taking going aloft to the next level.  For a start we were not in port sheltered from the elements and moored against a still dock.  We were at sea.  At sea!  Am I mad?  Am I insane?  Possibly, but I had to do it.  I had to give this chance of a lifetime a go.  This second chance of a lifetime!  I may not get another chance.  The fear in my mind, not only of going aloft on the shrouds, I had done this twice before, but of that first step out on the yard.

I went aloft and out onto the yard like the people in this picture on board the brig Prince William

I went aloft and out onto the yard like the people in this picture on board the brig Prince William

So onto the side of the boat I went and up the shroud I climbed.  Shaky legs or what, but climb I did.  Up, up, up I went to the first yard.  Gulp!  Yes I went “gulp” when I got to where I needed to be on that climb.  Only to find I was being directed up to the next, so onward and upward I went to the second yard.   I had to step from the safety of the ratlines, a safety I had become a little accustomed to, across onto the yard.  Oh they look sturdy thick things from down on the deck but that is not the part you step on to.  No, that’s the part you cling to.  Well, what I clinged on to!  The part you step onto is a rope.  Yes you heard right, a rope.  A single foot rope.  A rope that is moving with the motion of the ship and with the movement of those before you going further out onto the yard.  It was daunting and scary!  So I clipped on and took that tentative step onto this rope and clung on for dear life until I relaxed enough to enjoy.  That is where I stayed for what seemed like an hour.  More like 20 minutes or so.  What an experience standing there.  Proud of my achievement and waving to the crowds lining the quay.  Amazing.  AMAZING!  Tears streaming (which I could not wipe, my hands were very busy making sure I did not fall with all the waving I was doing).  I had the biggest smile ever on my face.  A moment of life that will remain with me until I die.  A moment of life where I was glad I put myself forward and took that brave step.  A moment of life that proved to me that I could overcome my fears and overcome that little voice that says “I can’t”.

Me aloft on Prince William - out on the yard

Me aloft on Prince William – out on the yard

I have always wanted to repeat this experience.  To do it again.  To do it several times more.  To be up there untying the sail gaskets or stowing the sails.  Again to take going aloft to the next level.  My ultimate dream is to get to the very top.  I think that one is out of the question though since becoming disabled and needing both legs to be working properly to do the climb.

I had an accident back in 2008, which left me in excruciating pain.  The kind of pain that you want to use a chainsaw to chop the offending part of the body off with – that would be less painful than the pain from CRPS.  I walk full time on crutches, which have damaged my shoulder through over use, so now I use a wheelchair for anything more than a very short distance.  Six years ago my dreams were shot.  I wouldn’t sail again.  Wouldn’t get to see places I wanted to see.  Wouldn’t get to go aloft again.  Probably wouldn’t work again.  Accident equaled all dreams gone!  That is how I felt, its hard not to feel that way when all you do is suffer pain, and everything you do makes that pain worse.  I don’t give in easy though.  I look for challenges.  I bury that little “I can’t do” voice and make sure the “I can and will do” voice is there at the forefront.  Its not always that way round, I don’t expect it to be, and it took me a while to get my head around the pain and learn to live life differently.  But I did it.  I overcame the fear of living life with a disability.  I pushed myself to find work, and push myself each and every day to be in work.  I started sailing again.  I was gaining my life back little by little from the pain that took me over.  That does not mean I am not in pain, I still am, it just means I can manage my symptoms  and pace better to allow some form of a life.  To enjoy new challenges and new fears.  To be me!

Still loving tall ships, I go most years to see the tall ships when they are in Belfast.  To stand on the quay.  To admire the rigging.  To walk the decks.  To dream.  To wish I could do it again.  To yell in my mind at my stupid foot for changing my life.  To enjoy a moment in time where memories flood back about my two tall ship adventures.  To think how lucky I am to have been able to have those adventures at all.  It was during these visits that I came across the Jubilee Sailing Trust and learnt about their two ships Lord Nelson and Tenacious.  What fantastic vessels that enable disabled people to sail alongside able bodied people on a tall ship.  You can even go aloft in your wheelchair!

My next aloft challenge!

That was it, the dream was on!  It has taken a couple of years to come into fruition and it will happen this year.  I will be embarking on my third tall ship adventure and taking part in the Tall Ships Race 2015 from Belfast to Alesund in Norway.  I am knocking a few things off my bucket list in one trip.  I don’t know how high I will be able to go on the rigging, I just know I will go as high as I possibly can and hopefully go up a couple of times at least on the trip.

I originally started this blog as a place to record my thoughts and feelings about the trip, and to make a record of my trip.  I hope you will follow my journey as I embark on what really is an adventure of a lifetime.

If you have experienced sailing a tall ship why not leave a comment below.

What ship did you sail?

Where did you sail?

What were your favourite experiences of the voyage?

Did you go aloft?

I would love to hear about your experience on board a tall ship.

7 thoughts on “My Tall Ship Adventures – Going aloft and overcoming fear

  1. Wow this is fantastic! Thank you, I so want to do this now as I miss the sea and the sound of the wind in the sails. You are so very right, our fear is the main thing that holds us back but learning to gag that little voice and keep pushing opens up so much more.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Sailing Penguin sails into the Belfast Telegraph | Spoons, Sailing, CRPS and Penguins

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s