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Places | Dismasting

Jocara dismasted!

Dismasting report by Casper

We recently left Gan, Maldives, on our journey to Phuket on our Sailboat Jocara. Our last big passage. The weather was very rainy and windy with lots of squalls (small storms). All of us were not feeling to well because the motion wasn’t too great. Mum and Dad weren’t getting a lot of sleep because they had to be up half the night watching the squalls.

A sailboat is very different from a motor boat because it has a mast and sails. Fine tuning these sails to the wind angle takes some skill. A sailboat also has lots of things which ordinary motorboats don’t have like rigging to hold the mast up, a different kind of hull, lots of lines and ropes all doing their individual things. Sailing boats have names for all these things too. Like the side riggings are called the shrouds. The rigging for behind is called the backstay. We have three sails, two of them go in front of the boat and we can furl them up in a roll around a aluminum pole, these two sails at the front also act as the front rigging. The mast is a long vertical aluminum pole which often has a set of spreaders (small sticks sticking out the side of the mast) and a boom (a horizontal pole, not so long as the mast, it acts as the holder of the bottom of the main sail which sits just behind the mast). The hull is different because it has a keel. A keel has thick narrow layer of lead which stops the boat capsizing (turning up-side down). The hull is different too, it is slick and is shaped a little like a wine glass when you look at the cross-section. A sailboat has lots of different sections: the galley (kitchen), cockpit (the place where you operate the boat), heads (toilet), cabin (room) and, as we call it, NAV –station (the place where the computer is and some equipment). Sailboats rely very much on trade winds (winds that come from a certain direction every year for a certain period of time) because they can’t just sail in every which way they want. The sails are very large sheets of fabric which capture the wind and funnels it in such a way that it acquires forward motion. If there is too much wind it pushes the boat over and if there is so much wind it blows the boat over until she is on her beam ends (so that the mast touches the water) it’s called a knockdown, but it has to be quite a lot of wind to do that. Sailboats also rely very much on their sails because they can’t carry enough fuel to drive all the way. Being without sails in the middle of nowhere is like being doomed except if you are within motoring range of somewhere. Now you know a bit more about what is what on a boat I can tell the story…

As I was saying earlier we just left Gan and the weather wasn’t too good. We were just sailing along and after dinner I went to get some sleep while my Mum and Dad were taking care of the boat in turns. They usually do this, I think, by waking each other up when a squall comes. Then if the wind gets too high they reef (take a bit of the sail in/down) the sails a little. I was fast asleep, probably dreaming about the day that we arrive in Phuket and our appointment with my grandparents. Suddenly I heard the most tremendous startling…BANG!!!….CRASH!!! and then from my dad: SHIT!!! Apparently we had run into an angry squall which came so suddenly that we just leaned and SNAP! There goes our mast! I woke up, jumped out of my bed, put on my trousers and rushed out of my cabin like a spear nervously wondering what the hell had happened. When I got into the cockpit my Mum and Dad were madly rushing about getting harnesses. I couldn’t see what was going on because it was still dark. My Dad went outside with a harness clipped on to the lifelines to take a look (lines that run from the bow to the stern to prevent you from being swept away when you fall overboard). When he came back he told us (by this time Alex had got himself into the cockpit too) that the mast had just torn out of the deck and ripped the port (left) side shrouds out with it when the sudden gust of wind came.Also, the apparent cause was that the backstay had broken and so the rest of the mast and rigging was unbalanced, so it fell over. My Dad asked Alex to get the flare box so that he could let ships which could be nearby know we had problems. The flares were mostly old, but the one my Dad set off still worked. The flare, when my Dad pulled the ring, just shot out of his hand into the sky, the whole thing. It looked very alien like when it was burning away in the sky. By now it was already getting lighter because this happened just before dawn. I got out there with a harness to help my Dad try and rescue some things before they got totally wrecked. I now saw that the mast had fallen on the starboard (right) side, and the base was rubbing against the side of the boat in a very furious way.

Everything on the starboard side of the boat was either bent or crushed or torn. There were tiny bits of glass everywhere because one of the windows got smashed when the mast came down. The railing was bent so badly that I could hardly recognize it, a few jerry cans which were on that side were crushed a little and lying on their side slowly spilling their contents over the deck which we would be struggling on. My Dad asked me to get some tools, so I went back into the cockpit and went inside to get the tools he asked for. When I got back outside I gave him the tools. I think he was trying to get the boom detached from the mast. It was a scary sight; my Dad trying to lean over and fiddle with a bolt while the whole thing was moving up and down like a giant knife as we roll.

I was also asked to save the jerrys from the disaster side and take them round to the other side. All this moving about was a great struggle because of the glass mixed with the diesel like a sharp slippery soup which had been spilled on the deck. I was also feeling a bit sick because of the diesel fumes, diesel is practically the worst smelling fuel I have ever smelled. After I tied the jerrys up I went back into the cockpit and found that Mum had made some bread with Nutella for us to eat because it was very tiring work and we were getting hungry.

A lot more time seemed to go by when doing things because it was ten times more difficult to do things than on land. By now the sun had got up and work became easier. My Mum and Dad and I, my brother was doing stuff inside, went outside again to sort some ropes out and secure things. I didn’t really know which line secured what or how Mum and Dad really did it because I was tidying up ropes so we could use them to secure and fasten things. After a long time we had some things sorted out but there was still a huge mess, the inner forestay (the inner front sail-pole which you furl the sail around) was still bent and heaving upwards as we rolled one way and then jammed tight on the already bent railing so quickly and so violently that whenever I stumbled past there I looked at it nervously. The mast was now banging against the hull and making very nasty marks. My Dad told me once that if a boat looses its mast it can end up in sinking the boat because the mast just bangs holes into the hull. This also made me very nervous. After a bit more sorting the mast and the sails were dangling on the other side of the boat deep down where the tangle of trashed stuff couldn’t harm us. At this time my father had separated the boom from the mast and we were now busy heaving it up onto the deck. The boom was still attached by the main sheet (the rope which controls what angle the sail is at). Finally all three of us heaving together, managed to get it on the intact side of the deck. We then had a little break whilst I made coffee and some more bread with Nutella. During this break we were discussing the options for the future. It appeared that we didn’t have enough fuel to motor back to Gan. But if we used the boom as a mast and construct a new set of rigging, we could hoist up one of our old sails and try to sail the miles that we were short. After the break we set out to recover some more stuff.

We were now trying to get the Genoa (the big fore-sail) back since this was probably the only thing still attached to the mast. This was so because all the ropes which attached all sorts of things to the boat got chafed in half on the ruff edges. It all was such a big mess that when we were together heaving in the torn Genoa we found it wrapped up and shredded and bits of string hanging off it tangled in other things. We heaved yet one more pull, secured it with a rope and looked over the side. We could see something vaguely in the distance and it didn’t look to hopeful. My Dad found a piece of lazy-jack string (the sets of string which makes sure the main sail piles down on top of the boom when you take it down) tangled in the sail and pulled on it to see if there was something was on the other end. There was, and it was probably the mast. So he let go of it so not to yank or do anything else with it. Later when we had heaved a little more of the sail in with tremendous effort we saw that same piece of string fly through the water into the depths… Shit! Said John. We miserably looked at it sink away and knew that that was the last we would see of the old mast

There was no time to dwell on the fact that our mast was now sinking to the bottom of the sea, so we took in the rest of the sail and spread it out alongside the railing. It was now time to wash off the glass and save all the loose bits worth saving. I took a brush and leaned inside the broken window to sweep up the glass feeling more cheerful than I expected to be. While Alex and I were freeing the deck from glass my Dad started to rig an antenna so that we could get news out to everybody. This antenna consisted of pieces of trashed rigging, a wooden pole, some wire and a piece of string. It looked kind of odd seeing this long creation wobbling back and forth as the boat rolled. Surprisingly the antenna worked fine, even better than the original one. After the e-mail was out we relaxed a little and I think had lunch. As we were having lunch we talked about the options we had. There were a few basic things that were in the way of getting to land. First, we had only enough fuel to motor 60 miles short of Gan. Second, if we were to drift here for too long we would drift too far south. Third, we had no mast to have sails on. In the end we decided that we would make jury-rig mast from the boom we had recovered. The new mast would be about 7 meters high. And on the bow, stern, port and starboard there would be a rope attached to a block and tackle (something you pass a rope through several times to get a 4 to 1 purchase when you pull). And then we would use one of our old sails. The problem was also that when we actually arrived in Gan, where would we get a new mast from? The solution to that was to fill up with diesel and go to Male (the capital of the Maldives) and do something there. My father estimated that a new mast would cost $40.000 dollars not including the sails and the rigging and everything else that got trashed. We would be bankrupt if we did that! But first, lets get the jury-rig up.

The following day we were all busy doing what was necessary to get the job done. My brother was helping my Dad take the measurements. I was preparing the ropes and the block and tackle. Afterwards my Dad was building a plate that the new mast would sit on. The idea was that the plate would have a hinge so that we could heave the mast (boom) up. My mom was cooking, a hard job when the boat is rolling a lot. It was a hot sunny day, much better than a rainy windy day. We had to remove one of the remaining shroud holders off the starboard side and move it to the port side since all the port side ones had all been ripped out. My dad and my brother had finished building the plate and were now epoxying it to the deck. We also saw two Dorados swimming under our boat, fish get attracted to drifting objects for shelter and so bigger fish come too. The Dorados had amazing colors; yellow blue and turquoise. Absolutely amazing to see such pelagic fish just swimming under the boat. At the end of the day we had most of the rigging ready and we decided to heave the mast up the next day since it was already getting dark. I slept on the coach-roof (the roof of the cockpit, the top most deck) that night. It was Ok with my Mum and Dad because we weren’t under way, just drifting.

In the morning we set out to do the rest of the work. A few more ropes and some halyards (ropes which you heave sails and flags up with). Now we had to lift the boom and heave it on the deck which is slightly higher than the side deck, secure the base to the plate, have it hinge on the edge of the coach-roof pointing backwards, and then lift. It wasn’t too easy putting the new mast in place. Because you have to adjust the rigging as you go. We attached the front rigging to the new mast as the heave-up rope. The shrouds needed adjusting as we heaved and the back needed paying out. Then everything was ready, and we were all at our stations. I was on the coach-roof pushing it up so that my Dad could heave it the rest of the way, my brother and my Mum were each controlling one side-rig. Once my Dad could heave by himself, I went to the back. It all went smoothly, a sigh of relief. When the mast was vertical we found that the back rigging was to long and the mast would fall forwards and break the plate if we didn’t adjust it very soon. I was holding the rope tight as I could while my Mum and Dad came to take over so that I could take up slack and retie the knot. Everything turned out well. The new mast was up! Hurray!

Now we needed a sail. My Dad found a spare sail and we tried all sorts of things, backwards, sideways, the other sideways. We finally found something that worked. The foot (the bottom) of the sail was the front and the part that is supposed to be attached to a furler (place where you roll the sail up on) was slanting downwards to the place where we tied the sheet too. It needed a bit of adjusting of course. The sail flew outside all the rigging. It worked quite well for a jury-rig. We manage 3 knots at one point (5.5 km/h). For the first day or so the wind was favorable, but after that the wind angle changed and all we could do was sail north or south instead of west where we wanted to go.

A lot of days went by and we were steadily drifting east. By now we got 13 messages from coastguards and navy’s and all that asking where we were and stuff. So many things going on, and it was a little too complicated to understand who did what. After a while we understood that we would be rendezvousing with an American navy vessel. But that got cancelled somehow. There was also something about Australian vessels and Chinese fishing boats who got alerted. We came across one of these Chinese vessels but they were totally not interested in us, we tried calling them on VHF (Very High Frequency radio) but they didn’t reply, we waved jerry-cans. Nothing worked.

Until one night we came across a vessel who shone a light at us, we called them on VHF and they replied immediately got our name right which is very unusual. They must have been alerted, as we later found out. They had been alerted 4 to 5 hours before by the UK Coastguard and were proceeding to our latest position. We arranged to put our dinghy (little boat that we have hanging off the stern) in the water and motor over to them to get some diesel so that we could motor to Gan. The ship was a tanker, it looked absolutely humongous to us.

My Dad, my brother and I went to the tanker while my Mum was looking after the boat. When we got there they put down a ladder so that we could get up. It was a scary sight seeing this humongous hull going up and down by a meter or two as she rolled. Alex and I climbed the long ladder to the deck. There were a bunch of people waiting for us. They were apparently Indonesians. They offered us water while they loaded down five 25 liter jerrys down with a rope. We tried to pay them some US dollars but they said that there was no need for that. They were all very curious and friendly.

The movement of the tanker is very different from our boat, very long slow rolling. I almost fell over when I first got there. My Dad went back in the dinghy to offload the fuel while we stayed on board because there was no room. He came back and we said thank you and good bye and told them that we were very grateful. We got back and finished our dinner and motored off to Gan.

After 2 days of motoring we finally reached Gan on a sunny day, went through the same pass and anchored. We were now finally safely at land. And now all the real work can start.


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