Losing your mast is one of the worst things that can happen during an ocean crossing – bluewater veteran Susan Glenny explains what to do after a dismasting

During the 2017 Rolex Fastnet Race, my yacht Olympias Tigress, a Beneteau First 40, lost her rig through a simple split pin failure.

We were 40 miles offshore at the time, with a trained but inexperienced charter crew on board. It was blowing a Force 6 and the middle the night. The following are some of the lessons we learned from the incident.

Just before midnight I went down below after my watch, having just come off the helm. I heard shouting from on deck and the first mate calling: “Sue, get on deck now – the shroud’s gone!”

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Olympia’s Tigress setting off in the 2017 Rolex Fastnet Race, before the rig failure. Photo: Carlo Borlenghi

I rushed to get my lifejacket back on and pulled myself up the companionway. Looking out I could see that the V1 rod from the port side of the rig had detached completely at the first spreader. The rod was still attached at the deck chainplate but was arched over and dragging in the water. I turned to the helmsperson and shouted: “Whatever you do, don’t tack.”

We were upwind on starboard tack beating into a moderate to rough seaway, and if you were looking at the rig fully loaded from the starboard side you could have been fooled into thinking all was well.

But this was just the start – it would be ten hours before yacht and crew made it safely to land. For myself and four other crew, who’d just spent a full four hours on watch on deck, this was to be particularly exhausting.

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My first plan was to try to keep the yacht stable under sail as we were closer towards land – and potential rescue – on the starboard tack. I called Falmouth Coastguard from our satellite phone and explained that we had a major rig failure; they contacted the Irish Coast Guard on our behalf. They also advised us to have our EPRIB on deck.

From midnight until around 0130 we sailed on starboard tack to get closer to land, but progressively got knocked and were no longer laying the Irish coast.

We managed to sail about 15 miles further inshore before, as predicted, the wind began to back. Soon we were no longer laying even the Fastnet Rock.

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Safe after a lifeboat tow back to port, but Olympia’s Tigress had lost her mast above the first set of spreaders

At this point, around 0200, and two hours after we first noticed the issue with the shroud, I decided we needed to down sails and be prepared for whatever was going to happen to us next.

At first we tried to stabilise the rig using halyards as we motored towards Kinsale, but it quickly became apparent how completely unstable the whole rig was.

The flexibility of the aluminium mast was quite terrifying and in the rolling seaway the top of the mast was swaying up to 3-4m from the centreline. This caused ricocheting of the stabilising halyards from the deck and the noise was deafening, like a huge recoiling spring.

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The Class 40 Phor-ty lost her rig during the same race – these aerial shots reveal the dangerous tangle of lines, rigging, sail and mast across the deck and cockpit. Photo: Carlo Borlenghi

I was extremely concerned about having anyone on deck because it was apparent that the rig was eventually going to come down.

Having no windward force on the rig, as you would do when sailing, meant the rig’s movement and which way it would fall was also totally unpredictable.

Thunderbolt crack

I sent all the crew below and slowed the boat speed to 3 knots. We were in contact with the Irish Coast Guard by satellite phone and limited VHF.

The Courtmacsherry lifeboat had been mustered in case the broken spar holed the boat.

At 0420 the yacht rolled violently to port in a big wave and, as we rolled back to starboard, the mast cracked with a sound like a thunderbolt.

It fractured cleanly at the first spreader level and fell to the starboard side, taking out all of the guard wires and damaging the deck.

The standing rigging on the port side was already compromised but the rig remained attached by the starboard V1 rod, the forestay rod and the backstay, which was Dyneema.

What followed was an extremely stressful 25 minutes of cutting the rig away, trying various methods, because you never knew what was going to work until it did.

The crew worked in groups on different parts of the rig, and we had the liferaft prepared to deploy in case the spar ruptured the hull.

The second mate had climbed what remained of the rig to cut the wires from the mast. What I remember most clearly is that absolutely everyone on board was waiting for instruction on what to do next.

The hardest part was the determination required to sever the highly loaded and arched rod rigging. The V1, with the rest of the rig, was moving up and down with the seaway and it felt like a miracle when we managed to saw it off – it was just brute force sawing with a hacksaw that got rid of it.

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A hacksaw should deal with a felled forestay – but be aware that rigging under tension can whiplash unpredictably when cut

Next we removed the forestay by unscrewing the bottle screws and lastly freed the backstay.

Five-hour ordeal

At 0445 the rig sank. There was silence on board; no one said a thing for at least a minute. We were all in total and utter shock after a five-hour ordeal.

I first established if everyone was OK. Our youngest crew member had a metal shard in his eye resulting from the flying sparks of an angle grinder, while my second mate had taken a serious blow in the face as he detached the forestay from its fixing; the rod had ricocheted into his face. So we began tending to the injuries.

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By 0500 the RNLI lifeboat arrived on the scene. They first checked with us that the rig had sunk, and we communicated with them through visual signalling and limited coms on a handheld VHF – the fixed VHF antenna went with the mast.

At this stage we were still 25 miles offshore – we were happy to motor to Kinsale or Cork but the lifeboat crew deemed it better to tow us given our lack of VHF and associated electrics. The stability of the yacht was also severely compromised without the mast.

It took four hours under tow to reach Ireland from 0530-0930. My first mate, Cath, and I alternated the helming watches for this period and allowed the crew to sleep.

I remember it being bitterly cold and us both trying to shield each other in turn from the wind exposure being generated from the fast tow – the cold was possibly exacerbated by the fact we were both tired and utterly burnt out.

Many thanks to my amazing crew that night: Cath, Willy, Felix, Simon, Gina, Matt, Conor, Fiona and Luke. Each and every one of them played a vital role in bringing our vessel back to land.

Many thanks also to Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre at Falmouth, the Irish Coast Guard and the Courtmacsherry lifeboat and crew.

What to do after a rig loss

  1. Communicate the situation as early as possible (in our case we were able to do this before the rig came down) with a Pan Pan call to a coastal radio station. This can either be through satellite phone or VHF radio, but remember as soon as you lose your rig you are also likely to lose your VHF aerial and radio communications. For us having a satellite phone was key.
  2. If you have spars in the water, get your liferaft and grab bags ready to deploy within 15 seconds. Have all the crew in lifejackets and waterproofs if they are not already.
  3. It’s likely that even after failure the rig will still be attached to the vessel via three standing rig points. For example, the port side failed on Olympias Tigress, but the rig was still attached via the forestay, the backstay and the starboard V1 rod. As soon as the rig has broken, split the crew into three teams to work on each area, and make sure you have three sets of whatever cutting gear you are using. You don’t want a jagged mast hanging around in the water next to you any longer than necessary. Nor do you want to successfully cut two points away, only to find the sinking rig dragging your bow down at the forestay (yes, that happened to us).
  4. On a safety checklist you may have to tick a box saying you have tested your rig cutting gear on a piece of material similar to that in your rig. However, you also need to ask yourself whether the cutting gear will work in the same way when the rig, rods or Dyform wires are moving up and down in a rough seaway, all in different sync to the boat’s movement. We’d always thought that having an angle grinder was the answer to cut away all rigging but we discovered we were wrong. With the rig moving it was very difficult to cut a groove in the rod. It also produced sparking and metal files, one of which flew into a crew member’s eye.
  5. Carry multiple pairs of goggles in your rig-cutting bag to prevent eye injury.
  6. Carry multiple cutting methods. We found that with rods the only thing that worked was brute force, cutting a groove with a standard high quality hacksaw, we had replacement blades and three hacksaws so were able to have new blades and saws ready rapidly, so as to have no delays in the cutting.
  7. Before heading to sea, think through any other methods you could use to detach stays and shrouds, for example removing pins or unscrewing bottle screws. It didn’t apply in our case, but I did realise the complexity that would be added by having a furling headsail system. Make sure you are familiar with how to remove a furler from the deck and have the tools on board to do this.
  8. If you have a period of time – as we did – with an unstable mast that has lost its structural integrity, use halyards to triangulate it to strong points on the deck. This might be more effective in a calm sea but for us the pre-break movement in the rig at the top (4-5m of sideways flexing) was scarily powerful. Before the mast broke, the ricocheting of the halyards thanks to the enormous flexing of the rig caused damage to the glassfibre at the deck mountings.
  9. Protect crew wherever possible; if the mast is going to come down there is less risk in having one person on deck than full crew. I stayed on deck alone while we attempted to motor towards Cork. The crew stayed ready below, formulating a plan for cutting the rig and communicating with the coastguard.
  10. When the rig comes down, if you can be sure the prop is free of lines try to manoeuvre the yacht under engine so the rig is down-sea and away from the hull.
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The Hallberg-Rassy 46 Lykke dismasted during the 2017 ARC. Even after the rig had been cut away, the damaged guardrails, stanchions and metalwork create a hazard on deck. Photo: Stephan Mühlhause

Dos and Don’ts

  • Do: Preserve everything you can – boom, lines, sails, blocks, clips etc. Rig loss claims are huge: ours was a £55,000 claim which didn’t include the boom or sails that we’d managed to conserve. Much more and the insurer would have considered writing the boat off.
  • Do: Write an extensive plan of how you would get rid of your rig and talk through this plan in your crew safety briefing. Preassign roles to each person.
  • Don’t: Be reticent in making rescue organisations aware of the situation. If a broken rig spar is going to go through the hull then help being on the way is better earlier than later.
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Can you use rig cutting tools with one hand or will you be unable to hold on? Hydraulic cutters may be easiest.

Rig cutting options

  • Hacksaws and multiple spare blades – highly effective on rod rigging
  • High quality bolt croppers – effective on Dyform, but not effective on rods
  • Hydraulic bolt croppers – effective on Dyform and rods
  • Explosive rod and spar breakers – difficult to obtain in the UK
  • High quality angle grinder – potentially useful for cutting rods and Dyform, but were found to be quickly effective on sails and Dyneema!
  • Sharp, deck mounted safety knives
  • High quality scissors

dismasting-advice-susan-glenny-headshotAbout the author

Susan Glenny is a commercial Ocean Yachtmaster and is school principal of Tigress Sport Sailing. She has skippered four transatlantic races and many offshore and inshore events in the Caribbean, Europe and Mediterranean. She leads Team Tigress and The Sirens Racing.