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Running backstay saves mast off Bermuda

Mar 23, 2009

To the editor: Our Bob Perry-designed Lafitte 44, Tevai, was three days out of Hampton, Va., bound for Tortola. We had enjoyed an uneventful Gulf Stream crossing and the crew was into the rhythm of shipboard life. We were about 290 nm WNW of Bermuda. The last log entry before I came on watch at 0330 read: “one reef main, staysail; Good sailing 8-9 knots of boat speed — dodging storms, missed the last.” Conditions had been squally with a force 6 wind increasing to force 7 in squalls.

At 0330, the western sky showed wide spread lightning and the seas were near 10 feet. The radar confirmed a band of squalls across the entire 36-mile scan of the screen. I was not especially concerned. Tevai is built to go to sea and we were flying a conservative sail plan which was perfect for the conditions. As always, the windward running backstay was rigged while the staysail was deployed. The boom brake was also engaged.

The squall hit with a little more wind than expected, but never much more than 40 knots. When the back stay let go, it made a surprisingly soft sound. I had often looked at the stays that support the mast and wondered what I would do if one let go. It was time to find out.

In our pre-departure meeting I showed the crew a handheld air horn lashed near the pedestal and explained that if the helmsperson needed all hands on deck, the horn was to be sounded continuously until everyone had mustered out. For the first time in my sailing career, I blew the horn.

Our crew consisted of my wife Pattie, Ken Alt from Chicago and Chris Gonda from Cleveland. Everyone had years of sailing experience and no one was a stranger to being offshore. Ken and I had sailed together to Bermuda through three days of storm conditions.

When the crew was on deck I tried to determine what exactly had happened. The backstay was sagging, but still not physically out of my reach. In Hampton I had installed a new hydraulic backstay adjuster. At first, I thought that the three-day-old backstay adjuster had failed.

As part of the installation, an eye-jaw toggle with a 5/8-inch pin was necessary to connect the adjuster with the backstay tang. Tevai’s bag of spare parts contained at least four such toggles but they were old and previously-used Merriman forged toggles. They were not pretty and shiny. I decided that our offshore voyage deserved a new shiny fitting, so I had one shipped in from a nationally known supplier. It came in a plastic bag which did not identify the manufacturer. After installation, I had a professional rigger check and tune the rig. We were ready to go — or so I thought.

The crew quickly responded to the horn. Since Pattie had been doing most of our communications and knew the radios better than anyone, I asked her to reach the U.S. Coast Guard, announce our position and problem but to specifically not declare a mayday. We were lucky. She was able to contact the Coast Guard and do exactly that — before the the antenna wire disconnected from the insulator.

Radar had shown other vessels nearby and I asked her to also make a sécurité call on VHF and to attempt to set up a communication schedule with any nearby vessel. We were again fortunate and were able to contact two vessels on VHF and set up a com schedule with Kikuyu, the nearest one.

On deck, the situation was tense. When the SSB antenna wire let go, the backstay and the 15-pound hydraulic backstay adjuster took off like an uncoiling snake. Both missed my head, but did take out a wind generator blade. The out of balance wind generator added its own special whine and wail to the existing cacophony of the gale winds and thunder claps.

I asked Ken and Chris to furl the staysail. I then started the engine and headed up as much as possible to drop the already reefed main. With the boom centered, we were able to rig the second running back stay. Next we brought two main halyards back to strong points aft on the turning block bases port and starboard. The mast was secure. By this time the squall was abating, but the backstay with the hydraulic cylinder was failing wildly and creating a very real risk of serious personal injury. Chris was the one who bravely snagged it and got it under control. We then tied a line to it and loosely secured it in place to its tang. It was at that time we first saw what really broke. The cast eye-jaw toggle had broken at the pin.

The 42-inch long hydraulic adjuster was ruined. The piston shaft was scored, the gauge broken. It obviously was not going to work again. We were now left with a backstay that ended 42 inches from its tang. By this time it was 0530. The boat was stable, the mast would stay up. It was time to make coffee and slow our collective pulse rates.

In Hampton, the crew and I reviewed Tevai’s extensive inventory of spare parts and the index book showing location of each part. Frankly, I should have done a better job of that task. While drinking coffee there were a few glum comments about the trip being ruined, and diverting to Bermuda for repairs. I said that at dawn we would install the spare 42-inch turnbuckle. There were chuckles at what they assumed was my joke, but the laughter stopped when the forward hanging locker produced the part and they realized that the extended turnbuckle was actually on board.

In making offshore preparations, I had anticipated that the mode of failure for the hydraulic unit might be a leak at some time during our planned two-year cruise. As a result, Tevai carried an extended rod turnbuckle fabricated to the correct length so that the hydraulic unit could be removed for repair. My boat yard thought that it was extravagant to carry such an expensive spare. From our position that morning, the “extravagance” became a necessity.

We used both runners and the main halyards to bend the mast back so that we could connect the backstay and the extended turnbuckle. By 0700 we raised the main and where under sail with a reefed main and genoa. Since the SSB antenna wire was still not attached, we asked Kikuyu to contact the Coast Guard and report our repaired status. Even with all these problems, our noon to noon run for that day was 165 nm.

We completed the voyage in nine days and 22 hours (average speed approximately 6.4 knots). There was no further standing rigging failure. We blew out the asymmetrical spinnaker after three glorious days of downwind sailing, but it was old, tired and a perfect way to retire a sail.

What we did right:

1. We had experienced offshore crew.

2. We had the runner up and had a conservative sail plan set.

3. The horn was in the cockpit to summon all hands on deck.

4. The emergency horn/muster procedure had been reviewed before departure.

5. Everyone stayed calm and performed their job.

6. We had the correct spare part.

What we did wrong:

1. I assumed that a new part from a big name retailer was a good part and did not investigate how it was made.

2. While I reviewed spare parts with the crew and provided the index of parts location, I did not show them this important component or specifically call it to their attention. Had I been hurt and unable to help, it is uncertain if the crew would expect this type of spare to be on board.

—Tim Bittel holds a USCG 100-ton Masters License with sailing endorsement. He and his wife Pattie have sailed their Lafitte 44, Tevai on four of the Great Lakes, offshore to the Caribbean and are currently in the Grenadines.

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