Story of a Dismasting

I thought a bit of summer twighlight sailing would be fun. What a great way to spend an afternoon with a couple of mates and a good excuse for a couple of coldies on the downwind leg to the finish!

The usual scenario is this: the prevailing nor-easter in summer usually makes it a close-hauled affair heading up the Pittwater. There’s almost always a good breeze, helped by the seabreeze in the last couple of hours of daylight… After rounding the mark at Stokes Point (or Soldiers), it’s usually a downwind affair using the last of the seabreeeze; these are non-spinaker races and the super-keen might pole out their headsails… As for the rest of us…

Well, someone might go and push out the clew of the headdie with a boathook if he’s really bored and the breeze has dropped to nothing, but mostly we crack a couple of cold ones and talk about life, the universe and everything…

On our way to the start of Woody Point Race on 14 November 2007, we had our usual crew on board: myself, the two Daves and Gerardo. There was a bit of a discussion about who-does-what-then… DavidJ thought Gerardo should be on the main sheet. He, DavidJ, would trim headsail sheets and DavidN would be on the foredeck.

The forecast was for thunderstorms and, indeed, it looked a bit threatening to the west… Ever cautious, I called for two reefs in the main as we motored out. But there was NO WIND!

As we drifted around the start area, we decided to shake out the reefs. A good call it appeared. The Woody Point Race is a handicapped start – and we were almost last to start (it’s so unfair!). We took a long run into the start line, and a nice puff got us going. After half a mile we had overtaken the whole fleet!

Woody Point Race course

As we raced towards Stokes Point, the wind strength kept increasing, and now it was blowing about 15 knots. The sky was looking very threatening too and I called for the two reefs to be put in the main again… The crew was not impressed! After narrowly averting mutiny, they got on with it while muttering about “throwing the race away while in the lead”… Fortunately, we’d just had a practice run, so it all went smoothly.

Literally seconds after tying the two reefs in, all hell broke loose! The first sign that something was happening was the sight of an Etchells’ mainsail exploding! Boats were flat on their ears everywhere. We, however, were still racing! Poor old Gerardo was not coping well on the mainsheet though – it needed constant playing to limit the heel angle, and DavidJ was substituted. We rounded the mark at Stokes and sailed on to Soldiers…

It was chaos out there. While we were having a rip-roaring sail, others were fighting for survival. We called “starboard!” to another boat only to get the reply “sod off!! we have no steering!!!”

After we rounded Soldiers Point there was about 15 minutes during the wind gusted up to 30 knots from all four compass directions as the thunderstorm dumped its full convective fury on the Pittwater. I forget how many times we tacked just to find the headsail backed – again! Things soon stabilized, however, and we were reaching toward Taylors Point, rapidly overhauling those survivors who did better in the mayhem than us.

We rounded Taylors Point for the last leg to the finish. The wind was still blowing a good 20 knots from the North-West, and we were close-hauled with everything sheeted tight as a drum… We were overtaking boats left, right and centre… We were now in second place…

Suddenly there was a noise like a pistol shot… The headsail started flogging and I thought – “bugger, the halyard’s broken!”

My next thought was “why the hell am I sitting on the cockpit floor?… and what’s the mast doing herenext to my left shoulder?…”

Looking down I saw the cockpit floor covered in blood… We’d been dismasted!

Dismasted! The crew inspect the damage...

What happened next is the sort of thing that restores your faith in human nature…

We were in trouble, dead in the water and effectively on a lee shore with Scotland Island to the south and a northerly breeze. While I dropped the anchor, the two Davids and Gerardo retrieved the sails from the water without any damage and lashed them to the lifelines. A couple of runabouts appeared with people offering help. One bloke took our second anchor out to set up a Bahamian mooring (we were very close to other boats moored off Scotland Island and we had about 10 metres of mast sticking over the transom!).

Then we started the wait… I had called the coastal patrol immediately after we had been dismasted, but the local Maritime Police office had closed at 5PM. They had to come from Terrey Hills… DavidJ and I both sustained nasty headwounds: I was cut by the trailing edge on the port lower spreader, and David was hit by the boom. We’d both lost a bit of blood, but at least we’d stopped bleeding.

At about 9PM we were picked up by the police. We left emergency navlights, cyalume sticks and activated danbuoy lights on to try and avoid a colision and went back to the shore.

The next morning I had help from everywhere:

  • My whole crew pitched up to come and help – thanks guys!
  • Graham Friend put me in touch with Peter Moxham at the Royal Motor Yacht Club marina. Peter was fabulous! He took us out to the stricken boat in the club launch and we motored it back to the marina where we put it on the northern breakwall to tidy her up.
  • Tony Eccles of Pittwater Yacht Rigging came around to look at the damage, and the next morning we motored around to lift the mast off.
  • Club Marine agreed to cover the damage, even though the rig and sails were excluded on a technicallity when I bought the insurance in July. Their attitude certainly assures them my business in the future!

It took four months before Sunny Spells was sailing again – most of the summer – but the dismasting became the catalyst for a complete refit: a refit that she had to have.

Was it hard to go sailing again? I’d lie if I said that I wasn’t a bit apprehensive the first couple of outings. Tony Eccles had concluded that a pin came out of the toggle fitting at the bottom of the headstay, causing the whole rig to fall backwards as the headstay let go. It’s a sobering thought that the loss of one little pin can bring the whole rig down. Sailing out in 20 knots of breeze, on my own, with every fitting and swage on the rig new and untested took a leap of faith!

I guess most sailors would sail their entire lives and not experience a dismasting… Well, I think I’ve had mine now!

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