Once Atop a Mast…
9 January 2020

Sliema, Tax Biex-13km’s

I stood alone,
atop the highest yard,
in howling winds
while a wild ocean
raged all about me.

​Of course it fell to me, as the most experienced of the deck crew, to scramble up the foremast and secure the t’gallant sail which had begun to shake loose in the blow. At the time it felt a relief from the havoc below deck that three days of near hurricane force winds will wreak. Sleep had been impossible, as had staying in my bunk because no matter how well I tucked myself in there, I was always thrown free just as I was dropping off. Instead, I lay for hours on the floor, wedged between my bunk and the bulk head, listening to the sea batter the hull inches from my head, while the books I’d stowed in a box on my berths top bunk were tossed free of their housing one by one and flung randomly throughout my cabin as though by the hand of a bothersome ghost.

Despite the regularity with which I have had to do this, I always feel a small surge of exhilaration, as I mount a ship’s rig in terrible weather. On this particular day I was lucky it was daylight, as at night one must do the same thing, but near blind. We experienced hands will always wear a harness, but one does not clip in until you reach where you’re going, as to do otherwise would take precious time. My transit up the 100’ mast that day was easier than usual as the wind was pinning me to the shrouds and the ship was heeled over to such a degree that I could almost walk hands free up the ratlines. Up at the yard I stepped from the shrouds and laid out atop it, feet on foot ropes, belly across the spar in the normal manner, and I re-secured two of the lashings. Task completed I then stepped up onto the yard itself, grasping the topmast shrouds with my right hand.

And I looked around.

As the ship rolled, so too did the mast swing like a metronome’s pendulum, describing an arc of at least 25’ back and forth, making it feel as though the ship were desperately trying to buck me off like a horse does a persistent fly. The sky was a uniform grey and the North Atlantic briny black. The waves, though massive, seemed to be decapitated by the wind and as far as the eye could see in all directions was the foam and froth of furious waters. Conditions like this are deafeningly loud and up the mast the cacophony is exacerbated by the shriek of the wind through the rigging. But to look around and down at the ship, small from this height and us all alone out there 500 miles from the nearest shore, I did become aware of my unique circumstance, and of the scant few in the lengthy annals of men, who have experienced a moment such as this. At some point I checked my harness, and found I’d forgotten to clip in.

​Today, along the Sliema front, the Mediterranean too is wild, pushing out massive waves that surge across the limestone beach and crash into the seawall, sending up plumes of spray eight storeys high that soak onlookers on the boardwalk and the road beyond. It is not unpleasant running through such a misting, especially once I’ve built up an adequate froth of sweat. Tourists take pictures and gasp when a particularly large one comes charging in. There is no denying the beauty of the sea, and though at times it would appear it’s trying to kill me, despite a couple of concerted efforts, it at least seems to be playing a long game.

​A few days after that incident in the Atlantic, we were in Bermuda seeking shelter from the storm. It was a sunny day and I was assisting the Captain, a wild-eyed man with a sense of humor and a shock of white hair that broke over his greasy collar like one of the aforementioned waves. We were fixing the staysail boom which had cracked during the foul weather. He was applying two-part epoxy with a spatula from a cup while I followed, placing wood clamps over the rend, when a wasp flew into the vicinity. I dropped all I had in my hands and took off down the deck, leaving the captain there alone and unable to do anything with that sticky mess in his hands.
Just like taste, I suppose there’s no accounting for fear.

​Last Friday night I was with old friends in the full flower of a grand and boozy Maltese night. We ended up on a roof in Sliema overlooking Marsamxett Harbour as the sun was rising. There was a point, when the first rays hit the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the surrounding roofs of Valletta opposite, that it all glowed a brilliant white like the corona of light a magnifying glass casts. I was drunk and high and swaying amidst all the laughter and bonhomie and fussing with a speaker system and its stubborn Bluetooth function. But I stopped and gazed out at that old walled city and the sea in between, that appeared then, like the edge of a rough-cut sapphire turning gently before my eyes.

I thought of all I’ve beheld
and all I’ve left to behold.
And lo! As when years ago,
I stood atop a mast in a maelstrom,
I cast my gaze about me,
and it was very good.