Garibaldi, Pia and the matter of harnesses

The folded, twisted landscape of the southern tip of south America creates ing fjords leading off the Beagle Channel, twisting lines in the rock where the water is still and opaque under the dark sky. The cliffs end in ice, slow rivers coming to a shattered blue and white wall wall. Pieces break off all the time, some small, others thundering and cracking, sending out waves big enough even to rock Europa. The wall is filled with crevasses and clefts, eaten away by wind, salt and gravity. You flick your eyes from one to the next, watching to see which will tumble next.

The water reflects the ice back in shimmering, green-tinged style. Garibaldi glacier, at the head of its eponymous fjord, wears a skirt of bergy bits, floating like swans on their own reflections. Inside the crevasses are ice cities and deep underneath liethe rock and mud of the mountains.


At the smaller, almost elegant Pia glacier we met the steel expedition yacht Abel Tasman carrying (if I remember correctly) a film crew. Their skipper was well know to some of Europa's crew and came over in his zodiac for a gam. The yacht is not small so you can see that even this small glacier is enormous.

Today was also 'start-climbing' time. On Europa, you are not allowed above the deck till, under supervision, you have climbed to the fighting top, crossed it and come down the other side. To climb, you must wear a full harness, which goes round both legs, over your shoulders and does up in front with a tight screw fitting. Attached are two clips, one big one on a slightly longer strap, and smaller one which remains close to your body.

To go up, you use the ratlines, a quasi-ladder which consists of wooden boards between the metal cables which make the shrouds. (Shrouds are the lines which keep the mast up, leading from the mast down the side of the boat. The ones which go to the bow or stern are called stays.) On Europa they are thick metal cables. On older ships (or ones restored to an earlier period) they are rope. Either way they are 'served' or preserved with protective coatings, usually black. The serving does not make the metal any warmer in your hands, at least not in Tierra del Fuego.

Some of us found it much easier than others. The oldest person on board was next to me in the queue to go aloft and I asked him how he felt. 'Well, ' he said in a slow, deep voice tinged with a Connecticut accent. 'I first climbed aloft three-quarters of a century ago.' That silenced me, and he was away up the lines before I had time to ask for more. He turned out to be the son of the great sailor Irving Johnson who, with his wife Exy, had circumnavigated seven times on their schooner Yankee. Robert, though not born on board, had sailed with them for many years, and first climbed at just 20 months. Others of us had to face some bad memories to climb at all: one of the voyage crew had been washed overboard off another ship in the Southern Ocean, and had been very lucky to survive his seven minutes in the water. He was never happy climbing on Europa but I admired his guts getting on to the ship at all, let alone the ratlines, after that.

I just took it slowly and carefully. The fighting top is the wooden platform about one-third of the way up the mast. The worst bit, for many people, is that to get on to it, you must lean backwards a little way. For me, though, I didn't mind that so much. But it is quite a long reach from the shrouds below the fighting top to where you grab them above it to haul yourself upwards. Despite all the working out, trusting my own shoulders and grip proved the biggest challenge. One of the crew was standing on the lines leading to the yard, coaching each of us through the process. 'Put your left foot there, like that. Great. Now move the clip on your harness to here. Yes. Grab this bit of the shroud.' And suddenly, there I was, standing on the platform.  

No time to hang about though, as other crew came up behind me. Across the platform, and face swinging back over the edge and doing that reach in reverse. That was a bit more alarming but it was okay. Scramble down the ratlines, sign on the dotted line that you've had your induction, and you're good to go. 

The rain was closing in on us. In hindsight, I wish I had climbed up again that afternoon, but my hands were cold and my trousers damp. Doing it again, I would definitely have got in as much practice as possible in the still waters of the fjords before preparing to climb in the ocean swell. Thats 20:20 vision for you.

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