Sunday, December 14, 2008

Crash, Bang, Boom!

Twas the 9th night of December at around 11:00 at night. The wind was blowing steady; there was not a boat in sight. And so starts the story of our worst experience to date at sea.
“This has to be our best sail ever,” stated Marc earlier in the evening. We were cruising over the bottom at 9.5 knots, with a 1.5 knot favorable current. With the light of full moon and partly cloudy skies, the whitecaps of the breaking waves sparkled.
With an uncomfortable boat motion, the kids had chosen to sleep in the cockpit. The autopilot was handling the wind, 15-20 knots from forward of the beam. The predicted SE wind had not appeared yet. Having checked the radar, sail trim, and scanned the horizon, I stepped inside to make a log entry.
I was only inside a few minutes when the cascading series of huge crashes sent me outside. I instantly knew my worst fears had come true, the mast had come down. I asked the kids to put on their life jackets and get inside the boat. The boat motion settled to a gentle rocking in the sea as the huge white sails lay in the water like a blanket. Marc was up quickly and I said much more calmly than I felt, “the mast came down”, and I handed him a harness.
The kids were running in and outside, asking what to do and if we were going to be O.K. “I want to quit sailing! I don’t want to cross to Europe! Are we going to die?!” they screamed. We did what we could to assure them that we were going to be O.K. Give them a job I thought, so I asked them to plot our position in the log. I turned on the SSB and asked them to try to hail a station on 14300 and VHF channel 16 to report our position. That did not keep them busy for very long as no-one answered. So panic ensued again. I said, “Stay inside, stop panicking… and pray!” The NW Caribbean net had not asked if I wanted an evening check in and our buddy boat, Mima, was way ahead and had anchored in the lee of Cozumel for the night. It would be great to be able to give someone, anyone a position. We were totally and completely alone.
Marc stood motionless on the bow in the moonlight and pondering what to do. I was surprised as he is usually so quick to act. Having been brusquely awakened he was clearing his head and evaluating our options.
Marc asked me, “Do you want to try to save anything?” “The salty sailors that sell books tell tales of how they bring the mast along side the boat and somehow secure it. Then they drift to some uninhabited island, jury rig the stick back up with vines and tree roots and sail on to civilization.” He tries to budge the massive cat rig and deems this completely unrealistic and a further threat to the safety of Side-by-Side and its crew. It is night, the kids are panicking and the noise is deafening. The entire rig makes a rocking and grating motion on the toe rail and lifelines in the ocean swells.
“I don’t care about the money!” I scream. I can’t believe I said that.
He asked for the bolt cutters and a rigging knife. Of course, under stress I could not remember where the bolt cutters were. In a closet somewhere, but I picked the wrong closet. Marc produced them, cool as a cucumber. He was dismayed that his OMG rigging knife was not in its compartment under the chart table nor was there one in the bin at the helm! So where are they when you need them? Marc initially had to use a kitchen knife to cut away lines. Finally, Sabrina and I found a sailing knife which had worked its way to the back of the chart table.
We then strategized how to best jettison the rig into the ocean. It saddened us to waste a perfectly good mast, sails and rigging lying there because we had no ability to recover them. I began to strip the lines out of the clutches and blocks at the helm. I opened the tensioned main sheet clutch and the rig made a violent shift toward the abyss. The boom slid off the hardtop and was caught in the lifelines. Meanwhile, Marc was on the bow undoing the jib’s tack, cutting lines, and separating what was to go overboard. I then remembered to take the boat off autopilot. Waves rock us and the boom grates against our newly polished deck. Each horrendous noise brings a new round of panic from the kids. Bang, bang, grind, grate goes the mast which is looking like a huge sea-saw on our boat with the lifelines as the fulcrum. The waves would raise the mast up and down onto our deck like a menacing uninvited monster looming over our heads as we worked feverishly to rid ourselves of it.
At last, we had just the forestay, the port side-stay and a sail tensioned boom hung up in our lifelines. I got under the boom thinking I could steady it while Marc started to cut away the sail. It came down on my extended leg and ankle, pinning me to the deck.
“Get out of there!” Marc yelled. As the boom rose up with the next wave, I freed my leg. Deal with the pain later and address the issue, I thought. We now had a boom slowly rising up as the mast continued its desire to reach for the bottom. With concentration and clenched teeth I started the engines and began to slowly back the stern up into the wind. With the boat pressing up against the sails and rig in the water, it did not feel like we were going anywhere. Warily, Marc went forward, clipped the forestay and returned to the cockpit.
“Keep backing up to windward or this boom is going to come reaching into the cockpit and crush you, the helm and the hardtop.” With an eye on the boom rearing up alongside my head I accomplished the task at hand. Marc carefully guided it up and over the mangled lifelines to keep it from doing further damage to the vessel. Over the side it went with only a port stay between us and freedom. I slowed the engines.
Scrape under the water and clunk went the port prop. Neutral and starboard engine only! The mast was emitting a light hiss at was pulling its way deeper into the dark ocean. Marc inched his way along the port side, quietly knelt down and severed the last stay. He stood up with bolt cutters in hand mournfully watching as our beloved rig wafted away in search of the bottom of the great abyss.
All was quiet again as the moonlight danced across the rolling seas. Relief and grief overcame me. The family embraced said silent prayers of thanks. The kids were very loving and happy to be safe. In the face of life threatening adversity, we did what needed to be done and despite some bruises to our bodies and spirits we were going to be ok.

Shaken, thank-full to be ok and still with 120 miles to go, we motored on into the darkness.