A bro­ken forestay off Ber­muda—what would you do?

SAIL - - Contents - By Jef­frey McCarthy

Is it a virtue to emerge safely from messes you should have avoided in the first place? Last sum­mer’s sail to Ber­muda from Maine gave me more than one chance to an­swer that ques­tion, most no­tably dur­ing the cat­a­strophic fail­ure of our forestay in the Sar­gasso Sea. My friend Derek and I tell this story to­gether to bet­ter learn from the ex­pe­ri­ence and to agree mis­ery loves com­pany.

Nel­lie is my Beneteau First 42, built in 1983 and eager be­yond her years. In ad­di­tion to Derek, the crew con­sisted of Rieko, his wife of 20 years, and my fa­ther, Ted. Derek is a climb­ing friend from Banff, Canada, who once crewed on 12-Me­ters—com­pe­tent, de­tail-ori­ented and steady. He and Rieko met in Ja­pan, and she brings a body of salt­wa­ter knowl­edge from when she and Derek lived aboard their own boat. My fa­ther, Ted, was 75 for this voy­age, go­ing strong and tot­ing a life­time of sail­boat rac­ing. Ber­muda tempted us all with its chal­leng­ing dis­tance, the tricky Gulf Stream cross­ing and the ex­otic prom­ise of palm trees and English ac­cents. Re­ally, it’s sim­ple: you grow up in New Eng­land, you sail to Ber­muda. Ever­est mar­tyr Ge­orge Mal­lory ex­plained he had to climb said moun­tain “be­cause it’s there,” and for me Ber­muda has al­ways been there.

As for that forestay... A hard com­ing we had of it, and just the worst sort of head­winds and lumpy seas. The week was a feast of dis­com­forts serv­ing gen­er­ous por­tions of wave bash­ing and big help­ings of un­sa­vory beat­ing. So it was a shock that on the calmest day we’d seen and only 40 miles from Ber­muda our forestay parted, leav­ing the whole rig wob­bling like a drunk. Luck­ily, the First 42 has a 57ft Iso­mat mast, run­ning back­stays, beefy shrouds and a babystay. Would that be enough, though, to keep the rig point­ing at the clouds and not the seafloor?

Derek was at the helm, Rieko was en­joy­ing the sun in the cock­pit, Ted was reading on a set­tee, and I was at the chart ta­ble preparing for the wel­com­ing tones of Ber­muda ra­dio on the VHF. In­stead, I heard what crime thrillers call “a sharp re­port”—what sounded like a cross be­tween a gun­shot and a base­ball leav­ing a re­ally big bat. That was bad. Worse yet was feeling Nel­lie shiver, just shake like a golden re­triever at the beach. Derek called me, and I was through the com­pan­ion­way in time to see the fore­sail sag and stum­ble. It was 1100, blow­ing 9 knots from the south­east in a long, friendly swell.

Derek re­calls it clearly: “Bang! I knew right away that some­thing in the rig had failed, a shroud, a hal­yard, wasn’t sure which, but my ini­tial re­ac­tion was to turn the wheel to luff up and take what­ever load off the rig I could. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, I looked up and saw the big sag in the head­stay. I saw you down be­low, head­ing up on deck. Rieko says she re­mem­bers me shout­ing, ‘Jeff, I need you up here now!’ In my guts I think I just knew the forestay had failed. I fully ex­pected to watch the mast go over the side in slow mo­tion, but a few au­to­matic things took over.

“Un­for­tu­nately, I have twice been on boats where we had a real rig fail­ure. The first time I heard it, but didn’t rec­og­nize it for what it was, and the mast went over the side. Luck­ily we were close to shore with lots of sup­port and no one got hurt. The sec­ond time, the first ex­pe­ri­ence helped, and we rec­og­nized it im­me­di­ately for what it was, crash tacked off the bro­ken shroud and things stayed up­right…”

Un­like Derek, I had no ex­pec­ta­tions. What I did have, how­ever, was the task of un­clip­ping the spin­naker hal­yard from the mast base and shuf­fling it for­ward to be­come the new forestay…a job that was a lot harder than it looked. You see, with the genoa sag­ging and the hal­yard loosed, the sail was atan­gle in the spread­ers, so get­ting the spin­naker hal­yard free of the radar dome and around that com­mo­tion of gear that should have been up but was now sag­ging was awk­ward and a lit­tle per­ilous to say the least. Luck­ily Rieko was a vir­tu­oso at the rope clutch, giv­ing me just enough slack to free the hal­yard but keep­ing enough tension to keep me from rolling overboard.

Derek rec­ol­lects: “At this point I think we prob­a­bly both fig­ured OK, cri­sis and worst-case out­come is likely averted, but now we have a big prob­lem that we have to solve. For­tu­nately, when we dropped ev­ery­thing the head­sail and foil for the most part came down on the deck. How­ever, in do­ing to so it also folded around its mid­point. In ret­ro­spect I am not sure re­leas­ing the genoa hal­yard was ac­tu­ally the right thing to do as it was likely giv­ing some sup­port for­ward, but I would be in­ter­ested to hear what other ex­pe­ri­enced sailors think might have been the ‘cor­rect’ course of ac­tion. Given the sag, I don’t think we

could have ac­tu­ally furled the head­sail with the hal­yard still tight in place…” That’s for sure. “None­the­less,” Derek re­calls, “we got the spin­naker hal­yard hitched and tight very quickly. Rieko and your dad know­ing where all th­ese hal­yards, stop­pers and cor­re­spond­ing winches were was in­stru­men­tal in this go­ing smoothly and ef­fi­ciently. Now we had to clean up the mess. I wanted to get the en­gine go­ing so we could have some steer­age, but we had to make sure noth­ing was over the side, as a fouled prop would just com­pound the prob­lem, so this be­came the time to start iden­ti­fy­ing the is­sues and work­ing through the so­lu­tion.”

With the head­sail off the foil, I pulled the genoa hal­yard for­ward to dou­ble the sup­port from mast­head to bow. That done, I re­al­ized we also needed to de­tach the forestay from the stem fit­ting and shift it out of the way so I could at­tach the hal­yard to it. Trou­ble was the furl­ing gear at­tach­ment was un­der strain from the twisted forestay and wouldn’t budge. I knelt over it with vice-grips and asked for a small ham­mer. My dad re­turned with a hack­saw and a gleam in his eye like some eager Civil War sur­geon. Rieko was al­ready stand­ing by with an ex­tra blade. “Easy folks,” I said. “Let’s take this apart if we can, then hope some­one else can put it all back to­gether.” I tapped aim­lessly with the vice-grips on tightly bound stain­less steel, think­ing I’d never been to Ber­muda, but I’d cruised enough to know that or­der­ing parts from for­eign ports was no ticket to health or pros­per­ity.

Prompted per­haps by my in­de­ci­sion with the tools, Derek took over the lo­gis­tics of dis­as­sem­bly—and a good thing too. The top­ping lift even­tu­ally served to raise the busted stay amid­ships, after which an ex­tra line held it in place while we sep­a­rated the furl­ing gear from the bow.

Derek re­calls the de­tails in fuller fo­cus: “We got the sail bun­dled up and sheets in­board and then shifted the bro­ken foil out over the pul­pit. The foil had folded at a point maybe two-fifths of the way up, so there was a de­cent length of foil over­hang­ing the bow. With ev­ery­thing clear we started the en­gine and started driv­ing for­ward. As we did this, though, your dad pointed out [read, screamed and yelled!] that the sec­tion of the foil over­hang­ing the pul­pit was catch­ing in the waves ahead of the boat and flex­ing badly, threat­en­ing to maybe fold un­der us, so we backed off the throt­tle to idle to re­assess the sit­u­a­tion. It was clear that we would have to get the folded foil far­ther into the boat. Prob­lem was that the foil was flexed badly against the

stem fit­ting, mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble to re­move the cle­vis pin hold­ing it there so that we could not sep­a­rate that piece of rig­ging from the boat. There was a round of brain­storm­ing and while cut­ting it seemed like a de­cent op­tion, I think we de­cided we wanted to try to avoid that. At some point we fig­ured that if we could get the foil back up in to a more “anatom­i­cally cor­rect” po­si­tion we might be able to re­lease some of the pres­sure on the stem fit­ting and bang out the cle­vis pin.”

Yes. From there we were able to tap-tap-tap free the big cle­vis pin hold­ing the gear to the fore­deck. It didn’t even go overboard! That free, it was a mat­ter of min­utes for my dad to fold the forestay over it­self and for the two of us to se­cure that length of clumsy cable against the port rail.

Then we raised the deeply reefed main­sail, made ready to hank the tiny storm jib to our new forestay if the diesel gave us trou­ble and alerted Ber­muda Ra­dio. Soon a frigate­bird joined us, then three dol­phins. I looked with ad­mi­ra­tion at the wildlife go­ing by, all the while sneak­ing wary glances at our mast. We even­tu­ally mo­tored through St. Ge­orge’s Town Cut in the dark.

The next morn­ing as Nel­lie lay along­side St. Ge­orge’s town quay, we were stunned to find that the stem­ball fit­ting it­self had failed. That’s a chunk of stain­less steel, 5/8in in di­am­e­ter! It con­nects the forestay to the mast­head and looks like an over­size golf-tee. Ap­par­ently metal fa­tigue had plucked the head the way you’d pluck a daisy in the sum­mer­time. Hap­pily, Steve at Ocean Sails made my prob­lems his and or­dered new ex­tru­sions, a new stem­ball, as­sem­bled a re­place­ment forestay and had me on my way back to New Eng­land with a fresh crew a mere 10 days after the morn­ing of my rig fail­ure.

Still, while await­ing parts and stow­ing gear I had am­ple time to pon­der the forestay and come to some con­clu­sions re­gard­ing Nel­lie’s fu­ture. First and fore­most, I de­cided when sur­prises hap­pen, don’t over­re­act. Prac­tice for rig­ging fail­ures just like you do man overboard or through-hull leaks. Keep your life jacket handy for emer­gen­cies. And most of all, get out of the messes you get into with at least as many friends as got you there. s

Luck­ily, the crew was only hours from Ber­muda when the forestay fail­ure oc­curred The bro­ken pin that caused all the trou­ble

Re­pairs were ef­fected swiftly once in Ber­muda

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