Voice of Experience: Cruising Without a Sail

My wife, Penelope, and I recently enjoyed a wonderful cruise through the Florida Keys. Our boat, Alizee, a cutter-rigged Cabo Rico 36, was in excellent condition, with fresh bottom paint and recently inspected standing rigging.
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 Illustration by Steve Sanford

Illustration by Steve Sanford

My wife, Penelope, and I recently enjoyed a wonderful cruise through the Florida Keys. Our boat, Alizee, a cutter-rigged Cabo Rico 36, was in excellent condition, with fresh bottom paint and recently inspected standing rigging. We were completely confident in her.

After several days gunkholing south from Miami, we arrived in Key West to find the spring break crowds had beaten us there, so we stayed only a day before heading across the Sea of Florida to Fort Myers Beach. We left our anchorage in the afternoon and sailed on a close reach out through the Key West shipping channel. Laying a course for Fort Myers Beach, we enjoyed 10- to 15-knot winds for the next eight hours, trailing two fishing lines behind us.

As the day waned, Penelope went below to cook up some clam linguini, which we ate on deck while watching the sunset. As we ate, the wind shifted to the north-northeast, so we rolled in the genoa and motorsailed under the staysail and main to maintain our course. We stood three-hour watches all through the night. Shortly after sunrise, Pen went below to catch some needed sleep, and I took the helm.

Around 0800 the wind picked up and shifted east, so I decided to roll out the genoa. As I sheeted in the sail, I heard a crash and saw the forestay suddenly swing away from the boat. There was a deafening screech of metal on metal as the genoa pulled the forestay and furler drum up and over the bow pulpit. I called—screamed, actually—down to Penelope to come topside, but she’d heard the noise and was already on her way.

The forestay and genoa were now flying almost horizontally to port, secured at the top by the genoa halyard and the forestay clevis pin. The roller-furling line, which had a tenuous hold on the foot of the sail, was caught two-thirds of the way back on the starboard rail by a stopper knot in the aft-most furling block.

Penelope took the helm while I went forward to assess the situation and see what I could do to get the sail and forestay back on the boat. First I asked her to turn into the wind, which was blowing 20 knots, but this only put more wind in the sail. Penelope, who had limited experience at the helm, then experimented a bit and found a downwind heading that put the genoa behind the mainsail. Meanwhile, I wrestled the forestay amidships with the furling line and, with the genoa blanketed, succeeded in getting it to one of the port shrouds. After I managed to get a few wraps of the sail around the forestay, I secured it with sail ties. 

 James struggled to control the sail and secure it to the port shroud. Photo by James Williams

James struggled to control the sail and secure it to the port shroud. Photo by James Williams

I knew the backstay was pulling hard on the mast, so before anything else gave, we rushed to furl the staysail and drop the main. Once the sails were down, I breathed a sigh of relief and went forward to lower the genoa. It was jammed at the masthead, however, and I was already exhausted, so I decided to put more ties on it and then see about getting underway.

We motored only a couple of minutes on our original course before the genoa started filling again. I simply couldn’t tie off enough of the sail to keep it from catching air. The sail had to come down. We stopped the boat, and after catching my breath I went forward to see if I could un-jam the genoa or its halyard at the masthead without having to climb the mast.

Luck was with us. After puzzling over the situation, I saw our spinnaker halyard had been caught by the forestay and pulled into a position where it was fouling the genoa halyard. I soon freed it and started pulling the genoa down, lifting it over the lifelines and between the shrouds to the deck. Penelope and I then stretched it out, and flaked it along the gunwale and secured it to the stanchions with a long line. 

We then manhandled the roller-furler and forestay up to the bow and over the pulpit. It slipped once, right down on Penelope’s bare foot. She yelped loudly, but only suffered a bad bruise. We tried securing the furling gear to the staysail stay, but it began gouging up the foredeck. This was not the solution. 

I remembered having once seen a fellow sailor who’d lost his forestay in a race motoring into his berth with his furling rod lodged between the cross pieces on his pulpit. I suggested to Penelope that we try this, and it worked nicely. We still had repairs to make and didn’t know how damaged the rig was, but all in all it had taken us only about an hour and a half to bring things back in order.

While drifting and trying to cope with the genoa and loose forestay, two or three other boats sailed by, but none hailed us to see if we were in trouble. The only help we got was some spiritual support offered by a pod of curious dolphins that frolicked around the bow after we got underway again. We were thrilled by their company. It seemed a sure sign that Neptune was working on our side. We had handled a dangerous situation and now needed only to figure out what had gone wrong.

Despite our troubles, we were only about two hours off our original ETA when we finally dropped our anchor in San Carlos Bay outside Fort Myers Beach. Once anchored, I started calling around to boatyards and finally found one that was willing to help us make repairs the next day. They reattached the base of our forestay with a new clevis pin, checked the integrity of the stay, and helped us sort things out. We were on our way again within an hour and a half, heading north up Florida’s gulf coast.

While walking the foredeck looking for clues to what had happened, I saw that the forestay toggle had separated from its chainplate. Neither the clevis pin for the toggle nor its cotter pin were on the deck. They were simply missing. I guessed that the cotter pin had failed or come out, and when I unfurled the genoa, the clevis pin in turn slipped out, releasing the foot of the forestay and the furler.

What exactly had happened to the cotter pin? My best guess is that the workers at the boatyard where we had Alizee’s bottom painted failed to properly secure it. They needed to release the forestay to get Alizee into their Travelift, and when they reattached it after relaunching her, they must have been sloppy about replacing the pin. Because I trusted them, I had not checked it.

We were truly lucky we didn’t lose the whole rig, and I was very glad I had decided to buy a boat with a cutter rig. The inner forestay had offset the tension on the mast from the backstay, and kept the mast up, even in over 15 knots of wind.

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