Mast-have views from the crow’s nest

Lofty am­bi­tions at the top of a tall ship on Sydney Har­bour

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - JOHN BORTH­WICK

IN a heavy swell, the mast of a tall ship can sway like a mad metronome. If you’re up in the crow’s nest, it seems a very long way down to the deck or that heav­ing sea.

But the per­spec­tive is far less dra­matic in the shel­ter of Sydney Har­bour, es­pe­cially on a sunny day, when the view from high on the mast — of rocky points, parks and snooz­ing hulls — is pos­i­tively be­nign.

‘‘One of the finest, most beau­ti­ful, vast and safe bays the sun ever shone upon,’’ wrote Joseph Con­rad when his ship reached Sydney in 1906. And that’s how it looks to­day as South­ern Swan pulls out of Camp­bells Cove near Cir­cu­lar Quay.

The Dan­ish-built, three-masted vin­tage bar­quen­tine sets off most days on this grand body of wa­ter, cel­e­brated by writ­ers since the First Fleet’s sur­geon-gen­eral gushed: ‘‘The finest and most ex­ten­sive har­bour in the uni­verse.’’

We round Dawes Point, with its rum­bling, up-skirts view of our old iron maiden, the Har­bour Bridge. A young mu­si­cian on deck bangs out good songs (though there’s not a sea shanty or lick of Botany Bay in his folk-rock reper­toire) and this af­ter­noon’s 35 guests are soon tuck­ing into a bar­be­cue lunch and drinks.

Half a dozen pas­sen­gers have al­ready signed up for the mast climb and in­struc­tor Reece Mar­cel is briefing the first pair, a cou­ple from San Diego, while help­ing them into safety har­nesses.

Fac­ing each other, but on op­po­site sides of the ship, they be­gin work­ing their way up the mizzen-mast rat­lines, with slid­ing shack­les se­cur­ing them to safety ca­bles.


Hand over foot they climb, us­ing the spreader rungs as a lad­der un­til they reach the crow’s nest 15m above deck. They stand and take in a lofty view of Port Jack­son’s man­sions, sky­scrapers, scows, jet­ties, fer­ries and a frac­tion of its 317km of scrimshawed sand­stone coast­line.

Other climbers are ready­ing for the as­cent. As South­ern Swan ap­proaches Birch­grove Point, it’s the turn of Syd­neysider Joelle Brodie and her brother Alex. They make their way gin­gerly to­wards the crow’s nest. ‘‘I was pet­ri­fied at first, but I loved it,’’ says Joelle af­ter her climb.

Skip­per Marty Woods says the youngest climber to date was seven and the old­est 89. — at night and even in the rain.’’

Then it’s my turn. I head up­wards. It’s a breeze. I clam­ber on to the plat­form about 20m above the sea and drink deep of a Sydney Har­bour cock­tail of fresh air and adren­a­line. I mar­vel at the in­tri­cate arche­ol­ogy of a tall ship’s rig­ging of oak, rope, iron, can­vas, shrouds and pul­leys.

We come about near Cock­a­too Is­land and, mo­tor­ing now, head back up the har­bour. Abreast of Pinchgut and the eastern sub­urbs, scat­tered lines from Five Bells, Ken­neth Slessor’s great poem about the noc­tur­nal har­bour, come to mind. I can see how ‘‘the Cross hangs up­side­down in wa­ter’’. And I al­most hear across the bay the ‘‘per­fidy of publi­cans, groan­ing to God from Dar­linghurst’’.

The bar­quen­tine turns for home, to­wards Cir­cu­lar Quay and Camp­bells Cove. Be­hind us Port Jack­son shim­mers in the late af­ter­noon light, prob­a­bly still the finest har­bour in the uni­verse.

‘‘Peo­ple climb any time

John Borth­wick was a guest of Sydney Tall Ships.

Pas­sen­gers on the South­ern Swan climb its mast

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