In hindsight we agreed that to date, it was the most terrifying thing we've dealt with on the boat so far. Something in fact that most people hope never to deal with.
Everything started out according to plan. We took some Stugeron Thursday night and went to bed, no seasickness for us! The alarm went off at some ridiculous hour when it was still dark. Maybe a second alarm went off, or it was a snooze...this part was a bit blurry...but we got up, hauled anchor and were on our way by about 0430. In the pitch black we were motoring, picking our way out of the channel into North Sound on Virgin Gorda then heading East towards the Anageda Passage. We slipped out some reefed main and decided to motor sail until we could SEE the sails. The wind was cooperating, the waves weren't too bad.
Around six in the morning the glow of sunrise has started to take the edge of the stygian black of the deep hours of the night and we decided we could see well enough to start sailing. Out came the headsail and we started to trim it then BANG! We heard a loud bang and crash and things felt wrong. It wasn't quite light yet, but we quickly spotted our backstay whipping around in the air over our heads and our radar lying on the deck over the life lines. Major rig failure - one of the worst things to happen at sea with the sails up!
For those unfamiliar with sailboat rigging, Evenstar has a masthead rigged, deck stepped mast. In non-sailor speak, the mast is held on the boat by "stays" - large, long, and strong wires that are tensioned to the hull of the boat. Some boats have a hole in the deck through which the mast passes, then it rests on the keel of the boat - this is called "keel stepped". A smaller number, including Evenstar, are "deck stepped", meaning the mast rests on the deck of the boat with a strong compression post beneath it to carry the load. But the mast butt is resting on the deck of the boat, not through the deck and on the keel. The merits of either system are the subject of endless debate, but the Hallberg-Rassy deck stepped mast is a solid and safe design. The mast is held down by "stays", a forestay (front), backstay (back of the boat...there is a pattern here), and the "shrouds" which run down the side of the mast. Two big shrouds from the top, and four smaller ones that probably have a more technical name than "other shrouds" or "lower shrouds" but I don't know it. All of these wires are tensioned down and provide strength to keep the mast from falling over in the direction opposite the wire.
Unless, of course, one of the wires breaks.
In our case it was the backstay, or more accurately the SSB insulator on the backstay. Through an oversight at installation Loctite thread sealant wasn't applied to the separator. Loctite stops threaded things from unthreading under vibration and load. The SSB insulators break the backstay up so that one central portion is insulated electrically from the rest of the rig so the wire in the middle can also be used as an antenna for the Single Sideband radio without passing currents elsewhere in the boat. The insulators are supposed to be stronger than the wire, but in this case the threads had vibrated loose and when we loaded up the rig the last thread stripped out.
So, back to the excitement. It's dark still but the sun is rising, we are heading into 7'-8' seas about five miles off shore from Virgin Gorda with wind blowing in the 20's with gusts close to 30 knots. The backstay has broken loose and is swinging around, the boat is rolling and the sails are flapping and the radar is lying on the lifelines. What to do?
In a situation such as this the first things to do are to stabilize the rig so we don't lose the mast while getting the loads off of it as quickly as possible. I handed off the wheel and grabbed the spare main halyard and connected it to the top of the deck connection for the back stay. Kathy and Will started trying to get the sails in while holding us pointing into the wind to keep the load off the sails, Danielle was sleeping but we got her up in a hurry to help. A team was dispatched below to get the rig removal tools and keep them handy. If you do lose your mast you need to cut it off the boat as quickly as possible in rough seas, as a few thousand pounds of loose, broken metal pounding on your hull can put a hole in the boat easily.
Furling the headsail wasn't working, with the load off the back stay the mast was bent forward and the head stay was much to floppy and the sail was getting bound up. So I had to ratchet the tension on the extra halyard to firm up the headstay enough to furl the sail. We got this all done...pretty quickly! The main came in pretty easily at least.
With the rig initially secured, we did a quick cleanup and assessment - drag the radar back on the deck and clear any tangled lines. We also realized this would be a great time to put the check stays on - these are adjustable mast supports we need when flying the staysail, and would provide extra additional bracing against the back and forth mast motion we were trying to avoid to keep the mast on the boat. As we cranked down the first checkstay really tight the hardware that holds the checkstay to the deck exploded apart. OK, let's start with the OTHER checkstay, so we did. Additional blocks and lines were procured from the emergency rigging kit and the second checkstay was jury rigged on as well.
Back to Vigrin Gorda...the safest close port. We pulled up on a mooring at the Bitter End Yacht Club and surveyed the damage. It wasn't pretty, the backstay had swung around the front of the boat and gotten wrapped around the headstay furler. So with our jury rigged bracing in place we untangled the backstay, then hoisted Kathy up with rig to finish the job and secure it from further swinging and tangling in case we had to move the boat.
A few phone calls later we found someone that would look at the boat that day if we got it to Tortola, no one else could come to Virgin Gorda. Back to the weather window for a moment, do you remember from the last post how it was "slim"? After Saturday morning there was predicted to be a large (10 foot) Northerly swell and the winds were supposed to pick up again as well. So if we didn't get out on Friday we might not be leaving the BVI's for a week. We called my parents and told them not to cancel their plan tickets to Tortola quite yet...
During this I needed to go check in with Customs. As far as they were concerned we'd left the BVI's and weren't coming back so I needed to make sure our papers were in order. As it turns out since we didn't make it 12 miles off shore they wouldn't clear me in as as far as they were concerned I hadn't left yet, and they politely told me I could just leave when I had my repairs done as long as my visa hadn't expired. If someone asked for my papers they should just "call us, we'll tell them".
We buckled up the boat, found a slip, and headed for Tortola. We arrived there around 2:00 p.m. and called the rigger, he showed up about ten minutes later. A very prompt and professional fellow, he climbed up the rig and brought down the backstay. We repaired it there on the dock and hoisted it back up. Because we'd only lost the last thread on the insulator we were about to screw it back together with Loctite and everything was good as new. By 4:30 it was pretty clear we had a fully functional rig again. We ordered some takeout dinner from the marina restaurant, I repaired the SSB antenna and we were off, once again at 5:30.
I consider it a strong testament to how far our crew has come that Kathy and the kids were willing to turn right around, after the day's near disaster and on little sleep, and head right back out there again to make the passage. A few years ago Kathy bumped a rock driving the boat out of Onset, MA and it seemed like she had the shakes about it for days. This was a hundred times worse, and this time SHE was the rock.
And for the rest of the trip...we decided to motor sail all night up wind. Boring, loud and roll-y. But nothing else fell off the boat.