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Break a mast? Every Sailor's Nightmare

by Rob Starkey on 12 Jan 2006
Sad sight but back in the lee of Barrenjoey at last © Andrea Francolini / Audi http://www.afrancolini.com
Windsong is a fast cruising boat which is primarily used by its owners Rob Starkey and Donna Rohrs for pleasure cruising from the Broken Bay cruising grounds just north of Sydney. In this intimate story Rob recounts the nightmare we all fear, breaking a mast.

Many sailors will agree that there is no greater nightmare for any sailor than the thought of your mast crashing down from above. The nightmare takes many forms ?the crew are hurt or worse, the broken mast pierces the side of the hull and sinks the boat before you can cut it free. The idea of a broken mast swinging in the wind (and it is usually windy when they break), slashing from side to side while the crew attempt to control the boat and cut the wires free is truly a nighmare of great proportions. The following happened in late 2005 outside Baranjoey Lighthouse near Sydney. While this story happened in a two handed race, it could happen anytime, and it is particularly relevant for cruisers, because the boat was two handed at the time of the disaster.

Windsong was participating in an event run by the Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club. Donna was not on board, a friend having taken her place. The boat is beautifully maintained, (Donna would say, better than she is) and Rob spares no expense to make sure that the boat is in tip-top order. Spirits were high with the two crew, as they had high hopes of winning both the current race and the series.

Rob takes up the story:

‘We are approximately one mile from the windward mark at Long Reef. The wind is 25kts and seas 1.2 to 2.0 metres. We are doing 6.5Kts. The main is reefed to the top spreader and we have the full jib up. Windsong has a three spreader in line masthead rig with runners and checks. The inner forestay is off, the baby stay is on.

She’s sailing like a dream in sight of the lead boat, a Sydney 38. We know that if we maintain this position we will take the race on corrected time and also the series (Division 1). We have just had notice that the wind has increased to 30kts at Sydney Airport - beautiful!

Jim is at the helm, I’m trimming. I hear a metallic bang, sounds like a block hitting the boom. “What the ##$@!$ was that??I ask Jim. I look around (Not high enough. Had I looked up I would have seen the cap shroud broken (think) at the middle (second) windward spreader) and can see nothing wrong. We are both perplexed, but nothing seems amiss. I check the runners for the correct tension. We settle down, but puzzled.

Suddenly there is a loud clanging, banging noise from above. As we look up, we are horrified to see that the mast has broken in two directly under the top spreader, and is hanging down and banging with the wind against the part of the mast that is still intact. This is amazing ?we had not heard the mast tear and break. I believe the carbon masts make a loud noise.

So the mast is now hanging aft attached by halyards and electrical cables (Tri colour, VHF, FM, Mast head). All other cables like radar are below the break.
The broken section ?about a third of this 65 foot mast is now hanging over us two crew and swinging left to right as the boat rolls in the lumpy sea. We don’t know how strongly the cables and halyards will hold it. In our minds, it may let go at any moment.

Simultaneously, the jib collapses and falls over the side, picking up water. The tack remains attached to the bow and clews are still attached to sheets on the deck. The head of the sail is still attached to the end of the swinging mast section. So it’s over the side at the bow, draped along the side of the boat in the water and back up on deck aft of the mast. This is now both sail and a very deformed head foil. The boat is bucking in the seas, and Jim tries to get her into the wind.

The main is also attached to the broken swinging head although on a length of halyard equal to the broken section because of the reef we had put in.
The main is the biggest problem, with lots of loose sail now blowing in the 30+ wind - the change has come through, right on cue.

I feel like I could do with a crash helmet, but I creep forward and try lowering the main and jib. No go. The halyards are frozen on the broken mast section. I can’t reach the main head to un-shackle ?it’s much too high although down two lengths of the broken mast. I think for a moment of climbing the mast, but can’t as the halyards are all frozen and the boat’s now rolling heavily in the high seas, and it’s way too dangerous to free climb. Good decision there.

So, Jim remains at the helm trying to keep the boat into the wind. I look at the main for what feels like a very long time, trying to think how to get it down. I keep going to the mast to do this. Every time I go forward I have to wait for the swinging section to start its pendulum swing away from me and then dart up the side of the boat.
When I do this, Jim can’t see me as the sails are all over the deck and blanketing the vision between helm and mast. Neither can I wear a safety harness as the standing and running rigging and sails are all over the jack lines, both sides of boat, although sails only on port side.
So I am transiting the deck without the tether attached, and in fact when at the mast I make a point of not tethering at all as the mast section is swinging wildly and I don’t know when it will come down on top of me. So, what I do is hang on and keep yelling my status to Jim to let him know where I am and that I am still on the deck.

It’s all going in slow motion while I look at the main for this very long time. No way to get to the head to cut or unshackle. I let all the halyard go at the jammer, but there’s no movement - cutting at deck level is not an option. Next I think of releasing the foot. This is going to be an ugly exercise of undoing the boom furler and then I’ll have twice the sail area blowing in the wind. No go - very dangerous for myself and more so for the helm.
So I decide to cut the main. I get the regulation knife (a dive knife with serrated cutting edge) from the helm, go forward again and cut the main horizontally along the boom as high as I can reach. Amazing, never had to use the knife and it goes so quick and easy, like a hot knife through butter. I cut horizontally so as to minimize the damage (Cross cut sail).

The moment the sail is released the boat settles down; the helm can now see me, and things all round are starting to improve. Life is looking up.

Next I start pulling the jib back on deck. It’s full of water, like pulling a bloody elephant up over the side. Soon realize I am not going to get the jib on deck this way. So I move forward, take hold of the foil and pull it up foot by foot, just focusing on getting the entire foil on deck. Eventually, it is. At this stage the sail is still in the water so I take the luff and do the same thing ?from a position forward I pull it on deck foot by foot spilling water as I move aft.

Finally the jib is all on deck. For an instant, I realise my back is hurting like hell. I have to blank this from my mind.

The main is off with a small head section flying in the wind with the loose mast section. The jib runs along the port deck and up the aft of the broken mast.

We decide to turn the boat around and try to head for home, hoping that the broken sections of mast holds firm. We’ve made the conscious decision not to start the motor, as we are unsure of what rigging remains over the side. However, as we turn off the wind, the boat takes off at 9.5 knots. We can’t slow her down. All the way to Barrenjoey.

So once we have the boat under control and turned for home, I go below to jury rig the emergency VHF antenna. Another lesson here.

My VHF emergency antenna location is under the table at the base of the mast. Inside a small cupboard are two waterproof plastic junction boxes. Each box has 6 screws. I have no idea which box cont
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