Sunday, February 7, 2010

Kissing the Truck

A Story of Courage and Determination

Upper photo of Lukas standing parade on the main t'gallant yard
Lower photo Lukas in the hold
Both "Before" photos provided by Lukas

Forty-five passengers clutched their tickets for an “Adventure Sail" at the mouth of the Columbia River, one of the major events during the Port of Ilwaco's Nautical Renaissance. Men, women and children wanted to feel the wind and watch the sails fill. They wanted to sense the vibration of the deck as the cannons boomed out their shot and to smell the acrid smoke. For just a couple of hours, they wanted to step back in time and experience shipboard life in the mid 1700’s. But on Saturday, May 20, 2006, the passengers got more than they bargained for; they got to experience a real-life shipboard tragedy on the brig, Lady Washington.

Photo taken by Bruce Smith

Thirty-two-year-old Lukas knew ships. He built them. As a child, he glued together plastic models and then later historic wooden ship models, accurate in detail to the tall ships of old. His love of sailing spanned back as far as he could remember when he drew pirate boats in kindergarten. His love of sailing continued until girls became slightly more fascinating. A fan of nautical fiction, as well as studying masting and rigging, Lukas longed to experience, first hand, the life on a square-rigger. In 2004, when he boarded the HMS Victory in Portsmouth, England, everything felt familiar. He made the decision to do the required “two weeks” aboard Washington State’s Lady Washington to become “a volunteer”.

Coming all the way from Zurich, Switzerland, he vowed to squeeze every experience he could into his two weeks. In his first week during a break in ship routine, he learned how to weave a “Turk’s Head” bracelet, something every seasoned square-rigged sailor possessed. Sea stories were exchanged between the mates and the captain regaled them with the legend the bracelet. Throughout history, seamen have passed through a rite-of-passage by climbing to the top of the main mast, the highest point on the vessel. The top is crowned by a cap called the truck. Once the lubber has “kissed the truck” he passes into the realm of experienced seaman, fully accepted into the ranks of old salts. He is accepted into the inner circle. He belongs. Back in the days of fighting sail, it was only after kissing the truck he wore the Turk’s bracelet as a badge of courage and honor.

Lukas had been up in the rigging many times in his first week. How hard could it be to go those last few feet to the top of the mast? Eager to gain yet another experience of sailing life, he decided to do it. He sought permission from the captain. On that fine spring afternoon, just after loosing the sails, with a full compliment of crew and passengers, they headed out of the port of Ilwaco to the Pacific Ocean. The captain announced Lukas would be “kissing the truck.”

Pin Rail Photo taken by Bruce Smith

The passengers scurried for the best vantage points on the crowded decks. The crew below and aloft continued their chores, the captain continued his watch, J.B., the relief captain who would be taking over the next day, continued his commands to haul in sheets and man the braces and the Lady Washington continued toward the ocean. Lukas was committed. He was filled with excitement as well as nervous trepidation. This was it. Conditions were perfect. Dozens of eyes gazed upwards. Already aloft, he climbed up to the crosstrees. At that point, the shrouds have no horizontal ratlines. To climb the topgallant mast, he’d have to wrap his limbs around it and shinny up. He hooked his safety harness line to the after starboard t’gallant shroud and climbed. Halfway up the t’gallant, the shrouds end and it becomes like climbing a flag pole. He continued his ascent up that most difficult portion. His muscles shook from fatigue and he took short, quick breaths. Lukas had grit. He could do this. Sixty-five feet up, he reached the end of his safety line. He unhooked it and rehooked it to the next line up and with quivering arms, continued toward the truck. He inched one more foot. Two.

View from the Crosstrees (not yet up to the truck) taken by Bott

Below, Monica Buchstatter and Joe Freitas had a perfect view of the exciting event. Monica lifted her camera and pushed the zoom button, focusing in on Lukas. He hesitated, inched up, hesitated, inched up and just as he lurched the last few inches and kissed the truck, her camera clicked and whirred and then Monica paused. What she saw in the little window sent her heart rocketing. She followed the line from his lanyard down where it anchored to the pin rail right behind her. She whirled around. “Joe,” she whispered, nodding to the stay, “Joe, he’s tethered to this line. If he falls--”

Photo provided by Monica Buchstatter

Joe’s eyes shot to Lukas and followed the Royal backstay down to the deck. They both instinctively jumped back about four feet. Monica swallowed, her heart slamming and returned her eyes to Lukas, just as he slipped.

Lukas doesn’t remember his sixty-seven foot fall, but Monica does. She remembers every detail. She sucked in her breath and watched his body hurtle from the top of the mast. Halfway down, he hit the edge of the top platform. Nick, an experienced seaman still in the rigging, made a frantic grab for Lukas, catching him for only moments, slowing the death drop, redirecting it from the end of life. While Lukas continued his plummet, Monica ducked behind Joe, to block her view. She heard the sickening thud, but didn't see him hit the pin rail, didn't see his face break off a sturdy belaying pin. His head hit the deck, while his pelvis snapped to a stop in midair, dangling by the lanyard caught on the stay.

Pin rail shows lines coiled around belaying pins

Air, sound, and motion were sucked into a void for the next few seconds. No one moved. No one breathed. Faces reflected the horror of seeing death claim a man so vibrant and young. And then his moan filled the brig, reverberating off every line, every halyard, every seaman and passenger. Broken, damaged, possibly with injuries beyond comprehension, he lived.

The brig burst into action, and the 21st century replaced the 18th. One of the ship’s officers, J.B., whispered the order to cut the lanyard and lower Lukas to the deck very carefully, to prevent further damage. Two passengers jumped forward. “We are nurses,” they said. Passengers backed away, giving them room.

The captain snatched up the brig’s radio, calling the Coast Guard. More orders to furl sails barked out into the silence broken only by Lukas’ heart-wrenching groans. The brig’s crew--professional, experienced, reliable even when filled with the horror of their shipmate’s fall--scattered across the deck and into the rigging; hauling in sails, adjusting lines, preparing to come about. The captain fired the big diesel engine and the Lady Washington made her slow turn, heading toward Ilwaco. Within minutes a U.S. Coast Guard 23 foot utility craft and a 25 foot response boat from Cape Disappointment clawed their way to the Lady, escorting the brig, while somewhere on land, paramedics pounded out to their ambulance, revved the engine, flipped on the lights and siren and threw it into gear.

Photo provided by Monica Buchstatter

Lukas remembers only snapshots, eerie and unreal. He remembers someone telling him he would be all right. He remembers the coppery stench of blood and the stringent smell of antiseptic in the ambulance. He remembers the thumping whirl of the helicopter blades two hours later, as it airlifted him to Oregon Health Sciences University Hospital in Portland.

He doesn’t really remember the emergency room at an Ilwaco hospital, but Bob Kennedy, marine operations manager for the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority, said, “I was in the emergency room with him. He was asking when he could get back on board.”

Please check in for part two to follow

Part Two: Fortitude and Triumph


  1. What an extraordinary tale. I sat riveted to my computer screen, hoping against hope, Lukas, would be alive.

    This is seriously a beautifully written post, Melanie.

    Look forward to part two.

  2. Absolutely fantastic writing....I'm looking forward to part 2!

  3. Wendy and Karen

    Thanks. I sat in Starbucks, yesterday, writing this with tears streaming down my face. Probably should have written it in my closet at work.

  4. This was gripping; I'm amazed he survived the fall, bouncing from yard to yard on the way down.

  5. Tony,

    Thanks for your comment. From what I've been able to gather, everyone is amazed he survived the fall. It is what happens later, though, that shows his grit and demonstrates why sailors of old were worthy of wearing that Turk's Head bracelet.

  6. Wow! Such vivid descriptions and images. My heart rate actually accelerated when he fell. I felt like I was right there, listening to the sounds. So tactile. What an amazing story.

  7. Carolina,

    It makes you wonder how sailors, in the old days, could continue to go aloft after such an incident, doesn't it?

  8. G.H.H.S.A the owner operator or both the Hawaiian Chieftain and Lady Washington no longer condones any crew in the rigging that does not pertain to handling or repair of the rigging or sails. There are many safety proccedures in hand that will prevent similar accidents from happening again. I must say that the crew acted in the best maritime tradition and gave Lucas every possible chance of survival. Wihtin fifteen minutes the Lady was back on the dock and the ambulance was at the top of the dock ready for the five minute drive to the emergency room. I also have to thank the people of Ilwaco for all the help and heartfelt prayers. Ilwco was and continues to be one of the favorite ports of call for the ships.

  9. Robert,

    Excellent comment. Thank you so much. The Lady is to be commended for all she did for Lukas and all she has done since then to prevent another similar accident. I'm so very impressed with her.

    I've spent a lot of time in Ilwaco. Lovely town. Obviously a great hospital too.

    Robert, if you'd care to email me at I'd love to ask you a few questions.


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