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.

Distmasted in the Pacific photo

Rebecca Childress

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.

It took hours to restore order and secure supports to the dragging masthead. Until we couldn’t see any more, we’d hardly noticed that the sun had disappeared. But now we couldn’t risk starting the engine for a second time without first entering the dark ocean to verify that nothing would tangle in the propeller.

Our underwater light was invaluable this evening. Normally, I readily explore the reefs in daylight looking for sizable fish to pursue. Tonight, I entered the black ocean slowly, the narrow beam of light searching for the profile and glinting eyes of large pursuers. But in the glow, the keel of Brick House and I were the only things swimming. Everything below the waterline looked tranquil except for the boarding ladder, which rolled and bubbled deep in white foam, then rose again. We could start the engine and be on our way.

Click, click, click. How could this be? The only time in four years when I most need the engine to start, and it won’t turn over even though the battery is fully charged! Click, click. Unbelievable. I’m always in the engine room checking, cleaning, changing. Click, click. I had visions now of sailing southwest 960 miles, under jury-rig, to Vanuatu. Rebecca put the battery selector to “Both.” The engine dragged slowly, then revved and purred. At no time after this did the engine ever falter when asked to start.

The north end of Tabiteuea is a long, low island open to the west. It was the least bumpy anchorage we could reach in our situation. We motored all night to cover the 25 miles to get there. Only when the sun was high did we slowly wind through the uncharted labyrinth of coral until our way was fully blocked, two miles from shore.

In the light of a new day, Rebecca grew incredibly despondent when she looked upon our broken home. I gently reminded her of that well-known quotation: “The difference between adversity and adventure is attitude.” I said to her, “Isn’t this an adventure?”

Her eyes reddened and watered, “We’re ruined. This is nothing but a disaster!” In reality, our situation could’ve been worse. At least we had our rudder and plenty of diesel fuel. But, as she pointed out, “If we’d only known to change the chainplate, we’d now be on our way to Vanuatu or Rotuma.”

In my diligence to shine our stainless steel, I’d been polishing away the vital evidence. At the top of the chainplate, a second layer of steel had been welded to add thickness for the clevis pin to pull against. Moisture had been seeping between the two metals at the clevis-pin hole. That chainplate was going to break, and with luck, it failed when an anchorage wasn’t far away. I should’ve inspected the chainplates with a magnifying glass and crack-exposing dye or, better yet, replaced them on a scheduled basis, as we do with the wire stays.

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.

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.
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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.