Dismasted offshore: how one man got his boat home

When Jock Hamilton’s 33ft Wauquiez Gladiateur dismasted offshore, 500 miles from land, he created a jury rig using a Laser dinghy mast, sails and oars, before sailing 1,500 miles home

Dismasted offshore: how one man got his boat home

Bang! I turned around just in time to see the mast of the boat toppling into the water over the starboard side.

Bother! I’m 500 miles from anywhere in the North Atlantic. Is it causing damage? These thoughts passed through my mind as I clambered on deck to assess the situation and to attempt to free the mast from the boat.

Heading up the port side, I noticed that a broken deck fitting, to which the port lower shroud had been attached, was the cause.

The boom was largely on the starboard side deck; the mast was ‘sawing’ back and forth across the port guard rail – now an inch above the deck but still taking the strain.

The weather was moderate, about 20 knots of wind with 3m of sea or swell. Having been beating into it, now that we were lying still, conditions seemed a little less severe.

Jock's route showing where he was dismasted offshore and his return voyage home. Credit: Maxine Heath

Jock’s route showing where he was dismasted offshore and his return voyage home. Credit: Maxine Heath

Freya, a Wauquiez Gladiateur, was now sitting across the wind, with the mast acting as a sea anchor to windward, and rolling quickly.

As I was at the port cap shroud, I disconnected this by pulling the small split pin out of the rigging pin with my multitool – a fixture on my belt for 21 years – and knocked out the big pin.

Then I crawled forward – carefully due to the rolling and lack of anything above deck level to hang onto.

The inner forestay was simple to detach from the highfield lever, and quickly despatched.

I thought I should detach the boom and try to salvage what I could. The situation seemed stable.

It was relatively easy to cut the leech reefing points, stick a figure of eight in the ends, cut the lazy jacks and cut the sail tape attaching the clew to the outhaul slider.

A yacht sailing under jury rig in the Atlantic Ocean

Under full sail with the jury rig set up after being dismasted offshore. Credit: Jock Hamilton

Moving to the gooseneck I cut the mainsail tack lashing and removed the pin on the gooseneck fitting.

Stupidly I took the rod kicker off at the boom, which meant I lost it with the mast.

With hindsight, I could have taken it off at the mast with a bit of careful work but it was a couple of feet in the air and moving up and down as the boat rolled.

Going aft I thought about taking the pin out from the bottom of the hydraulic backstay tensioner but decided; ‘No, save it’.

This involved taking some seizing wire from the bottlescrew and unscrewing that.

Dismasted offshore: Mast jettison

It was time to get rid of the mast. The forestay fitting went without trouble, again the multitool being adequate firepower for the task.

The mast was now held only by the starboard cap and lower shroud.

The lower went easily enough but I had placed white plastic pipes over the cap shrouds to assist in tacking the genoa and this still covered the deck fitting – it was bent and crushed over the guardrail and prevented me from accessing the attachment point.

Timing the effort, I pushed the bent gutter pipe out over the guardrail enough to access the deck fitting and wire. I had to be careful as I was close to the mast foot which was moving up and down as Freya rolled, threatening a possible injury.

A dismasted yacht

The mast cleared from deck. Note the missing deck fitting, bottom left. Credit: Jock Hamilton

I’d heard in the past that the final fitting would have tension on it and needed to be cut; I used bolt croppers, a hacksaw and a grinder.

In the event, however, it seemed to be more practical to knock the pin out – the same as the others – and time it with the roll of the boat to starboard in order to release it.

With a final check that nothing surprising was likely to happen, I pulled the split pin out, waited for the tension to come off the wire, and knocked the pin out.

The mast slipped, caught momentarily with a cleat over the guardrail, requiring me to lift it slightly, then slid slowly over the side and disappeared into the depth of the North Atlantic.

It was time for a cup of tea and a think.

I was about 500 miles from Halifax in Nova Scotia and 1,500 miles from both home and my intended destination of Newport where four of us, who had had the OSTAR cancelled at the last minute, were heading in the NOSTAR using the same course and date as the original event.

I had in fact noted crossing the halfway distance only around an hour before losing the mast.

Hasty retreat

The sensible course of action seemed to be to sail home. This would be downwind, with the North Atlantic drift and would be most convenient for repairs.

After tea this plan still seemed to be the best. There was a gale forecast for the evening; it was now 1445 ship’s time and the sea and wind were building.

It would be foolish to make a jury rig until the gale had passed through.

I wondered if we’d manage downwind in the conditions without any sail, so disconnected the tiller from the self steering and pulled it up, holding it strongly as the rolling applied forces on the rudder.

The boom rigged as the new mast. The vertical oars helped align it prior to hoisting. Credit: Jock Hamilton

The boom rigged as the new mast. The vertical oars helped align it prior to hoisting. Credit: Jock Hamilton

Little happened initially, then the bow inched around and once it had moved some degrees downwind we started to move ahead.

Once moving she turned downwind, I steered for a few minutes to get a feel and we were soon up to three knots so I reconnected the vane self steering and went below.

I then spoke with my sister and Graham, a friend ashore posting blogs on my behalf at www.beaglecruises.com– my Iridium aerial was on the pushpit.

I reassured them that I was fine and that Freya had no damage other than one stanchion broken. I had loads of food, fuel, water and gas.

I considered whether I was being foolish not asking for help. But even with hindsight, I am convinced this would have been the wrong option; getting off Freya, particularly in poor weather would be dangerous and it would be excruciating to have Freya turn up off the west coast of Europe some time later.

Scuttling her would involve getting safely within reach of help and then opening a seacock.

However the idea of getting nicely alongside a big ship – the likeliest scenario – and hoping that we’d sit there happily whilst going below to open a seacock seemed optimistic.

Conditions would make it dangerous for a ship to launch a rescue boat, and having put myself in danger I had no wish to endanger anyone else.

Jury rig

Some 36 hours passed, making three to six knots downwind in a gale with some impressive seas.

My fellow voyager, Ertan Beskardes, on his Rustler 36 Lazy Otter, was knocked down three times and his windvane steering was washed away.

Two days after the mast loss I tried making a jury rig using a Laser mast and sail I’d brought in case it came in handy.

Up on deck I heard the VHF radio come to life, knowing from my satellite comms that Ertan was close, I went below and we had a chat.

He was heading for the Azores for repairs and only a few miles away. Getting aboard him might have been an option but being a bit gung ho I was optimistic about making it home.

Dismasted offshore: Mast foot arrangement. Credit: Jock Hamilton

Dismasted offshore: Mast foot arrangement on the jury rig. Credit: Jock Hamilton

It was great to speak to each other despite the inauspicious circumstances. Signing off I continued with the Laser mast.

It was easy to secure the lower half of the mast on deck but trying to do the same with the whole mast and sail proved tricky.

It was apparent that the old dinghy sail was not going to manage a journey of the length anticipated.

I needed a mast to which substantial sails could be added or removed as conditions warranted. This meant rigging the boom or spinnaker boom as a mast.

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Deck fittings

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As the boom was more substantial and had several useful fittings I opted for this, even though it was shorter.

I lashed the dinghy oars vertically, either side of the sprayhood, to keep the boom on the sprayhood so that, before hoisting, it had some angle to the horizontal.

I attached rope shrouds via a convenient hole in the end fitting on a bight. I have holes in my toerail but because they are quite sharp I added large galvanised shackles to these (from my drogue) to reduce wear.

As my intention was to eventually have a gunter-style rig, I split the backstay to allow the sail to sit in the angle between the two backstays.

The backstays proved too much for the convenient hole so I put a clove hitch around the mast, above three sliders that I’d moved to the ‘mast’ head to hold a block for the headsail – the top one for the block, the other two to help hold it in position – with an end coming down either side.

Having rigged the shrouds and backstays to what I guessed to be the correct length, I clipped on and pulled on the headsail halyard rigged from the bow roller through the head block to my hands whilst holding the ‘mast’ foot on the deck fitting with my foot.

The tri-sail rigged upside down as a jib. Credit: Jock Hamilton

The tri-sail rigged upside down as a jib. Credit: Jock Hamilton

The mast came up to about 40º, which was fine, but there was quite a force on the halyard still and I needed to secure it. As I moved forward, the safety line came tight and I had to stop.

Pulling hard on the lanyard and wiggling around I just about managed to get a couple of turns onto the windlass before shuffling aft again.

I slackened off the backstays, tightened the halyard and repeated this until the ‘mast’ was vertical.

The gooseneck fitting went over a vertical plate on my deck step and was held in place by bolts and spacers to stop it slipping forward or aft.

I’d attached a forestay via a shackle in the convenient hole on the boom, on a bight, so with this and the shrouds tightened, I now had a mast!

The bights on the shrouds proved impossible to ‘refresh’ without dropping the mast, but the forestay worked well.

Sailing home

Calculations suggested my storm tri-sail would fit between the bow roller and masthead so I hoisted it.

Unfortunately the clew sat soggily on the deck because of the low angle of the new forestay.

However, hoisting it upside down proved successful and worked well downwind after testing it out with sheeting points.

A couple of days later, with the wind more on the beam, I pop-riveted a couple of eyelets to half of the Laser mast, lashed the storm jib to this and hoisted it as a main sail, gunter-rig style, which worked fine but blanked the headsail downwind.

With this rig I could sail much like a square rigger; she sat happily from 70º to the apparent wind and I had to ditch one of the sails above 130º or so apparent.

Initially I doused the mainsail downwind but soon learned that it was easier and more efficient to douse the headsail.

This is how I sailed home. I was very lucky in that the wind was mostly favourable, and I was mostly heading straight home.

We averaged 80 miles per day with a maximum of 109 miles.

This was not dissimilar to my mileage made good outbound – our day runs had been better but not always in the right direction.

Jock Hamilton

Jock Hamilton, son of The Restless Wind author Peter Hamilton, has spent most of his life at sea in the Merchant Navy where he currently works as a captain on anchor- handling supply ships. He had a
few years working as a bush pilot in southern Africa and did some time with the Royal Marines as a reservist. He is a keen yachtsman and sailed around the world as captain on Blue Leopard. He is intending to spend future summers showing holidaymakers some of the delights of the West of Scotland through Beagle Cruises, using his new yacht Yemaya, a Bowman 49.

I had to stitch up the headsail a couple of times due to wear along the foot – previously the leech – although I never identified why the wear was occurring, it always appeared to be clear of the pulpit.

With no proper mast the motion became very fast, with a roll period of around three seconds.

This was very uncomfortable and generated fast cyclic loads on the rudder whose bearings I worried about without managing to think of a way to alleviate the stresses.

The stove moved so quickly it kept blowing itself out.

I never walked on deck once the mast was down owing to the motion, although I did occasionally stand whilst hanging onto the mast or shroud.

After the first couple of days, as I was already under storm canvas and sailing downwind, I actually had a more relaxing time than I’d had sailing with a full rig upwind and banging into the sea.

Upwind, green water washed over the decks too, with some inevitably finding its way down below despite blanked vents.

I read and played with recipes sent from Hungary and amused myself baking bread; I’d not found the time for these activities on the way out.

NOSTAR casualties

Of the four of us who set off only one made it to Newport and all sustained damage. I wouldn’t say conditions were particularly bad, more unpleasant, and the constant wear and banging whilst going upwind was going to find and exploit any weakness.

The fitting that failed was an eye bolt; whilst sailing home I was kicking myself for not checking it prior to departure.

Once secure on my home mooring, I withdrew it. It had broken clean across with no sign of corrosion, so I don’t believe a visual inspection would have helped.

The voyage home took 18 days and I received a big welcome with a flotilla of boats and a pier lined with friends waving flags.

It was really touching.

Dismasted Offshore: Lessons Learned

  • Check all fittings: This may be difficult – withdrawing deck fittings – but will give peace of mind.
  • Salvage: It would have been simple to release the rig without saving the boom and, at the time, I didn’t think I needed it for my jury rig, but it later proved invaluable. Anything saved may be useful if you are dismasted offshore but also won’t need replacing; new stuff is very expensive.
  • Careful communications: I emailed my boat insurance company and mentioned the transatlantic race. Whether we were officially racing, with no committee, Notice of Race, handicapping agreement, start sequence and so on, may have been moot, however they took this as proof and reduced the claim accordingly. Also consider what people ashore may do; I stipulated I did not need assistance and didn’t want the Coastguard alerted.
  • Adapt: I optimistically thought that taking a dinghy mast and sail would be enough to get me home if I was dismasted offshore. I had to adapt my plans after thought and ideas from friends ashore to create a rig to which substantial sails could be added or removed as conditions warranted.
  • Plan: Consider the worst-case scenarios. Having things that ‘might come in handy’ was a great help. I lost the windvane from my self steering early on; having a spare
    was invaluable.
  • Replacement cost: Replacing the mast, furler, sails, rigging, radar, wind instrument, lights, winches, cleats and ropes adds up quickly. I had my rig and sails insured for £15,000 whilst replacement cost, new, is more than double that. Insuring a boat for what she cost second-hand may not be realistic.
  • Advice from my Father: In my father’s book The Restless Wind, he states: ‘remember the strength of your rig is the strength of the weakest bit of it. Though it’s very heroic to bring your boat in safely after she has been dismasted or half wrecked, it is far more pleasant when she hasn’t.’

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Source: Yachting Monthly

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