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It's Steady as She Goes for Riggers' High-Wire Act

On the Job: One in an Occasional Series


Sitting in a nylon sling atop a swaying mast is not how most people want to spend their work day.

But it's business as usual for riggers Augustine Ponce de Leon and George Chester. They are experts in the craft of stringing wire cables on sailboats.

If a yacht is not rigged properly--if opposing wires are not "tuned" to pull with the same tension--masts can topple over. Loose rigging can make sails sag, and Chester said he has seen wires so taut that they have curled the sides of a boat.

This responsibility is handled

casually by the tanned men, who spend their days scrambling aloft in shorts and sneakers or hunched over a workbench. They are among a handful of riggers working in Ventura County.

When clipper ships and windjammers filled harbors around the world, each vessel had scores of riggers repairing dozens of lines on each mast and yardarm. But those glory days are long gone, and rigging in the 21st century is an esoteric trade for a niche market.

The past lingers in the form of such quirky names as "dolphin striker," a rod that supports cables at the ship's bow; the harness-like "bosun's chair," from the word "boatswain," or head of the deck crew; and "baggy wrinkles," fat bunches of yarn that protect cables.

Ponce de Leon, 31, owns Oxnard-based Pacific Outfitters, which he bought in June after spending nearly a year as an apprentice to former owner Steve Anderson, a rigger with 20 years' experience. Chester, 50, is the business' sales manager.

The company is near Oxnard Airport and is mostly an empty space suitable for rolling out huge triangles of Dacron polyester. Around the edges of this area are spools of wire, a tool shop and examples of you-don't-want-this-to-happen items, such as corroded masts and cables that snapped like twigs.

The company replaces old rigging, installs new hardware and retrofits old boats. Jobs average about $1,800 each, but complete overhauls cost as much as $10,000.

The job is part craftsman, part artist and part psychologist, said 39-year-old Anderson, who still serves as a consultant to the company. Riggers need to gauge whether a neophyte skipper will actually sail around the world as he boasts or if his boat should really be outfitted for a less-taxing jaunt to Anacapa Island.


Then there are those customers who buy a boat without ever taking a sailing lesson, armchair sailors who wander in for a round of "stump the rigger," and skippers who spend years adding masts and lines to their vessels, but never leave the dock.

"I can walk by their boat and tell what book they've read," Chester said.

Far more typical, he said, are clients who for years have dreamed of their own 32-foot empire on the water but have limited sailing experience. It's up to a rigger to make a customer's dream boat easy for him or her to maneuver, Chester added.

Although crews once had to race around a deck moving sails and pulling cables, riggers can now configure lines so the sails can be controlled without the crew--which can be just one other person--leaving the cockpit.

But making a boat safe still has its dangers. Ponce de Leon recalls a former rigger he met who had fallen from a mast and was now in a wheelchair.

Anderson said that although he sold his business because he missed being out on the open water--now he delivers sailboats to customers along the West Coast and to Hawaii--there were times when he considered giving up the business because of the risks.

"When you're 70-some feet above the water, one cable, one shackle, if that breaks, you're not going to the hospital, you're going to the morgue," he said. "Even though nothing happened to me, because I'm cautious, it's all about when your number's up."


Since June, Ponce de Leon said, he has had his hands full. Pending projects include two boats waiting for new masts, and four others that need to be rigged again.

Older boats are the company's bread-and-butter. Molded fiberglass made yachts affordable to the middle class in the 1960s and 1970s, but many of those vessels never had their rigging updated.

Repairs can be pricey, but sailing gear has improved dramatically in the past decade, with new technology devised for international competitions, such as the America's Cup, resulting in better equipment.

Old hemp has been replaced by sophisticated man-made fibers with names difficult to pronounce. Pulleys, which once were made of wood and almost a foot long, can be as compact as a few inches long and are made of composite metals strong enough to support several thousand pounds.

Technology has enhanced the rigger's job as well. Many have crewed on professional yachts and use ever-improving rigging styles on the pleasure boats anchored in Ventura County marinas.

Ponce de Leon and Chester are both single and each lives on his own boat in Ventura Harbor. Chester spends his free time racing yachts and going on 100-mile bike rides. Ponce de Leon also races and sails for fun, but said being a new business owner keeps him busy.

But even when they aren't at work, they still like to tinker with boats.

If they see an old vessel being restored, they have a look. If they see a maritime museum while traveling, they stop in.

"We'll pick up a new book [about sailing] and it's like we never saw a boat before," Ponce de Leon said.


About This Series

"On the Job" is an occasional series about working people in Ventura County and how their lives have been shaped, challenged and enriched by what they do. This installment focuses on the work experiences of sailboat riggers George Chester and Augustine Ponce de Leon.


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