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A kink in the boom

Jan 1, 2003

I had promised my daughter a vacation in New Zealand as a reward for taking care of all the domestic problems back at home while I was away voyaging aboard Fiona, my Westsail 42. I chose New Zealand because of glowing reports from friends who had previously cruised there. And, to be honest, I had always wanted to see the place since the authorities showed the rare discernment to turn down my application for an emigrant visa back in the 1950s.

Obviously, the only way to meet all these constraints was to leave Fiji, our present base, and make a winter transit of the Tasman Sea to the North Island and then, about a month later, a cruise heading northwest across the Tasman and Coral seas to the coast of Queensland. The weather on the North Island in August did not seem too bad, a lunchtime high of 60° F was typical for Auckland, which lies at nearly 37° S. This would make a pleasant change after months in the tropics, and my daughter promised not to complain.

A winter passage avoids the cyclone season, of course, but the infamous storm that sank several yachts occurred as late as early June 1994, between Fiji and New Zealand. The chance of cyclones in August is virtually zero. The weather near New Zealand at that time of the year is largely influenced by a series of lows that usually lies toward the south end of the country; they are often connected by fronts to high pressure cells lying near the Australian Bight. These systems move east, but the speed with which they move out of the area is very variable; sometimes the lows stall for days. The clockwise rotation around the lows usually results in winds with a westerly component between New Zealand and Fiji. Our departure point from Fiji was Suva, lying at 18°09' S and 178°26' E. Our destination was Opua in the Bay of Islands, the most northerly port of entry for New Zealand, at 35° 18' S and 174° 08' E. Thus the distance was a little more than 1,000 nm and the course about 191°T. The weather situation on the July 30 looked fairly benign, and we obtained our clearance from the port officials in the morning. Several yachtsmen on the floating pontoons at the Royal Suva Yacht Club, on hearing of our destination, expressed mild incredulity at our naiveté in heading south. But they rallied to help us; one Kiwi skipper gave me an edition of the New Zealand Almanac, which contains a good deal of local safety information, with the rather forceful comment that he wasn't going to need it again this year. Another Kiwi gave me a copy of the chart for Opua harbor, with the remark it may be usefulif we ever got there! We were hard aground at our pontoon slip at 1400, but by 1500 the boat was showing signs of buoyancy, and we were able to slide through the mud toward the pass in the reef. The wind was northeasterly, 15 kts, and we weathered Cape Washington on Kandava Island at 0215 hrs on the 31st.

Once clear of land we were able to set a direct course for New Zealand. At 1000 we were bowling along nicely with an easterly to northeasterly wind at 12 kts. The weather slowly deteriorated during the day. Low gray clouds obscured the sky and the wind picked up. By 1715 we had reefed the main and jib and at 2000 we tied another reef in the main. A rather chilly drizzle set insurprising as we were only 200 miles or so south of Suva. By 0200 on August 1 the wind was veering to northwesterly with gusts up to 30 kts in rain.

Deceptive gybes

At 1100 the electronic display of speed, distance, and depth conked out. The log entry at 1400 reads, "another dreary day." We were about 740 nm from the entrance to the Bay of Islands in New Zealand's North Island. This was when I came on watch. The boat was on a dead run with the reefed jib boomed out to port and a reefed main. In order to keep the boom down we had a vang strap rigged about halfway along the boom attached to a four-part tackle. There was a preventer line run through a snatch block on the bow platform that was fastened to the aft end of boom.

Shortly after I came on watch the boat gybed. It was not a violent gybe; the boom swung across the deck until the preventer tightened when the boom was roughly midships. I disconnected the Aries steering vane, put the boat on course, and re-engaged the vane. The wind was dropping, but there was still an adequate flow over the stern to keep the vane happy. I was debating with myself about the possibility of shaking out a reef when the boat gybed again. Like the other one it was not particularly violent, but I hated stressing the gear. After I got things under control and re-engaged the steering vane, I left the center cockpit and walked to the stern to watch the vane in actionperhaps it had developed a problem.

This casual decision probably saved me from serious injury: 30 seconds after reaching the stern I felt a sudden change in wind direction and a sharp increase in wind speed. The boom gybed violently, and to my amazement the boom and mainsail crashed into the cockpit, exactly where I had been standing a moment before. My mind grappled furiously with the unbelievable sight. After all, the topping lift, the sail itself, and the boom gallows mounted above the aft cabin all prevented the heavy boom from coming low enough to crash into the cockpit. The answer slowly dawned: the gybe had caused the boom to bend sharply at the vang strap. This foreshortening brought the end of the boom forward of the gallows; also, the topping lift and sail no longer supported the boom. The jib was thrashing wildly as Fiona swung off course, but I could not reach the wheel with all the wreckage in cockpit.

I yelled for the crew to hit the deck. When they pushed the hatch back they had to squeeze past the boom. We moved it to the side and dropped the mainsail, and I steered the boat back on course. The violent flogging had started a tear in the jib, but I ignored that for the moment and got the sail pulling again. At this point it was possible to see just what had happened: the swing of the boom had been checked by the vang, not the preventer, and the boom had folded neatly around the vang strap.

We began to tidy up the mess by pulling the pin out of the gooseneck to free the boom and by disconnecting the main sheet. Using brute force we took some of the bend out the boom so it could be stored on the starboard deck. In this it helped that one of the crew, Walter Van Vleck, is six feet, seven inches tall and built like a defensive tackle. At this point I remembered I had scheduled a radio call with the Pacific Maritime ham net at 1700 local time. When they came up I explained the situation and discussed repair facilities in northern New Zealand. The hams stayed in touch for the rest of the trip.

Pressing onward

I debated the situation with the crew. Although we were more than 700 nm from New Zealand, I felt the chance of repairing or replacing the boom was much better there than in Fiji, which lay nearly 300 nm on our stern. However, the weather returning to Fiji promised to be much better than what lay ahead in the stormy Tasman Sea. I regarded the damage to the boom as more of an inconvenience than a threat to the safety of the boat. Compared to losing the mast or the headstay, both of which I had experienced, our situation seemed fairly good, and thus I opted to push on. To replace our damaged main, we bent on our loose-footed storm mainsail. At the clew we rigged two four-part tackles, one attached to each stern mooring cleat. This arrangement gave good control of the mainsail shape provided the wind was forward of the beam. Just as we got the sail up the wind died, at about 2200. We powered for a few hours, but by 0200 on August 2 the wind piped up to 25 kts from the southwest; we had obviously sailed into a new weather system, as it was noticeably colder. The boat sailed well during the night, and in the morning we got the mainsail off the shattered boom by cutting the foot slides free. We then lashed the boom to the stanchions.

By now the boat was going like a trainmore or less on course. By 1100 on August 3 we were 500 nm from the Bay of Islands. At times on the 4th the wind flagged, and we powered for several hours. I did not want to spend any more time at sea than was necessary. Fortunately, the wind returned, and we were sailing nicely by 2000 on the 4th. In fact, by 0400 on the 5th we reefed the jib. It was not easy to reef the storm mainsail, but as it had a smaller area than the working main this did not prove necessary.

On the 6th we had very variable winds: light winds followed by 30 minutes of gale-force winds that forced us to furl the jib. The weather forecast predicted the imminent arrival of a cold front, and we experienced squalls up to 35 kts. The wind veered to the south, heading us, and early in the morning of the August 7 we went onto port tack in order to regain the rhumb line to the entrance of the Bay of Islands. Once inside the bay we powered into a direct headwind for a couple of hours before tying up to the customs pontoon at Opua at 0800; seven days and 17 hours out of Suva.

Repairs were very quickly effected in Opua, which lies in a major yachting area. The boom was deemed beyond repair, but we were able to buy a secondhand boom of the right length and have the reefing gear transferred to it from the old boom. The spar company made a gooseneck adapter that incorporated a swivel. The local sailmaker repaired the jib and mainsail and modified the latter to use flat battens that are much more durable than round ones for ocean voyaging.

We discussed the accident and debated how to prevent a recurrence. We now run the preventer through a snatch block at the bowsprit and onto the drum of the anchor winch. When the boom is in position we bowse the preventer really tight with the winch. Since this incident I have also developed a predilection for tacking downwind instead of a dead run, especially in gusty weather. Within a week we sailed to Auckland, arriving two days before my daughter flew in. We left Auckland on August 28th after a very pleasant stay, including a few days' touring in a rental car. We spent a night in Port Fitzroy at Great Barrier Island and then sailed north to the Bay of Islands to await a suitable weather window for the voyage to the northeast Australia.


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