2 Sticks better.
Dismasted in Lyme bay.
It’s late September 2020 and we at anchor at the entrance to Bow creek on the river Dart in Devon UK, WABI’’’ is dancing around her anchor in the gusty easterly wind and the top of a big tide which is just starting to ebb ; as i write it’s early morning, the sun having only just risen over the tree lined bank to our east. As i look aft out of the companionway i can see the tip of the broken mizzen mast which i have lashed to the cabin top and if i twist around a bit i can see the stump of the mast with it’s jagged break, still in the mast partners : it’s a better picture than yesterday when we had to run down the last stretch of coast before Dartmouth with the mast tip trailing in the water, sail still attached and the with the sprit boom wedged across the cockpit. In brief : yesterday we left Torquay harbour in a forecast 16-18 knots of wind from the ENE and a ‘lumpy’ sea as waves came around Hopes Nose headland and heaped up in the shallow water of Torbay, about an hour later and just to the south-west of Berry head the mizzen mast snapped just below the gooseneck and mostly went overboard.
I don’t know whether it’s my peculiar sailors sense of humour but my first thought was ‘Houston we have a problem’ , mainly because we were running fairly fast along the Devon coast just to the west of Berry head and in an awkwardly short sea and i had the passage past the Blackstone and the Dewerstone to deal with while we sorted out the mess in the cockpit ; it wasn’t panic stations, anything but although at one point we had the mizzen sail itself completely over us as a tent and i was running out of hands…one for the lively tiller and one to hang on to the bouncy boat and that’s both of mine used up ! After the event and it’s difficult to remember the exact sequence of events after the dismasting except that the last few feet of mast were trailing in the water and that we were slowly releasing all of the lines so that if we had to we could dump the whole lot over the side if it became too dangerous in the cockpit. The actual state of play at that point is that we were running at maximum hull speed with the occasional short surf in a confused sea with the mizzen mostly trailing over the side but still attached to the stump by the topping lift and the old VHF cable, the sprit boom wedged across the cockpit over my knees and with the sail clew still attached to the sprit by it’s clew hook and reef line.
What i can say is that i was very busy on the helm, not that that there was a huge amount of wind-less than 20 knots i would estimate and WABI’’’ was sailing fast and easy with all of her sail power forward in the shape of the reefed mains’l and a small amount of drag aft from the tip of the mizzen trailing behind us.
What we did next…..in practical terms it was my partner Jackie who then had the job of doing each task in sequence as i steered and tried to keep us on track for the passage inside the Blackstone and around the Dewerstone, but what we did was to lash the broken end of the mizzen to the aft guardrail to starboard and in turn to release every other line holding the mast, boom and sail to the boat and across the cockpit : while my first thought was to try and save the mast i did also think that we might have to let the whole lot go over the side and to do that we would have to make sure that no lines were around us if it did. Mostly, the tip of the mast in the water wasn’t a problem until we rounded the Dewerstone in a semi-controlled gybe and came up onto a fast reach into the Dart approaches ; at that point it was starting to drag across the rudder and it seemed to be making the boat round up more than i wanted, that problem didn’t last more than ten minutes before we suddenly shot into a big hole in the wind under the lee of the cliffs just outside the entrance to the Dart. At that point we just got all sail off and we quickly heaved the broken mizzen ,still with sail attached, up and along the starboard guardrail where Jackie threw a rough lashing around it while i cleared the cockpit of lines and got the motor started.
This morning at anchor we have given ourselves a bit of a de-brief and although i’ll make a few comments about that at the end of the post we are both of similar opinion : what happened did happen but nobody drowned and nobody got hurt , and equally we are both knowledgeable about incidents to know that it’s far too easy to be merely smart after the event…..far too much hindsight bias from managers in both of our clinical careers. The opposite side of that is that iv’e been involved in a few incidents at sea in my 40 year (so far) sailing life and iv’e always taken an interest in why things go wrong , iv’e even written about a couple of disasters at sea , here in my blog. With that in mind and while it’s all still fresh i took the time this morning to organise my own thoughts about our dismasting into some kind of order so…..
The mast/masts. The boat , and therefore it’s 2 masts are nearly 40 years old and they are basically unsupported, tapered alloy tubes which are fastened to the boat at their heel and with a cast alloy pivoting fitting a few feet above the heel. Both masts have numerous original fittings and cut-outs, for example the gooseneck fittings, various cleats and the halyard slots. Liberty masts have been known to break in the past , in fact , and by a strange coincidence, we talked to another boat owner in Weymouth who’d owned an early Liberty and his mizzen had snapped too. WABI’s mizzen has clearly snapped just under the gooseneck fitting where there are 2 holes and rivets for that fitting and then another hole for one end of a cleat on the same circumferential line……thus a line of weakness there. It’s possible that the metal has simply work-hardened and fatigued over time and that this was simply going to happen one day : that it didn’t happen before in rougher conditions is perhaps the real surprise.
Conditions. It’s worth saying something about conditions at the eastern side of Lyme bay that day : we left the harbour with a recent forecast of 18 mph wind from the north east and it was forecast to stay like that for most of the day. There was a bit of ‘send’ from wave action in the harbour and i could see that there was an area of short seas not far off the harbour entrance. We set the sail plan up as the single reef in the mizzen and the first reef in the mains’l, with only 2 reefs in the main both of them take a lot of area out of the sail. Although fast and lively the boat felt well balanced, heeling to but not trying to round-up in the gusts. The waves in Torbay were obviously larger and noticeably short but with very few breaking tops , the wave action will most likely have been due to the rapidly shelving bottom of Torbay where it shelves from around 20 metres across the bight of the bay to only 5 at the harbour entrance and only twice that in most of Torbay. My plan was to clear Berry head in deeper water, giving the headland about half a mile clearance in around 30 metres and by which point we would be on a fast run towards the Blackstone and Dewerstone rocks. Of note…one larger sailing boat that left Torquay harbour at the same time as us took a similar line and a second boat crossed the bay as well just inshore of us : we slowly overhauled that boat , passing it a few hundred yards to windward and we about the same distance ahead of him when the mizzen snapped.
Wind and tide…off Berry head we running fast on a broad reach still with both booms out to starboard and so i was planning to do a controlled gybe just after the Dewerstone to come up on the wind on the opposite tack and reach up into what i expected to be a good lee in one of the 2 small bays to the south of Warren house. At Berry head i didn’t notice any increase in wind, which i had expected although the sea was a bit more difficult there with some ‘hollow’ waves and quite short ; most likely from some degree of wind against tide there, what i’m not aware of there is of any significant race forming off Berry head unlike Start point to the south-west which i wouldn’t have tried to pass in wind against tide conditions.
De brief…In the immediate aftermath of our dismasting i remember saying to my partner something along the lines of “it’s a problem but not a disaster” and that what we had to concentrate on was getting through the next 40 minutes or so intact such that we could get into shelter. At the start of this piece i used the now famous lines from the film Apollo 13 “Houston we have a problem” while in actual fact my feelings were more like “bugger !”….and you would have to be a Kiwi like my mate Big Al down in NZ who told me about a TV advertisement that has a talking sheepdog who sees a problem and says that one word….it’s a very rural Kiwi kind of thing for when something goes wrong. I won’t recount any of our own de-brief here because that’s between me and my partner, and as she says herself : firstly that nobody got drowned or hurt and that secondly maybe that it this was always likely to happen with an old alloy mast.