Isn’t it great to be on a strong steel ship with a bombproof rig in this kind of weather?” I mused to Elliot, the second mate, aboard Sea Education Association’s 135-ft. brigantine Corwith Cramer. We were standing aft on the quarterdeck in a Force 7 gale, beating to the northwest with the four lower sails through the Straits of Yucatan during the last week of what had been an uneventful Sea Semester voyage.
As Elliot murmured in concurrence, we heard a loud groan from over the stern and both leaned over the taffrail to see what it was. Hanging detached from its poured socket was the splayed end of the short stay that connects the end of the boomkin to the stern. It was 1245 on March 8.
When the short stay let go, the boomkin was no longer tightly held down. And since the backstay is attached to the boomkin, the backstay was now slack. It took just a few seconds for us to comprehend what had happened. We turned back to the deck to begin striking sail to lessen the pressure on the mainmast. I gave the order to strike the main and jib to no one in particular. Somehow the word got passed all through the ship and 30 able, willing hands were busy striking and furling.
We gybed around and left our two staysails aback, put the helm hard up and let the ship settle into her familiar hove-to position. Much of the oceanographic sampling that we do is from this position. The ship lay beam to the wind and seas, making enough leeway to cause a flow of water down and around the keel and back up to windward. This produces a slick of calm water that keeps most seas from breaking. Heaving to is an effective heavy-weather technique on Cramer. In this case, it allowed us to assess the damage and come up with a repair plan.
As we lay hove to, the wind strengthened to Force 8 from the NE by N and seas built to about 15 feet. We were drifting S by E at about two knots, heading back into the Caribbean, but with nothing in our way for many hundreds of miles. That was a small comfort to me as I puzzled with my mates to come up with a jury-rigged solution to our problem. The weather was such that we were hesitant to do much in the way of repair until the seas moderated. With darkness coming on and the promise of fairer weather the next day, all we could do was to minimize any further damage by rigging temporary running backstays to the quarters. We used the main halyard to one quarter and the boom topping lift to the other.
Now unconstrained from below, the boomkin pivoted upwards every time a passing wave collided with it. This caused the life raft stowed on the boomkin to come up hard against the taffrail. It couldn’t stay out there, so we got a gang together to muscle it in over the rail. Moving several hundred pounds of awkward life raft over the rail in 15-foot seas and a gale of wind was a difficult piece of work, but soon it was safely lashed to the bulwarks.
Jury-rig supplies plentiful
An inventory of our damage-control equipment yielded plenty of spare wire and wire clamps, so we felt quite good about our supplies; we just had to come up with a good plan to use what we had effectively. We discussed running into the lee of Cuba and finding a good anchorage from which we could effect repairs. Wallace Stark, our marine superintendent back in Woods Hole, strongly counseled us not to consider this option for political reasons. Our only other option for a lee was to run to Cancún in Mexico, several hundred miles to the southwest. I began to feel that we needed to try to rig a jury backstay at sea and see if we could work our way toward St. Petersburg by motor-sailing with the staysails once the weather moderated.
That afternoon we cooked up a plan to rig a wire strop through the quarter knees and then clamp a short strop to the backstay and put a turnbuckle between them. This would eliminate any possible use of the mainsail, but without the boomkin there was no way to get the backstay far enough aft to allow the boom to pass without hitting the backstay.
That evening we stayed hove to and the gale blew on unabated, but we were busy making the strops and preparing the turnbuckle for the jury repair. I made a conscious decision to keep our students completely involved in the repair process so that we could continue to educate and motivate them. I felt that it was important for them to feel part of the solution to our problem, and it helped to keep their minds off the weather and the damage. Each watch through the night did their part to ready our gear for rigging.
The weather was not cooperating. The cold front that had brought the northwesterly breeze was well to the east of us now, and the barometer was at 1021 by 0830 on March 9. Skies were curiously overcast and not at all like a classic cold front passage. The morning weatherfax map from the Marine Predictions Center showed the reason for the overcast skies and the gale force winds. There was a compact but strong low pressure center organizing off the eastern coast of Central Florida, and the gradient between the high centered on the Gulf of Mexico and that low was very strong. Isobars on the map were packed tightly in an ominous visual display of that gradient. And there was a big blocking ridge of high pressure over the southern Sargasso Sea that was stalling everything out. We resigned ourselves to continuing poor weather.
Dipping the chief mate
The seas had come down in the night, or at least had stopped building, and the wind had subsided to Force 7 by 0700, so we began rigging the strops. Our chief mate, Jen Irving, spent a harrowing half hour out on the boomkin with nothing to hold onto and the platform dipping into a passing sea every few minutes. In order to disconnect the backstay, she had to rig a temporary lift to keep the boomkin from pivoting downward. She attached a line to the end of the boomkin and we led it over the boom gallows and forward to a winch to haul it tight. Then she loosened and removed the pin from the shackle at the end of the backstay while we kept strain on a line rigged through a snatch block at the end of the boomkin to hold tension on the backstay. Once the pin was out, we eased the line, and the backstay came forward until we could grab it and secure it inboard. Even though she was harnessed and tethered to the ship with two lines, I was quite glad when she finally got the pin out of the turnbuckle shackle and scurried back aboard.
We now had the end of the backstay inboard, but it was too long to shackle directly into the strop through the quarter knees. We had to clamp a short strop as high up on the backstay as we could reach. The tallest students were enlisted to stand on the doghouse and fasten the strop. It was an Iwo Jima-like affair, a pile of students steadying the two tall riggers, everyone swaying back and forth in the seaway.
Everything was in place by noon, and we took up the turnbuckle to tension the jury-rigged backstay. We’d cranked down on all the wire clamp nuts as hard as we could and hoped that nothing would slip. Cautiously, we gybed over to a starboard tack and, with the engine slow ahead, worked our way up until we were creeping forward on a close reach. I was nervous about how the wire clamps would hold and how much the mainmast would flex with the backstay angle reduced by about 15°, and it wasn’t long until my fears were realized. There was just too much loading on the backstay every time we beat into a wave: the wire nuts on the small strop just slipped until there was no tension on the backstay. Dejected, we gybed back over and hove to. The lunch bell rang, and our exhausted crew went below to get some grub. While we were eating, we pitched into an enormous sea, and when she rose, the boomkin came crashing into the trough, pivoting it upward to its limits. When it came down again, it pulled on the jury lift so hard that the boom gallows was bent back about 20°. We scampered up from the lunch table and rigged more stays to the gallows to secure it.
What to do now? We realized that we had to get the end of the backstay rigged to something; no wire clamps were going to hold. Elliot suggested that we open up the lazarette hatch and see if we could lead the backstay down into the lazarette and fix it somewhere down there. Would the backstay clear the binnacle? What was there to attach to? Was there enough room to get a turnbuckle in? We headed down into the laz to have a conference. It seemed like there was enough space to rig it down there, but nothing to attach it to. We figured that we would cut holes in the floor frames and pass a chain through and rig the turnbuckle to that chain.
Out came the acetylene torch and the cutting tip. Elliot made quick work of blasting two holes in the steel and we passed a chain strop through the holes. Down came the backstay with the turnbuckle rigged. We shackled it into the chain. Just right! We were able to snug up the turnbuckle with a few threads to spare.
Now we were ready to try it again. It was about 1800 when we swung our stern around and gybed again. Engine slow ahead, we came up as high as I dared with the seas still running 12 feet and wind Force 7. Even at slow ahead we were pitching fiercely, but the new jury rig seemed to be holding. We noticed that the chain strop was squeezing the floor frames together, so we had to fit some blocking and a hydraulic jack on its side to keep them from flexing together. It was working! Really, it turned out to be an elegant solution to the problem. The backstay cleared the binnacle by about one inch. If it were any longer, we would not have been able to tension it.
I felt that, with the backstay rigged and holding, we could increase our rpms slightly and play with our heading to maximize headway while minimizing pitching. It was a delicate balance, constantly changing, and I didn’t get much sleep that night, wondering if we would make it to St. Pete on time. Five feet from my pillow, on the other side of a bulkhead, the groaning of the chain on the steel every time we pitched kept reminding me of the precarious nature of our situation. A popped chain link or snapped shackle, and we would be back to square one.
The primary concern now was weather. We were dead downwind of our objective, with a jury-rigged backstay, the Gulf Stream to cross and a shipload of students with planes to catch. Ordinarily, the northerly wind associated with the high pressure after a cold front lasts two days or so, but, looking at the maps, I could see that there would be no favorable change in the wind direction. We could expect the wind to go around into the northeast as the high moved east. The force did begin to diminish by the morning of the 10th of March to a more manageable Force 6, and the seas dropped to about eight feet but started to shorten up as we approached the axis of the Gulf Stream. Any way I looked at it, I realized that there was no way of making it to St. Pete on time. With much support and guidance from the folks back at home in Woods Hole, we decided to put into Key West and bus the students up to St. Pete.Fighting to windward in Force 6 the whole way, we limped into Key West on the morning of March 13, tired, but somehow jubilant. Our students and crew had fought adversity, and we’d survived.
After we got to Key West, we sent the socket back to Crosby, the manufacturer, for testing. We pour our own sockets using a special epoxy formulated for elevator cables. The wire must be prepared by splaying out the individual strands, and then the socket is pulled up over the splayed strands. Epoxy is poured into the socket and hardens with the splayed strands throughout. The strength of the epoxy-to-wire bond is entirely dependent on the shape of the inside of the socket being a perfect cone. When the wire comes under tension, the entire hardened epoxy plug is compressed by being pulled down the cone. This in turn compresses the epoxy around each splayed strand and results in a tremendously strong bond. Well-poured sockets are stronger than the wire.
What we found out from Crosby was that this socket was part of a batch of sockets whose internal shape was not perfectly conical. This socket had sides that were concave instead of straight, which did not allow the epoxy plug to slip down and be compressed. I have half of the socket, longitudinally sectioned to show its interior, on my desk. It is a vivid reminder to suspect my gear and sail conservatively.