January 14th, 2007
Imagine you are 80 feet in the air, standing on ratlines of natural fiber in bare feet, looking out over an expanse of blue and the green peaks and valleys of Petit Martinique and its surrounding islands. Now imagine you’ve got a weighty coffee can of tree tar strapped do your harness, which rides high and tight on your waist. The tar, however, is not just contained within the coffee can, but coats every exposed inch of skin on your body. You’re sticky, you’re a nice toffee brown color, and you’re loving it. This is what tall ship sailors call “tarring the rigging.”
Today, I began tarring at 10:00 am, climbing the mizzen mast under grayish skies. I began brushing the tar on the ratlines and shrouds, realizing very quickly that hands are far better tools than brushes. I massaged the sticky brown stuff (which smells remarkably sweet, like molasses), into the rigging, all the while trying not to let the goop rain down on the deck and on my fellow crew members who were working below. Standing on the ratlines, which are ropes about 1 inch in circumference, inevitably becomes hard on the feet for a land lover like me, so I found myself switching my weight from the balls to the heels of my feet quite often. As I moved tediously downward on the rigging, I clipped by belt harness onto the shrouds and soon found that leaning out against the resistance of the harness helped reduce the strain my left arm, which was holding my upper body as I painted tar with my right hand. I steadily moved down the mizzen mast and when I reached the bottom, Lindsey, the second mate and leader of our watch, gave me another assignment: the main mast. I climbed to the t’gallant, far higher than I’ve been yet, this time under a hot beating sun and a blue sky with streaks of impending Caribbean rains. The adrenaline rush was intense, but I took my time and began to get into a “zone.” Soon, I was able to take a few strokes with the brush and then pause to look all around me. The tiny picturesque and colorful houses, the yachts and fishing boats and dinghies in the harbor, the green hills of petit Martinique – all these things looked so much more beautiful from my new vantage point.
My feet finally reached the deck at 2:30 pm. I was coated in tar, I was sun burnt, but I was beaming. It took about an hour of scrubbing my skin with sunflower oil to get all the tar off. In many ways, this voyage has required me to test my limits. I’ve learned that jumping in the ocean can be a suitable shower, that walking on the deck of a ship while underway requires impeccable timing, that one really can “work up” an appetite. But most of all, I’m learning that I, along with my Mount Holyoke friends who are here, can do some pretty crazy things, some things that we would perhaps never have envisioned ourselves doing. And not only do we do these things, we enjoy them, we derive satisfaction from them. MacGregor hit the nail on the head when he said, “sailors work and play really hard.”