Why do all challenging events always seem to happen at night?
We were sailing on a beam reach in the Mayaguana Passage, between Mayaguana and the Plana Cays in the southern Bahamas, aboard Freebird, our Grainger 42 catamaran. So far we’d had an uneventful passage. We would soon arrive at Georgetown, Exuma, our home base, 160 miles to the northwest. We call it Camp Georgetown, a wonderland filled with happy cruisers who organize bonfires and potlucks, ladies lunches, group homeschooling for kids, and mechanical lectures on just about anything you need to know. We especially enjoy the excellent free diving. We grab our Hawaiian slings and often come back with fresh fish for dinner.
Just one more day and we’ll be there! My heart swelled with anticipation. We had been on walkabout for nearly two years, ever since acquiring our new boat in Sicily. Now we were on delivery from the Mediterranean to Georgetown. We had missed our sons, who were waiting up ahead in Georgetown. Our Atlantic crossing had been uneventful. Lucky us! We were on a 35-year roll: no emergencies at sea, either with the vessel or with respect to our health.
I remembered when we first sailed through the Mayaguana Passage many moons earlier, before our sons were born. We had stared in shock at a large monohull that lay scattered across the reef in ruins. The vessel, Gypsy, had been on the last leg of a five-year circumnavigation. It was rumored the skipper was belowdecks playing poker when tragedy struck. Confidence had gotten the better of him. I had vowed we would never err in this way. In fact, we usually sailed in company. Companionship in the middle of the ocean does wonders for the soul.
This method of cruising has been fortuitous for us. We had 200,000 miles beneath our keel, and during all those miles we were usually in company with at least one other cruising boat. But tonight we were alone.
Serving as additional crew onboard Freebird was my nephew, Ian. He had never sailed before in his life, but I figured he’d bring us good luck with his unfailingly positive attitude. Earlier in the summer, in Sicily, my husband, Peter, looked puzzled when I suggested that Ian join us. “His sailing experience is … zero, isn’t it?”
“True, but it’s all in the attitude. And he’s never car sick!” I countered. And so Ian joined us in the Canary Islands. I was delighted, as the Atlantic Ocean can be rough and I liked having extra crew. Although this was our third crossing, I prefer to relax while underway. A third person onboard allowed for more interesting conversation over dinner in the cockpit, an extra hand when landing a big fish, and better yet, lazy mornings for me.
I thrive on standing the 0200-0500 dog watch–just me, alone with the stars and the sea. I sing. I sip aromatic Italian coffee. I have a party with myself. The dogwatch is my favorite part of the day. The only thing is, once asleep afterward, I hate having to wake before noon. And with Ian aboard to stand an extra watch, I could sleep through all the morning after sunrise.
On this night I prepared for my dogwatch by climbing into bed after a late supper. I first had checked in with Ian. He was a cheerful boy, never one to complain, but tonight, a frown had replaced his normally ubiquitous smile.
“To tell you the truth, my back has been bothering me. I think it’s the helm seat.”
“Try the starboard helm seat tonight.” I told him. “You’ll be more comfortable there.” With that, I kissed Peter goodnight and climbed into bed.
KA-BOOM! The heart-wrenching sound exploded in my ears. A violent shudder in the rigging vaulted me out of my berth. Had we collided with a ship? I stumbled into the cockpit and stared in shock at empty space. My scalp tingled—no one was there. I sprang to the starboard side and looked up. A vaulted sky of stars stared back at me, but there were no sails, no mast—nada.
Where was everyone? I searched the stern—vacant. I searched to port. Jiminy Crickets! The boom lay partially embedded in the helm seat. A spaghetti factory of lines was draped over stanchions, running overboard into the sea.
“Ian! Peter! Where are you?” I screamed. I rushed to the port side. As soon as I touched the lifeline, it went limp and I nearly tumbled off the boat.
“Up here!” yelled Peter.
I peered forward and saw Peter and Ian standing quietly on the bow. They were considering the surrounding chaos as if on a countryside picnic. I shakily tiptoed forward to join them. Standing next to the mast step, I stared down into an empty hole. To port, alongside the hull, lay the mast, sticking straight up toward the heavens. The boom lay stretched alongside the cabintop, with one end in the helm seat. The mainsail and genoa seemed to glow under the water. Shrouds and ropes were dangling everywhere.
“How did this happen?” I wailed.
Peter scratched his chin. “Looks as if the starboard toggle split,” he said. “Corrosion inside stainless steel is nearly impossible to see. It must’ve deteriorated more during our bumpy Atlantic crossing.”
“How are we going to get rid of this mess before the wind picks up? I can hear the spreaders scraping against the hull. We haven’t much time!” I yelled. Conditions were now calm, but a cold front was due in just four hours. We’d been hoping to make Georgetown before the wind veered against us.
Once the wind picked up, I worried the spreaders would pound our hull mercilessly and put a hole in it. It would only take minutes for us to sink.
“Catamarans don’t sink,” Peter said, as if reading my mind.
“Don’t worry, Aunt Tina,” soothed Ian. “We can fix this. We just need some tools.”
Peter knelt down with a flashlight to study the cotter pins, toggles and wire. While he focused on releasing the rig, Ian focused on me. His confidence helped me put one foot calmly in front of the other while pushing away tears.
I dashed into the saloon to fish out the angle grinder with its cutting disk. Two months ago back in Sicily, when Peter had instructed us on where the emergency gear was located, my eyes had glazed over. How many times had I heard this? But now I was all wobbly and discombobulated.
With shaking hands, I found the saw and turned it on. It was still fully charged.
“Grab the extension cord,” Peter hollered from the foredeck. “Giant screwdriver. Hacksaw. Pliers. Adjustable wrench. Get them all!”
I showed up with a pocket camera instead. “For the insurance company. Smile!” And then I snapped away. Shocked faces stared back at me. Later, Peter said it was the smartest thing I could have done. After that I went back inside for the tools.
“First, we release the rig in the water before it bores a hole into the hull,” Peter said. “Then we’ll tackle the bow. Once the headstay is released, it’ll spring into the air, and I don’t want anyone to get whacked.”
“Can’t we save the rig? It’ll be so expensive to replace,” I pleaded.
“No way. The mast is impossible to lift. That’s what we have insurance for,” Peter said. He then tried to remove the cotter pin that held the port shroud, using pliers to try and straighten it. But it was frozen in place.
Peter grabbed the angle grinder and set to work. Sparks flew as he ground into the cotter pin. Ian held the toggle steady to allow for easy penetration. Once the pin was severed, Peter shoved the clevis pin back through the toggle. SWOOSH! WHIP! WHIP!
Down went the mainsail and genoa, sinking further into the sea. At the same time the boom began to move with them. As a team, we cradled it in our arms and carefully pushed it over the side. As it sank, a bit of my heart went with it. It was painful to see my boat coming apart.
While Peter and Ian worked on the rigging, I scurried about cutting loose lines. Once the headstay was released, I didn’t want any hapless loops around ankles dragging anyone overboard. I can do this. I am doing this. The mantra kept me calm and focused. The only problem was the weight of the boom, mast and sails were putting a tremendous strain on the headstay, which was still set in place. Peter and Ian crawled up to pull the pin on it, but it was jammed halfway inside.
“We’ll have to saw through the other side, then take cover as it splits,” Peter cautioned Ian.
After 20 minutes of sawing: WHOOSH! The roller-furling rod collapsed and whipped into the dark water.
“Yay,” I shouted. “We did it!” High fives smashed in celebration all around.
“Everyone check the water around the boat. Make sure no lines are left dangling. Last thing we need is a fouled prop,” Peter shouted.
Once underway again, I felt euphoric that we had safely survived one of sailing’s worst nightmares: a dismasting at sea, at night. One thing troubled me. Ian would normally have been sitting in the port helm seat that night, which was where the boom had landed. He might have been seriously injured, perhaps knocked overboard. By moving to the starboard helm seat, his life was saved.
As if reading my mind again, Peter reflected, “At least no one was hurt.”
Amen to that! When I shared this with Ian’s mother–my sister–she said, “Oh, of course. Ian has always been gifted.”
We limped into Elizabeth Harbor just before sunset the following day. Our sons had a full cooler of Bahamian beer to celebrate the beginning of the Christmas holiday. It was December 19, 2012. I knew the coming year would be arduous, with mounds of paperwork to wade through to make repairs. But whatever it took, we would be better off for the wear and tear. We would step up to the challenge and and become better cruisers because of it.
How to Prevent a Dismasting
- Inspect your standing rigging before each passage. Closely study spreaders, tangs and swage fittings, looking for signs of weeping, rust or oxidation. Swaged wire terminals are usually the weakest link among the host of other fittings holding up the mast. The lower terminal typically goes first, since water trickles down the wire into it, creating corrosion and hairline cracks.
- Use fine bronze wool to polish the terminal and a magnifying glass to look for hairline cracks.
- Run a cotton ball along your wire shrouds. If the ball snags or frays, inspect closely as necessary.
- Check under spreader boots, looking for anything out of the ordinary. Spreader tips are a high-stress area. Look for any broken strands in the wire. Never wrap shrouds or wires in rigging tape. Stainless steel must breathe to keep from corroding.
- Examine all clevis pins, rings and spreader sockets. Pay close attention to where stainless fasteners and aluminum fittings meet.
Inspect toggles and chainplates for crevice corrosion. To test for crevice corrosion, remove and dye test chainplates and fittings every 10 years, and every five years afterward until replaced.
- Maintain turnbuckles regularly by lubricating and working the screw out and in. Do this twice a year if cruising full time. Lubricate screw heads with a lanolin-based grease.
Tina Dreffin lives with her husband and Schipperke dog full-time aboard Freebird, a Grainger 42, in Exuma, Bahamas. She has been living aboard boats and cruising for 35 years. Photos courtesy of Tina Dreffin
MHS Summer 2015