Trip Reports

The Dismasting Story (26-Sep-2002-15-00):
4:00 PM local time, Thursday, September 26 (1600 September 26 UTC) 37 08 N 001 20 WEST. Temp. 76, Humidity 79%, Cloud Cover 100%. Underway in the western Med.

Greetings from the crew of Maverick.

We're underway enroute to the Spanish mainland from the Balearics, motoring along on a gray and drizzly, windless day. We had predictions of fifteen knots from the NE from two weather services but we have five from the SE. We passed another benchmark in the night and crossed the Prime Meridian, so we are again in the Western Hemisphere, which means we are approximately two-thirds of the way around, in longitude. Early this morning we spotted Cartagena and the southern coast of Spain is abeam, and from time to time we glimpse it through the haze.

I have felt in the last month or six weeks like someone who signed up to ride the bull but instead has been relegated to shaving the poodle, as our adventures have been limited to kicking the computer and doing battle with electronic repair people, stuff you can do without leaving the comfort of your own home. And you, the reader, who looks to the Captain for tales of derring-do at sea, have been patiently awaiting the real thing, or conversely, enjoying the hiatus from the Captain's blather. But this can't continue, so in the absence of a real-time story, I have taken the liberty to send you one which some at home have already heard, about an incident that happened before we left home. This I do in the immodest hope that it may serve the same lofty purpose as those heart-stopping magazines in the dentist's waiting room.

In 1999 I entered Maverick in the Doublehanded Farallones Race which takes place in March of each year off the Pacific Coast near San Francisco. The race starts at the cityfront, continues under the Golden Gate Bridge, and then takes us twenty-five and one-half miles offshore, to the Southeast Farralon island and back, for a total of about fifty-three miles. The course out is 255 degrees true, and the prevailing wind is northwest at about 300 degrees, meaning that under perfect conditions a sailboat can fetch the island, and it's a broad reach all the way back. This race has a reputation for carnage, as it often is held in rough weather, and in some years it has been deadly. This was to be one of those years. By the end of the day, one skipper would drown, two sailors on a capsized trimaran would be rescued by the amazingly brave actions of other competitors, four boats would be dismasted, and there would be lots of damaged gear, ripped sails, minor injuries, and seasickness. Among the dismasted boats was none other than our trusty friend, Maverick.

I had warily been watching the buoy reports on the internet along with the weather forecasts, in the days preceding the race. At the San Francisco buoy, which is almost half-way to the island, weather instruments that take readings which are automatically transmitted to a land-based station had, on the morning of the race, reported a steep swell of fifteen feet, topped by three to five foot wind waves. The wind was in the high twenties, gusting to thirty-three. We would never have chosen to sail in conditions like this, unless, of course, there was a race.

My redoubtable crew, Ship's Tactician Mr. Terry Shrode, and I had given some thought to our strategy. Having been in the Gulf of the Farallones in similar conditions before, we knew that there would be little enthusiasm for reefing and sail changes, particularly as we would be fresh out of the harbor and would have had no time to gain our sea legs. Perhaps our competition were men of steel, but we surmised that changing down from a number one on a forty-footer, in fifteen foot seas with only two people aboard, would take a long time and make almost anyone sick. So we decided that, no matter what the conditions at the start, we'd put up the amount of sail we thought appropriate for what we'd see outside the Gate.

As a result, we were the weenies of the start, and were perhaps the only boat to cross the line with a reef in the main and a 90% headsail. Problem was, inside the Bay we had light wind, no more than ten knots, so we ate it big time until we got past Point Bonita. By that time, almost every boat had passed us. But it was all part of the master plan.

After we passed Point Bonita, the wind and seas picked up as expected, and by the time we were half way to the island, we were pretty happy with our strategy. A majority of the boats who had been in front of us were now well to leeward either because they were completely overcanvassed and trying to sail with what they had, or because changing to a smaller headsail turned into a major hassle. In either case, they couldn't point. Mr. Shrode also noticed that a couple of Coast Guard cutters were in the vicinity, maybe just by chance on maneuvers but perhaps alerted to stand by in case they were needed, like ambulances at a bullfight.

As we neared the Southeast Farallon we saw the first sign that the day might not end without some serious problems. Over the island, on the seaward side out of our vision, someone launched one, then another, parachute flare. We had heard nothing on the VHF radio, and that was alarming since it meant that, whatever the trouble was, it included the loss of radio communications, which would have been the first choice in calling for help. At the time we thought someone may have been dismasted, since that would have brought down the masthead VHF antenna. We knew there were boats closer than us, and in any case we were getting there as fast as we could, so there was nothing else we could do to help but sail.

We hadn't quite laid the mark without a tack, as few if any boats could in these conditions, so we threw in a couple of tacks to approach the island. We didn't want to get to close to it, since we had sailed near the island once before in heavy weather and knew that the seas steepened up in an intimidating way as they approached it. We tacked on to port and when we thought we could fetch it safely, we tacked back to starboard.

As we began to sheet in, there was a loud noise and the rig fell to leeward. The top two thirds of the mast buckled in half, leaving the part above the upper spreaders in the water with the heads of the sails. The middle third was still attached to both the top part, now in the water, and the section from the deck up to the first spreaders, which was still standing. The intermediate windward shroud had failed at the deck, but the rest of the rigging was still attached. It was impressive to see all that stuff come tumbling out of the sky. I'd read about getting dismasted in heavy seas and it had sounded like something awfully difficult to handle. But here it was. Mr. Shrode and I were, to use a sailing phrase, taken aback. The deck was all ahoo with sails and rigging wires flailing wildly. But my instant concern was that we were close enough to fetching the island that a combination of wind, waves, and current may put us in intimate contact with it, in a very unpleasant way. I ran to the bow with the idea of deploying the anchor. It's only about sixty feet deep just to windward of the island and I had been at sea and listened on the radio when, in another Farallones race, a skipper had been able to set his anchor while he cleaned up the mess of a dismasting. The conditions were worse today though. In any event, it soon became apparent that we would miss the island and begin to drift towards Half Moon Bay.

As we tried to gather our wits, a very surprising thing happened. In all the chaos we had forgotten that we were still on a sailboat and that it was still under sail. The triangle of sail between the first spreaders and the boom was still up and drawing, and because of the new sail configuration, as it were, the boom was a foot or two lower than normal. The boat was pitching, rolling, and yawing madly in the seas and all of a sudden we had an uncontrolled (to say the least) jibe. The boom of a thirty-nine foot boat coming across the deck in thirty knots of wind is a mighty thing. It grazed the top of Mr. Shrode's head and the Captain felt the wind rush by as the end of the boom missed his ear by a couple of inches. Had either one of us been hit, it is a tossup whether the survivor would have had the wherewithal to deal with a dead body on top of everything else. If both of us had been hit, no problem.

While all this was occurring, on the windward side of the island an amazing rescue was taking place. The trimaran "Boogieman," a Corsair F-31R, had flipped because, as the crew explained, they had gotten too close to shore in the heavy, steep seas. They were holding on to the upturned hull in fifty-degree water but had somehow managed to get to their flares and shoot off the ones we'd seen. Ryle Radke and Jonathan Yelda on "Friday Harbour," a J/35, and Bay Area rigger and veteran sailor Bruce Schwab, with Joakim Jonsson on "Azzura," a 31-ft. ultralight, came to the rescue. Since the capsize the trimaran had of course drifted closer to the rocks, which meant that the rescuers would have to put their boats in worse conditions than the ones that caused the trimaran to flip in the first place. The stakes were high, because no other vessels could have gotten there before the stranded crew had met a very bad end, driven into the rocks by huge waves. So they went in, and somehow each boat picked up one survivor, and managed to escape the surf. The crews of Azzura and Friday Harbour downplayed it later, but the conditions were suicidal.

Meanwhile, back on Maverick, we had turned on the autopilot. Since we were making about three knots under "reduced" sail, we had steerage and the autopilot kept us on a broad reach, making another jibe unlikely. I had been looking at the mass of heavy metal which was violently flailing against the boat in the heavy seas, and worrying that if we didn't either cut it away or get it under control, it may punch a hole in the hull and sink us. We couldn't really cut it away, since we had no access to the places where the mast was broken without either going overboard or up to the lower spreaders, and neither alternative seemed to promise much entertainment value.

I was surveying the situation and noticed that the masthead was within about eight feet of the hull, and attached to it there was a wire flipping around that I recognized to be the topping lift. Grabbing a boat hook, I snagged it and brought it to a cockpit winch. I thought it would break, but it held, and voila! I winched the masthead close to the boat. From there it was a matter of getting more lashings around it and securing it wherever we could.

Both Mr. Shrode and I had started puking almost from the moment the mast came down. The motion of the boat became very violent without the dampening effects of the rig and sails. Some people think there is a stress factor in nausea, and that can't be ruled out of course. In any case, we had to continually take breaks in the work for a bout of the dry heaves, and then get back to it. We moved to the foredeck, where another hour or two of wrestling got the jib out of the water and the furler drum disconnected and aboard. Now, it was a matter of policing up the lines and making sure there was nothing in the water to foul the prop. Satisfied, we started up the Perkins and put it in gear. The prop was fine. We headed it home, and felt a big wave of relief.

At this point we had no radio because the VHF antenna was underwater. A couple of boats had sailed by to offer assistance, and though there was little they could do it was brave of them and made us feel better. We just asked them to radio the race committee to let them know what had happened. We did, however, have a cell phone aboard, and thought it would be prudent to alert the Coast Guard so we called "911." The woman answering the call could not be made to understand that we couldn't provide her with a street address, as we were at sea. No doubt it was part of her procedure, but it took some doing to get her to patch us through to Group San Francisco. When they answered, we gave them our position, boat name, number and condition of crew, etc. We made it clear that we were not requesting any assistance, but wanted to apprise them of our situation.

And our situation was that we were both wet, hypothermic, and exhausted. I felt alert, however, and Mr. Shrode went below to get some rest. We had drifted quite a few miles towards Half Moon Bay and the sun was starting to think about setting. I considered heading for Half Moon Bay, which was downwind, but determined to try to make it back home and use that alternative as a backup. It would feel a lot better to make it safely back to our slip.

We had about fifteen miles upwind to get to the San Francisco shipping channel, and then about another eight to the Golden Gate, and it was tough going in the heavy seas. The conditions had not abated, and as I sat in the companionway and pondered the whole scenario there were two more concerns. One was that the mast was apparently being held up by the coax for the VHF and the wires for the masthead lights. This scarcely gave me confidence in the strength of our new "rig", that still supported a lot of aluminum and Dacron. Secondly, in big seas it's not at all out of the question that debris in the fuel tanks could be stirred up, clogging the filters and stopping the engine. These jolly thoughts occupied my mind through the next four hours or so it took to make it back to the channel.

As it got dark I was glad to have the autopilot, since standing at the wheel in the breeze was freezing and I was already wet all over. And I was glad to have a GPS, since at night in those conditions it was hard to find the channel, and trying to take multiple sights from a pitching deck would have been arduous. But everything went OK, and by about eight PM we gained the channel. The channel itself, being a window through the Potato Patch, was treacherous in those seas with our unwieldy rig, but we could turn downwind and it now seemed like we were definitely going to make it. Even though he probably would have been happier dreaming, I couldn't resist waking Mr. Shrode, and telling him that I thought we'd be safe. A little more than an hour later, we were under the Bridge.

Upon trying the VHF once more, we found that we could make tenuous contact with the race committee. To our dismay, they asked us if we had seen another boat, which was unaccounted for. They sent their condolences, and were sensitive enough to leave it at that, knowing that we'd soon enough find out about the real bad news of the day.

We made it back to our slip late that night, and just left the mess there and went home to get some rest. The next day I had to teach a sailing class a nd when I came down to the boat late that afternoon I found that earlier that day a friend of ours, the well-known Bay Area sailor Mike Jefferson of Foxxfire, had come over to look at the wreckage, where Mr. Shrode was beginning to try to make sense of the situation. Mike, who had also been in the race, says, "It looks like you could use a hand." By the time I arrived, Mike and Terry had pretty much disassembled the whole mess, and Mike's girlfriend and Caroline had gotten the cabin under control. I get the Tom Sawyer award. It was a big emotional lift to get moving that quickly on the damage, and I'll always remember the favor they all did.

That same day we heard the story of the rescue of the "Boogieman" crew, of the other dismastings, and of Harvey Shiasky on the J/29 "White Lightning." On the downwind leg, his boat had broached in a big sea and capsized, throwing skipper Shiasky and his crew overboard. They were both tethered to the boat, but Shiasky's tether was connected on the low side and he was being dragged some distance from the cockpit. The crew, tethered on the high side, got himself back aboard with great effort to find the boom and other gear broken. With the boat back on its feet, because of the chaos and wrecked gear he was not able to stop it and Shiasky was being dragged underwater at speed. The crew decided the only option was to cut the tether so Shiasky could get to the surface and then hope that he or another boat could recover him. As it turned out, there was a Coast Guard cutter near them that had come to the assistance of another race boat, and they managed to get him aboard; but he could not be revived.

We put new Ballenger spars in the boat during the next months. Buzz Ballenger made the mast and boom and shipped them up to us, and Mr. Shrode and I installed all the hardware, spreaders, and winches. We stepped the mast at Bay Ship and Yacht and then finished the rigging at our slip using Norsemans. I had designed the placement of all the fittings myself, after discussions with Ship's Rigger Terry Shrode and Buzz, and everything has worked out great. In fact, it's still standing as I write this.


Didn't see Okiva in Ibiza

Our friends on Millenium USA took a beating in the Aegean. The wind came up to fifty knots and gusting higher as they approached Mikonos, and the seas got very rough, somehow starting a fire. They got that out, but when they finally made it to Mikonos, even though they put down two anchors they couldn't get them to hold in the lousy bottom where we had so much trouble. They burned out their windlass motor in the process, and finally went around to the harbor, where yachts aren't normally allowed, and tried to anchor in there. They eventually lost both of the anchors and ground tackle and suffered a lot of damage to the pulpit and bow roller.

Our friends on Stitches Explorer dragged their anchor in heavy wind in Cannes, and ran into another boat...twice. Lawyers are involved.

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