“In knocking about on the Royal yards, mind don’t let go one rope till you have hold of another, and if you keep in mind this good advice you will never fall from aloft.
Anonymous mariner, Way Of A Ship
Some days bring you all the excitement you can stand. This was one of them. The Eagle’s visit to Hamilton, Bermuda was cut short by an oncoming hurricane.
The Captain was taking us north ahead of the storm flying as much canvas as he dared.
“Mr. Marcott. Come with me.” Second Classman Al Breed stood in front of the ready boat crew pointing at me. There was urgency in his voice, “There’s something clanging around on the main royal. We’ve got to check it out.”
The royal is the highest sail on the mast. It meant a long climb up the shrouds then a dangerous move onto the footrope fourteen stories above the ocean. I felt a little surge of anxiety. It was dark and raining, and the storm was tossing the Eagle all over the ocean.
It was summer, but the rain was cold and hurt as it pelted me with a wind driven strength I had not felt before. The rain-slicked steel of the crosstrees and yard arm were slippery. We were hard up on a starboard tack making the dangling footrope a long reach. I was going to have to push off to grab the after jackstay, that one-inch steel safety rod that ran the length of the yard arm. It was the only safety grip when working aloft.
We had no safety harnesses in 1953.
The barque was taking heavy rolls. We flailed through a ninety foot arc, like the weights on a 135 foot metronome, first over the deck, then above the black broiling ocean.
“Can you make it OK?” Breed hollered from the shrouds just below me. He cupped his hand by the side of his mouth to overcome the high pitched wind screaming through the rigging. “Don’t take any chances. Be careful.”
“Yes, Sir. I think I’ll be ok.” With that, I timed the pitch of the ship and pushed off. I grabbed the jackstay with my right hand in a vice grip, squeezing it into wire. I had made it onto the footrope, but my momentum pushed the yardarm away. It was moving fast, and with the ship dropping beneath us in a steep pitch, I could feel that sickening moment of weightlessness, like cresting at the top of a roller coaster run.
The yard clanged into the steel stop with a shuddering crash, the lingering vibration numbed my fingers. The braces had not been secured, letting the yardarm dangerously free to move. Breed quickly took charge.
“You OK? Hold tight and stay where you are.”
“Yes, Sir. I’m all right.”
“On the main deck!” He was calling for the attention of the ready boat crew.
“Main deck, aye.”
“ Secure the main royal weather and lee braces. Now!”
“Aye, Aye, Sir,” the answer came from the dark below and the boat crew responded quickly.
Breed talked me back onto the shrouds, which were closer and easier to reach now. We stood together for a few moments. “Just take a few deep breaths, and when you’re ready, we’ll head back down. Good Job.”
I thought, “I didn’t do anything but hang on.” I was just happy the Academy was not going to have to name an athletic field me after me. (The football stadium, Jones Field, was named for the only cadet to die from a fall from the rigging.)
Safely back on deck, it was all over. I rejoined the ready boat crew, huddled under the pin rail, grateful for what little protection it provided from the pelting rain. The pounding heart beat I could still feel in my ears gradually subsided.