Mike Gold­ing


Yachting World - - Contents -

On my first solo Vendée Globe race in 2000 I’d been at sea, alone for more than seven weeks and was just get­ting used to be­ing in the South­ern In­dian Ocean when I re­alised I had a prob­lem at the top of the rig. I could see the small lash­ing which held the J1 to the top of the furl­ing gear had failed; only the fric­tion of the wraps of the sail on the foil was pre­vent­ing the sail com­ing down.

There was no op­tion but to as­cend the mast. My boat, Team Group 4, was charg­ing across the South­ern Ocean in a solid 25-35 knots of wind and surf­ing the re­lent­less seas. Trips to the mast­head in these con­di­tions are near im­pos­si­ble, but with my track ap­proach­ing the re­mote Mar­ion and Prince Ed­ward Is­lands, I de­cided to sail Team Group 4 into the lee of Mar­ion Is­land to ef­fect a re­pair.

Twenty-four hours later I sailed out of the wind and waves and into the 5-10 knot breeze and flat wa­ter be­hind Mar­ion’s main moun­tain. I quickly be­gan as­cend­ing the 100ft wing­mast with my re­pair tools. To keep the boat sta­ble and smooth through­out the climb, I left the main­sail at full hoist so TG4 cruised along eas­ily at 5-6 knots on au­topi­lot.

Reach­ing the mast­head, I re­alised that the break­age was not quite what I had en­vis­aged. The en­tire alu­minium fit­ting, which the head of the sail was at­tached to, had sheared away: this was go­ing to take more time...

Af­ter 30 min­utes of work I could feel my heart rate ris­ing, and I could see the wind and swell ap­pear­ing on the wa­ter ahead of us at the other end of the is­land. I worked faster, con­scious that with more than half the world ahead of me the work needed to be good.

Fi­nally it was done and I turned my at­ten­tion to get­ting down. To be­gin I had to dis­con­nect the as­cen­der on my chest and at­tach my­self onto the de­scen­der, a dif­fer­ent de­vice. I re­alised there was a prob­lem. In my ef­fort to get as high as pos­si­ble, I’d pushed the as­cen­der hard against the mast­head hal­yard exit. To re­lease the cam I needed it to move up, but the hal­yard had been bounced bar tight. There was no way this as­cen­der was com­ing off the climb­ing hal­yard – I was pinned at the mast­head.

For­tu­nately, I’d gone up the mast in a bo­sun’s chair, but also wear­ing a climb­ing har­ness for se­cu­rity. I de­tached the har­ness from the chair and at­tached it and my­self di­rectly onto the mast­head be­fore climb­ing out of the chair – nor­mally an un­think­able risk. By clip­ping the de­scen­der onto the spare mast­head hal­yard I’d cre­ated a new route down to the safety of the deck 100ft be­low.

As all of this was hap­pen­ing, TG4 had mer­rily sailed her­self back out into the South­ern Ocean, which greeted us with a smack­ing slam as the flat hull struck the first swell. For me, 100ft up, that slap was mag­ni­fied into what can only be de­scribed as a ham­mer blow. Com­pletely un­pre­pared, my head and body slammed against the mast. Stars spun and the warmth of my own blood run­ning down my face told me that this was now go­ing hor­ri­bly, hor­ri­bly wrong.

Over the next dozen or so waves I held on as best I could, over-ex­er­tion and panic mak­ing me weaker. I was des­per­ately pro­cess­ing how I would avoid se­ri­ous in­jury while de­press­ing the trig­ger of the de­scen­der and at the same time hold­ing my­self se­cure against the rig with one arm. Sev­eral times the huge G-forces of the slams caused me to lose grip only to be flung around on the hal­yard like a rag doll. This was now com­pletely out of con­trol…

My head spun. There was no time left and I had come up with no good op­tions. All climb­ing equip­ment is built to suit 11mm rope that is quite de­lib­er­ately stretchy but I was now at­tached by the de­scen­der to a 10mm high tech Vec­tran hal­yard with ab­so­lutely zero stretch. The change of per­for­mance of the equip­ment was quite dra­matic. Con­trol now con­sisted of two modes – fall­ing or stopped!

I touched the trig­ger, fell in­stantly, re­leased in panic and stopped sud­denly with far more than my poor old heart in my mouth. Breath­less, I drove my arm be­tween the luff of the sail and the mast and man­aged to hold on to sur­vive the next few ex­cru­ci­at­ing slams in the no-mans land 15ft down from the mast­head.

Out of strength, heart pound­ing and head spin­ning, I timed an­other move, push­ing with all my might out­wards and away from the mast to­wards the mid­dle of the main­sail. I pulled the de­scen­der trig­ger once again.

Call it what you like: blind luck; pre­ci­sion tim­ing; what­ever, but min­utes later I was free of my har­ness and safe on deck, blood ev­ery­where and a nag­ging fear of be­ing un­able ever to pro­duce chil­dren.

I cried, I laughed, I phoned home to let them know I was alive. Of course, they knew I would be!


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