Veteran polar sailor and mountaineer Bob Shepton reflects on losing his rig while sailing with a crew of school leavers in the Drake Passage
We were sailing round the world via Antarctica and Cape Horn, the ‘First School Group to sail Round the World’.
True, they’d all left school recently – leavers – but they had all been at Kingham Hill School in Oxfordshire where I’d just retired as chaplain.
We wended our way from Falmouth to Madeira, on to the Canary Islands, Cape Verde Island, Rio de Janeiro and the Falklands on my 33ft Westerly, Dodo’s Delight.
The lads were desperate to reach the Falklands by Christmas and we made Port Stanley in the early hours of 18 December.
Casting off from Mount Pleasant
After the festivities and attending the cathedral on Christmas Day, there was some delay.
The army at Mount Pleasant had kindly promised some help with stores but for whatever reason, they were a little slow in coming.
We were changing two of the crew at this stage – Dood and Pebs were coming all the way round and we were due to change two at six or seven places round the world.
Barney and Ian flew home; Henchy and Howesy came out. Living in close proximity at school and on the boat and with my having run youth clubs in the east end of London with its rhyming slang, names were often changed to something shorter or easier!
We prepared for the next leg of the voyage, and it is important to point out in view of what happened later that we undertook a rigging inspection there in Port Stanley.
We’d also had this done professionally in the UK by Proctors, who made masts for Westerlys in those days, before we had set off three months before.
But at last, towards mid-January, we took our offing for Antarctica.
Considering we were crossing the infamous Drake Passage, the traverse was not that difficult or stormy. It did get colder, and there was one minor gale with fairly lively seas, but we were surprised to be running before with both headsails poled out to round the east end of King George Island towards the end. Trade wind sailing in the Drake Passage?
It was at this juncture that Dood pointed to where both aft lowers were destranding at the top where they entered the Talurit fitting. I had noted something up there but hadn’t really understood what it meant.
We immediately set about setting up some sort of backup to the shrouds. Taking spare 12mm lines from the cockpit locker, Dood climbed up to the spreaders and attached them level with the top of the aft lowers.
We tensioned them with handy billies – 3-to-1 or 4-to-1 block and tackles. We sailed on and next morning, entered the Brantsfield Strait and saw our first iceberg, and some humpback whales. We put into Maxwell Bay on the southern side of King George Island.
Maxwell Bay was a big disappointment. This was Antarctica, surely remote, isolated, pristine. We found no less than seven or eight national Antarctic bases dotted around Maxwell Bay. Chilean and Argentinian of course, but also Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Russian – you name it, it was probably there.
We had difficulty finding depth for anchoring that first night so moved further down the bay the next day. That evening, two Chileans came across in a RIB. All seemed friendly, despite the language barrier.
But in the course of conversation, one of them said ‘Nice of you to visit us. Well, you are in our territory.’ When I recounted this to the captain of the James Clark Ross later, his comment was, ‘What a cheek!’ One of the main points of the Antarctic Treaty is that no nation owns land there or has rights on any part of it.’
A loud bang
With hindsight, I realise we should have dealt with the aft lowers there and then. We had spare rigging wires and U-bolts on board. But they looked much the same, and a backup was in place just in case.
I had heard that Yankee Harbour to the west would be a safe, well-protected anchorage for the job. We set sail. All went well at first and then the wind headed us but it was still only Force 4-5.
Then, in 18-20 knots of wind at 0400 in the 24-hour daylight, there was a loud bang and the mast fell over the side. I thought we must have hit an uncharted rock and rushed up on deck to find the mast in two halves with the sails over the port side.
The starboard aft lower had broken and to my surprise, the safety line had also burst. Pebs on watch, a little shaken as the backstay had just missed him, said: ‘Cut it all away’. But being Scottish, and with four strong lads to help, I replied, ‘Let’s save what we can.’
We managed with difficulty to heave both halves of the mast and the sails back on board, not badly damaged but heavy, acting as huge scoops of water. What a mess!
Mast sections, sails and rigging everywhere. Henri Lloyd had asked for pictures of their gear in extreme conditions, so we took pictures of their gear in extreme conditions. I’m not sure that’s quite what they meant though!
Meeting the Chilean Navy
What should we do, and was this the end of the expedition? First of all, we tried motoring to Yankee Harbour but soon found this was hopeless against the wind, so we cut diagonally across to Discovery Bay where fortuitously, we found the Chilean Naval Antarctic Base of Arturo Prat.
They were tremendously helpful and hospitable, lending us tools where needed, and it did mean we could bring everything ashore and do the work on land.
Dood, one of the older school leavers, had worked in a boatyard and took charge of proceedings helped by the others; we cut the truck off the top section and fitted it on to the slightly longer bottom section.
We could just raise this up on board by pushing and pulling on ropes, and then tried to measure for cutting rigging down to size. We did not get this all right but could compensate with thimbles and U-bolt clamps to make eyes at the ends. We had raised half a mast.
At this stage, the Chilean Naval Rescue vessel arrived for a visit. We were offered the option of floating the boat on to the flooded aft end of their boat and being transported back to Punta Arenas – ostensibly a safer option, but it was going to cost a lot and we’d still have to sail from Punta Arenas back to the Falklands. And nobody explained how they were going to support the boat when they pumped the water back out from their aft basin!
My instinct was to attempt to sail back to the Falklands with a jury rig, which we duly did. I thought we were bound to get caught out there in the Drake Passage sailing slowly at 2-3 knots but we found putting the No 1 jib on its side (the foot acting as the luff and sheeting it right back to the aft mooring cleat) made an excellent reaching sail.
We were cutting diagonally across back to the Falklands and the predominant winds in the Drake Passage are north-west and south-west. We used the trysail as a small steadying mainsail. We could sail at 4 knots, 5 knots and even 6 knots with a following sea, and it only took us seven days to do the 738 miles back to Port Stanley.
A new mast
Pantaenius sent out a new mast. We had a marvellous time in fine weather back in Antarctica, rounded a frequently but not too stormy Cape Horn to Easter Island, and completed the Round the World via the Torres Strait and Cape of Good Hope to UK.
- Inspect the rig daily
Stainless steel can break or destrand suddenly and without warning. I still keep forgetting to inspect the rig daily, if only through binoculars when at sea.
- Make repairs early: Don’t procrastinate. We should have dealt with the fault as soon as possible.
Don’t resist delegation
It is important for skippers to delegate and trust their crews. Dood was much more adept at boat repairs and maintenance than me.
Instinct is everything
Trust your own instincts, or in my case, as a man of faith, your guidance. Ostensibly, the Chilean Naval rescue vessel would have been a safer option but my instinct was to sail back.
Be prepared to embrace and manage risk. Risk is important for our society and for our character and wellbeing.
Think outside the box
We had to think outside the box and invent solutions to our problems, like putting the No 1 jib on its side.
Disaster can often lead to triumph, or at least have positive results. The jury-rigged passage back to the Falklands, for example, was a great adventure.