Dismasted at Sea: What To Do (During & After)

Dismasted at Sea: What To Do (During & After) | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Capt Chris German

November 19, 2020

There are few incidents at sea that are scarier than a dismasting. The best solution to a Dismasting is to avoid it in the first place, but if you do drop the stick, point your boat towards home, make sure everyone is safe and do the best you can.

I have been fortunate enough to experience a great many things at sea. I have seen the green flash, I have witnessed and sailed through a waterspout and I have swam with dolphins in the currents of the Gulf Stream. But one experience, I can happily say, I have avoided, is the experience of being dismasted at sea.

Whether your boat falls in the class of dinghy or bluewater, the event of having a mast fall down while you sit beneath it has to be one of the scariest experiences one might ever experience underway. I have witnessed it happen twice from afar and both times it looked like a harrowing experience to say the least. I have also seen the aftermath of dismastings multiple times. And the one takeaway I can offer from each and every dismasting I have seen is, it's just as avoidable, as it was scary.

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A first hand encounter

My first dismasting was on a tiny hunter 21 in Pequot Harbor during tropical Storm Ernesto. The boat was riding high on the mooring during the early hours of the storm but the owner had made a critical error in leaving the roller furled jib up for the storm. By mid morning the winds were topping a steady 50 out of the southwest and the boat was heading north east with moorings tied to its bow and stern. My manager, Captain Jeff Engborg, a long time captain and master of all things mechanical, eyed the critical failure from the deck of the club house saying, “the jib sheet is coming out”. The jib sheets which were wound tightly around the furled jib, began wiggling loose. Before he could utter another word, a gust topping 70 miles per hour came screaming in from the Sound and the unfurled jib on a dead down wind run. It snagged only briefly on the shroud before billowing out over the bow pulpit and folding the mast in half.

I was fifty yards from that boat but the violence of the mast falling has stayed with me ever since.

The next one I saw was on the water just off Seaside Park in Bridgeport, CT. It was a cool October morning in New England and the Catalina Association was hosting a rally of boats in Black Rock Harbor. The winds blew a steady 35 out of the east and the fleet was rounding the point on the way in, having decided that the weather was a bit too much for the aged fleet of cruisers. Just as this one particular boat, a 35 footer from the mid 80’s, came from behind the lee of the lighthouse, a gust ripped the mast from their deck and plopped it sloppily on the leeward side of the vessel, shredding the main and tangling the standing rigging like a slinky. The boat stopped hard, as if it had an emergency break, and the owners popped their heads up from beneath the carnage like stunned meerkats on the Serengeti. I didn’t see what they did next but instead high-tailed it back to the dock fearing my old boat would be next.

The best strategy is avoidance

 In both of those previous cases, proper planning and maintenance would have been an excellent alternative to dismasting. In the case of the Hunter, the owner should have removed all the sails from the boat prior to the storm, or tied a pile of lines on to the jib rather than just wrapping the sheets. As they say in the USCG, “if you can’t tie a knot, tie a lot”

In the case of the Catalina, planning should have included reading a weather report and turning back before the winds got too heavy. The owner failed to recognize that their boat was no spring chicken and that the conditions were too much for his 20 year old Catalina.

I have been told by one of the best surveyors I have ever worked with, Wayne Canning of Ocean Navigator Magazine, that stainless steel rigging has a lifespan of 10 years. After that time, a rig’s chance of coming down increases exponentially without a serious inspection of the rig and replacement. Micro cracks can form in the wire rope of shrouds and stays, as well as in chain plates and turnbuckles. These cracks can only be seen by high tech imaging which most riggers can do for you or you can send them out to an independent lab to be examined yourself. Some riggers will reuse parts of the rig that are free of defect to save some cash, but after 10 years and the expense of pulling the stick, removing the parts, shipping them to a lab and paying for the test, maybe it’s better if you just replace everything.

Wire rope is actually quite affordable and doing the labor yourself can save a ton of money. But if a $20,000 mast comes down because you made a mistake there will be no one else to blame but you.

After the mast has fallen

Witnessing the violence of two masts dropping has convinced me that I have no interest in ever experiencing a dismasting first hand. But just in case, I have always carried a sharp knife, a set of bolt cutters, a first aid kit and a flask of rum on board if it ever did happen. The knife would be used to cut running rigging from the boat should I ever need to and the bolt cutters would be used to part standing rigging and mast wreckage from the decks. The first aid kit would hopefully be useful if my head wasn’t separated from my body, and if and when it ever did happen (and I just happened to survive), I would need a shot rum almost immediately following.

The best way to survive a dismasting is to avoid it in the first place. But once the rig is down in part or full, your attention immediately should come to survival. A rig below the hull can foul rudders and propellers and act as a sea anchor for the boat. With no mast, a sailboat becomes either a vessel not under command or a power boat, so if you have a motor, protect it cause that will be your last option as you watch your rig sink slowly into the great abyss.

If you're lucky, as both the dismasted boats I saw, you will be close to port and can either limp home or get a tow. But if you are out to sea and your mast falls (and no one gets injured badly), will anyone hear it? Your obligation is to use what equipment you do have left, to get your boat and yourself back home safely. If it is only part of the mast that must be cast off, use what is left on board to jury rig a sail and get yourself back to the nearest shipping channel or port of call asap. Depending on your distance from shore, use of your motor may be limited to a few hours at a time to conserve fuel and charge the batteries. I would consider a dismasting as a distress qualifying event and would hail a “mayday” as quickly as possible but that is up to you as the skipper.

Other boats and sea stories of dismasting

I have witnessed two boats lose their mast, but I have seen the aftermath of a great many more. Perched at the crossroads of the North Atlantic on the ICW in Beaufort, North Carolina, one can witness all sorts of ways that sailboats might be damaged. And in all too honest truth, I have seen boats come in sans mast all the time. But I can recall two very interesting cases where otherwise beautiful vessels were befouled for otherwise completely avoidable reasons. Both times, it was owner error that dropped the masts.

The first example that comes to mind is a 50 foot lagoon catamaran that was dismasted in Hurricane Florence. The boat had just received a complete overhaul and was being prepped for charter work, a logical use for such a grand vessel, given the tourism economy of coastal Carolina. She was at the dock in the storm and from all accounts had a brand new mast and rig, which should have withstood even Hurricane force winds. But even stainless steel is no match for mother nature when poor planning is at hand. The owner failed to remove the stack pack that held the main sail on top of the boom and that was just enough in the three days of 80 mile an hour winds to fold her mast into a new form of origami. I snapped a few photos of the wreckage just as the winds abated. Thankfully no one in our town was injured in this historic storm but the next day I would discover that my boat was also wrecked in the storm. I now feel completely chagrined for having the audacity to take these pictures of someone else's heartache, but offer them to you as a lesson and a warning.

Dismasted Sailboat
Dismasted Sailboat
Dismasted Sailboat
Dismasted Sailboat

The last sea story I have which I care to share is perhaps the most egregious example of poor planning on an owner's part. Oh that I had a photo! Once again the story is set in Beaufort but this time it was a 65 foot monohull that made me drool with envy. She was a stunning example of modern ship construction and I eyed her as she slowly inched her way between the sand bars and into the harbor that evening. She was supposed to be in port for just a weekend as she made her way north, up the coast to New York, commanded by some hedge fund manager who was supposed to take her as a prize among the spoils of Wall Street. He had more money than experience and was bringing her in for fuel and provisions and no doubt a nice dinner shoreside so he could show off his assets off to the other credit card captains over the weekend on the Beaufort waterfront. What he failed to notice was that his 70-foot mast on his vessel was inconsistent with the new 65-foot bridge which linked Radio Island to downtown Beaufort and he slammed his mast head into the bridge going six knots at 10 PM. The next morning his boat conspicuously appeared on the town dock and stayed there, his mast 20 feet shorter than it was when he pulled into port, for the next 18 months with a for sale sign on it. I never met the owner and have no idea what happened to that boat, but I do know a clearer example of poor planning does not exist and a more avoidable situation never was.

If you do go, make sure you come home

Whether you have experienced a dismasting or simply seen the aftermath, you cannot help but walk away with a sour feel in the pit of your stomach. There is no more violent yet avoidable situation that I can think of at sea. Short of Captain Aubrey losing his mizzen while rounding Cape Horn in Master and Commander, I cannot think of any excuse a modern sailor might have to be out there when conditions favor a dismasting. There is no reason to push one’s vessel to the point of dismasting and I think each example I have given demonstrates that point. Some pre-planning and good maintenance can avoid all but the worst of dismasting conditions. But if you do find yourself in peril and the unthinkable happens, remember the welfare of your crew and that your primary objective is to return your ship to port, even if it is a bit shorter than when you left. Thanks for reading and do good, have fun and sail far.

Dismasted at Sea: What To Do (During & After)

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Dismasted at Sea: What To Do (During & After)

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