"We had one minute before the mast came down!" Hilma skipper recounts four-day ordeal in the North Atlantic
Swedish yacht Hilma was 540 miles west of Cape Verde on 21 November when the crew heard a loud bang. The port top shroud of the Wauquiez 47PS had come loose and was lashing about the boat.
“I realised we had about a minute before the mast came down,” says skipper Henrik Linder. “During that minute, everything was in the balance. We only had time to furl in the genoa before I heard a slow murmuring sound followed by a crash on deck.”
Fortunately, the mast fell onto the fibreglass cockpit arch, avoiding any injury to the four crew, including Henrik’s partner Lotta.
“I cried out, ‘b***** hell!’ I knew exactly what was happening. I knew it was coming down, and this year of sailing was out!” says Henrik.
The fifth crewmember, who’d run to the starboard side, was pinched by the guardwire when it impacted with the boom but was otherwise uninjured.
Dismasting not the ‘worst’ thing
Henrik, a volunteer for Swedish Sea Rescue, had talked through such a scenario beforehand. “You can never practise for being dismasted,” he says. “I’ve had practice with a loose forestay twice; you can save the rig if you know what to do but when the top shroud goes, that’s it.”
He sat the crew around the table, asking them how they felt, and addressing their fears.
“I corrected them that the ‘worst thing’ hadn’t happened because they were safe,” said Henrik. “The second worst thing had happened … we took in everything, we saw that the mast was not hitting the hull so it wasn’t a very dangerous situation. When you’re in a sea rescue the only thing that matters is the people – everything else you can discard.”
With the mast down, along with the aerial for the ship’s radio, Henrik had to use an alternative means of communication to contact rally organisers World Cruising Club.
“We tried using the Iridium Go! [satellite hotspot] to call the ARC team and rescue centre, but it was a very shaky line, we only caught every third word,” says Henrik. “No-one was within distance of the VHF to receive the Pan-Pan alert so that didn’t work either.”
Fortunately, the Starlink satellite receiver, which was rigged at the stern, was intact and provided an excellent signal, meaning Henrik could message the other ARC+ yachts on his mobile phone via the rally WhatsApp group. Four boats promised to get there as quickly as they could.
Inspecting the damage
Meanwhile, the crew turned their attention to the rig. The mast was buckled at the bottom to port – as far as the first spreader – and then to starboard where it rested on the cockpit arch, ending up in the water.
“Underneath that we had the boom and the vang, which was creating a springing effect. We realised if we cut the mast off at the bottom it would spring upwards so we had to be very cautious.”
Henrik therefore secured the bottom of the mast with ropes before cutting it free with a battery powered angle grinder.
“A hacksaw is no good,” he adds. “It would take you 20 minutes or longer to saw through the 12mm metal. With an angle grinder it took 20 seconds!”
Although the crew had several charged batteries on standby they only required one to cut through the mast, forestay and wire rigging.
Cutting the forestay
Cutting the forestay proved particularly tricky. First they had to deal with the genoa, which was now furled, and then there was the tough sailcloth, the profile underneath and the wire forestay itself inside.
“You need a really, really big blade on the angle grinder,” says Henrik. “The normal size is set because you have a metal protector fitted to it. However, to be able to cut through rigging you have to take off the cover, which is risky, and attach a huge disc so that the radius goes through the forestay.”
For parts of the rigging that were too high to reach – such as cables and halyards – Henrik used his ‘sargassum weed’ hacksaw attached to a boat hook.
He would have liked to have kept the sails, but that would have meant entering the water, which was far too dangerous. He had to let the mast, sails and instruments go overboard.
“We considered saving the bottom part of the mast for a jury rig but it weighed 200 to 300kg, we just couldn’t move it, and we had to consider our safety, especially in those swells.”
With the mast gone, the movement was unbelievably ‘awkward and scrappy’.
“The motion was just not what we were used to. We were tripping and falling constantly, we had to hold on all the time,” says Henrik. “One of the crew immediately got seasick. and had to lie down for four days, together with another crew on the last day.”
Four boats arrived on scene within an hour and a half. Three were able to each transfer 40l of fuel. The jerry cans were fed between the boats using a rope rigged with fenders. It was just as well because Hilma used at least twice as much fuel going back against the wind and waves.
“Lotta and I discussed options; whether to go back or to continue to Grenada,” says Henrik. “In our mind we were clear, but we wanted to see what the others thought. Everyone agreed, and in fact, one of the crew managed to do the second leg of the rally on another yacht from Mindelo.”
Arduous motor to port
Over the next four days, Hilma motored 540 miles back to Mindelo, Cape Verde. Towards the end of the voyage the wind increased to 26 knots.
“Coming back was really, really rough; one of the worst things I’ve done on any boat, and I’ve been in the Navy for many years and crossed the Atlantic and the Pacific,” says Henrik.
They tried keep up morale by preparing two hot meals a day but this was difficult. The voyage was arduous, and having seasick crew meant the others had to spend longer on watch.
“I did have one day of depression and I couldn’t eat,” admits Henrik. “Every day was a marathon. After the second day I was feeling like it was too hard – I’m responsible for everyone!”
Twist of fate
In a bizarre coincidence, it turns out Lotta’s cousin Louise and husband Jörgen Wennberg were also dismasted the previous year on their boat Take Off. The couple found a new boat in Martinique and were able to continue on the World ARC.
Using Starlink’s satellite internet service, Lotta and Henrik were able to get in touch with their relatives for some much-needed advice and moral support.
“It’s unrealistic! This cannot happen to us too, it just can’t happen we thought,” said Henrik. “But we talked to them and they gave us lots of advice. It turns out we even have the same insurers!”
Arrival in Mindelo
Seeing Mindelo was ‘a relief beyond expectation’, but the last day at sea had one last nasty surprise in store. The already-bad conditions were deteriorating, and as the depth shallowed, the sea got choppier, with steeper, shorter waves.
At 2am on 25 November, just hours from making landfall, Henrik woke to a strange noise – or rather, lack of noise.
“It was unbelievable!” says Henrik. “I’m normally quite calm and contained but I’ve never had such a panic. I ran on deck and said, ‘what is happening. The engine died, I’ll call the MRCC!’”
He thought at first there must have been dirt in one of the filters but the fault turned out to be a lack of fuel!
Fortunately Henrik had a few jerry cans left from fellow ARC+ participants. He refilled the tank and was relieved, as they approached Mindelo, to be greeted by fellow boaters with fuel.
“We were so grateful!” he says. “All these people who’d been anchored heard us on the handheld VHF, and saw what was happening, came out to us in dinghies to help. We had very little diesel by then, the last tank was almost empty!”
The first thing the exhausted crew did, when they arrived in Mindelo on the island of São Vicente, was to clean off all the salt.
“The whole boat had been soaking wet. You couldn’t sleep in the cabins, people slept on the floor and in the cockpit because we just ploughed through the waves continually,” says Henrik. “Everything that could leak did leak!”
Cleaning and showering was swiftly followed by a cold beer. Henrik kissed the ground and the crew went out for an extremely well-earned dinner.
But what next?
The following day Henrik and Lotta felt quite ill. They’d been seasick and were left with bad stomachs. Their Atlantic dream had been cruelly cut short and their boat badly damaged. “When we relaxed and let go of our resposibility, the shock set in. We both just collapsed and over lunch I just cried at the table. The waitress asked me if I was ok.”
“We sat and stared at Hilma and said to each other, ‘we cannot motor this boat back’. We had no energy at all.”
There were few facilities in Mindelo, limited food supplies and drinkable water. Henrik and Lotta realised that to get their boat fixed, they were going to have to get it back to Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. They contacted World Cruising Club, who managed to pull off a ‘miracle’.
It just so happened that ARC regulars Anna and Bones Black, who operate charter yacht Emily Morgan, were sailing in the vicinity. On this occasion they were crewing for another boat and would soon arrive in Cape Verde.
World Cruising Club ‘miracle’
The Blacks had crossed the Atlantic many times before, and offered to motor Hilma back to Gran Canaria for Henrik and Lotta.
“They are such a fantastic couple,” said Henrik. “They came and fixed things for us and mounted a jury rig with a new VHF antenna, steaming lights and sorted out electricity. We were so grateful.”
Anna and Bones departed Mindelo on 29 November and motored Hilma back to Gran Canaria whilst Henrik and Lotta caught a flight. When Hilma arrived in Gran Canaria six days later, the Swedish couple were there to greet them.
Henrik and Lotta are still in Las Palmas Gran Canaria, waiting for their children to arrive so they can take their ‘motorboat’ down to the south of the island.
“It’s not the Christmas we were planning, but we’re looking forward to it!” says Henrik.
What caused the dismasting?
The cause of the dismasting is still unknown. The rig was replaced in June this year, and had been checked thoroughly prior to the start of the rally.
“Everything looked well and good. We had covers over the port side turnbuckles so maybe it was more difficult to see any movement. It was not the ordinary setup with split-pins that I’m used to. It was a turnbuckle with a locking nut on top and a locking nut on the bottom, and you might not notice if one starts to rotate, unless you used a wrench.”
Prior to the dismasting, the sea state was calm, and there was only around 12 to 15 knots of wind from behind. Two days before the accident the swells began to build to around 2 to 2.5m, and coming from the north, created confused seas.
“We had a lot of flapping in the sails and since we had the preventer on the mainsail and the genoa poled out, the sails were backwinding and filling again as we went up and down on the waves,” says Henrik. “The whole rig was shaking now and then and the vibrations must have done something with the locking screws. We don’t know for sure, we’re just speculating.”
Is there anything Henrik would have done differently?
“That’s a good question,” he says. “If I had the courage or the energy I might have tried to jury-rig the extra spinnaker pole given to us by one of the other yachts. We could have used it for a VHF antenna and steaming light but the seas were too crazy. Apart from that it was textbook, I’m proud to say.”