Jirka Pacák is an experienced skipper and rarely caught off guard. That’s why he’s one of the captains in charge of advanced sailing trips on the island of Lipari. How did he handle a dismasting far from land and what recommendations does he have for other yachtsmen? What did the crew take away from the experience? Will they ever go ocean sailing again?
Surprisingly, similar problems recur quite frequently when sailing. That’s why today we’re going to show you how to spot the problem even before you set sail.
Setting sail on a wild crossing
We set off on Friday evening, after dark. I didn’t want to wait for morning. A marked worsening of the weather from the south was forecast from Sunday to Monday and so I wanted to reach the sheltered marina on Lipari as soon as possible.
If we waited, the worst of the weather would hit us en route. The crossing was at least 21 hours, much longer if beating to windward. Precisely because it is an advanced sailing trip, more challenging situations are planned for the crew to try out.
All of a sudden there was a thud on deck
I divided up the tasks and as there was no decent wind, we motored upwind. The sails were down. The crossing was a bit wild due to the waves, some of the crew vomited, but apart from that everything went smoothly. On Saturday around 2 P.M. we only had 45 NM to go.
Suddenly there was a thud on deck. I immediately ran out on deck. A shroud had worked its way loose and was thrashing wildly in the wind, hanging like a washing line. I worked out immediately what had happened and realised the shroud had became unhooked when the mast was battered by waves.
When I looked up, everything appeared completely normal though, nothing else came loose or fell. Then another smaller thud was heard and the mast began to collapse. It landed on the sprayhood, fell in the aft bin and a large part sank in the water.
At that moment there were 3 people including myself on deck - one was at the helm, right where it fell. Luckily, nobody was hurt. If we had been in a storm with the sails up, it would have been much worse.
What we did right after the mast fell
I immediately shifted into neutral. The boat then turned broadside to the waves and began to rock. Naturally, the mast started to move about sharply and there was a risk that someone might be knocked into the sea,crushed or the boat could be damaged.
It was essential to swiftly still the mast. It was jammed into the boom vang and rigging lay all around it. The yard lay across the cockpit, it had fallen on the cockpit lockers and was blocking lots of stuff. The jib and roller furler were torn and half in the water.
Why did the mast fall? The strong steel forestay which runs through the roller furler and connects the roller furler and mast had snapped. The mast was not broken, but had come free at the heel and completely shifted position. Maybe the material was defective, maybe the forestay was ‘past it’. So why didn’t it fall straight away? It was probably being held up by the genoa halyard.
After night and morning watch I was asleep in my sleeping bag and enjoying a moment of peace and finally feeling fine after a bit of a bumpy night. The engine just purred. The waves grew a bit smaller and longer.
A strange cracking sound above me woke me up. Then a dull thud right above my starboard aft cabin. The engine was turned off. A moment of quiet. Straight away I knew we’d been dismasted.
A moment of shock. I started to get dressed. People were talking normally on deck. The boat wasn’t taking on water. I forced my way on deck around the ruined sprayhood.
The skipper was already on deck with the sailors who were there when the mast collapsed. The skipper's first question: Is everyone OK? Yes. Anyone overboard? No. The skipper handled it magnificently.
To cut down or not to cut down the mast
One solution was to immediately cut down the mast and get rid of it. As nightfall and worsening weather were approaching, there wasn’t much time for deliberation. I discounted this idea for various reasons and am glad I did.
So we decided to try and pull the mast onto the boat and secure it. I used the anchor windlass to manoeuvre it. We attached the mast heel to it using ropes and various odds and ends. I threw out the chain and pulled the mast on deck.
We managed to move it slightly, but no more. One of the spreaders was caught in the railing. Now what? The mast was still vibrating and there was a risk of it falling into the water. We secured it to a cleat and looked for tools to free the spreader. In the meantime, the guys removed the boom vang (luckily it wasn’t hydraulic or there would have been oil everywhere). Even so, they were all filthy.
We also unscrewed the yard and stowed it port side. We couldn’t loosen the spreader, however. I wanted to bend the railing and unhook the spreader. Time was running out. If the weather deteriorated it would be a real problem, hence the need for speed. Things could always get worse.
We then tied the mast to the side and with the aid of the winch we pulled it up a bit further. Eventually, we managed to get most of it on board and the bit hanging over (around 7 m) stayed above water and was only partly submerged in the waves. The boat was obviously easier to steer now. The roller furler and the rest of the mast were almost on deck.
We also cut down the running rigging (topping lift, spinnaker halyard, mainsail and jib halyard and we even cut the sheets at the heel and pulled them through). We pulled all the steel lines tight so there was no way they could get near the propeller.
We stowed the cut-off bits in the cockpit lockers. There’s always the possibility that something else could happen (MOB, for example) and you might get caught up in all the things left in the way. Even when there’s not much time in the moment, it’s good to keep that in mind. It took us about an hour to an hour and a half to sort it out.
No radio or signal to port
Due to the VHF antenna being located on the collapsed mast, we could no longer use the radio. Every yachtsman should be aware of this and plan for it. If there had been an injured crew member, we would have had a problem calling for help. There wasn’t even a GSM signal.
The weather improved, we could carry on, so we continued the approximately 45 NM trip to Lipari. Panarea and Stromboli were closer, but we would not have been protected from the waves there. There was on-board GPS, so that was not a problem. It showed our arrival time as around 9 P.M.
When we got a GSM signal, we contacted the marina in northeastern Lipari, so they could make room for us. They came to meet us and even moved some boats so we could fit. We moored bow-to the pontoon and tied a flashing light to the mast so nobody would bump into it.
How the charter and insurance companies handled the accident
We sent a text message to the charter company that night and by morning there was a busy exchange with yachting.com and Italy. A replacement boat was supposed to arrive on Tuesday afternoon. The captain left Tropea, but after 20 NM - around halfway - he had to turn back. The Italian captain assessed the situation and considered continuing to be too risky.
Personally, I didn’t find the weather that bad, but in Italy it was one of the worst storms for several years- it even sank a ferry. The replacement boat finally arrived, the insurance company covered everything. Due to this and the bad weather, the crew spent an unplanned two days on Lipari, but we did manage to finally finish the advanced sailing trip.
I’m glad we saved the mast. Dealing with the insurance and charter companies was simple and problem free. If there had been any kind of problem, I would have sacrificed it, of course, but that’s not a quick and easy solution either.
As skipper , I want to thank the entire crew for their patience, courage and hands-on help and for supporting yachting.com. Thanks to all that we managed to get through it together.
How did the crew members rate it?
Personally, I took this incident as a great sailing experience.
When something happens, you have to use your common sense to judge the situation. Without panicking. Find a workaround. Make a decision. Use the skills of every crew member and fix the problem as simply as possible.
Oddly enough, I see it as a really useful learning event. Nobody was hurt. The boat’s motor worked, it had enough fuel. How many sailors in the world have the good luck to witness such an event? As an experience, it was priceless.
It’s true that it could have ended completely differently. But those are just ‘what-ifs’. That’s the story of the broken mast.
In short, on advanced sailing trips crew often deal with challenging situations and for many it’s like ‘yachting college’. Not every cruise participant is thrilled, of course, when they’re put in harm’s way and they’d much rather avoid those situations.
It was a disaster, but we were really lucky that it all ended well and there were no fatalities. I would have gladly missed out on this encounter to experience a more ‘normal’ yachting scenario instead, though.
What to remember when you’re in a similar situation or planning a sailing trip
- Things can go wrong on any sailing trip and it’s important to never lose sight of that.
- Resolving matters quickly is important, but you always need to remain calm and avoid panicking.
- Whenever an accident occurs, put the boat into neutral and remove any loose parts so nothing gets caught in the propeller. Any worsening of the situation (weather, another accident) may prove fatal if you can’t use the engine. If it’s necessary to use the engine (the boat is heading for a reef), reverse - the stern is ‘cleaner’ and the likelihood of getting lines caught in the propeller is smaller.
- Even if it sounds trite, it is really important to thoroughly inspect the boat before accepting.
- Check the tools you’ll need as well (pliers for shrouds, etc.). Get your own if you sail often.
- Bear in mind that it’s easy to lose radio communication.
- Prepare for changes in weather promptly - fold down the bimini top, properly secure the dinghy and place it where it can be accessed quickly. Know where your tools and safety equipment are.
- Use all available resources when dealing with a situation - for example, winches and an anchor windlass are very strong, which comes in useful.
- In the event of any accident, contact the charter company. Take photos of everything.
And what else should you do?
- If you frequently sail in challenging conditions, it’s worth getting your own kit - life vests, handheld VHF radio, tools, spare lines and maps you can rely on in critical situations.
- Get deposit insurance. It removes a lot of stress and really helps keep you calm when you’re dealing with a problem.
- Take a first-aid course - you won’t have to call for help, which is usually far away anyway.
- Never forget that responsibility always rests with the captain.
- Whatever you’re aware of that needs to be done on the boat, whether before or during the crossing, do it. Can you think of a problem you can avoid? Avoid it. When something unexpected happens, you’ll be able to concentrate on it fully instead of dealing with an old problem.
- Get training, educate yourself, try thinking up various solutions to critical situations.
How to spot a problem before you set sail
A dismasting is a huge complication and can result in serious consequences. There are several warning signs, thanks to which we can prepare for or even avoid the situation. Jirka Zindulka can offer advice on this.
Why does the forestay snap and the mast fall? The main reason is the roller furling genoa. Or rather an improperly installed genoa halyard. When properly installed, the halyard is sufficiently taut and leads from the upper halyard block to the mast exit plates and only then to the masthead sheave.
Quite often there are no mast tangs and the halyard leads straight to the masthead sheave. That leads to unnecessary stress on the upper halyard block. After several years of furling the genoa it results in it jamming. Especially when under increased pressure during strong winds, the genoa then stops furling smoothly and furls in a jerky, stop-and-start motion.
It looks like the furling line tightens during furling and the genoa doesn’t move. When you pull even harder, something loosens and the genoa rolls up through one or two rotations. When there is only a gentle wind it’s not obvious, but during strong winds furling becomes very difficult or doesn’t work at all. Every time the furling stops, it jams the upper block of the genoa furler. As the block is not rotating, it results in increased pressure on the steel pivots in the upper section.
After several years, individual steel lines start snapping. Then one day, usually while furling the genoa in strong winds, the entire steel line in the upper part of the forestay snaps and out of nowhere the mast crashes onto the deck. Sometimes it happens even without the sails, when choppy seas and forces working on the end of the mast cause the degraded steel line to snap.
In this picture the correctly installed genoa halyard is on the left (from the halyard lift block to the mast and then to the masthead sheave). In the picture on the right is a commonly used, but incorrect installation. The genoa halyard runs directly to the masthead sheave, which puts too much strain on the halyard lift block.
When sailing with the engine on, without sails, the mast falls backwards. When under sail, due to the pull on the sails, the mast usually falls to the side. In the case of the cruise to Lipari, the mast fell backwards. The captain couldn’t have avoided the collapse. He still hadn’t taken out the genoa, so he couldn’t have noticed that the furling motion was not continuous.
So can you predict if a mast will fall and prevent it? If you encounter something like this and you find you can’t furl the genoa in strong wind because the roller furling drum won’t turn, then don’t furl the genoa. Also furl or remove the mainsail. Continue the cruise with an unfurled genoa and when you are sailing leeward and the genoa is no longer buffeted by wind, carefully furl it.
If you have a spinnaker halyard, hook it somewhere around the anchor fittings and properly tense the halyard. If you don’t have a spinnaker halyard or even a spare genoa halyard, you can use a topping lift. If the forestay snaps, even if it is not under any pressure (this is exactly what happened to us when sailing to the Faroe Islands), the taut spare halyard will hold the mast and give you time to sail to the nearest harbour or secure the mast with another line.
- Boat: Sun Odyssey 439, year of manufacture: 2012, mast height 18.5 m
- Date: 27. 10. to 3. 11. 2018
Do you also want to experience sailing under more challenging conditions? Enjoy similar adventures in the waters around Sicily and the Lipari Islands. They’re not called the Aeolian Islands after Aeolus, the Greek god of wind, for nothing.