“PAN PAN, PAN PAN, PAN PAN pan. There is a dismasted sailing dinghy in the vicinity of the St. Francis Yacht Club. Three sailors aboard all wearing PFDs.”
The sound of Ryan’s voice issuing the mariners warning, one level below a MAYDAY, was a comfort. I was being watched over. As I struggled to get the sails back in the boat, I could see the other boats nearby.
We had left Berkeley the day before, 4 Ventures, two club keel boats and a couple of private boats tagging along. All bound for the kayak beach at Angel Island. We had a lovely and uneventful upwind sail to the beach. We anchored the keelboats and ferried the sailors, gear and supplies to the beach. After humping everything up the hill to the campsite we had a feast, sausage, peppers & onions, salad, cheeses, charcuterie, beer, wine and on and on. Some of us went to bed early, while others hiked to the top of the island. Ah, youth.
We woke the next morning to heavy fog both in the air and some heads. Tiburon, which we could see the night before, had disappeared. We made radio contact with Carolyn on one of the keelboats, and started making a leisurely breakfast while we waited for the fog to lift. By 11 AM we had broken camp, gotten everything loaded up and got off the beach. As we sailed out of Racoon Strait, the Golden Gate Bridge came into view and with it the fog. Carolyn had found a tear in Daisy’s main sail and made the decision to head for home. The rest of us continued on towards the gate. We got a little far apart, so the lead boats tucked into Horseshoe Cove and waited for the rest of us to catch up. There was a short discussion over the radio, and the decision was made to go under the bridge and then head for home. Because of the remaining fog we would maintain a close formation, do a radio check for vessel traffic and stay close to the North tower where there is less large ship traffic.
I have sailed under the bridge many times and a few times in a dinghy. The bridge always feels enormous from this perspective. The fog added an eerie feeling. We got all the boats just past the bridge and then turned around and headed for home. Winds were moderate, probably 15 knots. We had full sails and weren’t overpowered. Once back inside the bay we hoisted our gennakers. We were quickly engulfed in fog. Visibility was not terrible, but there were times I couldn’t see anything in any direction.
We had made several jibes, and were happily sailing away from San Francisco when there was a loud bang. The shroud had parted and the mast had broken just above the mast partner. The sails and all the rigging were in the water. Dismastings on small boats are not as violent as you would think. The mast is generally blown off the boat, and as in this case, no one gets hurt.
After a moment of stunned silence, we got to work getting the sails, mast and rigging in the boat. This takes a fair bit of work as you’re being tossed around in the swells and the rigging doesn’t really want to cooperate. It was at this point I heard:
“Seamus, Seamus, Seamus do you copy” over the radio.
“This is Seamus, I’m a little busy at the moment James, over.”
“Start your motor so you have some maneuverability. “
Damn, that’s a good idea, I should have thought of that.
We had brought one motor for the dinghies in addition to the ones the keelboats have. By coincidence it was on our boat. I had the crew start the motor, and keep it idling in neutral. At this point I had gotten the sails in the boat and had given up trying to save the lines. I Started cutting anything that seemed to be keeping me from getting the mast in the boat. I have no idea how long this took. It seemed to be taking forever in the moment. Eventually everything was in the boat and tied down, and we could start motoring home.
Jen followed closely behind us in Doctor Who, and the rest of the fleet were not far behind them. Motoring is a lot less fun than sailing. The swells were really pushing us around, and I had to pay close attention to my driving most of the way home. Eventually we got back to the CSC dock, tired, but no worse for wear.
Before we left I checked the boat over including the fitting that failed. I didn’t see anything alarming about the shroud. The swaged-on T ball fitting was lost when the rig came down, but afterward the shroud looked like it may have pulled out of the fitting. I didn’t think to test this theory by comparing shroud lengths until just now. It may be that there was a fault in the manufacturing of the shroud, or it may be that it was just worn out but didn’t show any signs. It’s also possible that I missed something. So, check your fittings carefully, and perhaps we should start recording how long shrouds are on a boat and replace them after a set amount of time.
I like to think of myself as good in a crisis, I suppose we all do. I was calm, well prepared and just got to work. What I learned though, is that I tend to get tunnel vision. I was completely focused on getting the rig into the boat, so we could get moving. I should have taken a moment to consider the overall situation. We were in limited visibility, and the biggest threat to us was other vessels. Issuing the PAN PAN and starting the motor should have been my first priority. I was also doing everything myself and not making maximum use of my crew.
It all worked out well, and this is what we train for and what we are certified for. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good. And I, like many others, think about how it could have gone better. That’s how we all learn.
Despite the dismasting, we had a great time. More photos of the cruise before the incident can be seen here:
Notes for non-sailors:
PAN PAN From Wikipedia: As with mayday (from venez m'aider, "come help me"), the urgency signal pan-pan derives from French. In French, a panne ([pan] — /pɑːn/, "pahn") is a breakdown, such as a mechanical failure. In English, it is also sometimes[vague] pronounced as /pæn/ ("pan").
A three-letter backronym, "possible assistance needed" or "pay attention now" derives from pan. Maritime and aeronautical radio communications courses use those as mnemonics to convey the important difference between mayday and pan-pan.
PFD personal floatation device, technically different, but commonly referred to as a life vest
Venture: The RS Venture is a 17’ open sailing dinghy
Daisy is one of the club keelboats. A 26’ Pearson Commander.
Gennaker is a large asymmetrical sail similar to a spinnaker. It can only be used downwind, adds a great deal of power to the boat, but also makes it more difficult to control.
Jibe To turn the boat downwind through the wind requiring the sails to move from one side of the boat to the other.
Shroud A steel cable (usually) that goes from the side of the boat to near the top of the mast to support the mast.
Doctor Who Another club keelboat, a 25’ Merit
That is why, next time I come back to the Bay Area, I'm going to focus my Cal Sailing activities on learning how to fix the inevitable break downs which happen on all sailing craft.