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.
In our bumpy anchorage, the first task was to save the mainsail. When the mast folded, the mainsail slides did the splits—one group stayed on the vertical mast stump while the remaining slides were stuck on the fallen section. The stress stopped at a point that caused the sail to spread but not tear apart. The first task was to reach the uppermost slide on the stump and cut the tabbing or pull the pin on the slide to relieve the pressure. Using the halyard brakes for steps, I could just reach the slide. With that release of pressure, the remaining slides on one side of the sail slid off the bent mast into the ocean. The other slides were released from the mast at the gooseneck. We then flaked the mainsail onto the boom and put on the sail cover.
The next task was to figure out how to get to the top of the stump. From there, I could then release more dangling wires, jury-rig rope stays all around, and set blocks for halyards. Lacking the native skills to climb coconut palms, we decided first to get a messenger line over the mast, then follow it with a stronger line.
The one firearm we have on board is a high-powered slingshot. It seemed reasonably simple to shoot a projectile, with kite string attached, over the mast. The problem was that no matter how carefully the string was flaked in preparation for the shot, the run would snag on the slightest resistance and pull itself into a tangle. We spent far more time untangling cat’s cradles than slinging out the projectile. We then pulled out the heavy artillery. Our monkey’s fist contains a hard ball of zinc artfully wrapped in rope and tied to 3/16-inch line. Although cushioned by the winds of line, the fist can smash solar panels and split deck hatches. As I geared up for my aerial bombardment, Rebecca scrambled to spread a bed of cushions.
I always had a better chance tossing a ringer with my eyes closed. After 18 throws, my tosses became less calculating and more menacing as my eyes squinted tighter. But then, as persistence and luck would have it, the fist sailed in a perfect arc to gracefully lay its trailing line over the mast top at just the right angle. This messenger line pulled the 7/16-inch-diameter line over the mast, and we secured it to a cleat. To that line we attached the Top Climber.
The Top Climber is a mast-climbing system that’s similar to what rock climbers or sequoia ascenders use. The method is to stand in the foot straps, then slide the hand gripper up the line to bring up the seat straps. Letting the seat straps take your weight, you can then slide the foot straps up the line. The system may be slow, but it works for unassisted elevating. In a rolly anchorage, a helmet is useful to ease the battering.
If the Top Climber system hadn’t worked, there are two other ways to get to the top of the mast. The same 7/16-inch line could pull up a block and tackle attached to a bosun’s chair, allowing a person in the chair to self-hoist, then secure the line to the chair at the proper elevation. A person on deck can assist with the hoisting, then secure the line to a deck cleat.
The other option draws upon the natives of the Pacific for inspiration: Put on a harness and shinny up the mast as if it were a coconut palm. At the top, wrap the tether attached to the harness over the top of the mast and make it fast. Hanging there, you could secure the lines and pulley necessary for a bosun’s chair before making a descent. This last method is made even more difficult because while hanging in midair, one’s body weight gradually crushes deeper against the harness straps, making movement and breathing difficult. Safe working time is short.