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The Ceramco Files- No use calling home for Mum

by Peter Montgomery, Alan Sefton and Sail-World on 18 Sep 2011
Ceramco from the air nearing Cape Town Ceramco NZ
This week it is the 25th anniversary of the dismasting of Ceramco New Zealand. Over this time, Sail-World is featuring a series of images and sound clips from one of the seminal moments in New Zealand yachting culture.


Chapter 6 of 'Blake's Odyssey' by Peter Blake and Alan Sefton. in which Peter Blake describes his initial reaction to the dismasting of Ceramco New Zealand in the 1981-82 Whitbread Race

I dashed up on deck. What a mess. The whole top half of the mast was over the side but still attached by internal halyards and wiring systems, plus the mainsail and jib and the headstay. Another section, probably 2Oft long, was bent over and dangling down to the gunwhale. We were left with a l6ft stump still in place.

It appeared that the port lower intermediate shroud had broken where it bent over the lower spreader. The mast didn’t have a chance and folded at the middle and bottom spreaders. But diagnosis had to wait. The top section of the alloy mast, with all its attachments, was under the boat with the wind blowing Ceramco down on to it.

There were some shocked and glum faces about, but nobody hesitated. Fenders were put over the side to prevent hull damage by the section in the water. We used the motor — first making sure there were no lines under the propeller — to reverse the boat around until the spar and entanglements were to windward with Ceramco streaming to leeward of their danger. Then we used blocks and tackles to slowly winch the mast section back on board.

With everything back on deck — we salvaged the lot — we had only three bent stanchions to show for all the trouble. But we were 2455 miles from Cape Town, as the crow flies, with only a loft stump of a mast from which to hang a bare minimum of sail.

To get us moving again, while we took stock of the situation, we set the trisail and No. 6 jib on the stump and quickly were making 4 to 5 knots in the right direction. That was something. But it was daunting to think how far we had to go - most of it to windward if we contemplated the direct route.



Day 25: Tuesday, September 22. Noon position 6.12S 14.54W
Day’s run 64 miles. Course 230 degrees.
Wind SSE 10 knots. Barometer 1017.

Not one of the great nights. Everyone retired to their own thoughts, very sad about what had happened. They weren’t worried for themselves. They were concerned that they might be letting down a lot of people back home who had shown so much faith in the project. But by dawn we were ready to bounce back and the work to be done diverted everyone’s attentions to things productive.
We managed 40 miles overnight in a south-westerly direction. Not a lot, but at least we were moving and in the right direction.

Vonny turned on a hearty breakfast before we began the job of hoisting the 50ft top section into place. Most people slept reasonably well despite a lot of tossing and turning. As they emerged from their bunks though there was a fair amount of uncertainty, people mentally pinching themselves hoping it had all been a had dream. A quick look on deck quickly dispelled those hopes.

There was a seven to eight foot swell running and quite a lollop so the job of hoisting the 5Oft top section wasn’t going to be easy. We started by maneuvering the spar forward until it was over the pulpit and right out in front of the boat. The base of the section had been trimmed off with a hacksaw, filed up neatly and was resting just in front of the stub of the bottom section which was still in position in the boat.

As a pad for the top section, which would of course be deck-stepped, we’d requisitioned Vonny’s kauri breadboard from the galley. The cook wasn’t too happy at losing such a beautiful part of his set-up, but relented as it was to be put to essential use. The breadboard was fixed in place, in front of the stub, by bolting alloy strips to it and through the deck. We then created a system of ropes and wire around the base of the top section to prevent it shooting backwards when we performed the actual lift.

Next we rigged the stub as a fulcrum with a wire run over the top of it to the hounds of what would be our new mast, up over the pulpit then back over the top of the stub to the mainsheet winch in the helmsman’s cockpit. We were almost ready, but as a precaution against the sea that was running, we rigged control lines so that we could keep a tight grip on everything when we started the hoist.

It was quite an operation with a few anxious moments, but slowly the top section was ground to the vertical, in position in front of the stub. Chappy went up and lashed the new’ spar to the top of the stub while Jaws wired up the bottom. We then pulled it all tight with blocks and tackle and made sure it would remain in position by adding bands of wire and big bulldog clips. Midway up the stub, we bound the two sections together with hefty wire and again tightened this up with blocks and tackle.

To make sure the bottom of the new mast couldn’t go anywhere, we block-and-tackled it out to the sidedecks.

We had already rigged forestay and backstay spare halyards and kite braces — from the top of the mast. Now we added shrouds from the mast top and from the hounds, using a jockey pole as a spreader on the port side to improve the load angle on the main shroud on what would be the weather (windward) side of the boat. As we tensioned it all, the new mast seemed to be standing well, so we rigged an inner forestay and prepared to try some sail.


Using light cord, we lashed the No. 6 headsail — through its eyelets to the forestay and hoisted it. Next came the storm jib, set on the inner forestay (all the stays connected through blocks to the big grinder winches aft). Immediately, the boat steadied down. We had power on and Ceramco felt like she was a going concern again, her speed potential albeit reduced. The trisail came next, hoisted to the top of the mast (with no ties on the luff) and sheeted to the quarter. The speedo shot up to 7.5 to 8 knots. We felt pretty pleased with ourselves. It was now noon on September 22 — 24 hours since that ominous crack which had threatened complete disaster. We’d covered only 64 miles, what was to be the worst run of the leg. But it wasn’t too bad I guess when one considered that the previous worst run had been 85 miles, noon to noon, in the Doldrums.

The work was far from finished however. Now we had to strengthen the rig to make sure it would stay there and take the loads. The top of the mast was already tending to wiggle around quite a lot.

Log extract and text from 'Blake's Odyssey' reprinted by kind permission of Alan Sefton. Sound recordings kindly provided by Peter Montgomery from his personal archives.

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