Golden Globe Race entrant and former Clipper Race skipper Guy Waites suffers mast failure 300 miles from the Azores
While I was skippering Dare to Lead in the 2019-20 edition of the Clipper Round the World Race, we were diverted during Leg 5 from Airlie Beach, Australia to the Philippines, just as the opening chapters of the Covid-19 story were being written.
It was while being held in quarantine on the pontoon, in early 2020, that I agreed to buy Sagarmatha, the Tradewind 35 that had been Kevin Farebrother’s entry in the 2018 Golden Globe Race – which is limited to yachts designed prior to 1988.
Soon after, with the Clipper Race postponed, and having made a hasty return to the UK, I began to plan the return of Sagarmatha from Panama to her new home in Scarborough, North Yorkshire.
No sooner had the plan begun to unfold than Panama closed its borders. Fast-forward to 12 October 2020, the day Panama reopened for the first time since Covid closed them in March earlier that year.
I arrived on this very day, carefully avoiding the television cameras and the women in national costume bearing baskets of fruit to mark the occasion. I was taken by taxi to Shelter Bay Marina the following morning, ready to meet Sagarmatha for the first time.
After several weeks of getting to know one another, involving a lot of cleaning away mould with white vinegar or bleach, we were ready to leave Panama at what was the end of the hurricane season in the Caribbean Sea.
It was now 21 November 2020, and with the last of a stream of depressions moving west I took the opportunity to get as far east as possible towards the Columbian coastline before the inevitable return of the north-easterly trade winds halted our progress and the equatorial current further north would compound the problem.
I should clarify that I’d bought Sagarmatha to enter the 2022 Golden Globe Race and a single-handed voyage of at least 2,000 miles was a necessary part of the qualifying process.
As the trades returned, Sagarmatha was hard on the wind for the first time, a quick trip forward to look up the mast revealed a distinct S-bend with the free column below the spreaders bending to leeward. I quickly tacked north to find the same problem on both tacks, shortening sail to ease the strain I continued, weighing my options with this early setback.
With no apparent options for re-rigging the boat back in Panama I stood on for Jamaica, arriving at anchor several days later.
It soon became clear that if I wanted to stay I’d have to move west to Kingston, but the time spent in Port Morant to make adjustments to Sagarmatha’s standing rigging gave me the confidence to continue out into the Atlantic.
Staying low in latitude kept me in the relatively light grip of the Azores’ high pressure, though upwind the breeze was steady and the sea state kind, day after day I made slow but sure progress in the direction of the Azores Islands.
It was early January 2021, I’d been at sea for 44 days since departing Panama and a mere 200 miles from Horta. The weather was deteriorating, steadily it swung to the east and began to build.
Through the night the sea state increased and by dawn, with the Azores archipelago shelving and barely 80 miles to Horta I made the decision to turn away and run west with the wind and waves, preferring the deeper waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
It was now day two of an easterly storm, the wind was shrieking and the sea running heavy. Keen not to give away too many miles of our hard earned voyage, I ran bare poles, with a long line of mooring warps streaming from the stern.
I was standing in the cabin when we were hit heavily by a breaking wave, Sagarmatha was knocked flat, fortunately I was holding on and witnessed the launch from behind its lee cloth of the neatly stowed baggage and sleeping bag on the starboard saloon bunk, rolled around the deck head and dropped down almost as neatly on the port saloon bunk!
Less fortunately, the contents of the chart table scattered, just as a bucket of water poured in under the sliding companionway hatch. With Sagarmatha back upright I darted to the deck port light in the main saloon to quickly check the mast – still standing.
Pulling on my dry smock, lifejacket etc. I was out in the cockpit when I spotted the first apparent casualty, the wind turbine mast had folded and three of the five turbine blades had shattered leaving the two remaining to shake what’s left.
I lassoed the turbine and bent it down to guardrail height, securing it with a lashing until better times. Turning forward I noticed the starboard shrouds were slack, and further investigation revealed a crease in the mast… now I had a much bigger problem!
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What followed was a further two days of stress, worrying about the integrity of the mast while the conditions slowly subsided.
Pressing on I was now some 300 plus miles from the Azores Islands with a crease that has turned an S-bend into a banana.
Having gybed twice through the passing storm to keep as close by the Azores as possible I was now to the north-west and Flores was my nearest landfall.
Short satellite text messages by InReach with my wife revealed that Flores was closed to visitors, would that matter in my circumstances?
I pressed on, albeit as gently as I could to protect the mast.
Flores became Horta, Horta became Angra do Heroismo, then Pria da Vitoria, on and on it went.
Every time I was within striking distance of a safe harbour the wind turned against me, barley able to make a 180º tacking angle and the sea state rendering any motor sailing useless. Food and water were getting low now and the frustration was getting higher.
A chance conversation over the VHF radio led to me talking to a coastguard helicopter on exercise.
A weather report later and their enquiry into my wellbeing and I was advised to head for Ponta Delgada on Sao Miguel Island, but once again the wind turned against me.
I was forced to run away from a building gale.
I was running down the north coast of Sao Miguel Island, its imposing volcanic cliffs and a breaking sea doing nothing for my frustrations.
At the eastern end of the island I turned south and slid blissfully in to the lee of the land, I was standing on the lazarette attending to a tired windvane when the VHF burst in to life.
It was the coastguard once more. With further explanation and understanding of my circumstances they advised the safe harbour of Povoacao only 20 miles away… upwind!
Come the morning, 20 January, I was safely tied alongside, 59 days at sea, 15 days since the knockdown and a banana for a mast.
The authorities were very understanding, the people of Povoacao warm and friendly. A lot can be put behind you with a hot shower, a meal and a good night’s sleep.
The next three weeks were spent in vain chasing a piece of mast section to sleeve the damage. Instead I ordered carbon fibre from the UK and had it shipped to Ponta Delgada.
With the generous assistance of the Yacht Club of Povoacao we lifted the mast off Sagarmatha and laid it down on wooden pallets by the quayside, some of the crease was pulled out, reducing the bend, and what was left was wrapped in carbon fibre and epoxy resin, cured by the Azorean sun.
With 6mm of solid carbon fibre laminate to support the damaged mast, restepped and revictualled, Sagarmatha and I continued on for Falmouth. Fifteen days later and without further problems we arrived in time for the Azores to have slipped from the red list!
Now safely home in North Yorkshire and preparations continue at a pace for the start of the Golden Globe Race 2022.
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