Today the worst thing that can happen to a sailboat happened. We were dismasted. Despite all of our precautions, despite getting all new rigging the best that money can buy, in preparation for this Pacific crossing, we have lost our rig in the middle of the ocean, four hundred miles from land.
It was Sunday morning, our fourth day out from the Galapagos on our long-anticipated passage to the Marquesas. Jack was in the cockpit, I was below in the saloon. We were reaching in 20-22 kts in somewhat lumpy seas, uncomfortable conditions but safe and manageable. Suddenly I head a loud TWANG and looked out the window to see our starboard shroud fall down in a big coil. I ran outside just as Jack said “WHAT WAS THAT!?”
By this time I was at the edge of the cockpit climbing onto the starboard sidedeck. “We lost a shroud!”
Jack immediately started to turn us into the wind and reached over to drop the sails. I ran across the cockpit to get the spare halyard that lives on the port side to support the mast. By the time I got there the mast was tetering dangerously toward me. The spare halyard is cleated to the port side of the mast and there’s no way I can get it off without standing in the way of a wobbling mast. I ran back to tighten the starboard running backstay which was in its stored position right where the shroud had been and as I got there TWANG! it broke too. By this time Jack had released the halyards and the sails came tumbling down on deck but it was too late. A wave caught us and the wobbling mast fell overboard head first, in a mess of the sails and lines and rigging. About eight seconds had past since the shroud broke.
The mast, upside down in the water now, was held against the boat by rigging wire and lines. The boom was caught on the lifelines on the side deck, keeping the mast against the hull, working its way back and forth along the hull, pounding in the waves.
It was time for our regular morning radio check in and I told Jack I wanted to report in and get the word out in case we needed help. “Go!” he said. I briefly told net control what happened, that we had to either secure or release the rig and that I would check in in 45 minutes. Out on deck we briefly considered trying to save the boom but where it attaches to the mast was well below deck level and out of reach, and because we have a roller furler the attachment is more complicated than a simple gooseneck We would have to let the whole rig go. There was no possible way we could secure any part of it from its upside down position and we were afraid the pounding would eventually damage the hull. The problem was the boom, caught on the only lifeline stanchions that hadn’t been wiped out by the falling mast. The two of us couldn’t lift it over the top because of course we were lifting the entire rig, mast, boom and sails.
Jack grabbed the mainsheet, still attached to the end of the boom and took it forward to a turning block, then had me feed it back to the power winch. The winch did what we could not, drag the boom along the side deck until it was clear of the stanchions and we could ease it over the rail. Now at least the rig was no longer a threat to the hull, but it was still attached by the port shroud and forestay.
While Jack started on those I went below to check the bilges and do the radio check in. There was a boat not too far from us standing by in case we needed help but I assured them that we were safe, uninjured and not in any immediate danger. I also told them we had let the rig go, the worst thing you can do. If we’d been able to save the boom we could have juryrigged something to keep us going. We agreed we’d check in again in two hours.
Jack got the port shroud off and now the rig was attached to the boat by just the headstay, and the whole thing was acting like a sea anchor, holding us into the wind. I thought we should try to save the jib and the camber spar but the upper half of the jib was now wrapped around the part of the headstay that had gone over with the mast. I sawed away at the sail with a knife while Jack tried to get the pin out to release the headstay. We sat on the sail to keep it from billowing up in the wind. Then we realized that if the headstay were released we’d both be swept off the deck with the jib, because the camber spar was still attached to the stay. We stopped what we were doing and worked to detach the camber spar. With that free, I finished cutting the sail off and Jack finally got the headstay free. And with that, the rig went to its watery grave.
We gathered up the tools and went back into the cockpit to take stock. About an hour and a half had passed. We were both covered in sweat, pumped with adrenalin, exhausted. But there was one more thing to do. We went out on the starboard deck to pull in the broken shroud to see what had happened. We pulled and pulled and pulled and the whole thing came back, intact. What broke was the t-ball fitting that attached to the mast. Snapped off. This wasn’t metal fatigue or poor tuning. It was a defective part.
So now what? We have about a 1000-mile range on fuel, not enough to continue to the Marquesas. We have only a camber spar and half a jib to effect a juryrig. We are 438 miles from the Galapagos where there are no boat services, and it’s another 1000 miles to windward back to Panama. Our hearts sank.
“We have to go back,” Jack said. And I reluctantly agreed. We turned around are now motoring eastward. We don’t know what’s next but we are safe. We have plenty of food, fuel and water. We’ll figure it out.
I’m proud that we didn’t panic. We did what we had to do calmly and quickly. There’s time enough for reappraisal but for now we’re just glad we’re ok.