Only As High As your Hands

I want to tell you story about conquering fear.  I worked as a museum educator at Mystic Seaport Maritime Museum for part of my career in education. It was there that I learned to climb as part of the demonstration squad working on the tall ships. I had a tremendous fear of heights and yet with hands sticky with tar and painful blisters, I stepped onto the ropes to learn to climb.

This was nothing like any height I had experienced before. When I began, I could only manage to step up onto the rail of the Joseph Conrad. The wind was blowing and the ship gently rocked, and I climbed down. This undertaking required me to have trust, something that I was quite short on at that point in my life. I had to trust the riggers who kept the ropes strong with tar and hemp. I had to trust the two other women who climbed ahead and behind me to talk me through the fear.  I had to trust myself to hold fast no matter how frozen my hands were. I climbed in February so that there would be no one around to see me struggle.

Each day for weeks I forced myself to climb a step higher, until by the end of March I had reached the top. It had taken the strength of two women who had believed in me and a fortitude inside myself that I never knew that I had. I will never forget the view of the Mystic River on that windy overcast day. Clinging with white knuckles to the shrouds, I looked out over Long Island Sound while gulls swooped and dived. I had dared to defy gravity.

The next step was the whaler, the Charles W. Morgan. The mast was much higher and this time I would be going alone. It is a tradition that everyone who was on the demonstration squad needed to climb to the hoops at least once a summer. The hoops are located on the tallest mast of the whale ship. They were a lookout post for the sailors to spot whales while out at sea. About 125 feet above the waterline, a whaler would keep watch for whales standing balanced on two thin wooden beams with only a waist high metal hoop to keep him from toppling over the edge to his death.

That is where I went on an overcast day in summer while a thunderstorm was moving in. I did not want to go, but I strapped on the safety harness, which you can only use to clip in when you reach the top. I stepped up onto the rail and started my climb up the shrouds. I made way up and over the top and the wind began to blow in earnest. I began climbing to the gallant yard with the cold fingers of fear gripping my gut. I could barely breathe and I remembered what I was taught “Don’t look down…look at your hands. You are only as high as your hands.” I put a hand out to grasp the shrouds and then one foot on a batten. One hand for yourself and one for the ship. The shrouds were getting so narrow that I could only fit my foot onto the ratlines sideways. I knew that if I let go…I would die. I hung there terrified and frozen, the wind was beginning to blow and the ship was rolling from side to side. A voice in my mind whispered, “Sing, sing.” I softly sang Sally Brown. “Sally Brown I love you dearly…way hey roll and go.”

I pulled myself up between the two wooden foot slats, holding my breath. Leaning backwards and holding on with one hand, I reached through the opening and pulled myself through. I was at the top of the mast holding my breath in shock.  Two vultures soared within feet of me. The surface of their wings as black as the incoming clouds, the sound of feathers softly rustling like silk taffeta. Before I had a minute to savor my victory, there was flash of lightning and thunder rumbled. People scrambled from the deck. The wind was tearing through the shrouds and I pleaded, “I can’t do this, please stop the wind”. The only way down was under my own power so I began, one step at a time. The climb down felt like an eternity. Rain and wind rolled the ship.

I made it down to the deck forever changed. I had conquered my worst fear. I helped many people to climb during the years that I was there. Some people scurried to the top without a second thought. Others struggled like I did. Do not be afraid to face your fears and ask for help. You never go it alone.


Dedicated to Jennifer Emerson and Trina Smith (brave climbers and talented women), Juanita Babcock and Mary Pat Thayer (for keeping the hearth warm), Tim Reilly (ships rigger), and the Mystic Seaport Chantey Men (who provided music for the journey).

 First posted Oct. 2016


The Charles W. Morgan is the last of an American whaling fleet that numbered more than 2,700 vessels. Built and launched in 1841, the Morgan is now America’s oldest commercial ship still afloat.” (

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