Mast-have views from the crow’s nest
Lofty ambitions at the top of a tall ship on Sydney Harbour
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