When the Stick Comes Down
When their Valiant 40 is dismasted in the South Pacific, the crew has to scramble to jury-rig a substitute spar. Hands-on Sailor from our September 2011 issue.
Again my head slammed into the bent and mangled mast. Once I’d scaled the broken stump of the spar, the rolly anchorage had turned my perch into a carnival ride. The other half of the mast lay folded over the side of the boat, dipping in the ocean (see the gallery here).
Tethered 20 feet above the deck, I felt that the words from Bill Seifert’s Offshore Sailing were being bounced out of my memory: “Cotter pins shouldn’t be bent open more than 10 degrees.” The cotter pins that were bent open at small angles, holding dangling rigging, were easy to slip free from the clevis pins; those bent into curlicues were taking all my effort, strength, and patience to bend straight with pliers and a small screwdriver. They were becoming a real headache, in every form.
The day before, when sailing south in sunshine and a gentle breeze, a squall had come upon us suddenly. My wife, Rebecca, and I were below as the wind slammed us. But it was only 30 knots, a breeze this boat can easily handle, although I would’ve preferred to shorten sail. As I moved to the wheel to turn downwind to ease the pressure, I heard a pop and watched the top of the spar, along with the reefed mainsail and genoa, fold gracefully to starboard, the mast creasing just below the spreaders. I’d read about situations like this occurring in wild weather in terrible latitudes—but now it was happening to us. At least we were 95 miles south of the equator and 307 miles west of the international date line, near the southern stretch of the Kiribati atolls, so we could be wearing shorts and T-shirts instead of wool and foulies.
With the wind dropping and the rain slowing, Rebecca stood eagerly on deck asking what she could do to help. But where do you start to pick up after a disaster when everything broken is high overhead or in the water out of reach? I, too, was at a loss. I said, “Tell me what to do!”
Then the mast section sticking up from the deck jerked sharply to starboard, and I feared that it could be twisted out of shape. That marked the starting point. We’d already turned downwind to ease the rolling, but the jib furler and genoa that were dragging in the water were still attached to the top of the mast, which scraped the ocean’s surface with each roll of the boat. The sail, having opened like a whale’s mouth, transferred tremendous pressure, torquing what remained of the unsupported rig. It became obvious that the immediate job was to dive into the ocean and cut the genoa halyard free of the dragging and plunging mast tip, then pull the toggle pin to free the headstay and genoa furler. But the boat could leave me behind—that wouldn’t be good. Looking over the sides, we pulled what wet sails and lines we could find inside of the lifelines before starting the engine. When I shifted into reverse at idle, the tortured genoa wallowed, spilling its load of ocean and undulating like a large Dacron jellyfish.
Although Brick House, our Valiant 40, was no longer moving, I wore a life jacket and rope tether for my initial trip into the ocean. If I became injured or the boat began to move again, this would give Rebecca a lifeline to me. Later, swim fins without a lifejacket gave me the mobility needed to complete the work.
With the ocean and mast moving in opposite directions, the work was dangerous and difficult, limiting me to intermittent attempts at freeing the sail hanging from the upside-down mast. The biggest threat was being punched in the head or shoulders by the mast slamming, then pulling back from the ocean. I was watchful, but after one plunge I was unable to move quickly enough. I felt intense pressure against my thigh, and I feared an impending terrible injury. Luckily, the offending VHF antenna bent like a child’s sword. As soon as the genoa was freed from the mast, Rebecca stopped the engine, and together we hauled the sail and furling gear on board.
It was the failure of the port upper-shroud chainplate that caused the mast to fold (read about how to check you chainplates, and stainless-steel corrosion). In the fall, the upper shroud wrapped over the top of the stump, pulling with it, 4 feet into the air, a 5-gallon jug of outboard gasoline. The spilled fuel created a slippery, smelly slick on the port side deck that added to our difficulties. The other shrouds lay in a mass of stiff spaghetti on the deck.
We didn’t want to pull pins or cut cables and heave equipment overboard; we needed to save and rebuild everything we could. Besides, with a keel-stepped mast, there’s no easy way to jettison a bent and toppled mast without first cutting it through at deck level.