The Domino Effect

When the mast collapses mid-race and mid-ocean, mar mostro's crew turns its efforts from a race against the fleet to a race against the clock. "Gaining Bearing" from our January/February 2012 issue.

Sailing World

The Domino Effect

With an anxious Ken Read watching from the deck, PUMA Ocean Racing’s Casey Smith salvages the team’s sails after a mid-Atlantic dismasting.Amory Ross/PUMA Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race

Seven hundred miles from one of the most remote pieces of inhabited land on Earth, we found ourselves accepting green jerry jugs of diesel from the 843-foot, container-topped cargo ship_ Zim Monaco_. In all the scenarios I’d played out in my head before the Volvo Ocean Race’s start, this is one I never imagined.

How did the crew of PUMA Ocean Racing come to be mast-less and adrift in the Southern Atlantic, bumming fuel off a passing ship? It all started on Day 17 of the opening leg, some 4,000-plus miles into the race, and five days out of Cape Town. Mar mostro was surfing along in 20 to 25 knots of wind, averaging speeds in the low 20s. We liked our position, and life was good. All morning it had been a routine of reef, unreef, reef again.

The on-deck watch asked for a hand putting in a reef. Our navigator, Tom Addis, had his foul-weather gear on, so he went on deck to help. I stayed in the nav station, working with the routing software to find a passing lane around Team Telefónica, which was just over 30 miles ahead and in the lead. Once the reef was set, we were off again—until it happened.

The only sound I can equate to our mast breaking is that of a towering tree in your backyard falling during a storm, only the "snap" was as loud as if the tree were in your house, where you could feel the noise resonate through your body.

The boat jerked upright and then heeled to weather because the keel was fully canted. I can still distinctly remember the blood curling scream from Ryan [Godfrey], who was in the pit area, letting us know that, "The $%&!# mast is down!"

Now what? We had to quickly assess the damage and determine what would happen if the rig broke free—i.e., would it punch a hole in the boat? I’ve broken a lot of masts in my lifetime, but never in the middle of the ocean. Watch captain Tony Mutter had, and he said to me, “We have to try to save as much as we can, especially the sails.”

So we did, and to be honest, I never thought we’d save everything. We wouldn’t have, if not for the heroics of our bowman, Casey Smith, who jumped into the water with a knife in hand, in order to cut away as much of the mainsail as possible. I would’ve never let him do it if he asked, and he knew that. He’s just another tough S.O.B. who will do whatever it takes at any time. Twice I told him to get back on the boat when he got dragged under while cutting away the webbing on the mainsail’s luff, and twice he came up and smiled at me, telling me he was fine.

Ninety minutes later, every piece of the mast was lashed to the deck, and the main, jib, and staysail were onboard, with only minor tears. The lifelines along the starboard side were mangled, but there were only a few dings on the rail. We were lucky.

It was a surreal feeling to have woken up that morning, racing along at full-tilt, and then to be going to sleep 2,500 miles from where we needed to be. We went from sailing under a beautiful 10-story carbon rig to limping along beneath a 15-foot stump with a storm jib and storm trysail lashed to it. We went from 25 knots to 2.8, wondering when our food would run out and how we would use our small reserve of diesel fuel.

It’s these unexpected situations where we most need friends and people that care for us, and more importantly, modern communication. I was on the phone for what felt like the next 24 hours, coordinating back and forth with our shore team and the race organizers to hatch a complicated plan that would hopefully get us to Cape Town in time for the Leg 2 start. If we missed that leg, we figured our race was mathematically over.

In the modern days of communication, I can call anyone in the world from the boat phone, just as if I was in my car driving down Memorial Boulevard in Newport, R.I. It’s just a lot more expensive. But we weren’t thinking about the phone bill. We were in the middle of nowhere, and I had 10 other people who wanted to continue with the race. They also wanted to eat, to have water to drink, to be real human beings, and to not wistfully drift toward South Africa.

We faced a difficult choice: Should we turn around and go back toward South America, which was closer? Not an option—we would never get to Cape Town in time. Could we get a tow? Heck, we couldn’t find a ship within 400 miles, so how could we hitch a ride and not damage the boat while towing in ocean waves? Could we get diesel fuel air-lifted? Nope. Food dropped? Nope.

So with the help of Portugese and Brazilian maritime agencies a pan-pan message went out, alerting all nearby that a sailing vessel had lost its mast and was in need of diesel. After 36 hours, Captain Borys Bondar came to our rescue. He didn’t have to, but he said there was a “code” for seamen, and he understood that diesel was our lifeblood at this point. With it we could run our water maker and, eventually, make landfall at the island of Tristan da Cunha. Tristan da what?

As we pointed our bow toward this Atlantic outpost, my daughter, Tory, sent me an e-mail briefing on Tristan: there we'd find 262 people living on a volcano sticking out of the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. There's no airport. The only way to get to the island is by boat. But it was the closest piece of terra firma, and it would allow us to re-supply and rally around part two of our plan.

At Tristan, we devised, we’d meet a ship that would be dispatched from Durban, South Africa. The ship would have a crane, allowing us to pick up the boat and place it on our cradle, which our shore crew would have put in place. A few members of our shore team would be on the ship, as would a 20-foot container full of tools and equipment. We’d use the four-plus days of transport to Cape Town to put the pieces of Humpty Dumpty back together again. And what about our spare mast? It was sitting at Hall Spars in Bristol, R.I., and had to be expedited by airfreight to Cape Town. When the boat and mast would eventually meet, we’d need a full-team press to get the boat in the water and the rig tuned properly before the in-port race on December 10, and more importantly, the next leg to Abu Dhabi.

Would this all go to according to plan? By the time you’re reading this, the outcome will be known, and we’ll all have a better appreciation for the logistical nightmare that follows a mid-ocean dismasting. It’s times like these that prove our shore team is just as important as the sailors who get all the glory. Without them, I figure, Tristan’s summer population would have increased by 11.