Is it a virtue to emerge safely from messes you should have avoided in the first place? Last summer’s sail to Bermuda from Maine gave me more than one chance to answer that question, most notably during the catastrophic failure of our forestay in the Sargasso Sea. My friend Derek and I tell this story together to better learn from the experience and to agree misery loves company.
Nellie is my Beneteau First 42, built in 1983 and eager beyond her years. In addition to Derek, the crew consisted of Rieko, his wife of 20 years, and my father, Ted. Derek is a climbing friend from Banff, Canada, who once crewed on 12-Meters—competent, detail-oriented and steady. He and Rieko met in Japan, and she brings a body of saltwater knowledge from when she and Derek lived aboard their own boat. My father, Ted, was 75 for this voyage, going strong and toting a lifetime of sailboat racing. Bermuda tempted us all with its challenging distance, the tricky Gulf Stream crossing and the exotic promise of palm trees and English accents. Really, it’s simple: you grow up in New England, you sail to Bermuda. Everest martyr George Mallory explained he had to climb said mountain “because it’s there,” and for me, Bermuda has always been there.
As for that forestay... A hard coming we had of it, and just the worst sort of headwinds and lumpy seas. The week was a feast of discomforts serving generous portions of wave bashing and big helpings of unsavory beating. So it was a shock that on the calmest day we’d seen and only 40 miles from Bermuda our forestay parted, leaving the whole rig wobbling like a drunk. Luckily, the First 42 has a 57ft Isomat mast, running backstays, beefy shrouds and a babystay. Would that be enough, though, to keep the rig pointing at the clouds and not the seafloor?
Derek was at the helm, Rieko was enjoying the sun in the cockpit, Ted was reading on a settee, and I was at the chart table preparing for the welcoming tones of Bermuda radio on the VHF. Instead, I heard what crime thrillers call “a sharp report”—what sounded like a cross between a gunshot and a baseball leaving a really big bat. That was bad. Worse yet was feeling Nellie shiver, just shake like a golden retriever at the beach. Derek called me, and I was through the companionway in time to see the foresail sag and stumble. It was 1100, blowing 9 knots from the southeast in a long, friendly swell.
Derek recalls it clearly: “Bang! I knew right away that something in the rig had failed, a shroud, a halyard, wasn’t sure which, but my initial reaction was to turn the wheel to luff up and take whatever load off the rig I could. Simultaneously, I looked up and saw the big sag in the headstay. I saw you down below, heading up on deck. Rieko says she remembers me shouting, ‘Jeff, I need you up here now!’ In my guts, I think I just knew the forestay had failed. I fully expected to watch the mast go over the side in slow motion, but a few automatic things took over.
“Unfortunately, I have twice been on boats where we had a real rig failure. The first time I heard it, but didn’t recognize it for what it was, and the mast went over the side. Luckily we were close to shore with lots of support and no one got hurt. The second time, the first experience helped, and we recognized it immediately for what it was, crash tacked off the broken shroud and things stayed upright…”
Unlike Derek, I had no expectations. What I did have, however, was the task of unclipping the spinnaker halyard from the mast base and shuffling it forward to become the new forestay…a job that was a lot harder than it looked. You see, with the genoa sagging and the halyard loosed, the sail was atangle in the spreaders, so getting the spinnaker halyard free of the radar dome and around that commotion of gear that should have been up but was now sagging was awkward and a little perilous to say the least. Luckily Rieko was a virtuoso at the rope clutch, giving me just enough slack to free the halyard but keeping enough tension to keep me from rolling overboard.
Derek recollects: “At this point, I think we probably both figured OK, crisis and worst-case outcome is likely averted, but now we have a big problem that we have to solve. Fortunately, when we dropped everything the headsail and foil, for the most part, came down on the deck. However, in doing to so it also folded around its midpoint. In retrospect, I am not sure releasing the genoa halyard was actually the right thing to do as it was likely giving some support forward, but I would be interested to hear what other experienced sailors think might have been the ‘correct’ course of action. Given the sag, I don’t think we could have actually furled the headsail with the halyard still tight in place…”
That’s for sure.
“Nonetheless,” Derek recalls, “we got the spinnaker halyard hitched and tight very quickly. Rieko and your dad knowing where all these halyards, stoppers and corresponding winches were instrumental in this going smoothly and efficiently. Now we had to clean up the mess. I wanted to get the engine going so we could have some steerage, but we had to make sure nothing was over the side, as a fouled prop would just compound the problem, so this became the time to start identifying the issues and working through the solution.”
With the headsail off the foil, I pulled the genoa halyard forward to double the support from masthead to bow. That done, I realized we also needed to detach the forestay from the stem fitting and shift it out of the way so I could attach the halyard to it. Trouble was the furling gear attachment was under strain from the twisted forestay and wouldn’t budge. I knelt over it with vice-grips and asked for a small hammer. My dad returned with a hacksaw and a gleam in his eye like some eager Civil War surgeon. Rieko was already standing by with an extra blade. “Easy folks,” I said. “Let’s take this apart if we can, then hope someone else can put it all back together.” I tapped aimlessly with the vice-grips on tightly bound stainless steel, thinking I’d never been to Bermuda, but I’d cruised enough to know that ordering parts from foreign ports was no ticket to health or prosperity.
Prompted perhaps by my indecision with the tools, Derek took over the logistics of disassembly—and a good thing too. The topping lift eventually served to raise the busted stay amidships, after which an extra line held it in place while we separated the furling gear from the bow.
Derek recalls the details in fuller focus: “We got the sail bundled up and sheets inboard and then shifted the broken foil out over the pulpit. The foil had folded at a point maybe two-fifths of the way up, so there was a decent length of foil overhanging the bow. With everything clear, we started the engine and started driving forward. As we did this, though, your dad pointed out [read, screamed and yelled!] that the section of the foil overhanging the pulpit was catching in the waves ahead of the boat and flexing badly, threatening to maybe fold under us, so we backed off the throttle to idle to reassess the situation. It was clear that we would have to get the folded foil farther into the boat. Problem was that the foil was flexed badly against the stem fitting, making it impossible to remove the clevis pin holding it there so that we could not separate that piece of rigging from the boat. There was a round of brainstorming and while cutting it seemed like a decent option, I think we decided we wanted to try to avoid that. At some point, we figured that if we could get the foil back up into a more “anatomically correct” position we might be able to release some of the pressure on the stem fitting and bang out the clevis pin.”
Yes. From there we were able to tap-tap-tap free the big clevis pin holding the gear to the foredeck. It didn’t even go overboard! That free, it was a matter of minutes for my dad to fold the forestay over itself and for the two of us to secure that length of clumsy cable against the port rail.
Then we raised the deeply reefed mainsail, made ready to hank the tiny storm jib to our new forestay if the diesel gave us trouble and alerted Bermuda Radio. Soon a frigatebird joined us, then three dolphins. I looked with admiration at the wildlife going by, all the while sneaking wary glances at our mast. We eventually motored through St. George’s Town Cut in the dark.
The next morning as Nellie lay alongside St. George’s town quay, we were stunned to find that the stemball fitting itself had failed. That’s a chunk of stainless steel, 5/8in in diameter! It connects the forestay to the masthead and looks like an oversize golf-tee. Apparently, metal fatigue had plucked the head the way you’d pluck a daisy in the summertime. Happily, Steve at Ocean Sails made my problems his and ordered new extrusions, a new stemball, assembled a replacement forestay and had me on my way back to New England with a fresh crew a mere 10 days after the morning of my rig failure.
Still, while awaiting parts and stowing gear I had ample time to ponder the forestay and come to some conclusions regarding Nellie’s future. First and foremost, I decided when surprises happen, don’t overreact. Practice for rigging failures just like you do man overboard or through-hull leaks. Keep your life jacket handy for emergencies. And most of all, get out of the messes you get into with at least as many friends as got you there.
What We Learned
1. We overtaxed the rig thanks to an aggressive schedule imposed by flight plans and vacation days. As someone smart once said, “the most dangerous object aboard your boat is a calendar.” I should have asked the excellent riggers at Handy Boat back in Maine to replace all the standing rigging before our passage, but I satisfied myself with replacing two frayed shrouds and best wishes.
2. Bad luck is sometimes good luck. As much as we felt downcast by losing the forestay, it could have happened in 30-knot gusts or in the tumultuous Gulf Stream. Or, worse, it could have snapped on the way back with my nephews aboard and a big sea ready to pitch the mast overboard and crack the hull like an egg. That would be the time for hacksaws!
3. Finally, an adventure is an effort whose outcome is uncertain. This uncertain moment brought our crew together into an agile and effective unit. Derek reflects: “In hindsight, I think we were lucky…. But you also make your luck. Solid boat with a big section, weather and wind on our side, and we made a habit of never being over canvassed. The crew reactions were outstanding and everyone provided valuable input towards solutions throughout the process.”
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