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When things go wrong

Jan 1, 2003

Two summers ago I set off on a trans-Atlantic passage from the U.S. East Coast to the beautiful Azores. It was a trip that I had been looking forward to for some time. The boat was a well-appointed 44-foot voyaging sloop with all the comforts of home. It was in stark contrast to my previous few trans-Atlantic crossings on my own boat, a stripped-out Open 50 race boat. My boat doesn't even have an engine, let alone refrigeration, so I was looking forward to cold cocktails in the evening and trying out some of the new electronics and satellite communications gear recently installed.

As we motored down Narragansett Bay in early June, the varnish reflected the last of rays of daylight, and the engine purred silently in its well-insulated compartment. I felt the thrill that comes from anticipating another adventure. What I did not know at the time was just how much of an adventure I was about to experience.

There were many things that went wrong on the passage. Some of them due to bad luck and circumstance and some due to the heavy weather we encountered along the way. There are many ways to skin a cat, as they say, and this is how my sailing partner and I tackled our problems.

We had barely cleared Nantucket Sound when the wind swung into the east and started to blow. I took a few turns on the rollerfurler to reef the headsail and pushed the button to tuck away some of the mainsail into the mast cavity. Reefed down, the boat settled into a rhythm and so did the crew, all two of us. The expansive deck that I had eyed for sunbathing was now awash with cold, foaming water, and the varnished teak had lost its luster as the salt crystals solidified on the once shiny surface. Suddenly there was a loud crash from the foredeck and the boat heeled over dramatically, the leeward scuppers well-buried and water pouring into the cockpit and down the companionway. The furling line on the rollerfurler had broken, and the sail had unrolled itself.

What had been a working jib-size sail was now a full-size genoa thrashing about the foredeck, threatening to wipe anything in its path off the deck. With the extra sail and exaggerated heel, the boat strained, heading into the wind and fighting against the autopilot until the off-course alarm blared its warning. My first instinct was to rush forward and drop the sail, but I feared that it would end up in the water and under the boat. My crewmate, and the boat's owner, was new to offshore sailing and plainly concerned, since the thrashing of the headsail was threatening to rip the rig out of the boat, and the high-pitched wail of the alarm added to the confusion. He looked in my direction for help.

The first thing I did was disengage the autopilot and ease the main sheet. This immediately reduced the weather helm, allowing me to bear away until the boat came upright and we were running downwind. With the wind behind us, the apparent wind dropped significantly and the headsail no longer threatened to dismember anyone who came close. It was still too risky to drop the sail. Instead I tailed the sheet to take the flogging out of it and then wound the sail in as tight as I could. The leech of the sail was beyond the spreaders, which poked ominously at the Dacron, but if the spreader patches did their job we would be fine. Meanwhile I grabbed the nearest straight length of metal I could find, in this case the pump handle for the hydraulic backstay adjuster, and ventured forward. I stayed to windward to avoid the genoa sheets and ducked under the foot of the sail until I reached the bow.

A sorry piece of furling line hung from the furling unit, the other end dangling in the water, trailing behind the boat. There was no way a new line could be installed until the sail was furled, and so I set about furling it. If the length of metal is long enough, it is not difficult to furl the sail manually. I thrust the pump handle through the ring on the tack of the headsail and started to wind it in. On another occasion when this happened (on a different boat), there was not enough room on the bow, and the handle kept hitting the pulpit. All I needed to do was use two handles and exchange them when one bumped up against the pulpit.

As with all crisis situations, especially those that happen when the wind is really howling, communication was key. My crewmate and I worked out a system of hand signals. In order to furl the genoa from the bow, I needed the sheet eased just enough to allow me to furl the sail away while not having to work against the sheet tension. Once the sail was rolled away completely, I lashed the handle to the pulpit and went aft to get the spare furling line. I took a few extra turns on the sail for good measure, because my roll-up job was not as tight as it should have been, and then attached the new line. This was to make sure that when the sail was unfurled there would be sufficient line on the drum to refurl it.

ºWith that disaster averted we swung the boat around and set a new course for Horta. The real lesson was that we should have, on principal, changed the furling lines before setting off. They often bake in the sun and are rarely changed, even though the entire torque load of the reefed sail is taken up by the furling line. Lesson number two was coming up with a system of hand signals before the crisis occurred and not while it was happening.Losing engine power

A day later we were still hard on the wind lurching from wave crest to bottomless trough. Without the back end of the mainsail (it was an in-mast furling mainsail without battens), the boat did not sail to windward very well, and I had wanted to steer a course that would keep us above the Bermuda High. To compensate for the lack of performance, we kept the engine in gear and running to keep us on a direct course. The problem was that the boat had been sitting in a marina for years and a thick sludge had developed in the fuel tanks. ThisGwas not a problem in the marina, but the violent motion caused by the eadwinds had disturbed the sludge, and it was clogging up the filters.

To cut a long story short, we ended up losing all the power on the boat, both the main engine and generator. Suddenly our comforts of home were going to be thin. Everything on the boat relied on battery power, from the solenoid on the stove to the refrigeration unit, and within days all the food had gone bad and had to be discarded. We bypassed the safety solenoid for the stove and used matches to light it. Without the GPS, we used the sextant onboard to shoot and plot sun lines. The dinghy air pump was turned into a crude foot pump for pumping water, and we took turns hand steering. Then the mainsheet block exploded.

Blocks breaking or sheets slipping off winches and suddenly coming loose occurs often in heavy weather. Ordinarily this might not have been such a big deal. However, with the power gone on the boat, I could no longer push the furling button and stow the sail. To add to the problem, the hand-crank mechanism supplied with the mast was grossly inadequate.

This time, instead of bearing off, I wanted to keep the boom close to the centerline. Being careful to avoid the flogging mainsheet, I tossed a line over the boom, retrieving it on the other side and fastening it to the toe rail. Luckily the mainsail was loose-footed, so passing the line over the boom was not a problem. I then tossed it over the boom again, forming a wrap around the boom, and led the tail of the line to a block on the opposite rail, through a fairlead and back to a winch. Soon the mainsail was under control, and I could remove the mainsheet and change out the exploded block. This held fine, and everything went back to normal until the tack ring pulled out of the headsail. Handling the headsail

If I had a sandwich for every time this has happened to me, I would have enough for a banquet. In this case there was a luff tape on the sail and recovering from the broken tack ring was relatively simple. Once again, I bore off to reduce the load on the sail and then, without much problem, furled it away. Because of the luff tape, it only bunched up in the foil and did not hamper furling the sail. Later in the trip, when the wind had died, I dropped the headsail and hand-sewed a piece of webbing at the tack, which worked just fine. If there had been hanks on the sail, it would have been much more difficult to get it under control. A few years ago I was delivering a Swan that had hanks on the headsail, and the tack pulled out of the sail. That particular sail was a high-cut Yankee, and because the wind was blowing hard, the entire sail rose up the forestay well beyond my reach. Letting the halyard go did not help. Gravity was no match for the strength of the wind's updraft.

I got the sail under control by rigging up a system similar to the one for getting the main under control. I tied a long line off at the bow, made my way aft, looped it over the genoa sheet (which I had taken up as best I could) and then led it to another block, also at the bow. The tail was then led aft to a winch, and by slowly easing the sheet and taking up on the snare, I was able to get the sail under control and lower it to the deck. You need to be careful that you do not wind the sheet on too hard to try and control the sail. When there is halyard tension on the luff of the sail, it distributes the load evenly between hanks. When the tack lets go, there is suddenly a lot of point-loading at each hank, and grinding the sheet in could rip the sail at each point-loaded area.

As we plowed steadily on toward the Azores, I studied the pilot charts and rechecked our position. It seemed as if we were on the wrong ocean. The pilot charts showed a 5-percent likelihood of easterlies for June, and we were into day six of easterly wind without letup. The well-appointed sloop was damp below and sodden on deck as our "silent" passage continued. I made regular forays to the foredeck to check the furling units and look out for chafe. I had just made it back to the cockpit when another loud bang rang out from up forward. This time the gooseneck had broken and the boom had become separated from the mast.Gooseneck failure a first

I will admit that in more than 200,000 miles of offshore sailing, having the gooseneck come adrift was a first for me. Luckily, it was not as much of a problem as you would think. The mainsail flogging had the boom acting as a battering ram as the gooseneck crunched into the mast. My first concern was to stop the banging, and so I immediately lowered the sail to the deck, snugging up the mainsheet to keep the sail under control and then lashed it to the lifelines.

The gooseneck had broken cleanly across the aluminum, and the screws had pulled out of the mast. Without any power onboard, there was no way to drill new holes or weld the pieces back together. This time I mixed up an epoxy glue and had a lashing system ready to secure the gooseneck. I sanded and cleaned the mast and backside of the gooseneck, cleaned it with alcohol and then added the epoxy and bonded it to the mast. The lashing that I had was crude but effective. I needed to keep the gooseneck in place while the epoxy set and then leave the lashing in place to add strength to the jury-rig. I wrapped a light spectra line around the top of the gooseneck and another around the bottom with the wraps going in opposite directions around the mast. This way they would pull against each other and keep the gooseneck centered on the mast. To each of the spectra lines, I attached regular lines, led them to blocks mounted on the bow and then back aft through a rope clutch to a winch. I needed to have the blocks as far forward as possible so that the lines pulled forward, perpendicular to the mast and not down.

Once the gooseneck was in place, my crewmate and I each took a side and slowly and evenly tensioned the lines. Each line was wrapped around the mast a couple of times, and as we took up on them, they tightened around the mast and held the gooseneck securely in place. I had epoxied new screws into the old holes and they were there to stop the gooseneck from torquing as the load came on it and sliding up the mast when the halyard tension came back on the sail. The round of the mast also helped to keep the gooseneck in line. As soon as the epoxy dried, I reset the main and left the lines in the rope clutches, freeing up the winches. The jury-rig held all the way to the Azores. Even the lines led to the bow were useful as the relentless easterlies continued to blow, and the lines provided a secure handhold on the foredeck.Winch breakdown

By the time we were halfway to Horta, we were used to life at an angle and well into the rhythm of two hours on and two off. Since my shipmate did not know any better, he assumed we were having a great trip, and I did not have the heart to tell him that the passage should have been a nice downwind ride across the Atlantic with the wind at our backs. Somewhere around day eight, the starboard winch stopped working. This is not unusual, especially when the winches have not been serviced for a long time. Murphy's Law states that if there is going to be a problem with the winches, it's bound to happen when there is a gale blowing. In this case, one of the palls had split in two, and we did not have a spare. Obviously we could not break the winch down until the wind dropped, and so we needed to run a jury-rig.

With plenty of spare line and snap shackles onboard, I made up a few short lengths with either a block or snap shackle on the ends. Using these short snag lines, I was able to divert all the lines to the one working winch. I led the leeward sheet around the cockpit and past the steering station to the windward side. I reeled the furling lines down the side of the boat to the good winch and used rolling hitches to secure them so that the winch could be freed up for other uses. The snag lines really proved to be useful for many other applications on the boat, including changing genoa lead positions and serving as a temporary out-haul on the mainsail after the out-haul line snapped.Getting desperate

The morning of day 10 broke just the same as the previous nine. But as the day wore on, the persistent easterly started to fade until the ocean was glassy calm with barely a zephyr. Our food situation was getting desperate, and while we were grateful for the level deck, Horta still seemed like a lifetime away. I did not know it then, but with a lot of creativity, it might have been possible to use the flywheel on the main engine to start it. We had already tried pulling the emergency starter cord, but the space was too confined, and we could not get enough leverage. Because of the dire angle of heel and constant banging around when sailing in heavy weather, generators often get testy. If your batteries are fine, then bleeding the fuel lines and restarting the generator is not a problem. In our case, however, we did not have enough charge to start the generator. Here is how we might have dealt with the problem, had I thought of it.

Michel Desjoyeaux in the 2000/2001 Vendée Globe solo non-stop race around the world had experienced similar problems. He very cleverly rigged up a system of pulleys with a line attached to the flywheel, and the other end to his boom. In a carefully orchestrated maneuver, he gybed the boat and let the momentum of the boom swinging across the deck yank the starter line until the engine spluttered to life. It would probably have been more complicated for us with a complete teak interior, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and by anyone's measure, we were getting desperate. Broken spreader

As the sun sank slowly into the sea behind us, I noticed the hard edge of a ship approaching and hailed the captain using the battery-operated VHF. It was the first ship we had seen since losing power. What happened next is an article for another issue, but I convinced the captain to stop his ship and lend us a jump-start. It was a Chinese freighter, and somewhere between my Chinese (non-existent) and his English (barely existent), we got the engine started. It involved the ship coming alongside (not my idea, but you need to know the whole story). In doing so, the starboard spreader hooked onto the side of the ship and broke off. The ship left, and with renewed energy (and an engine and food) we set off to cover the last 600 miles to Horta. The spreader was broken at the inboard attachment point, forward side. The aft end was fine, and the spreader hinged uselessly on a stainless rod. Without it we would be fine on a port tack. However, there was no guarantee that we could make the Azores without tacking, so once again, I worked up a jury-rig.

In line with the spreaders was the top of the inner forestay, and I used it to secure a short length of wood, about 3 feet long, to the mast. The piece of wood stuck out perpendicular to the mast and was held fore and aft by a line dead-ended at the radar bracket below the wood strut, wrapped around the end of the strut and then attached to the mast 6 feet above the strut. This held the wooden lever arm in place, and through a notched end layered with elk hide (which happened to be onboard), I ran a second line, this time athwartships. I attached one end to the outboard end of the good spreader and the other to the outboard end of the damaged spreader. Then, using a Spanish windlass, I tensioned the line. The wood strut forced the line forward, creating an angle wide enough to provide sufficient leverage to hold the damaged spreader in place. It, too, held all the way to the Azores.

By the time we reached Horta, after one of my slowest crossings, it was a relief to tie up at the dock and head for Peter's Café Sport, a well-known watering hole frequented by transient sailors.

We had experienced a series of problems on the trip. With some experience, some common sense and a few handy tools, we had been able to deal with all the problems thrown our way. While few voyages are as ill-starred as this one, the self-reliant voyager will often find him or herself in situations where an effective jury-rig can save the day.

Brian Hancock is a freelance writer, a sailor, sailmaker and the author of Spindrift, published by Great Circle Press,