A transatlantic sailor has escaped with bruises after a gust knocked her off the mast, jamming her harness, and swinging her repeatedly into the rigging


Karen Parker had been sailing onboard their Oyster 56, Mistral of Portsmouth, with husband Chris and two crew, when their Code Zero headsail, designed for light winds, became jammed. With squalls forecast, they feared they would become overpowered. After four hours of struggling to free the sail, and daylight fading, Karen decided to go up the mast. 

“We wondered if we should cut the sail free at the bottom, but we had no idea if that would free it at the top. If it didn’t, we’d have made the boat unstable,” Karen told PBO. “We made the decision that someone would have to go up the mast. Chris and I had practised with me going up and him winching so we went with that.”

Light was already fading as Karen climbed into her bosun’s chair

As the sail flogged itself to shreds against the rigging, Karen attached herself to the  mast climbing gear, a Ponsa sit harness with work position belt, and Chris winched her up the mast. Karen had previously climbed the mast in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, during preparations for the ARC+ rally, but even so, described the ascent as ‘terrifying’. 

“I clung to the mast with all my strength. I stayed utterly focussed on the line I had to cut at the top of the mast and didn’t look down,” she said. 

She managed to free the sail, which fell into the ocean, and signalled to Chris to lower her down. 

Blown off the mast

Around a third of the way down, the wind picked up suddenly, and blew Karen off the mast. She lost her shoe, a knife and headtorch, and was left ‘thrashing around’ on her safety harness. 

As the boat pitched in 3m swells, crewmates Laura Richardson and Martin Sharman looked on in horror as Chris held her harness line but was unable to stop Karen swinging into the rigging.

Fortunately Karen’s safety line jammed tight – stopping her from falling – but she was unable to fend off repeated blows from the metal rigging. 

“I thought I was going to be badly hurt,” said Karen, a retired HR director from the auction house Christie’s. “The fall preventer was attached too high and pulling me up. Each time I slipped, it kicked in, but I was forced to go higher to release it, whilst trying to hold on with both legs and one arm. I just couldn’t do it.” 

During an attempt to release the fall preventer, another gust hit and flung Karen onto the mast, tangling her preventer around the shroud 3ft away. Clinging to the mast, she tried once more to release the preventer, but realised it was jammed. 

Karen was badly bruised but fortunately had no broken bones

“Now I had my arms and legs wrapped around the mast as if my life depended on it,” she said. “I remember looking at the preventer on the spreader and knowing I couldn’t get to it, but I also knew if I got thrown off the mast again, I’d get totally battered and would struggle to make it down. I was losing strength, I had to get down, no matter what. I said to myself, ‘I am not going to die on this mast’.” 

Tough decision

This was when she made the toughest decision of all – to disengage the safety line. 

Over the howling wind, there was no way of communicating this to Chris on the deck below, who quite literally held his wife’s life in his hands. Once free of her preventer, Karen’s safety depended on Chris holding the harness line, without which she’d fall to her death. 

“I knew it was a really big risk, but I unhitched myself from that line. It was the only way to get down. I had total confidence in Chris.” 

Chris, a retired pilot for Virgin Airways, remained calm. He and Karen, both RYA Yachtmasters, had familiarised themselves with the mast climbing equipment. He didn’t fear for her life, but he knew she was badly bruised and her strength was failing. 

“The most alarming part was when she first lost her grip,” he said. “The boat was fairly stable until that point, but once Karen had freed the sail, it started rocking much more.” 

Safely down the mast

Fortunately, Chris understood the predicament Karen was in, and when she disengaged her safety line, he managed to safely lower her down, slowly releasing the harness line, which was wrapped around two winches on the mast.  

After inspecting Karen’s bruises, and ruling out any fractures, Laura took Karen to her cabin, where she rested for 12 hours. They consulted the Ships Captain’s Medical Guide, and treated a haematoma on her leg with ibuprofen and a cold compress of frozen bacon, which they ate the following day for breakfast. 

“I couldn’t leave the sanctuary of my cabin,” said Karen. “I felt very traumatised and was too sore to move. I was black and blue, but it’s just bruises, I’m fine. I have nine lives, and feel like I lived all of them. At least the rest of the crossing felt very calm by comparison!” 

Martin, Laura, Karen and Chris (l to r) arrive safely in Grenada

Karen and Chris are now taking part in the World ARC, which left St Lucia in January 2023. Karen says if she had to go up the mast again, she would, but she ‘wouldn’t relish it’. They’ve since bought an attachment for the bosun’s chair which makes the ascent much slower, but stops it from swinging out any more than half a metre.

What is the ARC Plus?

Karen and Chris were taking part in the ARC+ rally, which takes sailors across the Atlantic from Gran Canaria to the Caribbean via the Cape Verde archipelago. The route includes a 4 to 6 day stopover at Mindelo, São Vicente, before sailing on to Camper & Nicholsons Port Louis Marina in Grenada. Find out more about the rally on the World Cruising Club website.