Limping to Port

Arriba’s fallen mast had come to rest on the port side and, although a few windows had broken during its fall, the hull appeared undamaged. My relief was short-lived though, when I realized that the mast was dragging through the water.

Cathie was soon joined in the saloon by Merri and Vela. There was shattered glass everywhere—the saloon floor, the saloon sofa, and the bathroom floor. I cautioned everyone to wear shoes, except I ignored my own advice and promptly cut my feet. One glass shard went so far into my heel that, despite repeated attempts by Cathie and Merri to fish it out with tweezers, it refused to budge. It took a visit to the doctor three weeks later to extract it with a surgical instrument. Fortunately, very little water had entered as the broken windows were all located high above the waterline.

Merri excitedly pointed out there was a bright light nearby, which turned out to be a fishing boat.

“Perhaps they can assist us!” she blurted out excitedly.

I hailed them on VHF Channel 16. Silence. I tried again. More silence.

Only then did I realize that Arriba’s VHF antenna was underwater, at the end of the mast.

I grabbed the handheld VHF radio, which I always keep near the helm.

Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan.
This is Arriba, Arriba, Arriba.
Our position is 38º 52.335 South 146º 41.396 East
We have lost our mast and are currently without steering
We have four POB.
Please monitor our position while we attempt to regain steering.

The fishing vessel responded immediately and they stood by, ready to assist, for the next couple of hours. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the name of their vessel, but we were very grateful for their presence. Thank you, mystery vessel.

The half of the mast in the water was like a giant skeg that kept turning us in the port direction. Turning Arriba’s rudders hard a-starboard was no match for its force. We kept carving giant doughnuts. Had our AIS been reporting, the plot of our route would have looked very strange!

If I could get the hang of it, it should be possible to steer, or so I thought.

I didn’t yet consider our situation so dire as to escalate our status to a Mayday. There were no nearby hazards, we had power from two engines and we weren’t taking on water. My nervous-looking crew evidently thought differently, though.

On a whim, I tried using the autopilot and it performed surprisingly well, at least for a couple of minutes. In contrast, in my tired state, I could barely steer straight for a minute before being dragged off course. The autopilot’s algorithm for calculating the forces acting on the boat and making the necessary adjustments was a marvel of engineering, and it gave me hope. We just needed to reduce the amount of mast being dragged through the water to give it a fighting chance.

For the first time since the dismasting, I went to the bow to assess the situation. The base of the mast was about 4m from the bow. Arriba is 11.3m long and the mast is 15.4 long. This meant there was slightly more mast overboard than onboard Arriba, a precarious situation.

Would I need to cut the standing rig to let the mast go? I’d already located the heavy-duty wire cutters that I keep at the bottom of my tool box and brought them up to the saloon—just in case. That would be the method of last resort.

I grabbed a mooring line and attached one end to the port blow cleat—the same cleat that I attempted to use to save the mast. Wrapping the other end around one of the mast winches, I cranked and cranked and, to my great relief, the mast eventually moved forward. The horizontal movement was barely 1m. It was downward movement that mattered most. Like a giant see-saw, the tip of the mast dangling behind us rose almost entirely out of the sea. Although by no means a dream to steer, the helm was now responsive. Best of all, the autopilot could now steer as straight as an arrow, despite still dragging the furled jib and various parts of the rigging.

We hailed the fishing vessel, thanked them, and let them know that we were on our way.

It had been fortunate that we were not in a crowded seaway or close to shore at the time of our dismasting. Had the mast refused to budge, I had one more tactic in my arsenal, other than cutting it loose. I would have deployed a drogue off the starboard side to generate a starboard torque, to counteract the mast’s port torque. In that scenario, our boat speed would probably have been miniscule, but I’ll take any forward movement with steering over the alternative.

We were only able to achieve three knots motoring upwind, which meant we were in for a long night. I was running on adrenaline and had no problem staying awake, so I set a course for the appropriately-named Refuge Cove and started tidying up the broken glass. We checked in with the Coast Guard every hour and gave position updates but I knew we’d be fine. We were basically a power catamaran.

As we approached Refuge Cove, I spotted another yacht at anchor. This cove is not very large so I decided to give them a wide berth and continue to Waterloo Bay. At 11:00 we were anchored in the southwest corner of the bay.

Arriba's main anchor is dispensed via a roller on the cross beam. I doubted that the mangled beam would hold up to the force of a tugging anchor, so I used one of Arriba’s spare anchors instead, which I manually lowered and cleated to the starboard bow.

Reinforced window.

The next few hours were spent alternating between tidying up and resting. Despite our adversity, or perhaps because of it, everyone was keen to go ashore and explore this beautiful bay, which is part of Wilsons Promontory National Park. I had an ulterior motive. If I could find a big piece of wood to act as a pivot, I thought it might be possible to further lift the mast out of the water. I took a saw with me in case I needed to chop off a branch. Fortunately, I did not need to desecrate the national park, as I found a block of wood that was left over from the construction of the boardwalk. As you can see from the photo below, I was able to tilt the mast to be almost completely horizontal.

Near horizontal mast.

Block of wood acting as a pivot point for the mast.

Shortly before midnight I raised the anchor by hand and got underway at 00:18, motoring at 3.2 knots into a 15-knot westerly headwind. At 03:37, we turned for the Narrows Entrance, 56 nautical miles away. By 07:00, the seas flattened and our boat speed picked up to 5.9 knots.

There are two ways into Western Port Bay, and the Eastern Channel of Phillip Island is usually not one of them. Without a mast though, we were able to go under the Phillip Island Bridge at 14:15. Don’t try this in your sailboat though, unless you too lack a mast.

We were in search of a marina where Arriba could be hauled out. While Western Port Bay has two marinas, the larger Westernport Marina lacks a gantry crane capable of lifting catamarans. Fortunately, the smaller Yaringa Boat Harbour could accommodate us. Nestled among the mangroves in the upper reaches of the West Arm, it is a delightful little marina that we would come to know well.

At 17:40 we were berthed at Yaringa and fifty minutes later we were celebrating at the dockside restaurant, Captain Jacks. We all swore it was the best meal of our lives, but perhaps that had something to do with our excitement and relief about being back on terra firma.