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.

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