Survive a Dismasting
A failed chainplate during a squall in the middle of the Atlantic leads to the loss of a classic wooden yawl’s rig. The real story, though, is how a cruising couple complete their voyage to the Azores.
Prepare yourself,” called Micha as he scrambled past, thrusting one arm through his foul-weather jacket as he dashed out into the cockpit. The wind whistling past the hull began to race faster and my heartbeat increased as I hurriedly stored the hot rope cutter and needles I’d been using to make new curtains, grabbed my coat and headed for the companionway. Moments later, my head popped out through the hatch just in time to see the 65-foot wooden mast from our 93-year-old classic yawl, Pantagruel, crash over the starboard bow like a felled tree.
In this second, our world and all our plans changed completely. It didn’t feel real. I half believed that if I closed my eyes and reopened them, the mast would still be intact and we would be sailing normally. I didn’t know how to respond. I could barely look at Micha, knowing that after owning the boat for 20 years, one of his worst nightmares had come true.
What now? My thoughts were hazy, not willing to accept our new reality. We were 10 days into our doublehanded Atlantic crossing from St. Maarten to the Azores, and still 600 nautical miles away from land. How will we continue? Will we be safe? How will we get to land? Will it be with or without
Pantagruel? We’d used up most of our fuel already, so motoring was not an option.
The squall didn’t last long. The wind died down and the sun came out, painting a surreal picture as we gazed in disbelief at the jagged edges of our broken spar stabbing at a blue sky. Micha walked over to examine the devastation, his face set like stone. After a few moments, he sprang into action. “We need to cut away the rigging from the mast and set it free from the boat before it damages the hull,” he said. There was no way to get it back on board with just the two of us, and leaving it on a long line and towing it behind would be too dangerous, especially if the weather turned. Besides, it would be hard to make progress.
Micha disappeared down below and reappeared with giant wire cutters, wrenches and other tools. Reluctantly, we got to work, clipping and snapping away at any rigging attaching the mast to the boat. It was heartbreaking cutting through the strong lines and wires. We flinched with each snip, as if amputating a limb. We even got out the angle grinder to cut through some of the heaviest-duty shrouds. It was devastating work. Before I let go of the genoa sheet, releasing our newest sail into the ocean, I called to Micha, “Shall we try to save this one?”
“Just cut it away,” he sighed — something he’d later regret.
We cut the mainsail away but worked hard to keep the boom on board. The mast, rigging and sails dragging in the water acted like a sea anchor. The moment we cut the last piece away, we instantly noticed a big change in the movement of the boat as we began rolling wildly in the North Atlantic swell. We wished later that we’d been brave enough (and had the energy) to pump up the dinghy and motor to the top of the mast, which was still floating, and rescue the genoa and the new shrouds.
By the time we finished and were finally completely free of the mast and everything attached to it, the sky had already grown dark, and we gave up for the evening. Down below, I numbly started making dinner, more out of habit than out of hunger, while Micha sketched diagrams of a jury rig. I’d been imagining being rescued by another ship or even a helicopter! Meanwhile, Micha had been envisioning ways to get
Pantagruel back to safety.
The mast had snapped just above the gooseneck, and his plan involved raising the boom, which was 23 feet long, to use as a replacement. Nevertheless, that evening, we decided to set off the distress alert on the VHF radio.
Totally drained, we didn’t have much of an appetite and nibbled at our food as we analyzed the day’s events. The wind had been blowing at Force 5, or around 20 knots, from forward of the port beam, and we’d been sailing closehauled before the squall had hit. As usual, we were worried about being late to meet our next crew waiting for us in the Azores, and so we had all our sails up: main, mizzen and two headsails, including our 970-square-foot genoa, in order to be as fast as possible. We were also behind with jobs, and had left our windvane steering while we were both busy down below, popping our heads up once in a while to check on everything.
Our cutter-rig headsails were hank-ons, and required one of us to go out onto the bowsprit to lower them. In big seas and strong winds, this was not always an easy task. Our tactic was to steer downwind to reduce the power in the sails in order to drop them. On this occasion, when the squall hit and the wind picked up, the strain on the mast when trying to bear away had been too much, and the mast had come down before we’d had a chance to release the mainsheet. For a mast to collapse, there only needs to be one weak point. In our case, it had been the 6 -foot-long shroud chainplate, which was bolted through the planks on the inside of the hull on the port side. It had been pulled out of position and no longer supported the mast. We debated later whether our rope ladder, allowing crew to climb up the shrouds to spot shallows — or for the crew to jump off into the water — had put considerable extra strain on the chainplate, weakening it over the years.
Without its mast, the boat was rolling helplessly, and I don’t think either of us slept a wink that night as we clung to the mattress and listened to each individual spice jar slide back and forth on the shelf.
The next morning, we received a response to our distress call on the VHF from a tanker 20 miles away. At first, we simply asked for a weather forecast, which luckily sounded relatively benign. The tanker pressed us as to why we’d sent a distress signal, asking if there was anything else they could do to help. We explained our situation and said we could use some fuel. We did a quick mental calculation: 600 nautical miles
to go; our motor uses 1.3 gallons of diesel an hour, giving us a speed of 6 knots. We decided 132 gallons should be enough to get us to the Azores. To our surprise, they were happy to oblige, and merely asked what kind of fuel we needed — it turned out they were a tanker transporting oil!
They kindly diverted their course to head in our direction and asked us if we would be OK to receive the fuel in 55-gallon barrels that they could crane down from the tanker deck. There would be no chance of going alongside in this swell, so our only option was to inflate our dinghy to collect the barrels.
It was a good feeling to know that someone was out there and they were coming to help. Micha asked if I wanted to leave the boat at this point, and said he’d understand if I’d rather return to land with the tanker. Not wanting to leave him on his own, I declined. The weather had been relatively calm since the mast had fallen, and I didn’t sense we were in danger.
Feeling relieved that help was on its way, we discussed methods for getting the fuel barrels on board. We decided to use two lines, and wrap one end of each to the winches on either side of the cockpit. We’d run the other ends along each side of the deck to the middle of the boat, and make a loop in both the free ends. The loops would be hung off the port side, amidships, and then looped over each side of a barrel in the dinghy. Winching in each line carefully, the barrel could be rolled horizontally up the side of the boat and onto the deck.
Less than an hour later, we saw the tanker, Carpe Diem II, looming on the horizon. It grew steadily bigger until it was just a couple hundred yards away. It was exciting and frightening at the same time to see such a huge vessel heading straight for us — the kind of scenario we usually try to avoid!
Micha jumped into the dinghy and motored over to the side of the tanker where the barrel was being craned down. He looked so vulnerable in our little inflatable next to the 557-foot-long tanker, whose sides were rolling up and down at least a dozen feet in the swell. I watched in disbelief as the barrel was lowered from the 82-foot-high deck, swinging back and forth as the tanker rocked about. I was terrified it would knock Micha on the head as he tried to grab hold and unhook it at the exact moment it hit the dinghy floor. We are extremely grateful for the great skill of the tanker crew, who positioned the dinghy, barrels and crane.
Back at Pantagruel, Micha tipped the barrel on its side and slipped the loops from the two ropes we’d prepared around each end. My job was to leap from side to side of the cockpit, winching in each line bit by bit as Micha called out, “Port, starboard, port,” ensuring that the barrel was rolled up horizontally and not left to fall into the water. The motion from the waves caused the dinghy to bump into the barrel, sometimes knocking it out of the loops and back into the dinghy. Micha roared in frustration as he tried to reposition the barrel to restart the winching process.
Once the first barrel was safely on board, we repeated the procedure for barrel number two. This time, while trying to winch the barrel on board, the dinghy bashed into it as it was halfway up the side, causing it to fall into the water. Micha’s screams got louder, and I thought silently, What else can go wrong? Can we just forget this barrel, and get another one? But Micha had already got the oars out and was starting to paddle after the floating barrel. I put Pantagruel in gear and motored slowly after him until he’d got the barrel back in the dinghy and we began the winching process once more.
We repeated this procedure one last time (minus the paddling). The guys aboard the tanker now lined the rails to watch our progress. Afterward, Micha visited the bridge of the ship and was given the opportunity to call home to explain the situation and to pass on a message to our next crew.
Both back on board, complete with three fuel barrels, we began the task of siphoning the diesel into our tanks as the ship slowly disappeared into the distance. Several hours later, our tanks were full once again. However, with wind and the waves dead on the nose, our predicted 6 knots headway was more like 4 knots, which would leave us short of fuel to make the 600 nautical miles to land.
The next day, we turned the engine off and set to work on Micha’s jury rig. The most difficult part was figuring out how to raise the boom up as a mast. We put our two headsail poles together as shear legs on the foredeck, with a line attached from the top of the poles to the end of the boom. As we lowered the poles, they brought the boom up to a vertical position. Before raising the boom, we attached all the necessary standing and running rigging.
It was growing dark by the time we’d finished, and I persuaded Micha to wait until daylight before trying to hoist a sail. I was greeted the next morning by the strange sight of the head of our staysail fluttering past the coach-house window. Our jib was now acting as a mainsail without a boom, with the tack of the sail at the top of the new mast and the head reaching back as far as the cockpit. We were sailing again!
We hoisted another jib upside down, with the tack again at the top of the new mast and the head at the end of the bowsprit. We tied the head in a knot to reduce the length so we could still use the hanks to attach the sail to the new forestay.
We were therefore able to hoist four sails once more, including the mizzen and mizzen staysail. Our maximum speed with our new rig was about 4 knots and we could only sail at about 80 degrees to the apparent wind, but all in all, it wasn’t too bad.
In this manner we were able to half sail, half motor our way to the Azores. There we had a new sail made to fit our jury-rigged mast, and found the situation so stable that we kept the rig all the way to Germany.
In the end, we weren’t much slower than many other boats sailing across the Atlantic around the time Pantagruel was built, and with all the other systems on the boat functioning well, we didn’t feel like we were in a particularly dangerous situation. The journey took two weeks longer than originally planned, but luckily, we had plenty of food on board!
We are now sailing once more on the Atlantic Ocean, with a new mast standing tall, on our way to complete a circumnavigation aboard Pantagruel.
Micha Sinzel has nine Atlantic crossings and many other sea miles in his wake, and has owned Pantagruel for more than 20 years. Joanna Hutchinson began sailing seriously six years ago, and recently earned her RYA Yachtmaster rating. Together, they are circumnavigating to celebrate Pantagruel’s 100th birthday.
As skies clear after the squall, Micha begins the difficult task of cutting away the rigging (top). It took Micha three trips in the dinghy to transfer diesel fuel between vessels.
The 93-year-old Pantagruel barrels along under full sail, rigged like it was when the squall hit (top). Micha and Joanna are all smiles once they have a jury rig raised and are underway again.
With a jury-rigged boom as a spar and creatively repurposed sails, Pantagruel was transformed from a yawl to a schooner, which allowed the crew to sail onward to the Azores.