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© 2008 Douglas Gould Dismasted sailboats pose some particular risks and challenges for assistance operators. Even in calm weather, a dismasted sailboat is at significant risk as long as the rigging and spars remain connected to the vessel. The spars of most modern boats are made of strong aluminum extrusions, and booms or mast sections become underwater battering rams that can poke a pretty big hole in a boat. Meanwhile, a confusion of sheets, halyards, shrouds and torn sails create a real menace to anyone trying to walk around and work on deck. Dealing with a dismasting requires that you allow your inner risk manager to bubble up to the front of your consciousness. In some ways, this may be one of the most risk filled situations you will ever encounter. Extreme care and diligence, with a healthy dose of caution are required to reach a successful conclusion without injury. In most cases, you will be faced with the job of detaching the entire rig from the vessel, and to do that quickly and safely requires a working knowledge of sailboats in general, and understanding how they are rigged is really important. Being able to identify which wire or line goes where, and to communicate precisely with others about the all the components while you are taking it apart makes the job go faster and in a logical progression. Many of the industry operators I know are veteran sailors, but for those who are not, find yourself a primer on sailboat rigging, so you will be conversant in the basics before you
face the tangled mess on the deck of a dismasting. (see http://www.sailingusa.info/parts_of_the_boat.htm for more information) Approaching a dismasted sailboat must be done with extreme care. When first arriving on scene, you must make at least one complete lap around the casualty just to size up the situation, and to look for the most logical place to come alongside. The casualty is surrounded with lines and wires, lying just below the surface waiting to snag the unwary captain and ruin his day. The majority of rig failures happen when a boat is under sail, which means the sails are also the water, creating an additional hazard. It has been my experience that the sails are all usually off to one side or the other of the casualty, making your approach decision seem obvious - but don't let a pile of sail material make this decision for you. Decide which side of the casualty will be the safest and most logical based on all the risk factors presented to you. Sections of the broken mast or boom may be rocking in the seas, even appearing completely free or loose from the casualty; they are probably hanging by just one or two threads of what’s left of the rig. A sudden jerk from a passing wake or swell can propel those pieces in unpredictable directions, like towards your towboat. If possible, have the crew on the casualty pull everything in tight when you are ready to come alongside. Before you go aboard, assemble a tool kit with the following: two sharp knives, vice grips, two pairs of pliers, two 8” Crescent wrenches, the biggest bolt cutters you have, one pair of heavy duty diagonal cutters, a couple of large screwdrivers, and a handheld radio. If you have some wire large wire-rope cutters, you will definitely want those. I like to put all that into a canvas tool bag, one with a zipper closure. You will probably drop a tool in the water at some point, so bring spares. A hacksaw may come in handy too. In a perfect world, you would have enough personnel on scene so you could leave an operator with the towboat, and rather than tying up alongside, the towboat could standoff at a safe distance. Of course, if it were a perfect world, the poor sailor wouldn’t have lost his mast in the first place. If you must tie alongside, mind the underwater hazards. When you are ready to put personnel aboard the casualty, have a short safety briefing. Everyone should be wearing a floatation device. No one cuts or disconnects anything without first informing the salvage master. Busted rigging parts and twisted spars can have very sharp edges. Beware of open hatches. Avoid stepping inside loops of line or wire. Be patient and communicate with each other. Once you are on board, formulate a plan to begin to untangle this mess; but remember that cutting a line over here can cause two wires over there to unexpectedly fetch up tight. It’s like waking around in a life size pile of pick-up sticks, and if you are not careful, you can get hurt or tossed overboard.
Every situation is different, and each dismasting deserves a careful, methodical thought process to disassemble and secure the pieces. Only do one thing at a time, and confirm that you have not made matters worse before you begin the next step. We can separate the mess you will find on the deck into two basic categories – standing rigging (stuff that holds the mast up), and running rigging (stuff that controls the sails). Standing rigging is generally 1x19 stainless steel wire, which is relatively stiff and hard to cut, or it might even be solid rod rigging, which is a real pain in the neck. Running rigging is predominately cordage, (rope) that is easily cut with a knife. There are two exceptions; the first being wire halyards, usually a soft, flexible wire rope like 7x19, and the second being some of the new high-tech ropes. Both of those can be cut with a small pair of Felco brand wire cutters. In most cases, your plan will begin with retrieving the sails by removing the mainsail from the mast and boom, and the jib from the forestay (assuming it was flying before the dismasting.) If you are lucky, you may be able to simply release (or cut) the halyards and pull the sails on deck. If you are not that lucky, perhaps you can cut the internal halyards where they are exposed by a broken section of the mast. Other solutions might include sending a diver down to the masthead to disconnect or cut the halyards. As a last resort, just cut all the sail material away in sections. Keep in mind that a large mainsail can be worth tens of thousands of dollars, so retrieving it undamaged may be worth an extra effort. Getting the sails off the spars and secured might include cutting some lines, but sheets, outhauls, topping lifts and halyards are completely expendable under the circumstances, so cut them if you need to. Don’t cut any line that is under tension or taught until you are sure exactly what is putting it under stress. At some point, you may have to face a decision about what to save and what to jettison to the deep. There are many factors one might consider, but in general, the quicker the rig is free and either secured or gone, the less risk there will be. However, the value of some of the rigging parts, especially rod rigging and roller furling, can be significant. If circumstances allow, both the owner and the insurance company will appreciate efforts to save what you can. There is one common piece of equipment that is most annoying to deal with, and that is the roller furling system for the jib, which usually is integral to the forestay. Roller furling allows the jib to be rolled around the forestay using control lines that lead to the cockpit. Large drums, massive swivels and sections of aluminum-extruded track are all assembled around the wire forestay, and access to the bottom of the forestay is usually hindered by the drum and/or twisted pieces of sail track. Disconnecting the forestay requires removal of a large clevis pin located under the furling drum. (see photo)
If the jib was rolled up in the furled position when the rig came down, it becomes a giant angry snake that will frustrate all efforts to tame it. That heavy, wet sail hanging in the water will be exerting tremendous forces on the clevis pin under the drum, and you may need to use a drift and hammer to get the pin out. (Winch handles make great hammers, Philips screwdrivers make good drifts) Have a line secured just above the drum, so you don’t loose everything overboard. On a modern 40’ sloop, that jib and furling system could be worth $10,000 or more. Once the sails are out of the water, and you have dealt with the forestay, you can begin sorting out the broken spar sections and remaining rigging. Disconnect the boom from the mast at the gooseneck fitting, and clear any wires that are no longer attached to the mast. If you can remove the turnbuckles from the chain plates, fine, otherwise, just unscrew the turnbuckles completely. On smaller boats, you may be able to cut the screws of the turnbuckle with bolt cutters. Attempting to cut wire rope with bolt cutters is like trying to teach a pig to sing: its a waste of your time, and it will only annoy the pig. If you don’t have a large set of wire cutters, your time is better spent disassembling turnbuckles. If you collect shrouds and stays still intact, coil them up, and take a few turns with the tail to hold the coil together, or use some wraps of duct tape. These coils can easily be secured out of the way some place on deck. Even rod rigging can be coiled, but only in very large circles, perhaps as much as 6’ in diameter. Speaking of rod rigging; you have limited choices for cutting that stuff. The best tool is a hydraulic cutter designed to cut stainless rigging. An electric grinder with a cut-off wheel will work, or an acetylene torch. Rod rigging is very hard material, and you won't have much luck cutting it with hand tools. Most modern sailboats with aluminum spars have a conduit inside to feed electrical wires for navigation lights and equipment like wind speed indicators and radar. When the mast falls, all that wiring gets stretched very tight. It may also be the only thing holding the broken upper sections from going to the bottom, so cut these wires very cautiously. Before cutting any electric wires, confirm that the breakers are turned off. Getting a fallen rig secured on deck can be exhausting work, but you should fight the urge to rush to get the job done. A careful, methodical approach will limit the loss of tools, equipment, and blood.