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Dismasted in the Coral Sea

Dismasted in the Coral Sea

© David Kerr 2001-2004



We hope you are never dismasted. We found it an exciting learning experience and hope that telling the tale will give you some ideas on how to prepare for and handle a dismasting.

Our planned passage

We were at the end of a cruise up the East Coast of Australia, to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. It was time to return home and we had planned on a long passage directly from Gizo (in the Solomons) to Coffs Harbour- a distance of 1,350NM on a course of 185degT. We had a contingency plan for Bundaberg should the weather or wind direction become unfavourable. There were three of us on board, my wife Penny, our youngest child William (15) and myself. We had filled up with diesel fuel in Gizo. The diesel was a little suspect, quite waxy and we had filtered out quantities of rust and other debris before putting it in the tank. Later, we worried a little more about the quality of that diesel fuel!

We retained the services of the well-known weather forecaster, Roger Badham. Roger looked at the weather specific to our route a few days before our planned departure and was to give daily email updates as we progressed. We had weather faxes. However, they were very general for the Solomons and had not proved very accurate over the preceding months. When we set out on a Saturday morning in early September 2002, it looked as if we might encounter some nasty weather 11 days hence, but decided that the decisions on what to do could wait at least a week into the passage (which we expected to last 10-14 days).

Solomon Islands to Coffs Harbour

About an hour after we sailed out of Gizo Harbour, the wind was down to less than five knots and from all points of the compass. It looked as if there was a small local low pressure system to the South of us, so we motored for about 11 hours until we exited the other side and then experienced 18-25Kt South Easterly Trade Winds. We sailed for the next five days in gradually strengthening winds from the South to the South East. The strong Westerly set of up to two knots kept us hard on the wind the whole time and slowed our progress to 115NM per day. Finally, the wind freed just as Roger predicted it would. He advised us to make as much East as we could because we were going to be headed later.

Sure enough, the wind strengthened to 30-35kts and swung back to the South so our 24hrs of respite from being close hauled was over. The seas were steep and moderately rough (about 3+3 metres) and we were looking forward to the improvement we knew would come in about a day when wind, swell and waves were more in harmony. Until then, we put up with the big "crash" as we fell off backless waves every 10-20 minutes. We cut back to 60% genoa and trysail-reefed mainsail. We had experimented with different speeds and angles to avoid the thumping, but close hauled worked best and also gave us about 6.5kts boat speed.

"Mast's gone!"

It was just before midday on Friday. It was also the end of Penny's watch. William and I were snoozing in our cabins. Suddenly, as we came off one of the waves, there was a tremendous "CRASH", followed by tinkling sounds and Penny's calm voice calling "Mast's gone!" She also blew our emergency whistle to ensure we were awake. I doubt anyone could have slept through the noise of the mast coming down, followed by the wallowing motion as we lay ahull.

The damage

Will and I were up and into the cockpit very quickly and it was not a pretty sight. Fortunately, Penny had been sitting to windward, so the mast missed her as it fell across the aft starboard quarter, having hit the wind turbine and tower. She said that it was so quick that she doubted she could have taken any evasive action when it came down. The stemhead fitting had broken, then the keel stepped mast bent about 60cm above the deck and fell across the life raft (which was behind the mast) and a Lewmar hatch. The mast was broken at the spreaders with the top half mainly submerged. The furler and genoa were also submerged. There were shrouds, sheets, halyards and sails everywhere.

Surprisingly, we were all very calm and worked well together. The first priority was to check the integrity of the hull and deck. These were both okay (apart from scratches) and the life raft canister and Lewmar hatch had also survived. There was a fair bit of "collateral damage" to a winch, the safety rails and some other fittings, but nothing worrying. I was very impressed by the strength of the hatch, which took much of the force of the mast hitting it. We had several bent stanchions and pushpit. However, our three lifelines withstood the force of the impact.

Tidying up

Penny has quite a bad back, so she looked after fetching, winching and tidying up while William and I did the heavy labour. It was very hard work and quite exhausting to try and get sails and mast back on board. Anyone who has tried to get large submerged objects onto a boat that is rolling badly will know what I mean. Every now and then, a larger wave would roll over the boat saturating us (and providing a welcome cooling effect). We brought up our large bolt cutters, beak-type cable cutters, hacksaw, hatchet and other tools. We needed all of them.

We started with the mast as we did not want the top section puncturing the hull. The halyards and VHF cable ensured that the middle of the mast was not going very far. We used the winches and the sturdy wind turbine tower as a derrick and were able to secure the bottom section of the mast to the toe rail. We cut some of the shrouds. Then came the hardest part, which was pulling the top of the mast to the bow so that we could secure it alongside. This took at least a couple of hours and it was often a case of "one metre in, two metres out". The genoa was a bit of a mess, having spent some time under the hull and was becoming more damaged as we heaved and hoisted the furler on board. Working on deck was quite difficult as our full length jackstays were buried under sails, ropes and boom/mast. We often clipped onto the lifelines- not a practice we would use while moving, but okay for this sort of work.

Finally we had the top of the mast lashed alongside and things tidied up enough to contemplate our next step, which was to let someone know what had happened. We had cut off the backstay at the mast (leaning far overboard to achieve this was not simple!) We had an emergency HF antenna wire but did not use it; we simply tied the backstay to the wind turbine (using rope as an insulator and support), then to the top of the boat hook, which we lashed to the mast stump. We tied the far end near the pulpit. Then, the big test! We hit the Selcall button for Penta Comstat and 30 seconds later, Jeanine was coming through from 1,500Km away, loud and clear, saying" Hi Pastime, how can we help you?" We advised our situation and asked Jeanine to notify our other children that we were okay but were going to be a bit late getting home. Jeanine and Derek also contacted Roger Badham who increased his communications to about four a day and passed them through Penta Comstat by voice until we felt organised enough to get back onto email. It was wonderful knowing that Roger was keeping such a watchful and professional eye on the weather. We set up the emergency VHF antenna in case we had to talk to ships. The mast had taken out the port and starboard navigation lights, so we set up our emergency rechargeable lights.

What to do next?

We were 400NM (about 750Km) East of Cape Upstart (near Bowen, Qld) and 700NM from Gizo. We decided to motor to Frederick Reef where our trusty Lucas said it was possible to anchor. Frederick was about 90NM away and directly into the wind and seas. The boat's motion was appalling, with no mast and sails to provide stability. It was impossible to sit in the cockpit, so we stayed up the next 24hrs, taking it in turns to pop up through the companionway hatch and check for shipping every five to ten minutes. We needed the storm board in and hatch closed as we were swept by a wave every ten minutes or so. These were not worrying waves, just wetting ones which usually waited until one's body was mostly above the companion way!

Frederick Reef

Progress was slow, even at full revs, due to the 35Kt wind and the rough seas. We were chewing through diesel much faster than normal and we were hoping that the fuel we picked up in Gizo was not going to cause problems. It is rather unsettling to know that one is down to the last means of propulsion which had better keep going! We set the Autohelm on "go to waypoint" mode so that we did not have to worry about our course. We regularly checked the chart. It was with some relief that we finally dropped anchor behind Frederick Reef, a little more than seven days after departing Gizo. Frederick Reef is an interesting place, with the coral barely making it above the water. Holding was excellent in sand. However, it was extremely uncomfortable at anything other than a low tide. William's school books would leap off the table and it is the only anchorage where we have ever needed the stove gimballed.

During the previous 24hrs, we had plenty of time to think, talk and plan. We had decided to head for Bundaberg or Gladstone (each approximately 250NM away). Roger was keeping us informed about the wind which, unfortunately, was South Westerly (our desired track) for about a week. We decided that we did not want to go backwards (eg to Cairns) unless it was unavoidable. So, our decision meant sailing to windward to get to a mainland port with Customs and repair facilities.

Constructing the Jury Mast

We spent the first day sawing the mast into two pieces and cutting the mast stump. We also extracted the genoa and mainsail relatively intact, though it was sometimes tempting to consider cutting the sails. The original mast was 17.5 metres long and the top piece was about 8.5 metres- just right for a jury mast. We tidied away all the shrouds, cables, halyards, sheets etc. so that it was finally possible to move around the deck properly. On the second day, we flared in the bottom of the new mast and flared out the mast stump. We did this by cutting slots lengthwise in each mast section and then hitting them with hammers and the hatchet. Our main question was "How do we erect the mast?"

Raising the jury mast

On the third day, we measured the stump and mast to make sure they would fit snugly together and built a hinge (using 6.5mm bolts through holes in the mast and stump) so that the mast could be raised without coming out of the stump. Gee, I never thought those nice vernier calipers would be useful creating a jury rig! We had plenty of Spectra rope with more than four tonnes breaking strain and we used this for forestay and to tension the shortened upper shrouds. Finally, we were ready. William and I positioned the mast facing forward and attached to the pulpit. It was very heavy and we almost lost it overboard due to the rocking and rolling. William used some clever scouting knots to secure the spinnaker pole vertically (the boom proved too heavy for us to manipulate). We used our Man Overboard block and tackle, attached to the top of the spinnaker pole, to gradually lift the mast. William and Penny each manned a sheet winch with the makeshift shrouds running to the top of the mast. They kept the mast aligned fore and aft while I carefully raised it. When we reached a critical point, the angles were such that they could hold the mast on the winches while I disconnected the makeshift crane and with a tug removed Will's clever knots on the mast, which were beyond my reach. The hinge at the stump ensured that the mast was not pulled backwards out of the stump.

Then, Penny and Will slowly raised the mast while I eased off the forestay (which was attached to our substantial bow rollers). When the mast was vertical, I nervously cut the hinge and we were delighted when the mast firmly wedged itself into the mast stump. I then drilled plenty of holes through the mast and stump and put in a lot of large rivets and added the gooseneck. The power drill and big rivetter were indispensable. To add a margin of safety, we wrapped 5mm steel cable around the join, with Spectra around that. It certainly felt solid. We then attached more Spectra shrouds to the chain plates and using winches and blocks, tightened them to an estimated tension of two tonnes each. We shortened the backstay between the insulators and used cable clamps and our swaging tools to good effect. We had a mast and it looked good! We fitted our storm jib to the forestay (after Penny fashioned rope hanks). We put the Storm trysail on the mast and boom.

Getting to the mainland

We were ready to leave, but decided on a good night's sleep first. Roger told us about the nasty weather that was coming but promised it would not be too bad for us. It was very severe to the South and was the weather that impacted the Excalibur. We were back on email and Roger Badham was fantastic, with very frequent updates, literally every few hours. The Coastwatch aircraft picked us up a few hours from Frederick Reef. They were the first ship or ‘plane that we had seen since Gizo and we chatted on the VHF. Our pace was slow as we were continuously tacking and the tidal currents were quite strong, helping for a while and then hindering. If we hit four knots, we got quite excited. The current and wind direction were pushing us too far from Bundaberg, so we changed the destination to Gladstone. It took us almost four days and 320NM of sailing to make Gladstone. The predicted front hit us but as Roger had predicted, it was nothing like as bad as further South. VMR Gladstone was great, once we were close enough to talk on the radio (we used email before that). They kindly organised a fishing boat to sell us 30 litres of diesel in a rendevous at Fitzroy Reef. Quarantine was very insistent that neither boat was to touch the other and that there was to be no human contact. We had done some motoring from Frederick when the winds died and had been shepherding fuel carefully because we were using it faster than normal. It also took us a full five hours of hard motoring against the ebb tide to get into Gladstone Marina at 0130, 14 days after leaving Gizo. We had logged 1,108NM (GPS and log) and were feeling pleased to have got ourselves and the boat safely to Australia.

The jury rig actually looked so much like a proper mast that several people in the marina did not notice it. This was just as well, because we still had plenty of visitors coming over in the evenings to look and talk; they had heard of our plight on the radio.

A new mast

In some ways, organising a new mast was tougher than building the jury rig. Club Marine, our insurer, was excellent to deal with and Allyachtspars from Brisbane did a good job on the replacement- nearly all the organising was done by fax and email. Trying to figure out exact dimensions was a bit of a nightmare as we no longer had all the pieces of our rig and no plans. If you do not have detailed rig measurements for your boat, I strongly advise getting them while you have a rig, just in case you need them one day. It would have saved us a lot of time and effort. Even boats out of the same mould tend to have subtle differences, so do not rely on the fact that someone else has plans for the same class of boat. The total cost of the repairs was almost $30,000 of which we paid about 45%. In part this was due to the $10,000 offshore excess on the policy. We were so pleased that we had insurance!


Poor penetration on a butt weld failed

What failed? The stemhead fitting had a butt weld with very poor penetration, on the underside of the deck plate and within the fibreglass decking (so it was invisible from the chain locker). When the weld failed, all the force was on the six deck bolts, which finally ripped a chunk out of the deck. The thumping down some of those backless waves was the final straw. We had also had three knockdowns in a violent 40hr gale between PNG and the Solomon Islands and this undoubtedly had stressed everything. The new stemhead fitting has no butt welds and will not break unless we rip the whole bow off. In design, it is very similar to the one described by Don Gilchrist in "Geared for Disaster" (CH January 2003).


Roger Badham was fantastic and provided detailed forecasting right until we were in Gladstone Harbour. Then, he would not accept any payment saying "you need it for your new mast". What a guy! See the box for Roger's contact details if you need private and specific weather routing. It does not cost much compared to the quality and usefulness of what Roger provides, to say nothing of the improved peace of mind with a dedicated professional helping out.


Good preparation was the key to success

In summary, because we were well prepared, we were able to put together a good solution for the challenges that we faced. A downwind jury rig is usually the easiest to fabricate, but you CAN go to windward with a bit more effort. We had all the essential tools and I would urgeanyone venturing offshore to do the same. Make sure your cable cutters, rivetter, swagers, saws etc. are truly up to the job. Can you really cut that shroud or forestay when you are leaning at full stretch over the side with your son or partner holding your ankles? Make sure

there is a detailed plan for the rig in case you need a new one made. If we had lost the rig in the Solomon Islands or PNG, everything would have been much more challenging. Perhaps we would have made a wooden mast? With a rig plan, if we had been dismasted in a remote location, we could have confidently had a rig made and shipped in. Make sure you have sails that will fit a jury rig. In retrospect, our replacement mast was strong enough to have taken our mainsail set on the trysail reef. The boat would have sailed far better upwind than it did with the trysail- still, we did not want to tempt fate and risk losing the jury mast. Yes, we had rig and boat survey inspections before leaving, but the only way we could have known about the stem fitting would have been by completely removing it while otherwise supporting the mast. Next time I have a boat re-rigged, all the chain plate and similar fittings are coming right out of the boat for inspection, no matter how good they look.


Finally, sit to windward more often than you sit to leeward!



Last changed: 9th May 2004

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