Upping the Ante

The gap from the top of the railing to the lowermost rung

The gap from the top of the railing to the lowermost rung

While I was playing hide-and-seek with the Sirius in a dance probably unobserved by anyone but Skip and me (the waywardness of the Sirius reminded me of the first time I had someone following my car in another car as a teenager, and lost them because I forgot they were there), it was decided that now would be the best time for the 38th Voyagers who wished to to try their hand at climbing the rigging. I had felt quite comfortable the second time I climbed the rigging of the Joseph Conrad at Mystic Seaport. But as Susan and others pointed out, and as the eye could easily see, the Morgan was different. The masts and the rigging ascended much higher, as this was a full-scale whale ship, not a training vessel. Most problematic for me was that first step. You obviously could not step from the high edge of the deck railing right on to the first rung, as you could on the Conrad. There was a vertical space of about four feet to somehow negotiate, and I was not sure how I could do it. Several other Voyagers were feeling a similar trepidation after boarding the ship last night.

After sounding out a few people last night, I thought I might let it pass. But here was Sean announcing right after I finished steering that any Voyager who wished to could try out the rigging right now. He demonstrated the somewhat complicated harness we would have to wear, stepping into its lowest openings and pulling the rest up into his crotch before pulling the upper pads tight over his chest and then showing a clamp with a jaw on it that you could hook into something if you wanted to stay up there a while or if you got in trouble. Seeing that Mary K would be nearby to help me get a leg up on this challenge, I decided to try.

Mary K in heer harness ready to help me up

Mary K in heer harness ready to help me up

Sean had explained that we should free ourselves of anything on our heads (hats) or in our pockets (digital cameras, cell phones, spare change) that could get lost or fall on others while we were up in the rigging. He especially discouraged cameras. First, because it was dangerous to try to take photos up there when you should be holding to the rigging with both hands. Second, because too many climbers miss the joy and the “moment” of the climb by trying to film it. I had boughrt a head band on which to mount my GoPro for exactly that reason. He saw no problem with me going up with that on my head. 

Both hands free,, GoPro on my head strap

Both hands free,, GoPro on my head strap

I went down to my bunk to get my GoPro and head band ready to go. By the time I got back, the available harnesses were already taken. As I waited for one to become free, I found a colleague of Sue’s who agreed to take a photo of me with my digital camera if I managed to get up there. It would probably be five minutes or more before the next harness would be available, so she had temporarily gone somewhere else on deck when Sean suddenly arrived with a climber who had finished with his harness, asking him to help me get into it. If I did make it up, it would unfilmed by my digital camera. As for the GoPro, I turned on the camera, pushed what I hoped was the right button to start the video, pulled the head band over my head, and asked Mary K if she could help me up that first step.

Puttiing left foot between wooden cleat with manila line and round block with hempen line

Puttiing left foot between wooden clear with manila line and round block with hempen line

It was not that mysterious once you got up there to do it. Having Mary K nearby was reassuring because I knew she would not want me to slip into the ocean. Half way up to the first rung on the left side was a wooden cleat wrapped with manila line near a rounded block with taut, hempen lines running through it. If I could wedge my left foot in between them, I thought I could get enough leverage to get my other leg up to that first rung. And so it was. Suddenly I was standing seemingly secure on that lower rung with nowhere to go but up. Mary K did point out, though, that I needed to keep both hands on the vertical sides of the rigging; I had to keep my hands off the rungs themselves.

Left hand grips vertical part of rigging while next rung awaits foot

Left hand grips vertical part of rigging while next rung awaits foot

It seemed like this new burst of confidence was now lifting me step after step as high as was allowed (right up under the futtocks, the first point of convergence for the rigging on the mast). I tried to remember I had the GoPro on my head, but I had not used it enough to have a good sense of what it was actually seeing, or not, as I climbed up and up. When I did get as high as I could go, I turned my head slowly so as to savor that magnificent view (with a blind hope that the GoPro might be centered on the horizon line). I also took a good long look straight down on the deck, seeing that Sue’s friend was not there with my camera to record this exploit, but hoping that the GoPro, if I had pushed the right buttons, on the right settings, would at least be recording what I saw from up here.

Looking straight down with the GoPro on my head

Looking straight down with the GoPro on my head

The air and the breeze up here were lovely on this glorious morn. Possibly because we were still being towed by the tug, I did not feel a lot of motion from the tides.  We were not rocking wildly from side to side, but we were certainly moving forward. This was a big difference from my experience on the Conrad, fast to the dock, at Mystic Seaport.

Turning to the left, I got a quick glimpse of the Sirius and its tow lilne out beyond our bow. She wouild have had a harder time bobbing out of sight from up here. You would also be able to spot whales a lot easier from here than from on deck–unless the whales were underwater.

Looking out to the Sirius as I was moving up or down

Looking out to the Sirius as I was moving up or down

I understand better now how Ishmael could lose himself in deep reveries in the “Mast-Head” chapter of Moby-Dick. I was less than half way up to the height he would have been sent to scout out whales, but already the world was looking very wide—and the ship, very small. The ship was almost like a little toy, a beautiful little toy which, if someone could enlarge it, might be a ship you could sail.

View from halfway up the foremast to the aft of the ship

View from halfway up the foremast to the aft of the ship

The dimunition of objects and the expansion of space remind me of a photograph by Karen Almond in my book on Heggie and Scheer’s Moby-Dick operra.  From the fly rail gallery high above the stage, she photographed components for the framework from which they would build the white wall that supported much of the action in the opera.  The line from the “Mast-Head” chapter I used as a caption for the photo in my book on the opera works well in both contexts: “There youi stand, a hundred feet above the silent decks, striding along the deep as if the masts were gigantic stilts.”  Except that Ishmael was twice as high on the masthead as Karen or I were above the opera stage or the deck of the ship..

Looking down from the fly rail gallery of Dallas  Opera house aframes being "loaded in" for Moby

Looking down from the fly rail gallery of Dallas Opera house at frames being “loaded in” for Moby-Dich opera. Photo copyright Karen Orchard

Down is a lot easier once you were comfortable up on the mast. One step at a time, one hold at a time, and you were suddenly feeling for that sheaved block against which to wedge the left foot while the right foot felt for the deck rail. Soon I was out of the harness (which played no role that I could see in the actual climb), ready for whatever else the voyage would bring.

Easing down with Mary K ready to meet me

Easing down with Mary K ready to meet me

I did not think of it until writing this entry, but the climb up the rigging resembled my stand at the helm in its loose-fish freedom and fast-fish connection. Yes, I was connected to the ship by my feet on the rungs and my hands on the vertical sides of the rigging, but my eyes, and my imagination, and my heart were part of some other, wonder world—an unconscious airborne cruise lasting as long as your hands are secure and your spirit sure. It’s probably just as well, as I worried about taking that first step up into the rigging, that I did not know the vertical lines I would be grabbing with my hands were called “shrouds,” and that the wooden block I wedged my foot against was called a “dead eye.”

The horizon beckons through the lines and rigging

The horizon beckons beyond the lines and rigging

The fish-eye lens of the GoPro camera heightens the degree to which this aerial perspective relates to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous image of himself “a transparent eye-ball” through which “the currents of the Universal Being circulate” while his head is “bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space” (in his “Nature” essay).  The chief difference between Emerson having this revelation while “crossing a bare common” and Ishmael having his on the masthead is Ishmael’s observation that “while this sleep, this dream is on ye, more your foot or hand an inch, slip your hold at all, and your identity comes back in horror.”

Going up or down, don't slip an inch

Going up or down, don’t slip an inch

In Dickinson poem’s poem “Exultation is the going,” the “inland soul” travels “Past the homes, past the headlands— ./ Into deep Eternity.”  We passed the first “headland” out of Vineyard Haven as we rounded West Chop into Vineyard Sound. In the poem, it is the “soul,” not the body, that experiences the “Exultation.”  But the exultation it feels is related directly to the motion of the body. I had already this morning experienced two kinds of exultation I had hoped to feel on the voyage: at the helm, the instantaneous discipline of eye, body, and mind together in trying to match the erratic course of the Sirius; on the masthead, a radical disassociation between body and mind when rising high right into the sky.

Up my my foremast rigging

Looking staight up my foremast rigging

In her poem “There came a Day—at Summer’s Full—“ (J 322), Dickinson imagines that the “soul,” like the sun in any given season, can experience a “solstice” flooded with fullness. Such moments may be comparatively rare, but she seems to lament those who are unable to find such inner life and transport.

There Came a Day at Summer’s full,
Entirely for me—
I thought that such were for the Saints,
Where Resurrections—be—

The Sun, as common, went abroad,
The flowers, accustomed, blew,
As if no soul the solstice passed—
That maketh all things new.

Below is the live-action GoPro footage:


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