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Handling Breakages at Sea, Part I

Handling Breakages at Sea, Part I
14 December 2011

This year’s Atlantic Rally for Cruisers saw 217 sailing yachts take the starting line in Las Palmas. By the time of writing in St. Lucia, 206 of them had taken the finish line in St. Lucia. 73 of them reported breakages or failures at sea.

Downwind sailing typifies the ARC from year to year. Of the yachts who reported breakages, 42 said they had at least one incident involving spinnakers, gennekers and downwind sailing gear like poles, preventers and bowsprits. Some were due to crew error, others to ‘expected’ wear and tear, some involved equipment failure and others just bad luck.

'Adrienn's' jury-rigged mainsail Halcyon of Hebe, an older Hylass 44 skippered by Robert Withers experienced several ‘sailing’ failures or breakages.

“From the start we flew our really big A-sail,” Richard said. “It’s not really designed to go downwind – it’s more of a reaching sail – and we just sailed it at too deep an angle.”

The sail got wrapped between the headstay (on which the genoa was furled) and the removable solent stay, which was rigged. Richard admits that having the solent stay rigged when it was not in use was probably a mistake, and made the tangle far worse than it should have been.

“I think the A-sail breakage was down to crew error,” he admitted. “We sailed too far downwind and the solent stay shouldn’t have been rigged in those conditions.”

Once the sail got wrapped, it would not come down, and they sent crewmember Alistair up the rig.

“He tried to cut the head of the sail off, but it was still fouled on the forestays,” continued Richard. “He ended up sliding down the forestay and hacked at it all the way down. On the positive side, we have a new awning now!" Richard joked.

also reported that their genoa furling unit had failed. The yacht is fitted with an older Proful unit, and Richard thinks it was a simple case of equipment failure.

“It still furled,” Richard said, “but someone had to be on the bow guiding the line into the drum.”

The lineguide had basically separated from the furling unit, but thankfully the bearings continued to operate.

Adrienne's mainsheet sans boomIn the absence of a big downwind sail, Halcyon reverted to sailing with twin headsails, poled out on either side. “The twins were brilliant actually,” Richard acknowledged. He did not believe it cost them any speed in the end, and they were happy to continue thus set-up. Halycon completed the passage in just under 19 days.

Guma, an Amel Super Maramu, admitted that crew error is what did in their spinnaker.

“It got wrapped around the anchor,” said skipper Stephane Petit, “and we put about a 20cm tear in the foot of it.”

The racing yachts near the front of the fleet reported far more spinnaker damage than those not pushing as hard. Filizim destroyed three spinnakers in the course of the crossing; but then when racing hard, they almost expect it. Likewise, Triumph, which counted ex-Ericsson 3 (of the 2005/06 Volvo Ocean Race) skipper Magnus Olsson as crew, demolished their spinnaker pole during a gybe.

They managed to repair the boom, however, with bits of their passerelle and some lashing line, and carried on under their spinnaker the entire way across the Atlantic. Skipper Börje Toresson showed off a masthead u-bolt that served as the spinnaker halyard attachment. The bit of stainless, about 3/4 of an inch thick, was chafed more than halfway through by the metal-on-metal of the spin block continually rubbing on it.

'Adrienne's' jury-rigged mainsail Adrienne, for the second straight year, suffered a broken boom, which they put down to manufacturer defects. The mainsail boom had a slight crack in it that continually got worse until it failed completely. They had experience on their side, however, and managed to set the main loose-footed and continue on their way. They are already signed up for ARC 2012, and jokingly indicated on their entry note that they plan on going without a boom from the start to save them the hassle of fixing it mid-Atlantic.

30 yachts in this year’s ARC indicated some kind of mechanical or electrical problem. Kotari suffered a complete engine failure with over 500 nautical miles still to go, and lost all their charging capability and likewise all of their electronics, including the fridge. The fresh food quickly spoiled, and the crew soon ran out of their emergency dry rations, but did manage to make the finish under sail and in good spirits.

Several other boats experienced problems with their generators or battery banks, but nothing that stopped them from completing the passage.

A handful of yachts experienced steering and/or autopilot failure, most notably Thirsty Boots who, with only three crew onboard, were forced to hand-steer for nearly the entire crossing when their autohelm failed.

Bandido, an American-flagged Oyster, was forced to return to Las Palmas when their steering failed on the third day out. They arrived safely early Tuesday morning after a professional repair and a delayed re-start.

Cruinneag 3Cruinneag III take a different tack when it comes to breakages at sea.

“We didn’t sail her very hard,” said Karen Luckey, who owns the boat with Nicholas Christie.

Cruinneag III is a classic example of a cruising yacht, in both form and function. A wooden ketch built in Scotland in the 1930’s she is fragile in some ways – “the masts are still original,” said Karen – but simple and stout in others.

Unlike 99% of the yachts in the cruising division of most ARC events, Cruinneag III does not have a headsail furling system.

“She has three forestays,” said Karen, “and all the headsails are small triangular sails. There are sometimes many of them, but they are manageable,” she continued. “When you let-go the halliard, the sails come down every time.”

Karen has experience on boats with furling headsails, and swears that each time she sails aboard one something goes wrong. “Three to four times the furlers have broken or become jammed,” she said. “We never intended on having furlers on Cruinneag III for that reason.”

Thanks to 75-year-old goosenecks on original spars that they were “terrified of breaking”, the crew of Cruinneag III, which numbered six, hardly even hoisted the mainsail. Their typical set-up was a big asymmetrical spinnaker (“which we had cut from an old symmetrical sail from 1968,” said Karen) set on the bowsprit, a small inboard staysail and the mizzen. Even under reduced sail they managed 6.5 knots "when the wind didn't blow so much," said Karen, "and over 8 knots when it did." 

Cruinneag 3“We only had the main up for the start and for a bit near the end when the wind came up on the nose,” continued Karen. When that happened they “whammed all sail up and had a brilliant close-reach,” Karen said. Their crossing took just over 20 days.

The only ‘failure’ Karen mentioned was that the tack-line on their spinnaker parted three times during the crossing. However, it was almost intentional.

“We did have the a-sail up in about 35 knots of wind at one point,” Karen admits, “but the tack-line acted like a fuse – if it broke, it meant the sail didn’t,” she continued. “Once the tack-line parted, we were easily able to lower the sail, attach a new line, and re-set it.”

Karen allowed that they view most of the sophisticated equipment onboard as luxuries, and as such, do not rely on it. Their autopilot is a hydraulic unit connected by a bespoke ram to the rudder. Were it to fail, Karen felt confident they could do without.

“We know how to balance the boat without the autopilot,” Karen said. “Nick is very good at fixing things as well. But if it failed beyond repair, we had enough crew to hand-steer. More than likely we could have balanced the sail plan and coaxed her sail herself.”

As for provisioning, Karen planned for 27-days at sea assuming she had no fridge. In fact, the boat has two deep-freezers as well as a large refrigerator, but “you have to plan as if they are a bonus,” she said.

“We have loads of dried food – pasta, canned goods, rice – under the cabin sole, and the freezers are packed with meat,” Karen said. “We’ll probably end up giving a lot away to the locals.”

Likewise, their 1000-litre water tanks were always kept at ¾ full by using the watermaker while it worked; in case it were to fail, they had gallon jugs of emergency water stored throughout the boat.

“We didn’t specifically prepare for the ARC,” Karen mentioned. “We have lived on the boat for two years now, know her very well, and things were just kind of there,” she said. 

(Cruinneag III photos courtesy

Check back tomorrow for Part II of 'Handling Breakages at Sea,' which will highlight the very seamanlike efforts of the Spindrift crew as they enacted a repair to their steering system.

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