11: Breakages & Jury Rigs

Any Atlantic crossing is as much a test of boats and gear as it is a test of mental fortitude, and the 2013 ARC was no exception. There was fickle weather in the first half, followed by strong squalls and relentless tradewinds over the past week, pushing boats and gear to the limit. Yachts are arriving into Rodney Bay Marina in various states of disrepair. I walked the docks today to get an idea of what crews are repairing, how it happened, and what they might have done in hindsight to prevent it.

“Exploding sails seems much more common this year than in the past,” says Clare Pengally, ARC Yellowshirt staff. “Not just rips and tears, but rather sails just blowing themselves to pieces.”

Indeed several of the racing fleet has reported blown-up spinnakers, including Rainbow, who otherwise experienced little, if any, damage at all (read on). The cruising catamaran NDS Darwin arrived into their slip on I-dock with the top third of their spinnaker flapping like mad, the rest of it wrapped horrendously around the headstay. 

But it wasn’t just sails of course. Aboard the yacht Hada, 14 days into their passage, the excitement of the day was a broken turning block at the top of the mast. It was the block through which the spinnaker halyard was reeved, and needed to be replaced.

“Sticking with tradition, we loaded the lightest guy onboard, who in this case was Anton, into the bosun’s chair and hoisted him up some 74 feet to the top of the mast,” they wrote on their at-sea blog. “Apparently the view from there was spectacular – much better than from the deck, with our limited six miles around of sea, clouds and sky.”

In the end, the repair was successful, and Hada carried on as usual.

In the racing fleet, boats were pushing hard and riding that thin line between going fast and light, and keeping the rig and sails together. In racing, there is a much finer line between ‘strong enough’ and ‘light enough’, and the boats generally carry a much higher risk of gear failure. But crews accept that risk in the name of speed. For some, it backfired.

Intuition was only about 200 miles from the Canaries when their boom broke, a decidedly inconvenient failure with so much ocean in front of them. It would be a major handicap for the small boat that was pushing hard in the racing division and hoping for a good result.

“Our boom just snapped in two pieces,” offered Vladimir, Intuition’s first mate. “I think this was a result of a very hard racing season,” he continued. That prep began in early April, with four Fastnet preparation races. That was followed up by the grueling Fastnet itself, a delivery from Hamble to Malta in the Mediterranean, then the Middle Sea Race and then the delivery from Malta to Gran Canaria. 

“So the boat suffered a lot,” said Vladimir. And the hard charging continued following the start of the ARC. “Alyssa tried – and she was absolutely right – she tried to push the boat hard, because this is a racing boat. But the boom snapped in quite calm conditions when the wind was just twenty knots.”

Both Vladimir and Alyssa offered no reasons as to why they thought the boom had broken, other than simply fatigue. The preventer was on at the time, but rigged from the end of the boom as is proper procedure, and the boom just buckled in the middle. The same thing had happened to an old spinnaker pole of theirs over the summer.

“Our first reaction was just drop the mainsail, and rig a trysail. As soon as the boat was under control with the trysail, we just started to think what we could do.” Their first intention was to divert to the Cape Verdes, but they persevered. “We soon recognized that we could manage without the boom,” said Vladimir.  

Over the next few days, they continued refining the jury rig. “Our best invention was our emergency boom, created by one of our crew, Sergei,” added Vladimir. Sergei had the bright idea to take the spinnaker pole and slide it into the after-end of the broken boom. They drilled several holes through each, and through-bolted the pieces together. The forward end of the jury boom mounted to the gooseneck with the spinnaker jaws, while the after end still had all the reefing blocks and mainsheet attachments on it. Though the emergency boom only worked really well with the full mainsail, and it took several steps to simply ease the sheet, Vladimir called it “a genius piece of engineering.”

Intuition, in the end, finished in St. Lucia after a 20-day passage. They never started the engine, and while it might not be as high as they’d hoped for, they will get a result in the racing division thanks to their determination and resourcefulness. They’ve got nearly two months now to sort out a real repair before the Caribbean 600, their next race, starts in Antigua.

Pollux, the small French Pogo, suffered arguably the worst damage. Only 140 miles from making landfall in St. Lucia, Pollux was dismasted in a heavy squall. The double-handed crew didn’t panic, however, and carried on with repairs.

The top half of the mast, above the single-spreaders, had given way and went over the side. But the bottom remained. Pollux’ crew ingeniously rigged a windsurfing sail as a jury jib, and fashioned a makeshift mainsail by hoisting the clew of the sail and using what used to be the foot as the luff, sheeting it as best they could to the end of the boom. It helped that the final 140 miles of their crossing would be downwind. Remarkably, they made over six knots under jury rig and crossed the finish line on the morning of December6, not far behind their original ETA.

There was plenty of damage in the cruising division. Thomas Wibberenz, a rep for Parasailor who annually makes the trip to both Las Palmas and St. Lucia to help clients prepare for the passage and clean up afterwards, says he’s seen more damage on the docks in 2013 than in recent years.

“And it seems to be not the wind, but the sea state,” he offered. “This year what I’ve found is that quite a few booms have broken, and most of them seem to have broken because something has been welded into the booms, and it was no good for the aluminum. That’s where the cracks started, and then they broke totally.”

As for how to prevent these kinds of breakages in the first place, Thomas tells all his clients to simply be careful. “Watch out for chafe, and keep everything from moving at all,” by using preventers and sheets and guys, he says. 

The Island Packet 485 Free Spirit was doing their best to do just that when their furling line failed and their genoa split in the middle of a strong squall less than a week into the passage. Skipper Peter Harris was down below on the off watch when the helmsman called for backup as the wind increased. The line failed, the full genoa unfurled, and the sail – an old one, already damaged and repaired several times previously in fact – ripped across it’s girth in two places. 

“By the time we went up on the foredeck to bring it down, the wind was gusting over 50 knots,” Harris explained. “The waves were washing over the boat. The only saving grace was that the water was warm!” Harris and his crew managed to get the sail on deck without much fuss. “Everybody worked extremely well in very difficult circumstances in the middle of the night. People did their jobs extremely well, and I have to say that at no time did I feel in any danger.”

Following the squall, a bout of calm weather overtook the fleet and gave Free Spirit an opportunity to repair the sail. “I used up every last inch of thread we had onboard,” Harris said, “but we fixed it and got it hoisted again. It did a great job for the next ten days or so.”

Then, in another squall, the sail finally gave up the ghost for good, again when the furling line jammed. This time, the crew was able to just roll up the sail altogether, though by then it was in tatters, and they were only six days away from making landfall in St. Lucia. “I decided just to park her on the forestay until we got here,” Harris said. The strong winds and heavy seas that much of the fleet has been reporting in the last 72 hours prevented them from doing much about it, and the sail started tearing itself to pieces. 

“We had a real problem then actually,” Harris says. The sail was thrashing around on the forestay, and Harris admits he was very concerned about the forestay. “But we made it.”

Harris finished by offering some advice of his own. “Equipment fails, for sure, but it fails because it’s overly stressed. We learned the age-old lesson which everybody tells you every time – reef early. By the time we had got on to the deck after putting our lifejackets on, it was 50-plus knots in the rigging. So it happens so quickly. In a squall, you don’t get any warning.”

For all the carnage on the dock, there were plenty of boats who had relatively drama-free passages, reporting only minor wear and tear and in some cases, no breakages at all.

Paolo from the Italian C&C 62 Rainbow, a boat that’s quite long in the tooth at over 40 years old, says simply “The boat is really nice to sail. In all conditions, strong and light wind, we haven't had any problems at all.” Paolo says it’s down to practice and the crew knowing one another well and working well as a team offshore. “We race together, we sail just for fun, and we know what we’re doing. And the boat is old and made a lot stronger than some of the newer racing boats, and maybe that’s one of the reasons.”

Paolo added an interesting point about crew fatigue as the passage stretches on to three weeks and beyond. “The crew gets tired,” he said. “Maybe a squall comes, and it’s easy to make a mistake. When you make a mistake, stuff breaks.”