I’m the go-fer. I fetch the tools when my husband, Robert, does the motor maintenance and refitting of our 65′ schooner. I do the painting and varnishing. I get a thrill out of painting the top of the mast. At 60′ above the deck, hanging in my boatswain’s chair, I twirl out and away from the mast to feel the rush when I face the empty air.

Today, he is mounting a new winch for the main sheet on the stern deck in preparation for our “maiden voyage” back to Mexico in our new schooner, Privateer. Fifty-three feet on deck and sixty-five overall. Much larger than our previous boat, Valhalla, a twenty-five foot sloop.

“I’m almost finished,” he says. “All I need is for you to take these nuts and crawl through the engine room until you can reach the underside of the deck where you’ll see the bolts sticking through. Thread the nuts on, and hold them while I tighten from up here.”

Robert spends more time than I do in the engine room and is more familiar with the maze of pipes and wires, and I don’t like tight spaces. “Why don’t you crawl in there and I’ll crank on the bolts,” I suggest, hopefully.

“Nope. I won’t fit. You’re smaller. It’s pretty snug in there,” he says.

Oh, great. What if I’m not small enough.

I pick up the six shiny nuts and the socket wrench and trudge below decks. Turning my back on the pristine main cabin, I stoop to enter the engine room and choke when the smell of diesel hits me. It’s a summer day, and it’s hot and stuffy in that confined space.

With the auxiliary generator on my left and the main engine on my right, I sit on my haunches and gaze aft into the gloom where the hull rises at about a forty-five degree angle to meet the deck. I can see the bright bolt ends far back on the underside of the teak planking.  How on earth does he expect me to get back there?  “You want to show me a map, here?”  I shout up to Robert.

He bounces down, exasperated that I can’t figure out what is obvious to him.

He hunches behind me and points out the route. “Just crawl through here to the other side of the motor, and then turn around the hot water tank and make your way aft until you can reach the bolts. See how the hull will make a nice surface to lie on?  Just watch out for the hot water tank. It’s probably too hot to touch.”

Oh, yes, I see. The ten-gallon water tank was recently installed next to the motor. No one has actually performed this maneuver.

I lie down and inch my way across the motor mount like a seal on a rocky beach. I suck in my stomach as I make the turn around the hot tank and watch my bare legs so they don’t touch it. The wiggle into the stern is not difficult and when I get there, I turn with my left side down. I have just enough room to lie on my side but my shoulders are squished between the wooden deck and hull. I reach both arms over my head. The bolt ends are just beyond my fingertips so I feel around with my feet to find something firm to brace myself and I push my shoulders a bit further into the wedge-shaped space. I struggle to mesh the threads in this unnatural position, and grunt with the strain.

When I get them all started, I shout, “OK. You can tighten the bolts now.”

The muffled voice from above says, “Alright. Just watch which one is turning, and then hold it until I shout.”

It is easier to hold the wrench in place than it is to get the nuts started but shifting from one position to the next takes all the energy I have and I pant with the effort. The tightening goes smoothly but my panting turns to gasping in the thickening air. I try to relax by imagining I am high on the mast, taking deep gulps of cool air, a light breeze refreshing my sticky body. It only makes me feel worse.

“OK. All done. You can come out now.”

Not a moment too soon. I release my aching arms and unlock my knees expecting to slide down out of that cramped space. Nothing happens. The hull’s embrace holds me tight. An adrenaline rush explodes in my chest. I take as deep a breath as I can and try to focus.

I rock my hips. The grip of the wood loosens slowly and I slide down a foot. I have to work my way, feet first out of this prison. I can feel the heat of the hot water tank against my ankles but I can’t see my feet or the tank. How did I get in here?

My breathing is fast and shallow. My body tense as my brain races in a self-conversation.

Don’t panic. You got in here, you can get out.

Too late. I’m going to die right here. They’ll find my desiccated body years from now and wonder what fool would crawl into this ridiculous space.

Breathe deeply and calm yourself.

Oh, right. There’s no oxygen left in this air. It’s all over. I’m dead.

OK. You can’t see, but you can get help.

I shout, “Robert!  Come down here.”

“What’s the problem?”

“I can’t get out.”

“What do you mean you can’t get out?  You got in didn’t you?”

“Yes, but now I can’t see behind me. I’m afraid of that hot tank.”

“OK. Just a minute.”

“Not just a minute. NOW,” I shriek.

His reply is muffled, a grumble, I think, but I hear the clunk when he puts down his wrench. His bare feet pad away from above my head. In a moment, his voice is clearer, close to my feet, and it is softer and calming. He talks me out.

On deck, I gulp in the sweet air and resolve to declare myself claustrophobic and refuse any future assignment of that nature.