ASK YOUR QUESTIONS, Fears and Worries, Safety & Security Q&A

I am afraid of going up the mast. How do I deal with this?

Sherri’s question

One of the things I want to ask other women about is going up the mast.I feel silly about it because twenty years ago I was adventurous and really liked heights and was into rock climbing! But over the past few years I have become fearful of heights and no matter how much I tell myself that I am being ridiculous and that it’s totally safe and that I normally love this stuff, my body freaks out. I shake and lose control and get dizzy and disorientated.

I feel like an idiot! I am an artist and I have nearly fallen off of ladders working on murals. It’s getting quite annoying and I don’t know why my body reacts this way when my mind it telling me it’s all fine… Of course I am concerned I will have to go up the mast at some point -I tried once and froze and it was humiliating.

Right now our boat is on land and it scares me to go up the ladder and I practically crawl to the cockpit to stay away from the edge! It’s absurd but my body is simply not responding to my mind!

How do people deal with this? How about when the boat is underway? Should I talk to a psychologist about this? I am reluctant to even call it a “fear of heights” because I can get on the roof of my house to sweep the chimney without a problem. I have been wondering about this and how other women deal with it…

Thank you for listening!


Gwen Hamlin answers.

Gwen Hamlin up the mast in bosun chair Interestingly, nobody has brought this up before. However, I can empathize.

I was never afraid of heights as a young person, but after a height related injury (too long a story!), my brain reprogrammed itself. Interesting how the mind/body does that.

The issue first revealed itself when hiking with my sister and her kids. First a rock made me anxious. Then, of all things, a fire tower. My knees went weak every time one of the kids stepped near the rail. This has carried on through the years. I can be in a high apartment  tower, but I’m not happy on their terrace. I can hike, until things get too narrow. I get anxious about my balance in almost any precarious situation.

But oddly enough, going up the mast hasn’t bothered me. I thought for sure it would. And we have a tall mast! For the early years, I always took someone else up on Whisper (my boat), and on Tackless II I took Don up.  I’m not quite sure when or why we changed!  For sure, though, don’t task load yourself.  Start slowly, perhaps just as far as the spreaders, and be sure you are doing so at the dock and in settled conditions.  Once your brain accepts that you are secure up there, I believe your nerves will settle.

Gwen Hamlin up the mast in bosun chair We have the stout kind of bosun’s chair, with a rigid insert for a seat, and fabric that wraps around three sides with a stout webbing buckle snapping me in. I always insist on running the halyard end through the two rings and tying a bowline and then closing the shackle around the line to boot. Quite simply, I can’t fall out.  Once the mind believes that, things get easier. Then we used the rope gipsy of our horizontal windlass to take us up. Up was always easy, with three wraps on the drum. Down was trickier, taking one turn off so the line would slide without wrapping.

Go up slowly. When Don took me up with the windlass, the hard part was dodging my way around the standing backstays and upper intermediates. But for some reason, secure in that bosun chair, I never felt precarious…and I would go to the tip top or swing out to work on the spreaders.

Sometimes the halyard didn’t seem to slide smoothly when I took Don up…or more to the point, when I tried to bring him down. That caused me some anxiety for him.  When I worried about it, I would send up a backup halyard controlled from the mainsail winch. This made the whole deal a bit complicated, I admit.

Neither of us has gone up at sea. Because we didn’t want ever to have to do that, we rigged the boat with two forward halyards and two aft — the genoa halyard and spinnaker halyard going forward and the main and topping lift going back. Our theory was they could be interchanged in a tight spot. We were always particularly careful not to let loose of the halyards!

As for dealing with climbing ladders and being on the boat on the hard, I too found it discomfitting.  Not just is there the height above the hard, hard ground, but there is the unsettling fact that the boat isn’t moving the way your brain expects it to!  People (guys!) who have no issues with height often just prop a ladder anywhere and are good to go.

For me, I insisted on the ladder being placed 1) as near as possible to a regular gate, and or 2) within hand’s reach of the shroud or backstay.  In other words, on the hard is no place to give up the maxim, “one hand for you and one for the boat!”  I had no problem stepping around the gate onto the cap rail (ours was a flat wood cap rail, not a perforated one) as long as I was able to have a firm hold of something with my hands.

Then make sure the ladder is tied in place.  Not only does this make sure there is no flipping backwards…but it ensures a yard neighbor doesn’t help himself to your ladder!  Don and I got stuck aboard one night when a security guard, not knowing anyone was aboard, lowered the ladder to deter thievery.

Some other tips:  Wear shoes up and down the ladder for a better foothold; take shoes off at the top and leave them on a mat.  Try to avoid climbing with gear in your hands;  use a hoist line and a bucket or basket to get stuff up.  At night, use a bucket as a temporary bathroom whenever possible to avoid climbing down a ladders in the dark. (We sat ours right in one of our heads so that was easier psychologically.)

Finally, if you remain seriously uncomfortable on deck on the hard, for God’s sake, don’t walk around the deck with anything but the regular lifelines in place.  It is actually probably better to have no lifelines at all than to string a line and think it will serve as a substitute.  I found that lurching onto a line that doesn’t respond as I expect it to a very unnerving and dangerous sensation.

Hope this is helpful. We are each individual!


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1 comment to I am afraid of going up the mast. How do I deal with this?

  • Tami Breeden

    I went up the mast for the first time a couple of weeks ago. It was simultaneously heartstopping and eyeopening. A line got fouled and I was the small one. After I finished, I said “No one lowers me without a picture!” I just held my breath and did it. I trust my man and skipper. So it’s good.

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