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DISMASTED !

Frank Robben - November 1992
Cocos Keeling Islands

Or at least partially. The top third of Kialoa's mast, above the second spreaders, is now lashed on deck as we prepare to continue from Cocos Keeling Islands to Sri Lanka where I plan to make permanent repairs.

A cruising sailor learns to live with many fears; probably one of the attractions of sailing the oceans of the world is learning to cope with these fears, first by believing in your skills, and then by being able to put your fate in the hands of god (or gods, as you may believe, if you understand these things). You face the reality of these fears, and thus the power of God, in a direct and daily way when sailing the vast and magnificent oceans on your own ship for which you have earthly responsibility.

In the seven years I have been blue water cruising (that is yachtie lingo for long distance sailing on the open ocean ) have experienced only a few, relatively minor, of these fears. Engines failing, water pumps broken down, heads (toilets) plugged up or failing, unexpected high winds and storms, going aground (in relatively safe places), and the uncertainties of entering a strange harbor. Very lucky, skilled, or on the right side of God, according to my mood. (I am still working on my philosophical conception of life.) Being dismasted in the open ocean, at night and under rough and windy conditions, I had not previously experienced.

Anyone who has sailed on a yacht and has any interest in the strength of mechanical things cannot fail to be impressed with the importance of the wires and other hardware that hold up the mast and sails against the forces of the winds and waves. They appear rather small and it is easy to visualize the disaster that would occur if any would break. The mast and sails would come falling down, wrecking all kinds of expensive equipment, one could easily be injured, and the yacht may be stuck someplace inaccessible without being able to sail.

So now I know what it is like to be dismasted. Not fully, for the repairs will not be completed for a while and the impact of the labor and expense involved are yet to be realized. But enough for the experience to be another notch in my list of little adventures in life. We were entering the Indian Ocean, west of Australia, going from one remote, but inhabited, small island to another. To be exact, from Christmas Island to the Cocos Keeling Islands, both owned and administered by Australia. Both with their own special beauty and somewhat exotic inhabitants and local lifestyles. A three to four day voyage, easy and short. We were having a wonderful sail, with fairly strong wind at right angles to the desired direction of the boat (a cruising sailors favorite wind direction), and were making close to maximum speed using a large jib and full main sail. A little bit rough, with the boat slewing around some in the moderately rough seas, but nothing really uncomfortable. At 0200 I was in my bunk in the deckhouse, sort of awake, and Ali was at the helm, steering by hand to save the autopilot from unnecessary strain. There was a loud bang and then I heard the fluttering of sails and knew something serious was wrong. Looking out, I could not really see anything, but the boom of the main sail was dragging in the water and the boat beginning to roll heavily in the waves. Ali said "the mast is broken" and the fear of being dismasted leaped into reality.

The fear did not clutch at my heart, instead I was curious at what had happened, and what to do about it. So far, that seems to be my reaction to the more serious problems in my life, and I am comfortable with this and expect it. I put on a shirt and my safety harness, Sheila and Christopher did the same, we turned on the spreader lights and went out onto the pitching decks. The fact that the spreader lights came on meant that most of the mast was still standing, and using a flashlight I could see that the top third of the mast had broken off and was dangling, upside down, from the remaining stump of the mast and dangling furiously from side to side. The sails were in the water and the deck on the starboard side was a tangle of wire and rope. The first thing to do was to get the lines and sails back aboard, tie things down, and then probably proceed under engine to our planned destination, Cocos Keeling. To do this without damaging the boat further, and especially without anyone getting hurt or falling overboard. The jib, full of water and pressed under the boat by the sideways drift in the wind, was too heavy for us to pull aboard. Sheila was at the wheel trying to hold us on our original course, and when I told her to simply lock the wheel in the central position and come and help us with the sails, the boat slowly turned, drifting sideways away from the sail in the water, and then the four of us were able, slowly and with considerable effort, to get most of the jib back aboard. It was badly torn and probably beyond repair. We then turned our attention to the main boom and mainsail, also dragging in the water with the boom lying on the lie~line and threatening to break it (which it soon did) .

Miraculously the top part of the mainsail had come free from the broken upper third of the mast, still swinging 50 feet above deck from the remaining mast and threatening anyone underneath it, and the mainsail did not appear to be badly damaged. Such was my preliminary assessment of the damage, laying possible plans for future action as we worked on the more immediate problems. Kialoa II had an extra main halyard, fastened at the second spreader and used for the small storm trysail; it was still functional so we used it to raise the main boom out of the water. With much tugging and pulling we then got the sail out of the water, put an extra line on the boom so it would not swing across the deck and hurt someone or break more gear, and lashed it on the main traveler track on top of the deckhouse.

Soon we had most of the broken equipment back on board, with a bit of sail and a few lines still trai1ing in the heaving ocean. It was still dark and windy and I could not think of any way to secure the broken mast which was dangling precariously high above deck and loudly banging against the mast and lower spreaders. Obviously it was slowly destroying everything it would reach, but I did not know what to do, and I knew I did not want to go up the mast, at night in the dark, trying to get a line on it to secure it. And we were all exhausted and seasick to varying degrees. I got a line on one of the shrouds from the mast head, which was dangling at the level of the lower spreaders, and we pulled it aft to a block and winch and tightened it; that at least reduced the motion of the masthead. I then told everyone to go below and try and rest until daylight. I put Audrey on watch, to see if anything more disastrous might happen with the flaying mast section, and climbed into my bunk and rested while listening to it beating against the shortened mast.

We quickly had found that the backstay adjuster, a crank operated device with a screw for tightening the backstay, was the source of the dismasting. It had a 7/8 inch diameter stainless steel rod connecting it to the backstay, and this had broken in the middle, away from any welds or screw threads. The break was clean and about 30% of the broken metal was discolored from corrosion. Thus it was due to a crack and corrosion of the stainless steel. This device was original with the boat, 28 years old, but of high quality and adequate in size. I would not have ever seriously looked for a crack in the area which failed.

While a bit of confusion reigned during these operations, we all worked together quite well, with occasional consultations and some shouted instructions (sometimes followed and sometimes not, as befitted the quality of the instruction). However, we had spent the previous evening on Christmas Island, having a good time with various local people, and much beer had been consumed by me, Christopher and Ali. So none of the three of us were feeling that well. We worked at what had to be done, but at least I did not want to. I even saw Ali heaving over the side, seasick, which had never happened to him on Kialoa before, and I recalled reading that, after being dismasted in rough seas, the roll and sea motion of the ship become much worse and there tends to be a limited time before the crew will become seasick under the combined stresses of heavy physical labor and fear.

At daybreak I got up and examined the carnage on the heaving deck. It was not good. I could now see the broken mast section dangling upside down, suspended at the top by the internal halyards leading from the top of the remaining mast, and at the bottom by the shrouds dangling from the second spreaders, the shrouds that once held it proudly high above the deck and now were preventing it from falling. As the boat rolled and pitched in the rough sea it lurched violently from side to side, beating itself and the upper and lower spreaders to death. How long would it stay up there? And I could visualize serious damage if it fell, it could injure someone in the way, and it could punch a hole in the deck and put the boat in danger of taking on seawater, a most serious problem if the weather turned worse. To secure it to the mast meant that someone had to go up and try to get a line around it, and that looked both difficult and dangerous. But I knew that was what I had to do.

We pulled the remaining sail and lines from the water while studying the carnage. The mizzen mast and sail were fine and a staysail could be raised on the stump of the main mast, which would get us on our way to the Cocos Keeling Islands and reduce the rolling of the yacht, important in order to go up the mast and try to secure the broken section. So we started the engine (a good sound to hear) and got the sails up.

With long pants and shoes as protection against banging and rubbing on the mast, I got in the bosun's chair and was hoisted 30 feet to the first spreader and the bottom of the broken mast. Close to it, hanging on as the yacht rolled and pitched, it looked huge and dangerous as it banged from side to side. I was protected from it by the spreaders, it was forward and I was behind them. But I wondered how strong the spreaders were, how much punishment could they take? The section probably weighed 500 pounds, and a finger or arm caught would be easily smashed and broken. There was no way I could reach far enough to get a line around it, and after studying it at close range for what seemed an eternity I finally put the line I had brought up around one of the halyards attached to the head and signaled to come down. It was not a good attachment, but I had become exhausted and was desperate to get something on it. It helped a little to contain the motion, but was obviously not sufficient and with time the mast would fall. Already it was getting lower as the upper spreaders bent down with the weight of the broken mast suspended from their tips.

I was tired and did not know what else to do, and it seemed we must just wait and see what happened. So I went back to my bunk to rest and think. In about an hour I decided to go up again with another line and give it a second try. This time I got the line around one of the shrouds, a bit more secure, and we were able to reduce further the motion of the bottom part. However, the upper part was swinging in an arc of 10 feet or more, held from the top of the broken mast by the two internal halyards. It would be only a matter of time before these frayed and broke. Exhausted, and with no ideas, I again went back to my bunk. Perhaps my philosophy was, "When all else fails, sleep!"

A bit later I was up again, and Christopher and I watched as the starboard lower spreader split near the tip, letting the heavy main shroud loose and add to the weight swinging in the air against the mast. This left only the port spreader to support the weight, and added to the certainty that it was only a matter of time until the whole thing would come loose and fall. In a bit I began to realize that, working only from the deck, we may now be able to get one or both of the two remaining working halyards around the broken mast, led aft and tightened, which could secure the broken piece. Christopher and I tried this first with the spinnaker pole topping lift (one of the two halyards). It was made difficult because I had caught this halyard inside one of the lines I had secured around the mast, but we loosened that and worked and tugged for a bit, got it around the lower part and finally had that part quite solidly tightened against the mast and spreader. This was a considerable improvement. Exhausted, I went back to my bunk. But in half an hour I was up again, realizing that the second halyard, now used to hoist the staysail (we were sailing at a fairly good speed, not using the engine) could perhaps be used to secure the top part of the broken mast and make the whole thing fairly secure. So we started the engine, dropped the staysail and Christopher and I managed to get the staysail halyard wrapped around the top part, tightened it, and had the broken section firmly secured to the mast. I was greatly relieved, now we seemed OK and should be able to make it on into Cocos without additional problems. I hoped! We had sufficient fuel for 4 to 5 days, were making good speed with help from the mizzen sail (excellent wind for sailing, but a bit rough seas), we were all well, no injuries, and the boat was repairable. Cocos was supposed to have a good, fairly calm anchorage, it was reputed to be a beautiful place, a coral atoll with a large lagoon, palm trees, and a reasonable settlement with provisions, parts and help if needed. I estimated 2 days motoring, we might arrive about noon on Tuesday if the wind and speed held.

TEMPORARY REPAIRS

The weather held, with 15 to 20 knots on the beam. Using the engine, at low speed, and with help from the mizzen we averaged almost 8 knots and found our way into the protected lagoon of Cocos - Keeling, behind Direction Island, by noon on Tuesday. The broken mast had stayed aloft without further problems. Australian authorities came out and cleared us in through customs, immigration, and agriculture. We then cleared the deck of a little of the rigging and lines, but otherwise were pretty tired. South Cocos - Keeling is a coral atoll with low islands and reefs surrounding a shallow lagoon. The lagoon varies in color from hues of darker blue to brilliant azure, depending on depth and bottom composition, and we were anchored out of the swell close to a shining white beach of coral sand backed by a thin island (Direction Island) covered with swaying palms and low, broad leafed bushes. The warm trade winds were blowing at about 15 knots and the sky was mostly blue with scattered clouds and occasional rain showers. The romantic western vision of a South Seas paradise, beautiful, and we were glad to be in such peaceful and idyllic surroundings. Home Island, about 2 km south of us, had a village of about 600 people, primarily descendants of the Malays brought as slaves to work the copra plantation established by Alexander Hare in the early 1800's. Thus the plants, animals and birds of the islands have been drastically changed from what existed prior to that time.

It took two working days up on the mast to get the rigging untangled and the 500-odd pound broken section lowered to the deck. Perhaps the most difficult physical work I have done, where every move must be thought out beforehand. To make it a bit more difficult the wind was bowing fairly hard and the boat would sometimes lurch in the chop. I did not want to drop tools or parts on the deck where they might injure someone or we could lose an almost irreplaceable part. There is the danger of falling and I carefully examined the lines and rigging which supported me. Most of all I did not want the mast section itself to somehow drop, break whatever was holding it up, and perhaps entangle me in a snarl of lines as it fell 40 feet to the deck below. I examined very carefully the line and block I rigged to suspend the broken mast, and all knots and supporting points. All of this was an interesting challenge, and I actually enjoyed the effort, the concentration required.

When we finally lowered the mast to the deck the line suspending it was too short. I had to seize another line to it, using a rolling hitch, shift the load using another winch, and then secure another line with bowlines above the orginal winch. I was grateful for Kialoa's goodly supply of powerful winches, husky halyards and other rigging hardware during these operations.

It took another full day to remove the broken spreaders from the mast and then the cleanup job was complete. Christopher and Ali assisted on deck, hauling me up and down innumerable times, adjusting lines, sending up tools, all things which must be done carefully. I felt very fortunate to accomplish all this without mishap, partly my skill and expertise, but also very much the skill and care of Christopher and Ali. Simultaneously Sheila and Ali began repairs on the mainsail, miraculously it had escaped serious damage with only a two or three foot rip on the luff where the mast had broken. Somehow, as the mast fell, the main halyard shackle came unsnapped and the mainsail cars securing the sail to the broken section simply slid off, leaving the mainsail free. It turned out that Cocos had good workshop facilities, even an expert at aluminum welding, and the mast could have been completely repaired here except for one thing - there was no way to remove it. There were mobile cranes on land, but the boat docks were too shallow for a vessel of Kialoa's draft. Perhaps when the trading freighter called it might have been possible to persuade them to lend the use of one their loading cranes. But we were at the beginning of cyclone season, and though they rarely strike here I did not want to stay too long. Since the remaining mast was adequate for a double reefed main and staysail, we could simply convert the yacht to a shorter rig which would still sail quite adequately in all but light winds. And we had a good engine and sufficient fuel to nearly get us to our next destination, the port of Galle in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is an island republic of 17 million people off the southern tip of India, formerly a British Dominion with the name Ceylon, and probably an exotic place with jungles, lions and elephants, and spices and gold. Also in a state of revolution, by some minority, for the last 20 years or so. Through the yachting grapevine I had heard that the port of Galle was safe and reasonably hospitable place for cruising yachts, and I hope that the necessary communications and facilities will be there, at reasonable cost, to make the mast repairs.

So at the local boatyard on Home Island I arranged temporary repairs to be made on the two lower spreaders, and a temporary masthead made of strap steel on which to mount an additional forestay and backstay, halyard blocks and topping lift for the main boom. It should take 4 or 5 days, then we need fuel and provisions and are off on the next leg.

It is interesting that with work like this to be done on the boat the crew, and me, seemed to work together in a more harmonious way than with easier times. The direction is clearer and there is a real sense of both accomplishment and camaraderie. Perhaps related to the Western heritage of having to have plans and accomplishing something, but also I believe something more basic in our psychological makeup. Personally, also, I did not find that I felt particularly badly, the yacht was repairable, it was an interesting challenge, and no one was hurt. Otherwise it is just a bit of time, work and money.

Copyright 1996 by Frank Robben