In Part 2 of our series on bluewater sailing preparation, Vicky Ellis looks at chafe, rig problems and how to keep your crew on side

Rig failures

As for what to do if you get a rig problem at sea, using halyards to steady the rig in place of a broken stay can be effective. Shrouds are trickier beasts to replicate due to their less direct loading. Putting the damaged part of the rig under the lowest load is key, so keep damaged shroud/spreaders on the leeward side.

Reducing and removing sail is essential to reduce rig loads, but remember that halyards and sheets will also be supporting the rig and loading/unloading it, so think quickly but carefully here before dropping sail. The wave motion on the boat will also contribute to the dynamic loading, so heaving to may help.

If it looks like the rig will come down, make sure the deck is clear of unnecessary people and consider what next steps you are likely to need. While the VHF masthead antenna is up consider making a DSC radio call to see if help is out there just over the horizon.


Being prepared for all incidents, including a dismasting, will make it easier to cope if it happens

Once a mast has come down, whether you can salvage any of the rig will depend entirely on the circumstances and conditions. To cut it free, release the lines not under load first. Knocking pins may be easier than sawing through the rod/wire. Running rigging or textile rigging can be unlashed or cut through with a good knife.

If you’re unlucky enough to be dismasted, it may happen at night, after you have come off night watch and are tired, perhaps in bad weather with some crew sick… I’m painting the worst case scenario here, but your crew can be assets if you’ve planned ahead and they know how to use the rig cutting equipment, can keep themselves safe (clipping on as the boat’s motion will be horrible) and have proper eye protection if cutting.

Once the rig has all gone (remember lines may have fouled your keel and propeller) take some time to take stock and regroup. Continuing the voyage is going to be possible because you’ve already taken enough diesel, tins of food and there is plenty of time for you and the crew to make a jury rig (maybe that boat over the horizon can lend you another spinnaker pole). Planning alone will give your crew a sense of mission and purpose, and keep them occupied and upbeat.


The Hallberg-Rassy 46 Lykke dismasted during the 2017 ARC, but the well-prepared crew set a jury rig

Preparing your crew

There’s an old adage that the sailing is the easy part, it’s the crew that can be the bigger challenge. Personally I never sail without company; it makes a voyage for me.

Whether you’re sailing double-handed with a lifelong partner or with a group of new friends, a harmonious crew is a top priority. The topic of building highly functioning teams is my business these days and my two top tips in advance of setting off is to ensure you’ve set the expectations of your crew right, both their expectations of the voyage and your expectations of them. Understand their motivations for going on the voyage with you – their real ones, which are probably not what they tell you first!

I always find it helpful to divide up all the shore and onboard jobs among the crew, not just the watch and domestic rotas but by putting crew in charge of tasks such as rig checks, watermaking or navigation. I’ve found it’s often crewmembers who don’t take a role who withdraw or make trouble. A great onboard role to assign, officially or otherwise, is a social secretary to ensure there’s a healthy supply of halfway parties, games and fun.


Ensure plenty of socialising, parties and entertainment on an ocean crossing

Setting the right culture on board the boat is crucial too. A crewmember who is thinking about safety in the same light as you is an asset. If you came on deck with the crotch straps of your lifejacket accidentally trailing, would your fellow crew notice and, if so, would they tell you? Do talk to them openly about the plans for emergencies, get them hands on with safety kit and practice key drills regularly.

Medical matters

As skipper, you need to take care of the crew and yourself too. It’s vital to know every crewmember’s medical history and what problems it may cause at sea. Crew who become sea sick and are not taking or who run out of medication can lead to serious problems.

A good rapport with your crew before departure will help you to acquire their medical history and current medication. But there are still many reasons why someone may not want to disclose everything. On some trips I’ve asked the crew to fill in an additional medical form, which they seal in an envelope, only to be opened in an emergency at sea.

Preparing your medical knowledge, skills and onboard kit and medicines in advance of the voyage is essential as you may need to be able to treat any type of injury, illness or infection. Reported medical incidents during last year’s ARC transatlantic rally included an open leg fracture, a suspected heart attack, an injured back, a case of tonsillitis and a fractured arm and rib from a gybe.

Short of taking a medic with you, you can acquire the skills needed. Choose something more advanced than the basic first aid courses, preferably a week or even two of training. Some companies offer training, medical supplies and can give onboard medical advice over the sat phone/email, although remember that emergency radio medical advice is also available from the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres.


Photo: Tor Johnson

Rest and resolve

We can’t predict everything that could happen at sea. What you do in the heat of the moment counts but, more importantly, what you do afterwards often defines the outcome. Most disasters arise from a sequence of events. Sometimes things get worse before they get better and the first thing you try as a fix might not work. But failure means you are getting somewhere and it’s good to have your expectations that way around.

Above all, when you’re miles from anyone and anywhere, your resilience is what will get you through and help you find a way. Rest and resilience are proportionally linked. Factor some sleep time when trying to find a solution to a problem.

If your crew are feeling the effects of dealing with the emergency too, make sure you keep them involved, rested and informed so they can be an asset. Without rest and support, people can lose hope and give up. A crew’s mood is to a great degree linked to the skipper’s mood. So if you want to brighten them up, start with yourself. But when we have to find a way, we usually do. That’s what makes an ocean sailor, after all.

Common problems

Guardwires/missing spilt rings: Check each end of the guardwires and lightly silicone tape your split rings/pins, ensuring there is space for moisture to drain out. Interestingly, half of the boats I inspected during safety checks on last year’s ARC rally had a problem or missing ring/pin from the starboard side top guardrail pulpit fitting. Damaged (twisted) wires should be replaced. Check the nuts are done up tightly on the pelican clips on gates.

Gooseneck damage: Watch for split, broken or missing washers, bolts missing and cracked tangs and components. Mouse all shackles on the boom/vang/sheet fittings. Check these on passage as gybes or squalls can put huge strains on gooseneck and vang fittings. A good boom preventer system is your primary defence here. Design one that is as strong as the mainsheet, goes from the boom end forward to the bow and returns to the cockpit for control. Any turning blocks along its path need to be strong enough to carry a gybe load. A boom brake is also an option.

Jackstays: Padeyes should be through-bolted with a plate and designed for purpose. Where shackles rather than lashings are used, ensure that they are moused.

bluewater-sailing-yacht-preparation-bolt-cutters-credit-alamySpares: What should you take with you to make repairs? Short of carrying a spare set of rigging (which, depending on your bluewater plans might not be totally out of the question), consider taking an emergency repair kit consisting of a length of spare rigging wire and lots of bulldog clamps. Splice the wire over the problem area using alternately orientated clamps. Sta-Lok’s swageless repair terminals can also be used to create a new terminal once the swaging and broken strands are cut off.

A good set of spares for wire/rod rig needed for an oceancrossing might include:

  • Split pins, cotter pins of assorted sizes
  • Split ring and clevis pins
  • Seizing wire (better than plastic cable ties)
  • Silicone tape (self-amalgamating)
  • Assorted robust shackles

bluewater-sailing-yacht-preparation-vicky-ellis-bw-headshot-600px-squareAbout the author

Vicky Ellis is a Yachtmaster Instructor, an ARC safety inspector and a former professional sailor who skippered Switzerland in the 2013/4 Clipper Round the World Race. She now speaks on leadership and building high performance teams, and runs ‘Cast off the Lines’, preparing people for bluewater sailing.

First published in the April 2020 edition of Yachting World.

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Rig failures
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