Ellen MacArthur and her crew suffer devastating blow after losing their mast

 At 2222GMT on Sunday 23 Feb Kingfisher 2 was dismasted in the Southern Ocean. The crew were sailing in moderate conditions of 25-30 knots of wind in a 1.5m swell. They were sailing under full mainsail and spinnaker and were approximately 100 miles south east of the Kerguelen Islands when disaster struck. No one was injured.

According to a message relayed back from the boat shortly after the incident, the 39.5m carbon mast broke in two places although the reason for the failure wasn’t known. The mast fell forward and sideways over the port (leeward) hull – the bottom 10 metre section of the mast has been salvaged. The remainder of the mast, rigging and sails were all cut away to prevent any further damage to the boat – a broken section of the mast in the water punctured a small hole in the port hull but the boat is not taking on water and is now in a good and seaworthy condition.

In an audio report sent back from the boat and posted on their web site Ellen said;

“I was in the nav stations speaking with our weather router Meeno Schrader on the satellite phone when I heard an almighty crunching and grinding sound… It felt like we had hit something as the boat slowed so quickly but when I got on deck and looked up the rig had gone over the side – it is the last thing you want to see…

Fortunately, only the on-watch crew were on deck [3 people, Neal, Bruno, Youngster, with Jason below temporarily] – everyone is okay. We are very lucky if we had been doing a manouevre or changing watch systems it could have been a different story. It’s pretty frightening to see your world fall over the side. We just cut everything away as quickly as we could [it took about an hour] to get us free of the broken mast.

As soon as I heard the bang – I ran down the whole length of the boat – thinking we had hit something – to check there was no water coming in anywhere. When I came up the hatch and looked up there was not mast – one minute 39 and a half metres of mast standing there, the next nothing.

First reaction was to make sure everyone is safe, then we just had to get on with cutting away the pieces of the mast and sails that were floating in the water but trying to keep as much as we could. We managed to save 10 metres of the bottom of the mast – everything else went – sails, rigging. Just saw it all float away into the Southern Ocean, along with the chance of breaking the record.

These things happen so quickly – we don’t know what went wrong. No one was looking at the rig the moment before it happened – we may never know why, that is often the case with dismastings. It was a brand new rig – the guys had worked on it meticuously – and the issues we had in Plymouth (replacing part of the mast track) are certainly unrelated. We will probably never know why it broke.”

Neal McDonald who was on deck at the time said;

“We were running along in breeze 28-33 knots – few hours prior to this the sea state had been pretty unpleasant but it had flattened out – and we were sailing at between 18 and 23 knots straight down the track. It happened alarmingly quickly – just thankful no one around on that side of the boat…

We have a hole in the side of the boat from where a broken section of the mast punched through – if the sea state had been worse it could have been a different story and perhaps a sunken hull. The look on the guys faces says it all – we were getting back in the money, now its total doom and gloom, just silence…”

With the crew safe and their plan to head for Fremantle in Western Australia, Ellen reflected on the disaster.

I’m sitting here at my chart table feeling quite sick inside. I can feel the water running by the hull, and feel the waves take KINGFISHER2 along – but not at the 20 knot average of earlier. for now our trip as we knew it is over. At 2222 on the 24th of Feb I was jolted forward on the chart table seat whilst discussing weather with our router Meeno Schrader. Jolts forward happen quite often in these boats as we fire down waves – but this was different, this was a gut wrenching ear piercing crunching and snapping sound. I dropped the phone and hurled myself towards the companionway – looking round my feet as i went to check water coming onboard from anywhere – nothing. As I reached the hatch all became clear in a flash of nausea…the 39.5 metre mast which has powered us ahead of the record over the past 24 days was no longer.

We shall most likely never know the cause of our dismasting, and in some cases you just have to accept them for what they are.

It would be very wrong to say that this trip has not been a massive challenge so far, but equally nothing, at any stage in this trip as brought tears to my eyes. and the tears in my eyes right now come with frustration and anger as I grit my teeth together – not through struggling with other issues, but with the anger that i feel right now at having let so many people down. So much work has gone into this project- so much energy and commitment, each fitting sealed – each lashing tied – and here we were cutting parts of it over the side. it’s so destructive, so final and so over…

So sitting here i feel empty and sad, above all so relieved that no-one bar our boat was hurt, as that would have been the winner in any one 2 one. But at the same time I feel proud; i feel proud of the strength of the crew – proud of their commitment and humour, proud of their smiles and proud of the way that they have handled their frustration too. The strange thing is that suddenly, although we are all disappointed we have shifted our focus on getting ourselves moving, and to what looks like Australia as soon as we can.

I glance down at my notebook to jot down something to remember – seeing the pages and pages of notes preparing things for this trip. All of a sudden our challenge feels like it was days away, as if it’s almost a distant memory. Just three hours ago I was having stitches put in my hand after cutting it open, then an hour ago me cutting through rigging as if there was no tomorrow – and now even that seems irrelevant… no longer are we living each day for our distance run, checking the lines are leading correctly and, or thinking about every aspect of boat speed. It’s over – our Jules Verne is over.

it’s a funny feeling sitting out here thinking about all that has happened, and wondering what might have been.. But then the ‘what if’s’ will always exist in life. They will never disappear, but you can choose to ignore them…what’s done is done – and however you want to look at it – you learn from it, we have learnt from it. We must just get up and on to the next challenge…