Technically, I completed my circumnavigation somewhere off the west coast of Grenada. Although sailing all the way round had never been part of a grand plan, I must confess to a certain self-satisfaction with having done it. I have not really counted, but in 11 years slowly and spasmodically roaming the world, I have covered more than 60,000 sea miles aboard my Valiant 40 Rising Star.
We had been sailing in the Grenadines since October. In January we were sailing north toward Bequia when, off to our west, we saw a strange-looking rig on a boat that was apparently motoring. After some study through the binoculars I was horrified to realize that the boat’s mast was bent over the side. They seemed to be progressing steadily; nevertheless, I put out several radio calls to see if I could contact them in case they should need any assistance. There was no reply, so we continued on our way, but we checked on them from time to time. The next day we stopped by to see them at anchor in Bequia. It was a very sad German and his family. I informed him that the nearest facilities were in Rodney Bay in St. Lucia and that he could motor there. The only difficult part would be off the northwest corner of St. Vincent, the island between Bequia and St. Lucia. He was grateful for this information and our offer of assistance.I wondered if this could ever happen to me, and reasoned that it could not. My rod rigging was the best, and it had been professionally inspected in New Zealand, Cape Town, and Trinidad all within the last 18 months. No, this could not happen to me.The next day we set out to sail from Bequia to Marigot Bay in St. Lucia, a 60-mile passage. Katy, my long-suffering girlfriend who gets very seasick, and I had already sailed this passage three times with different visitors. This time, what I had decided could never happen to me actually did occur.The passage took us past the island of St. Vincent, which has a channel with a nasty, choppy sea and strong winds to the south of the island and a worse channel to the north. Also on board were our friends David and Carolyn Kantor, who are experienced sailors. David sailed on Rising Star from California to Hawaii, and he and Carolyn have since purchased another Robert Perry design, the Nordic 44 Legacy, which they have sailed to Bermuda and Maine.
On leaving Bequia we set a double-reefed main and the high-cut Yankee jib. As we reached the lee of St. Vincent we rolled in the Yankee and motored until the wind picked up around the northwest of the island. This is not a steady trade wind; it is a gusty wind that creates short, steep, and unpleasant waves. Nevertheless, it was nothing we could not handle. It was off the northwest corner of St. Vincent where the wind increased to 25 knots. We were sailing about 60° off the wind when there was a sudden gust that reached 35 knots. "David, let’s ease the main and we’ll run off," I said, but before either of us could move there was a very loud metallic bang, a scream (Carolyn), and the mast bent over the port side of the boat, taking the main, the headsail, the roller furler, and the rigging with it. I must have been shocked, but all I remember was saying, "Oh well, there goes the mast!" Adrenaline was high, but I felt we were in no danger. No one was hurt. Katy had gone below to prepare her puke bowl for this known bad stretch of water. David and Carolyn were both aft in the cockpit with me. The boat had been heeled quite far over in this gust, but the rail had not been in the water. Valiants are generally stiff boats. Now, with no wind in her sails, she was upright, bobbing in the sea, seemingly waiting for further orders!
Strange things happen in your mind in these situations. I felt there must be something I should do immediately, and my mind rushed through all the past issues of Ocean Navigator for an article on dismasting. It was the same when I was in a 70-knot storm two miles off the coast of South Africa on a lee shoresomehow nothing seems to apply exactly to your situation. Actually, on reflection, I think we acted quite reasonably. The mast did not look like it would fall over any more (I was worried the bent bit might break loose and dangle on the rigging and pound the hull). Valiant Yachts builds a strong and superb sailing boat, and we were floating and safe.
Another memory I have of the accident is that a pod of dolphins suddenly appeared. Now I know there may not have been much they could do, but there are many tales of dolphins appearing when sailors are in distress. It could have been pure coincidence, but there are few cruising sailors who do not have some superstition, and the crew all agreed that they were a good omen for us.
David and I immediately set about securing the sail and rigging hanging over the side and stabilizing the mast. I secured the bent piece of mast to the upright piece with a dock line, taking advantage of the very well-designed mast steps, which would not cause any chafe. The starboard upper shroud was still attached and holding the bent piece of mast; the rod itself bent over the break in the mast. We also used dock lines to slide under the roller furler extrusions and heave up the Yankee jib, which was ripped to pieces. Pockets of the sail were filled with sea water, making it very heavy and awkward. We managed to save the main from any damage.
As this was going on the reality and consequences rushed through my mind. Of course, I felt guiltythis was my boat, my pride. What had I done wrong? What had I missed? I felt that somehow I must be responsible. I had let her down, this boat with whom I had been through so much. Now I had to call Diane, my brother’s girlfriend in New York, who was supposed to meet us in Guadeloupe in a few days. How long would it take to get a new mast? Would I get out of the Caribbean before the next hurricane season?
While I was on the foredeck at one end of the lines, with all this going through my mind, David was in the cockpit winching them in through snatch blocks. There was no panic on board, but Katy and Carolyn were not experienced, and both were thinking things were far worse than they were.
Once we were satisfied that there was nothing in the water that would foul the propeller, we started the engine, put her in gear, and resumed our course for St. Lucia. I knew there were no adequate facilities for us in Bequia or St. Vincent (which would be an easier downwind destination), but, as I had advised the German sailor in Bequia, there was a boatyard in Rodney Bay a few miles north of Marigot Bay, our destination for that day. Our immediate concern was to get into the lee of St. Lucia and out of these seas before they would cause any further damage.
Several boats passed heading south, and some overtook us. We kept the handheld radio on, and it was obvious we were progressing satisfactorily, but none of them called to see if anyone was hurt. It took us six hours, but we made Marigot Bay just before dark. We entered the bay and found fellow British sailors whom we had met previously in Bequia, Peter and Veronica Craig Wood, on their Halberg Rassy ketch Island Moon. They were horrified at the sight of Rising Star with her mangled mast, shredded sail, and cat’s cradle of rigging. As we went by, Katy, now back to her usual calm water humor, quipped, "I say, can we borrow your spare mast?" They immediately came over to see what they could do. Peter, a fellow member of the Ocean Cruising Club, was a friend indeed, helping with tidying up the rigging and taking off the maina very tricky job when the mast is bent in two.
It was not until we were anchored that I discovered exactly why the mast had come down. The rod backstay had parted inside the upper end of the upper antenna insulator. It appears that it had been corroding for some time. The inside of the insulators cannot be inspected. They were not installed by Valiant Yachts; I had them installed by other professional riggers when installing the electronics equipment after the delivery of the boat.
It could have been a lot worse. Someone might have been hurt, and it could have happened in Madagascar. We were safe with communications available (Madagascar, we were told, only has seven overseas telephone lines!). The president of Valiant Yachts, Rich Worstell, took personal control and was most supportive. A new mast was built, assembled with all the required wiring, cables, rigging, and fittings. Then it was disassembled with messenger lines, packed in a container, and shipped to St. Lucia. It came in two parts that will be spliced together, as are many masts on much larger boats.
Christopher Robinson lives in Old Lyme, Conn., when he is not sailing.