Sometimes life takes a turn you don’t expect and I certainly didn’t expect to be writing this to you from a hotel room in Punta Arenas.
Part of me can still hardly believe what has happened. If there was one thing I was sure of before leaving it was that the mast was really well rigged and would stand up to some severe weather. I had huge confidence in it and it was one of the things I never worried about because it had so many bits of wire holding it up. We did have bad weather at the time of the breakage but it hadn’t come to the point where I was seriously worried for the mast.
I had added extra rigging before the 2006 trip. There were seventeen bits of wire, none of them undersized, holding the mast up, far more than you would ever normally see on a 31’ boat.
The weather had been really bad, F9 gusting F10 at times, with big 5 – 6 metre seas. The forecast was for winds up to 43kts but almost every forecast we’d had for this area has underestimated the wind. I didn’t have an anemometer onboard, and it’s very easy to overestimate the strength of the wind, but from what I’ve seen of gales in Shetland it looked and felt like a F9 – 10. But by the time the mast went the worst had passed and it was no more than F8 although the seas were still big.
We had been hit twelve hours before, on the Friday night, by a massive wave, which threw us over. The worst one yet. It’s possible the shock load from that maybe weakened the mast as well.
It was so brutal that at first I was sure a ship had rammed into us. If you had been in a car you would have thought a truck had slammed into you.
On the Saturday morning I was either sleeping or dozing when the wave hit us. We were lying starboard side on to the seas. On the inboard side of my bunk was a heavy piece of canvas, a lee cloth, which was normally tied vertically to stop me from rolling out of the bunk. But I could also rig it so that it could be tied across me and act like a whole body seat belt. Because of the weather I had been strapped in like this for the best part of three days.
The first thing I knew was that we were thrown over on our side with a huge crash. The lee cloth held me in and in my dozed state I raced to think what was happening. It took a moment for Elsi to settle back upright and for me to try and unscramble what had happened. I checked the clock. It was 0540, the first of the daylight had appeared. I breathed out deeply thankful we were ok. I thought another six hours and this wind should be easing.
Then I heard a horrible creaking sound coming from on deck somewhere. I didn’t know what it was but I knew I had to go up and check it out. I pulled on oilskins and looked out the door. The boom was lying down on the aft guardrail. My first thought was that the topping lift, which held up the boom, had gone. But the sail should still have stayed up even if the topping lift had gone.
Then I turned and looked forward. And there was no mast, well there was but what was left of it was lying in a mangled heap over the port bow. I could not believe it; I simply could not believe it.
The mast was so strongly rigged I thought it would stand up to nearly anything.
When I was pulling on oilskins it never occurred to me we’d been dismasted. There was no indication down below that anything like this had happened but then it had all happened so quickly. I had always imagined if it happened there would a lot more noise on deck, banging and crashing of broken spars but there was only this horrible grating, creaking sound.
I’d been through this scenario in my mind many times before, what if…what if the tiller broke, what if the steering oar on the Aires snapped off, what if we were dismasted…? So I knew what I had to do. The first thing was to get the mast clear of the hull before it punched a hole in the side or pulled us dangerously over. I had to get all the rigging loosened off so that the mast would slide over the side. If we got rolled just now would we ever get the right way up again?
I dived below for the toolbox. It was strapped down to the floor on the starboard side near the forepeak. Only it wasn’t where it should have been. With the force of the wave it had broken loose from it’s strap and I could see it had put a dent in the deckhead on the other side. We must have been knocked through 90°. I got out a hacksaw and a pair of pliers.
Where the mast had folded it was now a right angle instead of a long straight aluminnium tube. It had folded about halfway between the deck and the first set of spreaders – the “arms” that stick out from the side of the mast.
It was lying over the port guardrail at the bow with most of the mast in the water and about a metre out from the hull so it wasn’t crashing into us much at all. The horrible creaking noise was the broken aluminnium grating together.
We had been turned round, probably by the drag of the mast in the water and so the mast was now on our windward side. This was just as well because if it were over the lee side it would make us far more vulnerable to getting knocked over again. This way it was acting as extra weight keeping us upright.
There were seventeen wires to let go. The starboard shrouds, the ones now running across the deck, were taking almost all the weight. I began by cutting the HF antenna with the hacksaw and then pulled out the pins that joined the rigging screws to the backstays and slipped them loose. I still didn’t know what had caused the mast to go and thought it might have been one of the rigging wires. So, before letting go any of the rigging I pulled the wires to see if any were completely slack. None were, as it turned out. All the rigging had held ok.
As I came forward I could see it was going to be easier to keep the boom on deck if I could and I was still thinking at this stage of maybe rigging a jury rig so the more bits and pieces I could keep the better.
But the mainsail was still up and had three reefs in it when the mast went and the head of the sail, where the halyard shackle was, was over the side. I couldn’t get to it. So, I had to slice off the top of the mainsail with a knife and slide all the luff slides from the track to free it.
The Trysail was still in its own separate track on the mast as well and that had to come off.
I had a job getting the boom separated from the mast because all the bits that needed to be undone, pins and shackles, were on the lower side of the boom near to the deck and it was difficult to get tools in to work on it.
It was still blowing between 30 to 40kts and the seas were still around 5 metres, confused and breaking, so it wasn’t a very stable platform to work on. I suppose it was cold and wet and I got soaked with spray, but I never felt it. Sometimes I guess you are just too focused on other things to notice. But it certainly wasn’t what I had envisaged doing first thing in the morning.
Because Elsi was getting thrown a lot around the rigging still holding the mast was continually under shock loads. It would be bar tight and then slacken only to be slammed tight again. As I worked I had to be careful which side of a wire I was on. What’s going to happen when I loosen this? I didn’t want to get caught up in anything that was going to drag me over the side and it was all such a tangle that I had to be calm and deliberate and check through things first before doing anything.
Before I took the boom off I could see the end of the mast was going to lift up and be a potential problem when the weight came off so I lashed it down first.
I got the boom separated from the mast and lashed it down and began slackening the shrouds on the port side. As I worked I could see that where the starboard lower shrouds joined the mast the rigging was still attached but the piece of mast behind them had been ripped nearly off. I got all the port side shrouds free and got all the pins out from the three forestays as well. Three forestays and six wires each side of the mast well spread out…..I thought that would hold in almost any conditions.
The lashing I had put on the foot of the mast was taking some of the strain off the rigging at times and was helping me a bit. Because these last few had more load on them I had to be extra careful when slipping them off. When Elsi rolled to windward there was enough slack to let me get a pin pulled part way. It would jam when the strain came on as we rolled back and then I would get a bit more again next time.
I managed to get them all off so now all the rigging was loosened. There was only the lashing on the mast foot and I slipped that off carefully next. The mast ran forward and one of the mast cleats hooked itself over the gunwhale. I was wondering what to do when it parted with a crack and the mast disappeared over the side. I stood and looked at the empty space for a while, the broken guardrail, the buckled stanchions, the scraped and bashed deck, still not really believing what had happened.
I took what was left of the mainsail off the boom and threw it below. Then I went below and sat down.
I had to call Alyson to tell her what had happened. It was now about 1230 UK time, which I knew was a bad time because she was just due to go out to run a Saturday afternoon group and wouldn’t be back till after 5pm. I tried the house phone anyhow, several times, nothing. I tried her mobile the same way, nothing. As it happened she was out having to deal with one of our sheep, which had died overnight before she went in to work.
I called my sister Marilyn. She knew where Alyson was working and set off to tell her.
In different scenarios I had imagined rigging a jury mast, maybe using the spinnaker pole and setting a sail on that. But in these conditions it would be impossible. Even if I did get a mast rigged what hope would it have of standing if my bulletproof mast had collapsed? This was the wrong place to try it.
There was no VHF as the VHF antenna had been on the mast and I didn’t have a spare. So I couldn’t call to see if there were any ships in the area. We couldn’t just sit here and drift. There was no engine so we couldn’t motor anywhere. There weren’t really many options. I took the only sensible option and called Falmouth Coastguard on the satphone. They are the UK’s International Coastguard and I had their number. They took all the details and passed them on to the Chilean Coastguard, the military run Armada. In time I spoke to Comandante Montez in Punta Arenas and he was my link with the Chilean side of the operation. We arranged a contact schedule.
It was decided a helicopter would come out the following day to try and take me off.
And that’s what they did. The next day the wind was down to about 20 –25 kts and the sea was a lot easier. The helicopter came over us at around 1000 and dropped a man onto the deck.
The Chilean navy team that came out in the helicopter were excellent and did a very professional job. It all went without any problems and in no time at all I was being pulled up into the air, into the chopper and we were on our way to dry land.
Because it was a long way out we stopped at a small island, Felix, to refuel on the way back to Punta Arenas. Our route back took us down the length of the Magellan Straits.
It came as a total shock to me when we landed that there was a reception committee and media circus waiting. I was honored to be met by Admiral Correa, Maritime Governor Imhoff and the British Consul John Rees. At least it gave me a chance to thank the helicopter team publicly for a professional job that was really well done. The Chilean hospitality has been wonderful and I have been treated more like an honoured guest rather than a stupid yachtsman who has caused a lot of grief and work for those onshore. John Rees, the British Consul, has been very helpful as well going over and above the line of duty to help out.
In the hours and days that followed Alyson was bombarded by the media for information and comment and she did an amazing job considering all the worry and lack of sleep she had had in the past week.
What caused the mast to break? In the end all the rigging held. When I was slipping off the rigging, to clear the mast, I pulled on each piece to check if there were any loose ends but they were all still attached.
I’m not exactly sure what happened but I think it was one of two things. Either the mast just buckled under extreme pressure, the wave that hit us on the Friday night was very bad, the worst I’ve ever experienced, and it may have weakened the mast a bit.
Or: I’d noticed that the section of mast where the lower shrouds met the first set of spreaders had ripped off a section of mast under the load. Maybe that had gone first and that was enough to weaken the mast below that point. Maybe some experienced rigger can assess it better and we will have more idea in time to come.
Now I am trying to see what chance there is of rescuing Elsi although I don’t feel the same confidence I felt in 2006. This is a far more dangerous coastline with powerful onshore winds. It really is a remote part of the world with few harbours and safe havens. From Punta Arenas it is about 125 nm just to get to the southwest coast.
I would like to say a huge and heartfelt thank you to everyone who has sent in messages and condolences and have supported the trip all the way through. All your messages have helped me greatly and have given me a real boost. I’m sorry it had to end this way. At the end of the day it is the risk we take when we do crazy things like this. At least I am safe and I owe the Chilean Armada a huge thank you for that.
The family have been hugely supportive all the way through and that has meant a great deal to me as well. I’ll keep you posted on developments as they happen.