A tale of two boats

To the editor: The recent article by Rich Feeley about a rigging problem he experienced aboard Lora Ann, an Express 37 (“Disaster averted,” Issue No. 208, March/April 2013), reminded me of trips I have made to and from Bermuda.

One trip was aboard our 1964 Rhodes Reliant 41-foot yawl. We sailed from Cape May to Bermuda and back to New London, Conn. We encountered a storm on the trip to New London, well forecast by Herb Hilgenberg, that pinned us down for a night. I’m not sure how strong the wind was because we don’t have a masthead anemometer — 30, 40 knots or more? After the working jib blew out, we weathered the storm with storm jib, storm trysail, and reefed mizzen. This was reasonably comfortable. The low sail plan let us make slow progress on a close reach. Squalls and gusts came and went, but we felt secure. We were bounced around to some extent, but no one was injured, no bones were broken. The only other damage we suffered was that the glass chimney of our kerosene lamp fell off and broke on the cabin sole. I contrast this with the broken rib suffered by a crewmember on Lora Ann, a light racing boat, probably less than 40 percent the weight of my boat. The motion on Lora Ann must have been far more severe. 

This difference shows up clearly on Carl Adler’s website (www.image-ination.com/sailcalc.html). The Express 37’s specifications are not listed on this website, but when a comparison is made with fairly similar boats, there is a very large difference in the “motion comfort” indices. The Reliant’s motion comfort index is 44.95. Boats similar to the Express 37 show motion comfort indexes in the 21 to 22 range. The motion comfort index shows a very important aspect of a boat’s performance in bad conditions.

Lora Ann also suffered a serious rigging failure — the port lower shroud turnbuckle broke. The spreader pushed in and bent the mast, leaving the rig very vulnerable to total collapse. The rig has only one lower shroud on each side, well inboard to enable close sheeting of the genoa. The experienced, skilled crew quickly jury-rigged the mast and avoided disaster.

In contrast, the Rhodes Reliant has two lower shrouds on each side terminating at the bulwark, providing a good base for both lateral and fore-aft support to the middle of the mast. 

I learned a lot about the importance of having two lower shrouds at the spreader bases when I crewed on a hot racing boat in the Bermuda Race decades ago. The boat originally had two lower shrouds, but the owner decided to re-rig with only one lower shroud per side, terminating on the same chainplate as the cap shroud. He wanted to reduce windage and weight aloft.

In the midst of a Gulf Stream squall, when the main sheet was eased, the mast started to pump back and forth, unrestrained by the single lower shrouds. The vigorous pumping broke the spreader base and the mast folded over, the masthead swinging wildly around, seven feet above the cabin top. Ever since then, I have been acutely aware of the importance of having two shrouds per side to support the middle of the mast — fore lowers and aft lowers. Two pairs of lowers not only hold the mast in column, they also provide the extra strength and redundancy to support the rig safely. The lower shrouds have to support both the pressure on the lower part of the mainsail (which has most of the area) and the pressure on the top part of the mast coming from mainsail and jib, transmitted to the middle of the mast by the cap shroud pushing on the spreader.

Another difference in our experiences had to do with setting a storm trysail. On my boat, the mainsail uses a classic track screwed to the classic wooden mast, classic slides, and a classic track switch. The mainsail comes down attached to the mast, and the trysail slides up a few feet on a side track and is easily switched to the primary track.  In contrast, on Lora Ann, the mainsail has its boltrope in a mast slot, and the crew was unable to take the mainsail off the mast safely, so they could not use a trysail. With a double-reefed mainsail, they had too much sail up, moving too fast in heavy seas, which probably meant uncomfortable motion. Maybe the turnbuckle for the lower shroud was over-stressed in this situation.

Lora Ann is a very successful, hot racer. My Rhodes Reliant certainly is not as quick around the buoys, but I know where I’d prefer to be in an ocean storm.

—Ben Stavis’ family bought a Rhodes Reliant named Astarte in 1964. Astarte spends summer in New England and fall in the northern Chesapeake. Stavis also maintains two websites, one for Rhodes Reliants and Offshore 40s, the other for Philip Rhodes-designed sailboats.

By Ocean Navigator