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.”
There was a long silence while she worked about the base of the mast. I glanced down to resume coiling my jib sheets, and just as quickly heard an ominous sound. I jerked my head up and saw the rigger falling, windmilling down, his arms and legs flailing. He was clawing for a hold somewhere along that naked aluminum mast. The wooden blocks and four-part tackle were falling in a tangle around him.
His leg hit the spreader, hard. He spun then, and thudded onto the cabin top. As I stood, frozen, horrified, I heard him groan. He moved his hands down his pants leg, feebly, where the fabric was beginning to darken with blood.
The terrified woman had grabbed frantically at the line that snaked upwards in a whipping streak, wrenching her hands open each time she desperately tried to check its racing ascent, tearing and burning the fingers and palms of her thin hands.
In her anxiety, confronted with an unfamiliar task, she could not bring herself to tie the rigger’s hoisting line off to a cleat already half-filled with another line. She did what seemed safest: she uncleated that line to make more room. She did not realize that everything: the tackle, the sling, and the rigger, all were hanging from that offending line, the mainsail halyard. When she loosed it and it ran free, everything fell.
There was nothing else to hold him.
Help arrived immediately. The rigger was well attended by skilled first aid volunteers until an ambulance arrived to transport him to the local hospital. The distraught young woman was despairing while an attendant bandaged her torn hands. In tears, she blamed herself.
Silently, I blamed him.
He had suspended everything from a single halyard. He didn’t rig a safety line. He refused an offer of experienced help. He hauled himself to the masthead without taking time to talk and to coach his obviously nervous helper through every step of the procedure. And he failed to tell her that everything, perhaps even his life, was hanging from that one crucial line, the mainsail halyard, tied off to the mast cleat in front of her.
Shaken, I closed my boat and slowly walked past the scene of that frightening fall. I remembered the many times in my life that my step-father’s advice had kept me clear of trouble:
“Son, always think things through and never fail to leave yourself a way out. Stay heads up and you’ll stay alive.”