Broken mast! What next?

Breaking a mast is by no means outside the realm of possibility on a sailing boat. Even if you have done everything right yourself there are always outside factors, never more so when racing. And frankly it even happens to the US Navy.

During the New York Yacht Club’s Annual Regatta, 10-12 June 2016, the race committee sent the IRC classes offshore from Brenton Point. Among the boats racing were two boats from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. These so called Navy 44’s, now about twenty years old were purpose built training boats used by the Academy for, certainly sailing, but team building, offshore sailing experience, resources management and leadership training. All skills these young sailors will be called upon to use for the next twenty years at least. A wise man, a pilot, once said to me any one can fly a plane in a straight line, it is knowing what to do when something goes wrong is the trick.

And so it is with sailing. What do you do when something goes wrong? When it DOES go wrong is not the time to find out. For a successful recovery from any incident there needs to be a plan in place for all hands to follow. Nowhere is this a more needed component of sailing than with the Naval academy midshipman due to the generally low level of sailing background and experience the Academy students have compared to the passages they make and the responsibilities they take on.

I was racing on the same course as the Navy boats and when the Race Committee abandoned racing for the day, after the wind piped up over 30 knots true, we all made our way in. On our boat we heard some traffic on the VHF about a boat with a broken rig but were occupied with keeping our own house in order and so did not really think about the dismasted boat for a few minutes.

As we motor-sailed towards Castle Hill it became clear the dismasted boat was one of the Academy 44’s. The first thing that struck me was that the mast was on board. This is generally a rare situation, masts go overboard most often to leeward and so are usually cut away and lost to the sea. Hummm, I wondered, what happened here? What was different about this dismasting that allowed the Midshipman to get the spar on board……?

This post is the result of an interview with the Commanding Officer of the 44, Midshipman James Reynolds, (entering his senior year at the Academy) a couple of days after the incident.

The wreckage of the broken mast lashed down on top of Defiance.

The wreckage of the broken mast lashed down on top of Defiance. Carina’s bow went up across the side deck & smashed the hand rail.

I was particularly interested in the dynamics of the crew for several reasons. One is the Navy sailing squad is commonly populated by students with not much, if any, sailing background. In this case Midshipman Reynolds had the most sailing background growing up sailing Opti’s, 420’ and, living in New Jersey, scows on Barnegat Bay. Of the 9 Midshipman aboard, including two women, one of whom was the executive officer on the boat, about half had some time on the boats and at sea. So by and large an inexperienced crew, arguably less experienced in absolute terms than perhaps any crew in the regatta.

Then there was the fact that the mast was on deck, an unusual aspect to a dismasting. On the other hand we are talking about some of the brightest and capable young men and women in the country who are being trained and groomed for major leadership roles in the United States Navy and so broadly speaking on behalf of the US in general.

The Mid's did well to secure the spar. That was just about the third order of business after a head count and inspection below to make sure the hull was not holed.

The Mid’s did well to secure the spar. That was just about the third order of business after a head count and inspection below to make sure the hull was not holed. You can see the dent in the toe rail as well as some of the scratches. Probably due to the angle of heel AND the classically raked bow, Carina did not penetrate the hull.

Midshipman Baldwin outlined the process where by non-sailing freshman are introduced to sailing starting with a few hours of classroom instruction. They then move to hands-on sailing in the Academy’s fleet of Navy (Colgate)26’s. From this sailing the ‘big boat’ teams are selected based on criteria including aptitude and initiative.

A review of the Academy’s sailing website demonstrates the details in which the Midshipman are instructed and the goals including-The following paragraph is a Cut and paste from the site:

Offshore sailing serves as an ideal platform for team building, small unit leadership, and seamanship skill development. All planning and decision making involved with day sailing and long distance transits and racing is made by midshipmen team members. Skills developed include navigation, strategic planning, resource management, vessel maintenance, weather tactics, and racing strategy.

A broken mast is one of The Eight Events* for which crews on sailing boats in the ocean (even only a few miles offshore of Brenton Point) must be familiar.

The broken end of the spar. The mast head was extended about 20 feet aft of the boat.

The broken end of the spar. The mast head was extended about 20 feet aft of the boat.

So, on with the story:

On the way out to the start the breeze was in the 18 to 20 knots true from the north-west. Baldwin told me that there was a pretty standard team meeting that covered the action for the day, what to expect, especially with the breeze at hand and the forecast for stronger winds later in the day and the admonition to be aware of the loads, do not stand in the bight of a  line, double check what you are doing and to be steady and careful.

The incident occurred on the second upwind leg of the first race. Defiance, the Navy boat was sailing up wind on starboard tack in about 20-22 knots of true knots wind with a full main and number three set.

The impact tore the standing rigging right out of this carbon fiber laminated chainplate.

The impact tore the standing rigging right out of this carbon fiber laminated chainplate.

Mid. Reynolds, acting as tactician and so not steering, saw Carina, the venerable McCurdy and Rhodes 48 footer sailing upwind towards them on port tack and determined a crossing situation was in the offing. He made the ‘starboard’ call and Carina responded by easing sail’s and steering to pass astern of the Navy boat. Baldwin is not one hundred percent certain exactly what caused the next event, but thinks that Carina was knocked hard by an errant wave (there was a nasty chop left over from Saturday) that hit Carina hard and pushed her up to where she collided with Defiance.

Defiance being on Starboard tack was rail down to Carina and so the latter, with her classically raked stem, slid up the deck of Defiance, damaging the toe rail, smashing the hand rail pushing a winch of its mounts, hitting and breaking the boom close to the gooseneck and ripping the lee side chain plates out of the boat. The force of the collision pushed the Navy boat up into the wind, with the result that the mast fell more or less directly aft, landing on the aft rail. This answered the ‘how did they get the mast aboard’ question, since it never actually went overboard.

It broke in two places, right at the partners and about 12 feet up the mast. The crew was of course hiking out on the weather rail and scrambled to avoid being hit. The after most crew member actually jumped over board so as to avoid the spar crashing down around him. He had the presence of mind to hang on to the lifelines as he did so and so ended up hanging onto the boat and he was promptly gathered back aboard.

The bow of Carina penetrated all the way to the boom, which was smashed to.

The bow of Carina penetrated all the way to the boom, which was smashed to.

I asked what happened in the first few second after the mast fell. First action was a head count. Reynolds ended up in the cockpit, on the floor and could account for half the crew in his vicinity. The XO was further forward and reported all hands aboard and un-hurt, although in a few minutes one of the crew was taken below with what transpired to be concussion. Next step was to dispatch a hand down below to make sure the boat was not taking on water. Parallel to these activities, all in the first few second, the ships Safety Officer, Jon Wright took command of the boat. Not surprisingly, working for the Navy Offshore program Wright has vast experience across all manner of boats. What happened within the next thirty seconds?

The stainless steep protector around the Dorade was not spared either.

The stainless steel guard rail around the Dorade box was not spared either.

The crew emerged from under the sails. The bowman and foredeck hands started to work on getting the sails secured. The top 20 feet or so of mast was lying across the stern rail and dipping in and out of the sea, aggravating the situation with the mast flailing around on deck. They were able to get the headsail secured but had to cut the mainsail at the first reef, luff to leech after which they could remove the mainsail from the mast. Next task was to work on securing the mast. The boat was now sideways to the sea and was rolling heavily and so aggravating the situation with the mast in and out of the sea.

I asked if the actions were all on initiative or on instruction from Wright, (known almost universally as JW)? A combination of both was the answer. The crew had had sufficient instruction and, while not actually handling broken masts, training in what to do. The lee rigging, now disconnected from the boat was fortunately lying in the water, minimizing further potential damage to crew and boat from flailing wires.

One of the crew radioed the Race Committee advising them of the incident. The RC responded by sending the Windward mark boat to assist.

One of the crew remarked on having been hit, feeling lightheaded and unwell. She was dispatched below under the care of the XO, the other young lady in the crew. Once ashore she was diagnosed with concussion.

Within five-ten minutes the spar was secured along the centerline of the boat. The remains of the boom had been freed but discarded. The wheel had been damaged when the rig hit it and was out of commission so the emergency tiller was rigged.

The wheel was bent as the spar landed and so the Mid's rigged the emergency tiller.

The wheel was bent as the spar landed and so the Mid’s rigged the emergency tiller.

In a brief conversation with Rives Potts the owner skipper of Carina, I asked him if he had the opportunity to make any observations of the navy crew’s response. Potts told me that Carina immediately lowered sails and stood by. Once they ensured their people were OK and the boat sound, Potts had the opportunity to follow the action on Defiant. He remarked on the calm and professional way the young Navy sailors conducted themselves. ‘There was no yelling or shouting, they looked very cool and collected, and went about securing the boat although they scuttled the boom. It seemed like they had the mast secured very quickly. All in all a very impressive piece of work by young sailors’ he told me.

In a separate conversation with Jon Wright, again a pretty quick one-he and Potts are, as I write, preparing to go to Bermuda and the forecast is for hard winds-He concurred with Potts in the calmness with which these young sailors conducted them selves. He confirmed Reynolds remarks that the first order of business was to make sure every one was on board and not injured. Closely followed by an inspection down below for hull security. He agreed with Potts with the view that the actions and demeanor of the crew were very calm and professional. The crew worked together, with different members proposing solutions to the micro problem in their particular area.

The take away from this discussion and incident?

Planning, preparation and a game plan.

At one of your off season crew gatherings, walk the troops through the eight events, noted below, and work up an Actions Plan for each one. The Navy sailors were fortunate to have this accident in broad daylight, 4 miles offshore and moderate sea. These circumstances may not be in place if your rig comes down.

*Coopers Eight events:

In the Junior Safety at Sea seminars produced by the Storm Trysail Foundation, I cite the following events as situations for which there needs to be established plans and protocols.

Dismasting, holing, man overboard, medical emergency, abandon ship, fire, rudder or steering failure. (They sound the same but are a bit different in the required response.)


During the Storm Trysail Foundations junior SAS every year, local high school sailors are introduced to the issues surrounding operating a big boat in a safe and seamanlike manner. Her, the hugely experienced former Commodore of the Cruising Club of America and multi-time Bermuda Race participant discusses some of the  safety equipment used on big boats.

During the Storm Trysail Foundations junior SAS every year, local high school sailors are introduced to the issues surrounding operating a big boat in a safe and seamanlike manner. Here, Sheila McCurdy, the hugely experienced former Commodore of the Cruising Club of America and multi-time Bermuda Race participant discusses some of the safety equipment used on big boats.


















Newport to Bermuda Race-What sails?

Sails for offshore and the Newport to Bermuda Race:

The Newport to Bermuda Race, sailed in even numbered years and it’s counterparts that are sailed in odd numbered years, The Marion to Bermuda Race and The Bermuda 1-2 are something of a right of passage for many US sailors, especially those in the north east. While not particularly long in terms of famous ocean races, the weather across the track can make for some pretty hard going, more so for the unprepared. The Bermuda race is roughly the same distance as the Sydney to Hobart race and the Fastnet race but as has been seen in both these races distance is not the only factor to contend with when preparing to race (sail) ‘only’ 650 or so miles.

The Newport to Bermuda Race committee is rightly proud of their safety record (only one loss of life in the race’s history) and so the organizers hunt and peck from a variety of sources and mandate a few of their own safety regulations in some cases.

The default regulations for offshore sailing, including things like required equipment, the boat’s structure and training are the Offshore Special Regulations, known as offshore regs.

Front cover of the World Sailing Offshore Special Regs, aka the 'Offshore Regs.'

Front cover of the World Sailing Offshore Special Regs, aka the ‘Offshore Regs.’

This booklet-sized document contains these regulations promulgated by International Sailing Federation, ISAF, now called World Sailing. It covers all manner of particulars to do with getting to the finish in the same boat you started with and all the same crew you started with. It is EXTREMELY hard won information and a very informative read for anyone thinking of going maybe anywhere in a sailing boat.

It is however somewhat Euro-centric in that everything is cross-referenced to an ISO number. For the layman it is a bureaucratic black hole. To make things a bit easier for US sailors US Sailing started a few years ago to develop their own prescriptions for requirement for races in the US. The result is a document a normal person can read and defines the gear required for the boat for three categories of racing, not six, called by USSailing: the Safety Equipment Regulations (SER’s) and the three categories are Ocean, Coastal & Nearshore.

Finally the Bermuda Race Organizing Committee list their own requirements based on their very extensive research, surveys after each race and the vast experience in some very un-hospitable areas of the worlds oceans of the members of the CCA.

In the view of some the safety requirements for much of the Offshore Regs. are becoming more and more complex. I have over the past few years been told by at least two people I can think of that they are stopping doing offshore races due to the rigmarole and cost of the safety kit.

Regardless, the requirements for sails have generally remained pretty stable for several years. There are really only two principal changes to sails lately: Storm Jibs and Storm trysails manufactured after 1 Jan. 2014 are required to be ALL high visibility, usually orange, in color. So, the sail requirements for the Newport to Bermuda race are as follows.

There are three required sails and an assumed fourth one, the mainsail.


The three required sails are: a Storm Jib, a Storm Trysail and what is called a Heavy Weather Jib. These are very specifically defined in the safety equipment section of The mainsail has only one requirement and that is:

3.33.1 Reefing: A yacht shall have mainsail reefs capable of reducing the area of the sail by an amount appropriate for the weather conditions possible on the racecourse.

This phraseology is intended to push back to the owners and the master, the responsibilities for going to sea. This is in fact embedded in the Racing Rules of Sailing and RRS Rule 4 is here:


The responsibility for a boat’s decision to participate in a race or to continue racing is hers alone.

From a practical and seamanship perspective, contemplating sailing across this course on a boat with only one reef, would be a risk, way riskier than the reward of a few pounds less weight in the mainsail.

The Heavy Weather Jib (HWJ) is from a sailmaker’s perspective and design and engineering wise, are ‘merely” small, flat and heavily constructed jibs. But they must meet the rules for HWJs though which are-for the Newport to Bermuda Race:

3.33.3 Heavy Weather Jib:

A yacht shall carry a heavy weather jib (or heavy weather sail in a yacht with no forestay) of area not greater than 13.5% height of the fore-triangle squared.

In practice it turns out that on many, if not most boats an forestay sail, like the one seen on this Bristol 41-1 suffice as the Heavy Weather Jib but you should do the calculations or have your sailmaker do them, ideally with you.

Forestaysails commonly qualify as Heavy Weather Jib

Forestaysails commonly qualify as Heavy Weather Jib

A line item in the HWJ definition from World Sailing Offshore Regs is:

‘A heavy-weather jib (or heavy-weather sail in a boat with no forestay) with: area of 13.5% height of the foretriangle (IG) squared and a readily available means, independent of a luff groove, to attach to the stay.’

In practice this means grommets installed at suitable intervals in the luff of the sail immediately aft of the luff rope that enters into the headfoil on the boat.Thru these grommets may be passed lengths of line suitable for lashing the sail to the headstay in the event of damage to the foil.

The “alternative methods” of securing the sail to the stay has been edited out in the Bermuda race’s own rules. This now abandoned rule stems from the days of aluminum head foils being damaged by spinnaker poles bashing into them, rendering it impossible to get a sail up the foil. Today’s headfoils are made from plastic and spinnakers much less likely to be set on poles but at sea if something can fail, and this is everything, there must be a Plan B.

In the case of the HWJ, having your sailmaker install grommets up the luff so the sail can be secured to the foil (by short lengths of line premade for the purpose and stored in the emergency took kit, right?) is a very good idea. You can also leave the lines in the sail permanently because IF the foil fails AND you need to set this HWJ, having the lines already installed will be a lot easier than having a couple of crew sitting in the bow lacing the lines they the grommets for 30 minutes or so. And as a practical matter their presence will have zero impact on the performance of the sail for those thinking abut windage

Here is another Cooper TIP too. Backup grommets are something to think about for all headsails. Apart from the fact the head foil will not get un-busted when the breeze abates and having a way to set headsails is generally a good idea in an ocean race there is another utility made available by such grommets in the luff.

During the headsail changing process sails so equipped can have a length of light line woven back and forth, Dutchman like, through these grommets. The bottom end is made off with a figure eight knot so the line does not pass thru the grommets. All of this does a couple of things. It helps keep the luff of the sail forward in the flaking process. It offers a way to tie off the bulk of the forward end of the sail. This gives the crew at that end of the procedure a bit more freedom to wrestle the sail back into its turtle. If push comes to shove, a sail can be tied off to the boat at the forward end and it is perfectly possible for one man or woman to get a headsail into a turtle by themselves. Just ask anyone who did the sewer on a 12-meter, back in the day. Finally when changing back to this sail as the wind diminishes, the upper end of this line can be temporarily tied off until the sail is really ready to get hoisted. This makes it a bit harder for the (forward end of the) sail to go over the side.


Sail offshore long enough (and or sail with no reefs in the mainsail) and you WILL meet conditions that will require all your seamanship skills, those of your crew AND small sails. The Newport to Bermuda Race requirements for the storm sails are:

3.33.2 Storm Trysail:

A yacht shall carry a storm trysail, with the yacht’s sail number displayed on both sides, that can be set independently of the main boom, has an area less than 17.5% of “E” x “P”, and which is capable of being attached to the mast. Storm sails manufactured after 1/1/2014 must be constructed from a highly visible material. Commonly this is an orange, yellow or pink material.

Trysail sheeted to boom

Trysail sheeted to boom


Rugg J 105 Storm Try tied around the boomA trysail sheeted to the boom: The traditional sheeting method for trysails is to lead the sheets to the quarter blocks in the stern. This causes chafe, where the sheet passes over the life lines, results in a poor shape when the sail is eased, leaves a lot of sail flapping around in tacks or gybes or needs more people to perform these manouvers. A very viable alternative is to set the trysail off the boom as seen above. In this case a reef lines is used. HOw ever the sail is set one must be on constant guard for chafe.

3.33.4 Storm Jib:

A yacht shall carry a storm jib not exceeding 5% of the yacht’s “I” dimension squared, and equipped with an alternative means of attachment to the headstay in the event of a failure of the head foil. Storm sails manufactured after 1/1/2014 must be constructed from a highly visible material.

Storm sails built after 2014 are required to be a high visibility color.

Storm sails built after 2014 are required to be a high visibility color.

The decision to set a trysail or not (and how to lower and stow it, don’t forget) is largely driven by the size and type of boat and by extension the skills of the owners and crew. The age, physical dexterity, strength, skill, sailing ability, seamanship and experience are all factors in sail handling in these conditions. And the last two are not always the same as sailing skill. One magazine article cannot address the many variables in methods for using and lowering a trysail let alone the variables on the course.

I would strongly recommend practicing as often as you can with all the crew and especially in crappy, windy weather doing all the evolutions and especially reefing and headsail changes.

Frankly the forgoing requirements for racing boats present very sound information for anyone bound offshore. AND yes, I get that people don’t want to carry Storm Sails around but they have uses outside of conditions over 50 knots.

Next up, what sails do I NEED for the Bermuda races