A slight setback

main mast junk dismasted st john'sLast night I limped back into St. John’s harbour with the top half of my main mast strapped to the port deck. What surprised me most about this event is how easily it happened and how rapidly and unexpected I witnessed the mast and sail to come down, without warning, and end up sprawled along the deck and dragging in the water.

In retrospect I have to say I was very lucky to have suffered no injury to myself of the boat. And as far as I can tell, although I have yet to untangle the mess, no serious damage to the running rigging or main sale either. The main mast, however, is a total write off.

Here’s what actually happened: I departed St John’s on 14th August with a strategy to sail SE to keep under the current low pressure system coming down from northern Newfoundland. By the 16th I had made it approx. 200 nautical miles to the SE edge of the Grand Banks but the system moved south far more rapidly than me and I realized that I was to be trapped in possibly a week’s length of strong easterly headwinds. Not having made it off the Grand Banks in time the sea was particularly lumpy and seasickness took hold of me – worse than I have experienced in a previous 23,000 nautical miles of deep sea sailing. On top of that, my new sheet / sheet span system using swivels was not behaving as I planed and the main sheets were becoming frustratingly twisted and operating very poorly.

Taking all those factors into account I made the decision that morning (16th) to return to St. John’s, wait for a better wind system and improve the main sheeting arrangement. I turned around and started to run back under a fresh easterly of a variable 10 to 20 knots. The relief was immediate and I could eat again. The shallow depth of the Grand Banks (100 to 150 feet I believe) make a very lumpy sea and uncomfortable boat motion when sailing into a strong breeze against steep waves. But running with the system was was a charm in comparison.

I sailed approximately170 nautical miles under fully hoisted main and fore sail back the route I had come. Heading directly to the St. John’s port entrance I was running under fully hoisted main only (because when running directly downwind the main causes too much air turbulence for the fore sail to set properly). The breeze was fresh (say between 15 and 20 knots) and progress was good, averaging 6.5 knots, accelerating to 8+ knots surfing down the waves.

main mast junk rig brokenAbout 10 miles east of the port entrance I was standing in the cockpit watching progress when I suddenly heard a large crack. Before I had even time to look up, the top half of the mast including the bundle of mainsail, battens and assorted running rigging was lying on the port deck beside me with the mast top and part of the mainsail dragging in the water. I spent the next 20 minutes getting lines around the mast head and winching them up out of the water. I then hoisted the foresail, which was unaffected by the event, and contained to sail to port.

I arrived back in port at 8:30 pm and tied up to an available floating dock there. A strong easterly makes St. John’s harbour rather unsettled and it was a bumpy night at the dock but we both (me and the boat) managed to make it through the night.

So why did the mast break so suddenly? It wasn’t do to any traumatic event like a knock down or a violent motion in rough seas or a sneaky rogue wave attack. I was sailing downwind with the usual motion of speeding and slowing as the waves overtake me, and the usual fishtail motion as the wind vane steering continuously brings the boat back on course. I felt under no peril or concern and was standing calmly in the cockpit when the mast broke. I guessing that the point of break was a defective weak point in the timber I had been unaware of. It was probably already serious stressed and cracked and the motion of the boat, or a gust wind, was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.

So now what? I need a new mast. That’s beyond a doubt. No amount of crazy glue is going to fix this one.  Newfoundland suffers from poor climate and soil resulting straggly stunted trees unsuitable for a grown mast. I think my best option is to seek a conical steel tube like the ones used in street lighting. As a bonus, there’s no need to install a lightning rod with a steel mast :).

As for the foremast, it seems sound enough – stiffer with straighter grain than the now defunct main mast (which I always had nagging doubts about). I may replace the foremast too but for now I’m not going to worry about it.

What seems evident is that I won’t be sailing back to Europe this season. Fortunately, St. John’s harbour doesn’t freeze over in the winter (so I’m told) and should be able to keep my boat here until I’m ready to roll again. If I’m correct in my initial assessment, I only need a new mast and everything else (main sail, rigging and battens) is in good working order The job is simply to fabricate and install a new mast. Easier said than done, I admit, but once a suitable pole has been sourced the job is largely strait forward.

So should I stay here with the boat or fly home for the winter? If only I had two bodies (or three would be better). To be continued …

One response to “A slight setback

  1. Howard Wilkinson

    Many years ago ladder manufacturers ran into problems with spruce lumber having invisible internal damage and failing. This also effects aircraft builders of course. The wood would fail suddenly and unexpectedly . The problem was traced to wind damage, and as a rule confined to trees that grew on the edge of a stand, as those further in were protected. The solution was to cut strips parallel to the grain and bend test them. If failure occurred in the test strip, the lumber was condemned for aircraft or ladder construction. This is still the accepted practice in aviation.

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