How to (Not) Break a Mast
Thursday, November 21st, 2013. After days of poor wind, the forecast finally calls for winds of above ten knots, with things getting pretty crazy later in the evening. I decide that it is time to skip out early on work and head down to the club. I ask my sailing buddy (and co-2nd vice) Chris Lalau Keraly if he’s up for a sail, to which he replies “Screw science, I'll be there at 3:30!” Chris is good to his word, and right as he arrives at 3:30, a Bahia pulls up to the dock, with gennaker rigged and ready to go. I take over the boat, and after putting our foulies on and picking up an aspiring junior as our third crew member, we’re ready to go!
The wind is coming from the north, so as soon as we get away from the dock, we hoist the gennaker and take off towards the toilet basin on a broad reach. Before getting too close, we jibe and start making a beeline for the southwest corner of the senior dinghy area. The windspeed seems to be varying between 10 and 15 knots, pretty patchy at times, but we get in a good enough run with me at the tiller.
Near the southern boundary of the senior area, we douse the kite and start beating back up towards the Berkeley fishing pier. I let our novice crew member take the helm, and he does an admirable job of harnessing wind and wave to get us back upwind. As soon as we’ve got enough room for another run, he passes off the tiller to Chris. At this point, we are about 100 yards south of the pier, maybe 2 miles to the west of Hs. Lordships.
The wind has picked up a bit, but it is still well under 18 knots, even in the gusts -- flying the kite again with three crew should be no problem. With Chris at the tiller, I hoist the gennaker and then take over the sheets. Just as we’re getting going on our way towards Emeryville, I hear a loud popping sound. A split second after I realize that one of our shrouds is no longer attached, the mast snaps in half towards leeward, right where the lower shrouds attach.
Fortunately, nobody is hurt by the falling mast. We quickly drop the anchor to assess the situation: we are about a mile to the west of the Ashby Shoal, the boat is not sailing anywhere in its present state, and we've got about two hours until sunset. As Chris starts detaching the sails from our mast with the help of our third crew, I try to raise the Cal Sailing dayleader on the radio. Given that we are not so far outside of the junior area, he agrees to come and assist us. By the time the skiff arrives, we've managed to detach sails, shrouds, and boom from the mast, and lay it pointing out over the bow of our boat. Our novice crew climbs into the skiff, we raise anchor, and settle in for a long tow back to the club.
When we make it back to the club, Chris and I are able to find the root of our problem: the port shroud adjuster snapped off at the base, letting the shroud detach from the hull. We clean things up as best as we can for the evening, before returning Saturday to put in four hours of hard work replacing the mast.
Breaking masts is an expensive and dangerous proposition -- what could have been done differently to avoid this accident? I believe the most important lesson to be learned from this experience is that equipment cannot be checked often enough. Since I took over the boat after it had been launched and sailed by another experience skipper, I didn't inspect the boat as thoroughly as I probably should have. I can't say if a more detailed inspection would have revealed the weak shroud adjuster, but the couple of extra minutes it would have taken could have saved a lot of time, work, and money, not to mention avoiding a potentially dangerous situation.
In a similar vein, what could we have done had the dayleader not come to rescue us? Being faced with such a situation in real life feels considerably different than calmy discussing hypotheticals within a senior study group. Given that we had a north wind, making it back to the club would have proven exceedingly difficult without a tow. My backup plan was to jury rig a small sail with the boom and the jib, and (hopefully) sail to Emeryville on a broad reach. Given that none of us were injured and we still had daylight left, I'm confident that we would have made land without putting anyone in danger.
As summer approaches, so too come the big winds, and the potential for more broken masts. While equipment failure can happen to anyone, we all can work to minimize the risks of it happening: thoroughly check equipment, and sail only in conditions that you, the boat, and the crew can handle. Here's hoping that we keep broken masts to a minimum this season.
Many thanks to Sean and Brandon for the rescue and Lon for assisting with boat repairs!