Alejandro Perez describes the moment when ARC yacht Garuda was dismasted 600 miles from land
It was early in the morning and Slava, the skipper, was on watch when the steering system failed. The cable that joins the wheels to the rudder broke.
We all came on deck and tried to fix it. Finally – as the sun came up – we solved it with a rope instead of a cable.
The wind was getting stronger and there were more waves. We sailed for a while with both sails up – the genoa and mainsail with one reef, but the
wind increased and the steering wasn’t working well.
A gust came and we turned to port causing the genoa to back.
Five seconds later we saw the port shroud snap at the bottom and immediately afterwards there was a ‘boom’ and the mast cracked in two parts: it was completely open.
The four of us watched as the mast and sails fell to the starboard side and into the water, still attached to the boat.
We lost control as there was so much rigging in the water. By now it was 1000 UTC and we were 600 miles from St Lucia, at 45° West. We spent six hours cutting everything free.
We didn’t have proper tools – just a small saw and two hammers. The waves and the rigging were hitting the boat at the same time – it was a difficult moment! We got to work quickly.
I felt stable in the boat but I was worried by how hard the rig was hitting the hull at the front. If it continued like this, there would be damage.
The waves were side-on – maybe 2m high. We didn’t think about the catastrophe; we just kept working… there was so much adrenaline. We had to get rid of everything. I still don’t know how we did it – we broke every blade in the saw. That was the most difficult part of all.
At one point I saw a yacht about two miles away. I tried to call by radio but we had no antenna. We’d lost everything. We only had a short-distance radio, but it should have worked. I was calling ‘Pan Pan’ but they didn’t answer.
Some of us wanted to call the ARC straight away but we waited until morning. I explained we were all good, but we had lost a mast and only had fuel for 24 hours.
They contacted many boats, and gave us the details of those nearby who were happy to give us fuel. We couldn’t contact them, but one of them, Biguá, a Brazilian boat, was trying to call. They were amazing because they kept on trying with the radio and finally I got the signal. It was very poor.
I answered and after many tries managed to give our position. They came towards us and called other boats for help.
A German boat called Venus came too. We could see them, but without our mast they couldn’t see us. We fired the rocket, and they both saw the red smoke and came to us.
The next challenge was how to transfer the fuel cans. It was very rocky. Venus’s crew attached eight cans to a rope and threw it in the sea. They moved away and we fished them in easily.
Biguá had to approach a lot, but after several tries they managed to give us five cans. We called ARC control to tell them that we’d already refuelled and had enough. There were still other boats coming to our aid, but we said it’s ok – we didn’t need any more help and would see them in Rodney Bay.
Without a mast, the motion was different but with the engine on it was ok. Whilst we’d been waiting for help we made a jury rig so that if we didn’t get fuel we could sail.
For this we used the spinnaker pole and six ropes we’d cut free from the rigging as stays. We used another rope as a halyard. It was a good team effort and helped keep us busy.
I would have liked to try it out but in the end, when we got the fuel we decided not to because the sails are so big – we would have needed to cut them.
We did have to fix the steering system again. That rope worked for another 600 miles and the autopilot as well! Initially we lost our navigation system because the cables were inside the mast, but Kostia, one of the crew, managed to fix it.
Finally, we had a nav system, GPS, short-range VHF and paper charts for St Lucia and St Vincent. A couple of us had tablets and apps on our phone with Navionics charts.
When we finally made it, we had a beer and talked with people. We were so happy. The whole day I still couldn’t believe I was on land!
INSPECT THE RIGGING
We had corrosion inside the rigging – it wasn’t in a good state. It would have broken sooner or later, but when the squall hit everything had started to fail.
STOW THE RIGHT TOOLS
We should have carried better tools. It didn’t help that we had aluminium pipe over the bottle screws to protect the sails from chafing. It was very hard to saw through.
Expert Tip on cutting the rigging. “A good quality battery grinder with a box of spare thin cutting blades is by far the best thing for cutting rod rigging and exactly what we use in the workshops at All Spars. Plus – it can be a really great and versatile tool on an ocean cruising boat. I would also have a good quality hacksaw with Bi-metal blades as Pete suggests on p62 as they too make a big difference.” David Barden, All Spars
EQUIP THE MAST CORRECTLY
On other yachts there is a small pin on the bottom of the mast that you just hammer out if you break the mast. We didn’t have one.
CONSIDER ANTENNA POSITION
It was a good thing that our satellite antenna wasn’t on the mast. It was mounted on the stern, which meant we could still call for help using Inmarsat.
An emergency VHF antenna for the fixed VHF radio could have helped improve our range without the mast. Check out the video on www.yachtingmonthly.com to see the moment Garuda arrives in Rodney Bay, St Lucia.
Expert opinion: what could Garuda have done?
PETE GOSS, PROFESSIONAL SAILOR
One of the most important elements of any disaster is unity in the crew and it’s clear that the experience tightened this boat’s crew as they fulfilled their ambition to cross an ocean.
I wasn’t there during their finest hour but a few constructive thoughts come to mind. Preparation and planning is essential to any passage but more so for an ocean crossing.
Consider all scenarios and have equipment and immediate actions in mind. Have your boat surveyed by professionals and if in doubt, do something. In this case the rigging should have been renewed with clevis pins that could be knocked out with a hammer and drive. Have spare steering cables, an emergency tiller and an oar.
Sit down with the crew and discuss potential disasters. Explore their strengths and allocate appropriate areas of responsibility. Make sure you have a good tool kit, spares and share their location.
Have two methods of cutting the rigging including bi-metal blades. Go to a rigger and test them on offcuts.
Have an emergency VHF aerial that can be connected to the main VHF with enough cable to get it as high as possible on a jury rig.
As an aside, we all have a responsibility to keep a good watch. For a yacht to pass so close and not see them is shameful.
A kite is a good visual marker and can carry an LED light at night.
Personally, I would have informed the organisers as soon as anything happened– you can always escalate at a later date if necessary.
BEN SUTCLIFFE-DAVIES, MARINE SURVEYOR
The failure to check items that are so essential, such as the steering cables and system, was the catalyst for this dismasting.
However the crew reported that the corrosion was found within the wire fracture, which is a concern. They reported it was not obvious on a visual inspection.
The photo shows classic ‘beaching’ (successive tidemarks as the fault spreads) developing over a period of time. There would have been a microscopic hair line opening to one side that could have been caused from twisting of the wire at the top of the bottle screw.
It confirms why so many surveyors recommend proper rig checks and a programme of replacements on the rod head.
Generally the actual rod is very reliable and will last more than 15 years, but the formed head with a ball or, as in this case, onto the threaded bar needs to be carefully monitored.
The report that the mast folded in half also suggested the sail, on backing, overloaded the spreaders causing massive compression.
It’s vital to remember the yacht is working so much harder than on a normal cruise.
Prevention is always better than sitting there watching the rig go overboard.
Making regular visual checks of areas of the rig that can work and ensuring split pins etc are in place is good husbandry.
Normal wire should be closely inspected with the mast down every five years.
Rod is quite different but if the heads aren’t correctly aligned, can work quite quickly, too.