Somewhere, almost 100 feet above the gray waters of the North Atlantic, hangs Jerry Kirby, clinging for dear life to the swaying mast of Chessie Racing, the Maryland entry in the Whitbread Round the World Race.
Kirby, 42, is one of two bowmen on Chessie, whose job, whatever the weather conditions, is to go up the mast to sort out problems aloft.
"If you were a thinker, you would not be a bowman," said Kirby, who has sailed nearly all the way around the world aboard the 60-foot racer, through some of the most turbulent seas on earth, including the Southern Ocean.
"It's not like a big steel boat you are sailing with prudent seamanship," he said. "It's a low-weight machine that you are pushing right out to the end of its potential."
As the boat pitches and rolls, Kirby or his partner, Rick Deppe, will have to put on a safety harness, attach a halyard, and go aloft a mast that may be swinging 10 to 20 feet each side of the deck.
"You are not quaking in your shoes," Deppe said. "But the fear just makes you double-check your equipment, that your harness is on properly. It's a fear that makes you say to the guy on the halyard, 'Have you got me? Put down your cup of tea and let's have two hands for this job.'
"I personally have found the best way to get up the rig is to attack it. It is almost a cross between climbing a rock face and going into a boxing match."
Although "bumped" up by a mastman pulling on the halyard, the bowman basically climbs his way up, with his arms and legs wrapped round the mast.
"You get bruised," Kirby said. "You really take a beating. Sometimes it's real easy and you can go up smooth as silk, without problems. But when it's bad, you get smashed about.
"When it's rough, we call it 'fullcontact' mast climbing. You get broken loose from your hold on the rig. Now you are free. It's just like a ball on a string. You are attached to the halyard, but you are not attached to the rig. When the rig comes back at you, there's a lot of velocity."
Deppe knows all about that. On Leg 3, between Fremantle, Australia, and Sydney, Australia, Chessie was beating into the wind.
"It was probably the worst conditions you can get to go up the rig," Deppe said. It was so dangerous, that it was decided not to strop off a spinnaker that was put up, although this was normally done to prevent the sail from popping out of its track or the halyard from being chafed through. Fifteen minutes later, the halyard, used for raising the sail, snapped.
Deppe volunteered to go aloft. He waited for a comparatively smooth patch of water, and said: "Take me up on the express ride, and let's get it done."
He finished the job in minutes and was on his way down when he became entangled in the halyards. He extricated himself and had descended to the third spreader - about 20 feet from the top of the mast - when the boat hit a wave. He lost his grip and was thrown against the spreader. Another wave sent him spinning around the rig like a rag doll on a piece of string.
On deck, the crew watched horrified. "Everyone realized something was wrong," Deppe said. Kirby strapped on his safety harness and prepared to go aloft to rescue his foredeck partner.
"I knew I had banged my leg badly," Deppe recalled. "I just froze for a few seconds. Then I managed to get myself together again." He bounced off the spreader again and hit the mainsail.
"I managed to say to the guys, 'Get me down.' " He was lowered quickly to the deck.
He had torn calf muscles, two cracked ribs and severe bruising. He missed the next leg from Sydney to Auckland, New Zealand, but was fit again for the Southern Ocean rounding of Cape Horn to Sao Sebastiao, Brazil.
For Kirby, the injuries have been more routine - bruises on his chest, arms, elbows, shins and inner legs. "If you take the job, it goes with the territory," he said, claiming to be the oldest bowmen on any of the boats challenging each other in one of the toughest endurance events in world sport.
"Everyone says, 'You are crazy doing this after 18 or 19 years,' " says the father of two from Newport, R.I. "Obviously my wife will be happy the day I am not going up the mast. But she knows she is wasting her breath trying to talk me out of it."
His worst fear is that the boat will broach - go out of control - while he is at the mast head.
"Every time you strip off a spinnaker in heavy air you are sailing on the edge, a broach could happen," he said. "You basically black it out of your mind. The typical bowman is somebody who doesn't really contemplate the consequences too much. They just go for it."
Said Deppe: "Being a bowman, you have to have a humorous streak, or a kind of crazy attitude compared to some of the other guys."
Pub Date: 5/13/98