Tall Ships – How to Climb the Rigging

Where Can I Climb the Rigging on a Tall Ship?

Classic Sailing offers tall ship voyages where you will be encouraged to climb the rigging as part of your job as working tall ship crew. It is never compulsory and you will have more than one chance to try it. We think to climb aloft on a windjammer at sea is one of life’s natural highs. The adrenalin buzz is huge, even if you have done it before, and the amount of courage to work aloft in any weather has not been diminished much over the centuries by the introduction of modern safety harnesses. You climb free without being clipped on (apart from the tricky bits) and it is only when you step onto the foot ropes and go out on the yard to stow sails that you clip your safety harness to a wire jackstay so you can use your hands to stow the sail.

Morgenster up the rigging stowing the sails
Morgenster up the rigging stowing the sails

How Agile do I need to be to Climb the Rigging ?

Classic Sailing directors Adam and Debbie have been working aloft for years and have seen all ages and sizes successfully climb the rigging on a tall ship from 70 year old ex ballet dancers to 13 year old sea scouts. For someone of average fitness the challenge is about 75% mental and 25% physical.

We have also seen sailors with many disabilities climb aloft on specialist tall ships. Some make it by the end of a voyage so a friend can take that precious photo to say “I did it” – whether it is the first platform or the royal yard. Others find they love their lofty perch and volunteer to go up at any opportunity to help stow sails.

There is plenty to learn and do at deck level if climbing heights proves not to be your thing. Finding the right ropes and understanding how many people are needed on each clewline, buntline, tack sheet, yard halliard and yard braces is a good skill for a tall ship sailor to master.

Understanding the sequence of events to set or hand a square sail is the next challenge. When it all gets too familiar, and you feel you can walk on any square rigged ship and begin to find the right rope for a task, then you can probably call yourself a tall ship sailor.

Going aloft on Lord Nelson in a wheel chair, specially adapted ship to take disabled sailors sailing
Going aloft on Lord Nelson in a wheel chair, specially adapted ship to take disabled sailors sailing

How Difficult is Climbing The Mast ?

Shrouds are the strong wires that hold each mast up. Ratlines are the horizontal rungs of the ladder strung between the shrouds. You climb by holding on to the shrouds which are not vertical but angled, and you tread on the ratlines like ladder rungs.

The lower ratlines on most tall ships are solid wooden slats and the ‘ladder’ is wide enough for several people to climb close together for a bit. The angle of your ‘stairway to heaven’ is considerably less steep than most decorating ladders and a lot more secure. You always climb on the windward shrouds (side of the ship closest to the wind) so with the ship heeling under a press of sail, the angle on your side is very gentle and arm strength is not really an issue.

Linda up the rigging on Oosterschelde
Linda up the rigging on Oosterschelde

Up & Over the Futtock Shrouds

The first hurdle for most people is the infamous ‘futtock shrouds’ just below the first platform. All the tall ships we work with have a safety wire here for you to clip to, so if you do slip you won’t go far. This does need a bit of arm strength and commitment as the futtock shrouds lean backwards for about 4-6ft to access the platform. The best tip we can give you is (i) do it with a friend or crew member for support the first time as they can give you an idea where your feet are….especially on the way down. (ii) on the way up (and down) hang back with straight arms as it is less tiring on your arms and your body doesn’t get in the way as your feet and knees move up. Also you are more likely to be able to see where you are placing you feet if you lean your body out. 

climbing up the over hanging futtock shrouds
climbing up the over hanging futtock shrouds

Out on the Yards

Stepping from the relative security of the ratlines on to a single wire foot rope slung under the yard is quite daunting the first time, but it soon becomes second nature. Before you step out on to the yard you clip your safety line to a horizontal wire jackstay which means you can shuffle all the way to the end of the yard safely.

The whole purpose of going aloft is to get out on the yards to either untie the sail ties called gaskets to let the sail drop down (“hanging in its gear”) ready for setting, OR to stow the sail. Stowing the sail needs a bit more of a team standing on the foot ropes as need to roll up the sail tightly so it sits on top of the yard and tie it up again with the gaskets. The bulk of the sail has been pulled up by lines called buntlines and clewlines but it can still be a bit of a fight if it’s windy (and it usually is or you wouldn’t be stowing the sail !)

Course, Lower Topsail, Upper Topsail, T’Gallant, Royal, Skysail

The lowest and largest yard is called the course yard and as it is below the first platform you can still help stow sails and go out on the yard without conquering the overhanging futtock shrouds. Being a wee bit overweight is no excuse not to try tall ship sailing. Aloft the rigging is built to stand huge forces so you aren’t going to break anything. A bit of body weight applied to a rope with enthusiasm at deck level is much appreciated by your shipmates.

Lower and upper topsails are reached by climbing up a second steeper set of ratlines above the first platform. To step out on the topgallant or royal yards you need to climb beyond the 2nd platform. Up here the view of the deck is starting to look a long way away. The wind feels much stronger and the roll of the ship is more exaggerated. If your heart is not pounding now then you are a cool customer.

Stunsails and skysails on Europa
Stunsails and skysails on Europa

Working Aloft Variations

Every time you go aloft, the rigging can be in a different configuration. The gap between ratlines and footrope can be quite a step for little legs. If the yards are braced up sharp then being small is an advantage if you have to wiggle through a tight spot. Like rock climbing you have to look ahead and plan your route skywards to suit the conditions.  There may be a time when your watch leader is looking for volunteers to go aloft at night, so try and memorise your favourite moves around the tricky bits.

(P.S. It’s a lot easier than rock climbing. Ships masts are designed to be giant climbing frames.)

Personal Goal for the year: Climb the rigging of a tall ship

No shortage of voyages where you can attempt your goal, and experience a whole load more. Ring our skippers if the choice is just too confusing. Classic Sailing in Cornwall, UK tel: 0044 (0) 1872 580022.

Dare Devil Friend or Relative ? Classic Sailing Gift Vouchers

Builders, tree surgeons, rock climbers or anyone who likes an adrenalin buzz  from being in a high place will love tall ships. They are giant climbing frames for adults. Our gift vouchers last for 3 years and can be used for any vessel we promote.  Any value possible. More on gift vouchers and buying a berth.

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