I found mine sixty miles west of Cuba in the Yucatan Channel.  

The wind is gusting in the high twenties.  The wind is coming over our left shoulder and the current is against us so the boat is pitching and rolling (and yawing too).  We are flying ten knots through the water.

It’s day four of the 48th Regata Del Sol Al Sol, a sailboat race from Tampa, Florida to Isla Mujeres, Mexico.  We’ve had twelve hours of fresh wind and hard sailing.  Night is coming so Russ wants to take down the whisker pole.  Leaving it up would be risky:  if the boat were to broach, we’d have a mess of lines and sails in the water.  Not a good prospect at any time – but worse in the dark.  

Russ is owner and captain of Blue Heron, the Catalina 380 we are sailing.  

Russ and I go forward to the mast while Bob steers.  It’s a good thing that Bob Hoadley, Russ’s nephew, has owned boats and sailed for decades.  It takes a good eye and sense of timing to steer in these waves.  I know because I was just doing it.   

I’m not here looking for risk for its own sake.  Russ is one of the smartest, safest skippers I know.  But the risk is there and along with it the thrill.  

Russ stands at the mast, I’m just to his right.  The pole, hooked to the mast on one end and the jib sail on the other, is twelve feet long and weighs about thirty pounds.  Taking it down in this weather is an ungainly ballet — a combination of strenuous maneuvers.  

The boat charges forward, crashing over waves, heaving to and fro.  Bob tries to steer right in the peaks, left into the valleys.  The pole could become a battering ram so we have to handle it carefully when we release it.

Finally we are in position.  We’re wearing offshore life vests, hooked to sturdy jacklines on the deck.  Russ pulls a thin line, retracting the keeper inside the jaw on the pole’s outboard end.  Wind pressure holds the thick blue jib sheets tight so we have to wrestle the pole free.  Meanwhile I’m grabbing and holding down the halyard which keeps the whole contraption from crashing to the deck.  

Now the pole is free — good but dicey.  We have to keep it under control.  

Next: pull, turn and lift the pole vertical alongside the mast.  We’ll latch it onto the mast, storing it out of the way.  With so many moving parts (upper hook twelve feet up, lower hook near the deck but adjustable, heaving boat, flogging sails) it’s like threading a big clumsy needle.   

First we get it wrong.  The lower ring is too high so the top end won’t fit.  

Hold the pole.  Untie the halyard.  Raise the pole.  Steady.  Heave.  Steady.  Pull the pin, lower the ring.  

Whoa!  Too much slack on my rope and the pole is falling and swinging.  It nicks Russ in the chin, a spot of blood.  Thankfully not serious.  Quick!  Pull the halyard – HARD!  

We’re hooked back on.  It’s not perfect, but the pole is secure against the mast.  We’re done for now.  Unhook tethers and scramble, crouching low, back to the cockpit.


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