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.
While I was aloft in the Top Climber, Rebecca did what she could to steady all lines to keep me from swinging and banging so hard against the rigging.
With access to the mast top, I was able only then to see that a single bolt head from the running pole slide was all that the rope was truly resting on. A slip off that fingerhold and I’d have to grab something quickly as my support line was sliding down the broken stay, over the spreader, and into the ocean. I had little alternative but to stay focused and keep working while keeping constant pressure on the support line. I continued to drop all unnecessary wire stays and salvable electrical fittings from the mast to Rebecca’s waiting hands below. Spare lines from the cockpit locker were wrapped, woven, and tied around the stump top to form headstays, backstays, and shrouds. I tied loops in three separate lines lashed to the mast, attached shackles and blocks, then rove halyards through them. My work aloft, in this rocking anchorage, anyway, was complete, and I inched my way down with a headache and several red scrapes and dings.
The first item to be raised on a halyard was the emergency antenna for the single-sideband radio. Ours is a 1/8-inch stainless-steel wire, insulated on each end with plastic thimbles and tied with lines to the stern and bow pulpit. We slid plastic water hose to the middle so when we raised it, the wire would be insulated from contact with the mast. The minimum length for an emergency antenna is 23 feet, but the longer the better. Originally intended to go up a masthead halyard, our antenna is 46 feet long. High-voltage GTO wire is the most prescribed wire for connecting the antenna to the antenna tuner, but in our case, we used the largest-core wire we had on the boat. Fortunately, our emergency antenna worked equally, if not better, than the antenna that came down with the rigging. Over the weeks ahead, we’d keep in touch with cruisers nets and begin to organize the repairs of our boat.
There were so many problems for us to solve that we had to discipline ourselves not to race ahead but to focus on completing the most immediate job. When that task was complete, we could then advance to the next item on the list. With our decks cleared and organized and the dragging mast section well supported, we could now decide where to sail for repairs. We couldn’t sever and lower the bent mast to the deck until we reached a calmer anchorage. In the Tabiteuea anchorage, it took three days to clear the rigging and bring order to our decks. With refreshed attitudes and new fortitude, we prepared to leave on the trip to a suitable harbor to rebuild our Brick House.
When we examined the chart, an off-the-wind radius had us looking for landfall possibilities in Vanuatu and as far away as Australia and points north. What we needed most was fast mail and frequent cargo shipping from the United States, a place to lay out a mast, and a crane to lift it. Majuro, in the Marshall Islands, was 620 miles to the northwest of us, and as a U.S.-associated island, it fit our repair and logistics requirements. But the seasonal winds were shifting to north of east, which could make it a difficult, if not impossible, target. We were racing the seasons with a slow, broken boat. Our first stop would be Tarawa, 225 miles to the northwest.
It must have been a seasonal shift that, for the only time in months, brought settled winds of less than 12 knots and at times delivered a push from abaft the beam. Our odd-looking sails assisted the diesel engine, gliding us along at a fuel-efficient 1,800 rpm. Two days later, we dropped the anchor in Tarawa, off the town of Betio.
We found shelter in the middle of the perfectly calm but tiny inner harbor. Working from a bosun’s chair, I began to saw where the mast was bent over. It took three fully charged batteries for our 18-volt Ryobi cordless reciprocating saw to work its way through most of the metal. This was one time Rebecca appreciated not carrying out her threat to empty my tool locker and refill it with a bicycle or her sewing machine.
It was delicate work to guide the saw blade around halyards pinched inside the mast, but slicing through the expensive bundle of electrical wires couldn’t be avoided. A hand-powered hacksaw blade made the final slices, which dropped the full weight of the mast section onto two halyards. With help from the crew of Summer Sky, it was surprisingly easy to slack one halyard while the safety of the other halyard supported the 150-pound weight of the mast. Near the deck, one halyard was repositioned at the balance point, and the spar was rotated to the side deck, where it was set on a cushion of fenders. We stowed the mast section on the starboard deck so its weight would be to windward on our next passage.
With our stubby rig looking like something Shackleton used to escape his Antarctic adventure, we worked our way north. As we sailed past other atolls, we kept to their sheltered western shores and made comfortable progress in unseasonably tranquil conditions. Our bucket of luck was heavily tapped on this 390-mile passage. The customary 18-knot winds and large waves returned only as we picked up a mooring in the safety of Majuro.
At our destination, the tedious work of ordering materials and the wait for them to arrive would begin. Brick House had been cracked, but soon she will sail with titanium chainplates and a rig to take us safely to whatever latitude we choose.
Patrick and Rebecca Childress set sail from Rhode Island in October 2007. They’ll continue their circumnavigation aboard their Valiant 40, Brick House, when they finish rerigging in Majuro, in the Marshall Islands. Allied Titanium (alliedtitanium.com) is manufacturing the new chainplates, clevis pins, mast tangs, and bolts so that the rigging on Brick House won’t suffer again from crevice corrosion.