Scaling Jacob's Ladder

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Even now, some 17 years later, I remember it all so well. It was a Sunday in February 1988, and we were just off the outlying Tongan island of Tofua. Of the 208 souls aboard the U.S. Coast Guard's 295-foot barque Eagle, only one was now perched at the crosstrees of the mainmast, 10 stories above the blue Pacific, gazing aloft with the driest of mouths and rattling knees and wondering if he had the nerve and composure to keep climbing skyward until there was literally nothing left to climb.

That, of course, would've been me.

I'd boarded the ship 10 days earlier, in Sydney, Australia, notebook and camera in hand. Eagle had just wrapped up a starring role as a floating ambassador for America during the Australian bicentennial celebration. Afterward, nearly 130 Coast Guard cadets flew out, and a matching number flew in for the return voyage to Connecticut, the ultimate semester at sea. As part of the public-relations onslaught that was a small part of the overall mission, there were a couple of journalists aboard. I was one of them.

I think back in wonder at the remarkable access I was afforded. Five days into the 2,600-mile voyage to American Samoa, Chief Quartermaster Paul Bates--a cruising sailor who owned a Cheoy Lee 27 back in City Island, New York--took me aloft for the first time. Truthfully, the only vexing part of the gallop up the ratlines was swinging "over the top"--hauling yourself up and over at the tops, the platform about a third of the way up the mast, and at the crosstrees, the stopping point at the two-thirds mark. After I got the hang of it, I'd spend hours each day up in the rig, studying the long ocean swells as if they held the answers to all the mysteries of the universe. The crosstrees were my fort, and the view was better than magnificent. There was no reason to go any higher.
Until, inevitably, there was.

North of the crosstrees, the upper portion of the mast, as all tall ships aficionados know, is called the royal. To scale it, one must first ascend a narrow, steeply inclined set of ratlines until reaching the sheer pole, the last obstacle to the masthead. The final, vertical rungs are called Jacob's ladder. With my leg of the voyage coming to an end--I was due to be dropped off in Pago Pago in a couple of days' time--I suddenly became obsessed with a desire to scale it. In fact, it occurred to me that the entire experience of sailing aboard Eagle would be wasted if I didn't.

Back then, the commanding officer of Eagle was a legendary and much revered career Coast Guard officer, Captain Ernest Cummings. But the trigger for this stroll down memory lane was my recent correspondence with Eagle's current C.O., Captain Eric Shaw, with whom I've been swapping e-mails in relation to my duties as a board member for the American Sail Training Association (ASTA). Captain Shaw has reminded me of the valuable lessons that going to sea can instill in the lives of impressionable young people. The obstacles, challenges, camaraderie, and rewards one encounters on the deck and in the yards of a square-rigger are all synonymous with life itself.

And it should be noted that one needn't attend the Coast Guard Academy to crew aboard a tall ship, although it's certainly an excellent option. If you know someone who might benefit from such a remarkable opportunity, visit the ASTA website (www.tall ships.sailtraining.org) for a complete list of volunteer billets.

Back aboard Eagle, I took a deep breath, along with one last look up (not down!), and went for it. When I'd reached the top rung, some 147 feet above the rolling Pacific, I planted a big smooch on the ship's fluttering pennant, a ritual said to bring good luck. For me, it was the trip's best souvenir.

It's not a stretch to say that in our sailing lives, we all encounter a Jacob's ladder or two standing before our dreams. It might be as simple as taking that first overnight sail, or as complicated as cutting the ties to land and setting off on an extended cruise. Either way, you can get there from here: Just gulp hard, then take that first step.