Dizzying Heights

I have always been afflicted with a bit of acrophobia (i.e. fear of heights). So from the time I first boarded ship, I became perversely fascinated with the crow’s nest that sits atop the main mast high above the deck, 120 feet or more. A narrow ladder mounts the mast, leading to the nest. The crow’s nest is a four by four-foot cube (with no top) made entirely, floor and walls, of a thick, metal mesh. I got it in my mind that if I could climb that ladder and reach the nest that experience alone would conquer my fears forever.

One day, as the ship was leaving Okinawa, I decided that it was now or never. I reasoned that any hesitation would keep me from my goal, so I quickly began to ascend. Every few feet, a protective hoop encircled the ladder, which periodically gave me a small sense of security. I heeded the advice I had heard when attempting climbs of any height: don’t look down. This seemed to work and as I was moving swiftly, hand over hand, rung after rung; soon I was approaching my objective. I took the last few rungs almost at a run, passed through the square hole in the floor of the nest and lay on the floor, winded and petrified.

I mean literally petrified: I couldn’t move! I had been so involved in getting to the top I hadn’t sorted out what I was going to do when I got there. The ship was now at sea and, although it was relatively calm, the gentle swaying on deck (all those yards below me) was translated up here into a broad arc. As I swayed back and forth and clung to the mesh floor, I could see the island of Okinawa, receding and, off in the distance, the other, smaller islands of southern Japan spread out like a string of gems upon the turquoise sea. I contemplated this picturesque scene for several moments and, since I wasn’t looking down and the glorious view occupied my mind, my fear subsided.

Just then, I was hailed from below, apparently by some mate who did not take kindly to my being somewhere I should not. Suddenly my momentarily muted fears washed over me returning in a rush, awakening me from reverie in a flash. Now I had little choice but to descend. I crawled on my belly (I still hadn’t stood up) inch by inch toward the gaping hole trying to figure out how I was going to begin lowering myself onto the ladder without my heart coming right out up my throat. I gained the opening and slid my foot over the edge and onto a rung. “Good”, I reasoned, “This isn’t going to be as bad as I originally thought”. Oh, how wrong I was. For the life of me, I couldn’t advance my body another centimeter; I was frozen to the spot.

Another shout from below snapped me out of it and somehow I managed to lower myself through the dreaded hole and onto the ladder. Slowly I worked my way down, step by agonizing step, until I was again standing on the solid deck. The mate was saying something about what a damned fool I was but I heard little of his tirade, all I could think of was how lucky I was to be alive and/or how stupid I was to pull such a foolhardy stunt and get out of it unharmed. One thing is for sure. Confronting that particular apprehension did not bring conquest, only the determination not to attempt anything like that again. Facing your fears is one thing; dying for them is something else again.

Dizzying Heights

stephen hewitt

Lanexa, United States

  • Artist

Artist's Description

A sea story

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