When the Wennberg family set off across the Atlantic, they didn’t think they would need to motor most of the way without a mast. Sophie Dingwall hears their incredible story
There is safety in numbers. The larger your pod, herd or, in this case, fleet, the greater your chances of survival, offering protection, safety and confidence. For years, Louise and Jorgen Wennberg had been planning the sailing voyage of a lifetime. They chose Take Off, a 54ft Grand Soleil and signed up for the 2023 World ARC, along with their children Alex, aged 13 and Ines, 11. They opted to take extra crew for the Atlantic crossing and were joined by Johan, Anna and Laura.
Louise said, ‘The time we spend together on board is properly concentrated, it’s so valuable and I get to really know my kids. Build trust with your children, and they will come to you with any problems. If all families had this, we would have peace in the world.’
The start of the rally was abrupt, with strong winds and uncompromising grey skies, but seven days in and life had settled into its own rhythm. Accustomed to life at sea, Alex and Ines fitted in a routine around school work and enjoyed the gentle rolling hills of the Atlantic.
Jurgen had put a reef in the jib to ensure smooth sailing for dinner – spaghetti Bolognese. He had a few jobs to complete on deck before settling in for an evening of traditional Swedish Christmas celebrations.
The routine goes wrong
Jorgen and Johan headed forward to inspect the rigging as part of their daily checks. They were looking up when it happened. Crack! It was every sailor’s worst nightmare. Out of nowhere, and unprovoked, the boom pierced straight through the carbon mast. The rig came crashing down, puncturing the deck.
As the mast fell, Johan became victim to the perilous tower, squeezing him between the rigging and foredeck. The weight of the rigging in the water only made it worse, but before he could grasp what was happening, he was released.
Seemingly defying gravity, the carbon mast danced from one side to the other. Sleek carbon, shining from the Atlantic plunge, erected itself out of the water. The mast pulled itself into an upright position for a split second before falling off to the opposite side. Though freed, Johan didn’t go unscathed.
Jurgen yelled to below, ‘The mast is down!’ Unaware of the significance of the disaster unfolding above deck, Louise sprung into action, throwing the rig cutters and angle grinder into the cockpit.
Time was of the essence; only a couple of daylight hours remained.
A brief moment earlier the rolling hilltop waves had been enjoyable, but now they posed an increasing risk of damage to the hull every second and with it, the threat of sinking. There was no question about it, the rig had to go.
The deck resembled more of a battlefield than anything else. Carbon shards showered from above, covering the deck with razor-sharp debris. Ropes and rod rigging muddled the once tidy order, and the surrounding guardwires could no longer be relied upon. The once strong and steady stanchions were now precarious. Fresh hydraulic oil seeped from the pipes on deck, and Jurgen was covered in fluid. It had spread everywhere, including his glasses, blurring his vision and making the task even harder.
‘Where do I start?’ thought Jurgen.
‘I was worried the mast would swing under the yacht and get stuck around the keel. So I began to cut the rod rigging and then the shrouds whilst Johan saw to the running rigging with a bread knife – he must have been running on pure adrenaline.’
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Trial and error
Being equipped with the recommended gear is one thing, but using it in a real-life emergency is another. ‘The rig cutters were useless, so I tried the angle grinder but this was hard whilst everything was moving,’ said Jurgen.
Trial and error concluded that the simple metal hacksaw was most effective and within 20 to 30 minutes, the rig was cleared.
Johan was nonchalant and made no fuss, but his slow movements suggested something was not right. He lifted his shirt to reveal a considerable bruise and swollen lump on his side. Initially, Louise had yet to find out if anyone had heard her distress call, but they soon received a response from another ARC yacht, Aphrodite 1, a Lagoon 450F. She was only two miles away and diverted her track to assist, equipped with jerry cans of fuel and more importantly, a doctor.
After an examination, he confirmed nothing was broken – a slight relief, but advised he should get an X-ray as soon as possible, take painkillers, rest and ice the area. Only a few cruising yachts carry the luxury of ice, leaving Louise no option but to nurse Johan with what they had: raw meat. The crew waited for further help to arrive, carefully swapping out the defrosted meat for fresh bacon rashers from the freezer.
Below deck Alex remained calm and focused throughout. At the initial stage of the dismasting, he’d suggested to his mother they call Eric, a friend that had been sending through weather routings. Alex’s quick thinking and maturity allowed Eric to notify the coastguard, leading to the organisation and rescue from a US Coastguard ship in under 20 hours, although they were by now over 1,000 miles from land.
There was nothing special about the evacuation, or any messing around. Johan was lifted over the rail into a large RIB, joined by the other two crew members, Anna and Laura, and jetted off back to the ship where he would receive the medical attention he needed before being transferred ashore in Newport, Rhode Island.
Only four crew remained: mum, dad, Alex and Ines. A discussion had been raised about whether the children should leave with the other crew or the yacht be abandoned entirely. The family had faith they would make it back to safety and with renewed courage and resilience Louise said, ‘We stuck together. We had to continue and this was a way to overcome this trauma as one. The yacht was secure, so we had no reason to be scared.’
Relying entirely on the engine, however, proved endlessly stressful for Jurgen. The plummeting fuel gauge was even more worrying. It was apparent they would need more fuel, and plenty of it. Plus, the yacht’s motion had deteriorated substantially – without the damping effect of the mast her movement was an erratic, continuous pendulum swing.
‘Despite the 3m draught and 4.5 tonnes of lead in the keel, we needed a jury rig!’ exclaimed Jurgen.
The unscathed spinnaker pole would be perfect. Alex and Ines guided the base of the pole into the gap where the mast once stood, whilst Jurgen and Louise hoisted it into place. Then, with an almighty boom, it was erected.
‘Immediately the boat behaved differently. It was a true moment of joy for us and we did this together, that was important,’ said Jurgen.
Take Off maintained communication with the ARC rally control via email and relied on them to co-ordinate with boats that had fuel to donate. A call was made to the fleet, and overwhelmingly 21 boats offered assistance. Louise said, ‘Our AIS wasn’t working so we relied on the assistance provided by the ARC rally control. When the boats got close enough, we could communicate using the VHF radio.’
They’d successfully collected fuel a few times until the next disaster struck.
‘We need assistance, diving assistance,’ called Jurgen over the VHF radio to Salt, a Dufour 52, desperately hoping she was still in range to receive the message. They had caught 25 metres of line, attached to some jerry cans they had only just retrieved, around the prop. As a result, Take Off’s only means of propulsion was now out of action.
Salt received the message and quick to volunteer was 31-year-old Robert Falck, a former fighter pilot from Sweden. Salt tried to launch the dinghy, but the choppy conditions overturned it, flooding the engine and causing an additional problem for both crews.
The sun had long passed the yardarm, and Robert was aware they were running out of time. This family needed help, someone had to do it, and Robert knew it had to be him.
With no time to waste, he threw himself overboard. He swam hard against the chop to reach Take Off and quickly set up for the dive. The equipment on board was basic, but it was all they had. He had no formal certificates but had dived before and that was better than nothing.
‘I’m not afraid of taking risks. I evaluated the situation beforehand and I’m well aware of my limitations and capabilities. They were in desperate need and I was someone that could do this for them.’
Robert tightened the chin-strap on Ines’s bicycle helmet, to protect his head from the slamming hull, took a deep breath and dived in.
‘I’d say there were 30 to 40 turns around the propeller. I tried to move them by hand but they were so tight it was impossible. Determined, I started cutting through the lines, but I have no idea how long I was down there.’
The thumbs-up after surfacing from the water gave the all-clear. Robert climbed on deck and immediately knew Jurgen and Louise needed more help. ‘I could see Jurgen could barely stand from exhaustion, so I asked, do you need another member of crew?’ Willingly Jurgen and Louise accepted his offer, allowing them a few desperately needed hours of uninterrupted sleep.
After 11 days and 1,550 miles of motoring, St Lucia’s curving silhouette unveiled herself on the horizon. Finally, they had made it!
The crew enjoyed celebrating their arrival, and some normality of life ashore for the first few days, in particular Robert. Only after his mid-Atlantic dip did he divulge that he hates swimming and would much rather be on top of the water. Back home, he’s an avid squash player and hoped for a game or two this side of the pond. It just so happened that St Lucia’s Yacht Club were hosting the annual National Squash Tournament.
If his heroic efforts weren’t impressive enough, he continued his success. Wearing a pair of swim shorts, sailing shoes and a borrowed racket, he defeated his opponents on their home turf and was crowned national champion!
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say Robert attained heroic-level acclamation throughout the sailing community. In his humble way, he commented, ‘I’ll be grateful for this trip for the rest of my life. To me, it was an easy decision. I helped because we are humans that live simultaneously and that’s enough. I don’t expect anything in return. I feel like I have a second family and two younger siblings.’
In total, seven of the ARC yachts assisted, donating an extra 800 litres of diesel. It was an incredible display of the fleet’s compassion and support for each other. The hardships were a reminder of how strong the bond is in the global sailing community, especially in the most difficult times.
‘We’re so blessed, there’s not enough words to describe how we feel,’ said Louise. ‘This is what the ARC is about – seamanship and friendship. If ever there’s a prime example of why there is security and safety in numbers, and why you should sail with the ARC, we’re the one… To everyone that helped, thank you. You are our heroes.’
The boats that helped Take Off after her dismasting included: Lagoon 450F Aphrodite 1, Hallberg-Rassy 48 Circe, Dufour 520 Grand Large Salt, Lagoon 450S Joanna, Fountaine Pajot Elba 45 Starry Knight, Oyster 56 Amanzi.
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