The notion of sailing is often pictured as a romantic and worry-free scene from a romance novel or “chick-flick” and at times it can resemble that, but more often, the reality of owning a sailboat is about maintaining all of its inherent systems so this fantasy can play out once the boat makes for the ocean.
This maintenance can be a dirty job and sometimes risky, involving climbing, slithering, diving, and at times being hoisted precariously up a 40 or 50 foot mast by a thin line sitting in a canvas seat.
It’s an unnerving feeling to go up a mast and one that not every sailor chooses to face. Many hire the services of riggers to take such a risk and every once in a long while, unfortunately, something goes wrong.
Last month, Mary Ellen Rose, a sturdy woman in her 50s who had climbed thousands of masts in her long career as a sailboat rigger, tragically fell from the 45-foot mast of a Hunter sailboat while handling a torch. In an attempt to free a stuck fitting using heat, she heated up some neighboring metal that in turn burned through the halyard that held her aloft.
In a terrifying and violent moment, Rose plummeted the length of the mast to what could have been her death. Instead, she landed on the boat’s dodger, breaking her fall to an extent, although she still suffered extensive injury.
After hitting the dodger and then bouncing off the steering pedestal, Rose lay in a heap with broken vertebrae, a collapsed lung, many cracked ribs, and numerous facial fractures. She was rushed to the UCLA Medical Center emergency room where close friends and family waited anxiously to find out if she would survive and if so, be paralyzed from the accident.
“I had a fall myself,” said fellow rigger Stan Harris of an accident he had many years ago. “I was up a Catalina 27 around the spreaders — 14 or 15 feet. I fell back and landed on my butt, then my head went back and I was knocked unconscious.
“I was very lucky, but I know it’s not a game going up the mast, so my prayers are with her.”
Rose lay in an intensive care hospital bed so swollen she was unrecognizable. No one knew the extent of the injuries, but all knew they were most severe and the life of the charismatic mother and grandmother hung in the balance.
“I saw the x-ray of her face [after the accident],” said longtime friend Sue Peschko. “It looked like crumpled egg shells.”
After a harrowing day under the skillful hands of UCLA’s medical staff, the rugged boatsmith, true to form, came through the ordeal broken, but in one piece.
Now she sits in a rehabilitation facility, just beginning the long process of regaining the ability of walking without assistance. She has more surgeries to endure and is expected to be in an elaborate back brace or “cage” for the next year. Without the ability to work and with staggering medical bills to face, Rose looks to close friends, family and the boating community to see her through.
“As one of her best friends, I’m concerned about everything,” said Alyson Stephan, who has been helping pick up the slack. “She’s going to have to wear the brace for another year and of course, the financial concerns.
“For example, although she has health insurance, her co-pay [at the rehab center] is $100 a day and the bill from UCLA was $375,000 — and that didn’t include her six-hour surgery.”
Few who know Mary Ellen doubt that she will once again be making her rounds, tools in hand with her trusty dog Jake by her side, along the docks that she knows so well. But those days will come only after a long, difficult and expensive rehabilitation.