March 24, 2013

Don't forget your hacksaws

FEW YACHTS LOSE their masts at sea. But when it does happen, it’s usually because of a rollover, a 180-degree capsize. It’s serious, of course, but losing your stick is not the end of the world.

In fact, it always astonishes me that more masts don’t go overboard, considering their narrow support base. I can see why ocean-going sailors were suspicious for many years of the tall masts needed for Bermuda rigs. Shorter, more rugged masts on gaff-rigged yachts could be stayed more efficiently and were far less likely to be lost in a capsize.

That being said, modern masts do fall down from time to time, but crews inevitably bring their boats home under jury rigs concocted from the spars they can salvage, and sails trimmed to fit. A keel-stepped mast most often breaks several feet above deck, so there’s a handy stump left to work with. A deck-stepped mast, on the other hand, might even be recovered whole, but raising it at sea will probably prove impossible because of the boat’s jerkier movement when it is deprived of the inertia of a tall mast. So makeshift jury rigs usually use booms, spinnaker poles, boathooks and other odds and ends to make a mast one-third to one-half the height of the old one. Sails such as jibs are usually set sideways and are surprisingly efficient.

The first and often most difficult task involved with a dismasting is disconnecting the rigging wire attached to the spar. The old advice is always to carry a pair of heavy-duty wire cutters, but in practice there are very few that will do the job efficiently on a violently rolling hull, and those are likely to be very bulky to stow and expensive to buy.

You’d think it would be easy to do without mechanical or hydraulic cutters altogether by merely unpinning the rigging wires where they join the mast tangs and the chainplates. But I’m told there will always be at least a couple of shrouds or stays whose end fittings bend so badly that they won’t come apart.

I have read of several cases where wire cutters (and even heftier bolt cutters) failed to do the job for one reason or another, and I also know of a couple of dismastings where the crew had to fall back on ordinary hacksaws to cut through the stainless steel wires.

So even if you insist on taking along long-handled wire cutters, I’d advise you to also carry a few hacksaws and a good handful of high-quality blades along with some spare wire, heavy gloves, and plenty of wire clamps for the jury rig.

Today’s Thought
To each is given a bag of tools,
A shapeless mass and a book of rules,
And each must make, ere life is flown,
A stumbling block or a stepping stone.
— R. L. Sharpe

An intellectual is someone who reads even when he’s not in the toilet.

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

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