Steve Hodges and his fiancée Sam McClements’ second attempt at the RYA Yachtmaster Ocean passage is scuppered by a dismasted yacht
Purely for personal achievement reasons, my fiancée Sam and I are keen to achieve our Yachtmaster Ocean certificates to cap off a range of qualifications, including cruising instructor for Sam and Yachtmaster instructor for me.
Last year storm-force winds forced us to seek shelter in France, coming ashore for running repairs and rest, and therefore our 600-mile passage was broken into two voyages and not submittable for qualification.
Undeterred, we set about trying to cross the Bay of Biscay again in June with two-thirds of the previous crew and our new friend, Jerry. Malcolm, Smithy, Sam and I were excited to put to bed the disappointment of the previous trip, Nigel and Charlie being otherwise engaged – though Nigel, was meeting us in A Coruña to skipper our Beneteau Cyclades 39.3 back to the Channel Islands where we intended to have a family holiday before sailing home.
With Sam’s Clipper Round the World Race experience and both our time instructing at Elite Sailing in Chatham we are fairly risk averse and try to prepare for every eventuality.
We serviced the engine including all new filters, a new impeller and a complete replacement of the oils.
We replaced the mainsail with a new one from Resen Sails in Denmark, had her lifted for inspection, Sam serviced all the lifejackets, and conducted a top-to-toe check of the rigging from the bosun’s chair.
We also made additional purchases to last year’s upgrades:
- New storm jib, with a sleeve to go over the furling gear from e-sails
- New Seago Ocean liferaft with SOLAS B grab bag
- IridiumGO! Exec and upgraded subscription to PredictWind.
Equipped with our new gear, a fierce determination, and a tracking fan club (of three) we set off from Eastbourne on Thursday 29 June.
The boat looked great, felt fantastic to sail and the weather forecast was lively but fun.
We intended to beat ‘the Bay’ on round two.
Jerry, Smithy and I were on one watch, with Malcolm and Sam on the other and we settled into a routine with a 6+6+4+4+4 watch pattern, giving everyone the required number of sunsets, sun rises, shooting stars and dolphins along with affording Sam and me the time to do our celestial sights for our certification.
This watch system provides good rest periods as well as whole crew mealtimes together.
The first 24 hours aboard were standard stuff, the weather varied from Force 4 to Force 6 and progress was steady.
Sweepstakes for arrival ranged from Tuesday night to Wednesday evening. There was commercial shipping to dodge as we crossed the Channel but boat life was relaxed and fun.
By Friday afternoon the weather had picked up and we put up the new storm jib.
It was also heading at us from the west, slowing down progress, and we knew we needed to reach the top corner of France to make the turn for a three-day beam-reach across Biscay and into Spain.
So we put the engine on at 2,000rpm as we neared the French coast to point up a bit more.
After a few hours under motor, the engine overheat alarm came on and we could smell that something wasn’t right so we turned off the engine and I headed below.
Something had blocked the water inlet and stopped the cooling water from getting into the engine.
Upon shutting the seacock and taking off the impeller cover we could see that all the impeller fins had completely gone.
We fished some bits out of the pipework but the heat exchanger needed looking at.
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We replaced the impeller with a new one temporarily and proceeded to sail. We re-tested the engine and found an okay amount of water coming out of the exhaust so we ran it slowly and hoped for the best.
A second challenge emerged. While heading to his cabin, Smithy found water splashing up above the sole boards.
It’s quite a shallow part of the bilge next to the engine bay so there was no major panic, but we lifted the boards for inspection.
After a couple of hours down below, in fairly bumpy seas I discovered that when putting the pipes back on the pump, the clip around one of the hoses had broken and water was being pumped into the boat. Not ideal!
Port of refuge
Given the weather was a good Force 6+ and building, we decided to duck into Alderney for a few hours, anchor or get onto a mooring buoy and clean up the heat exchanger.
We could also dry out the bilges fully, ready for our main mission – the Bay. We arrived into Braye in fog, punchy winds but with the tide.
Glued to the chartplotter and the faint glimpse of the leading lights we made it into the harbour safely.
The helpful harbour staff in the RIB at Braye assisted us to a mooring buoy. She agreed that there was a Force 7 on the way and we put two lines around the buoy.
We ate, Sam and I stripped the engine down to get to the heat exchanger and spent an hour picking all the rubber out.
We then put it back together, fired it up and with a quick splutter the usual voluminous amount of water started pumping out the exhaust again.
We still don’t know what caused the initial overheating but we were pleased we carry spare impellers and a comprehensive tool kit.
Shortly before midnight on Friday, we headed out into the blustery wind, punching the tide for a couple of hours before altering course to port and shooting for the north-west corner of France.
The sailing was great, one large tack to clear Guernsey and we were making good speed in a reasonable direction.
We knew we would need one or two tacks to get ‘round the corner’ but then as the wind shifted slowly to north-west-ish we’d grab our beam reach and get to Spain in one tack.
Early Wednesday morning was still on! We were maintaining an average 6.5 knots.
Shortly before a 2000 watch change, the team tacked for the penultimate time, heading north back towards Blighty and we monitored the weather and tides to find the perfect moment for our last tack of the trip, ready for three days of straight sailing.
At just after 2300 boat time (2100 UTC) my watch was willing the boat along to see if we could get the final tack in before handover at midnight.
We were glued to the Axiom and PredictWind and discussing how best to make it past Ushant, inside the TSS but not too close to the challenging shoreline.
Just before 2330, as Jerry was on the helm, Smithy was sat on the high side of the cockpit and I was sat on the deck floor looking at the chartplotter, out of nowhere and with a quiet gracefulness that was totally unexpected, the mast, just, fell, down.
Clattering onto the starboard side wheel, guardrail, pushpit and partially into the water we were stopped dead in our tracks.
The foresail and furler were also in the water and for one to two seconds we were stunned.
Then, we all kicked into action. “Everybody on deck, lifejackets on please, as quick as possible!” was my request.
Sam, resting in the saloon and Malcs asleep ahead of their midnight to 0400 stint, were up instantly. ‘What on earth..?’ was the expression on their faces.
Sam went below and came back with the two grab bags and handheld VHF, while Malcs, Smithy and Jerry did what they could to secure the rig and make sure things didn’t escalate with a punctured hull or anyone getting trapped.
We discussed options: is this a Mayday or a Pan Pan? There was no immediate danger to life, but it could escalate quickly with all the gear on the deck and in the water.
What was our position, were we in a ferry lane, and what further damage was being done? There was a lot of noise, was everyone safe, uninjured and in good health?
We were all focused on getting back to shore in one piece.
We were just under 10 miles from the French coast. I grabbed the emergency VHF antenna and replaced the connector for the one on the mast in the splitter.
Sam issued a Pan Pan but heard nothing back, She popped up a couple of red parachute flares, a few minutes apart and we listened for a call. Nothing.
We grabbed the IridiumGO! Exec from the chart table and, fearing that the condition could escalate, we hit the SOS button.
Malcs also tried making some calls on his mobile, sending a couple of WhatsApp messages to our friend, Deano, in the north of England.
The SOS button achieved a phone call on the satellite network from the Garmin Emergency Response centre in the US.
The signal was poor and the speaker was difficult to hear because of the wind, the noise of the rig grinding against the boat and the waves.
It was a frustrating few minutes as we battled for them to understand our location and our Lat and Long position which was clearly displayed on the Iridium screen.
The Iridium doesn’t send your position details or MMSI (and I hope they change it with a software update), it is no EPIRB, it just makes the call or sends a message to the IERCC and then initiates the emergency process which includes calling your shoreside contacts.
So while relaxing at home, my brother Dave received a call from Texas advising him that we had initiated an emergency protocol and did he know where we were this weekend?
Before we left, I had given our shoreside contacts the Satcomms number of the Iridium, a passage plan and access to the PredictWind tracking webpage, this turned out to be invaluable.
Dave made a call to us on the Iridium and despite the poor signal and background noise, his voice came on the speaker with his usual chilled out demeanour, “Yo, what’s up?” “Well it’s a bit tricky out here mate, we have been dismasted, we are all safe and uninjured, but we are currently at 48 degrees, 50 minutes decimal 76 north, and Zero Zero Four degrees, 20 minutes decimal 14 West and could really do with some help!”
The comms were broken and challenging but he had got it. And he was off to call 999 and get the UK coastguard onto the French SNSM.
At the same time, Malcs’ messages had got to Dean, who also called the coastguard.
It was a relief to know the emergency services were being made aware of our predicament.
Smithy stood in the cockpit holding the emergency VHF antenna aloft and Jerry continued to make adjustments to the lines to secure the rig.
Sam continued with the comms on the VHF now escalated to a Mayday and grabbed our bright spotlight to attract the attention of passing vessels.
Malcs kept Deano informed while helping Jerry with the rig.
We each gathered a few ‘extras’ in case we abandoned ship, wallets, warm clothes and I even managed to pop Sam’s sunglasses in a pocket.
Continued reassessment went on but we now had time for smiles and banter.
We were comforted by knowing help was on its way and there was a bright, full moon, but we were still a very little dot in a very large sea.
Then a welcome message came over the radio.
A French fishing boat called Azkarra made contact and was 20 minutes out from us.
Sam scanned the horizon with the spotlight and I kept an eye on the AIS which now had a visible range of only a couple of miles.
We soon saw their spotlight scanning in our direction and Sam reciprocated with enthusiasm.
Knowing that even if the worst was now to happen, the crew of Azkarra had followed the mariner’s code and were by our side was one of the most comforting feelings I have experienced at sea.
Via radio, the Azkarra let us know that the SNSM (French RNLI) and the French Navy were sending out a helicopter!
“Er, I’m not sure they need to do that, we’re all uninjured and in good spirits and there is probably something more valuable they could be doing with their time,” I responded. “They are coming!” Was the uninterested reply. “Fair enough,” I thought.
A second French fishing vessel, Le Tad, arrived and stood, sometimes a little too close, by our side relieving the crew of Azkarra of their duties.
Despite it being probably a few hours since the mast came down, it all felt like minutes.
As Le Tad kept watch over us we saw red flashing lights in the sky and heard the deep thud of rotor slap heading out towards us.
“Ruby May, Ruby May this is the French Navy helicopter, over”. Not thinking that I should have left the comms to Sam who can speak French, I grabbed the Command mic from its bracket and responded. “Do you have a swim ladder?” they enquired, “Yes, but it is under the mast..” “OK, no problem.”
It felt harsh that we were all warm and dry and they intended to throw some poor fellow in the cold, dark, rolly sea to help us.
I was glad the ladder was out of action.
Out of the helicopter descended the coolest man to grace the earth.
We stared in awe as they casually popped the winchman on the only two square metres of coachroof that did not have rigging or people on it.
He unclipped himself and the chopper headed up to a couple of hundred feet and lit us up with their spotlight.
Impressive doesn’t begin to do it justice. The winchman slid off his helmet, revealing chiselled cheeks and a groomed beard, grinned broadly with perfect teeth, and said “Bonjour!”
Every member of the crew was bowled over.
He offered to airlift three of us, but we all preferred to stay together.
The lifeboat was on its way so we would wait for the tow, and all play a part in the recovery.
Our winchman was nonplussed, “no problem at all” and he took off his sling and removed his diving fins from around his waist. “You don’t need to stay with us, we’ll be fine,” I said. “It is fine, I have nothing else to do,” he replied. And he took his place in the cockpit with the Ruby May gang.
The lifeboat coming from L’Aber Wrac’h was about 30 minutes behind, our winchman was in communication with the helicopter above us and talking to the lifeboat and instructed us to jettison the rig for the tow.
We knew it was coming but the prospect of cutting away the boat’s rig, sails, every bit of rope and wire, screw and bolt that we had lovingly put into Ruby May felt horrific. We set to work.
Sam, Smithy and Jerry worked on the lines and backstays and Malcs and I set to work with pliers on the shrouds and the forestay.
It was tricky with the lumpy sea and taut rig.
We carry bolt cutters and got them out but with the rig under so much lateral tension at various points and the bottle screws all clearly available we decided to unscrew everything in a controlled way.
It took around 45 minutes, by which time the lifeboat was standing by, ready with the towline.
We sliced through the few remaining lines and the top half of our beautiful sailboat was sent 80m to the seabed.
The lifeboat crew moved in with the heaving lines and Sam got them on the cleats.
We pulled in the tow line and made a bridle looped over the windlass, cleats and out the bow rollers.
The SNSM lifeboat crew were super communicative, comforting and gave us a ‘five minute warning’ for the tow to begin.
Our temporary crew member donned his helmet, grabbed his bag, and sat on our remaining guardrail ready for his lift.
He gave Malcs, Jerry and Smithy in the cockpit a thumbs up and was gone.
Sam and I on the bow checked the tow rope one final time and then we were on our way, bound for L’Aber Wrac’h.
Sam grabbed the helm to help with the tow and Smithy fetched the bag of chocolate bars and we settled in for the three-hour slog home.
I had a siesta while the others sat up reflecting how lucky we were that no one had been injured or even killed, and how glad we were that it had not happened 150 miles offshore in the middle of the Bay of Biscay.
- Rig check importance. We still have no idea what caused the rig to fail. It was less than three years since her last professional rig inspection and she’d had two thorough checks since then. This has given us the comfort of not having nagging doubts of what we’d have missed if Sam had not spent a couple of hours up the rigging before we left.
- Preparedness. Despite often sailing as a family and the boat being our second home, everything has its place on Ruby May. From the first aid kits, to tools, grab bags, EPIRB, bolt cutters, ship’s papers, passports and even chocolate bars, at no point were we hunting around looking for anything.
- Setting up the IridiumGO! Exec before leaving was invaluable. We did most of it at home using good connectivity and then tested it with the support of the PredictWind team on the boat before departure.
- Briefing shoreside contacts was useful although I had not shared a full crew list and the crew’s emergency contacts. I have since created ‘trip’ folders in OneDrive to share with emergency contacts moving forward.
- Prepped grab bags helped the calmness on board. We had passports, ship’s papers, a spare credit card with the PIN written on a fireproof waterproof folder. Sam also mandated that everyone carry a knife and head torch (at night) for the trip. This came in handy when we were cutting away lines and pulling out split pins in the rigging.
- Spare VHF antenna. Having the emergency one connected into the splitter helped with communications range, and having the splitter located in a place that was easy to access was helpful – I could connect the emergency antenna in a few seconds.
- Crew briefing was critical in our hour of need. Before we left, Sam did a full safety and boat brief, which discussed the route, anticipated weather forecast and safe havens. Each yacht has its nuances and sharing locations of everything, roles on board and expectations helped everyone to feel in control when the plan went off-piste.
- Insurance. The GJW Direct team have been incredibly helpful in getting things moving, Andrew for Lloyd Warwick has been great, we got Ruby May back at the end of the summer and the people at Iroise Greement, Incidence Sails and Z Spars UK have all been fantastic.
- Teamwork. We owe a debt of gratitude to our amazing crew, who are all signed up for Biscay 2024 – a voyage we’re hoping will be so boring all we’ll have to talk about is the tapas and vino in A Coruña!
Neil Brinsdon, managing director of Advanced Rigging and Hydraulics operating from the Hamble River, and Spencer Rigging in Cowes, Isle of Wight, comments:
“The integrity of the rig can be affected by many factors, such as the age of rigging, miles sailed, stresses on designed safety factors or tuning discrepancies, environmental conditions, and if it is subjected to any additional events, such as knock-downs, or crash gybes.
“We don’t know in this case which factor, or factors, may have contributed to the catastrophic failure, but it is good to read that some comfort was given to Ruby May’s crew by conducting a thorough rig check before their passage, as any prudent skipper would advocate, and that they had engaged with professional inspections and surveys at regular intervals. While it was not sufficient to prevent the dismasting in this case, it will have been an asset to the consequent insurance claim in proving that due diligence was carried out, and a testament to why keeping a detailed, up-to-date maintenance log with photographs is important.
“The crew understandably found cutting away the rig very difficult with bolt cutters, which are inefficient on 1×19 wire and cumbersome to use. Carrying hydraulic cutters is an effective (but expensive) option; wire cutters e.g. Felco C16 cutters, or a hacksaw with multiple blades (at least a dozen) with 32 teeth per inch are other choices. Battery-powered disc cutters are by far the easiest but be aware of loads and movement in the swell. Try different options out on your largest piece of wire and consider if your crew is strong enough to use them and the likely conditions in which they may be needed. Like many safety items, they will be an investment you never hope to use, but if you do, you’ll be pleased to have made a quality purchase that can make all the difference in an emergency.”
Enjoyed reading Snap, shackle and drop: coping with a dismasted sailing yacht?
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