Huddled under the dodger with the the windvane steering, I turned to John and asked, “Should we take down the jib?”
“I don’t … Holy shit.” There was a crash on the deck and the whole boat shook. “We’re dismasted.”
We had left Hampton, VA two days earlier with the Salty Dawg Rally. We were all feeling a little restless and anxious to get going after three weeks of waiting in Hampton. We had decided to leave a day earlier than the majority of the fleet because we were uncertain that we would be able to make it through the Gulf Stream before a cold front arrived, which was predicted on Thursday evening, as our boat is not as fast as some of the larger boats and we are not fond of motor sailing.
The first 36 hrs or so were uneventful, we were sailing hard on the wind and making good time. It wasn’t until Thursday morning when we passed through some squalls that the winds began to steadily increase. John reefed the main one more time and took down the staysail so we were sailing under a triple reefed main and a small jib . We had gotten a little further north than we wanted and found ourselves in an area with a strong easterly flowing current. Up to this point the conditions that we encountered were expected and happening exactly as the weather router had predicted, it was only the seas which we hadn’t anticipated, waves were very steep and coming from multiple directions causing Ñyapa to land hard coming off some of them.
It was about this time that we noticed one of the lower shrouds on the leeward side was considerably looser than it should be. Not ten minutes later the mast snapped in half fifteen feet up from the deck and was in the water. John and I were both sitting under the dodger in the cockpit at the time and we were in shock. It took a minute for it to register before we got into gear, John went forward to check things out and I went below to get tools. Once John had his tools he immediately set about freeing the mast by pulling the pins in the turnbuckles and using a hack saw on the forestay. We had just replaced all of our rigging a few months before and it was intact. While John was working on the rigging I went below and tried to put out a call on the VHF and then the SSB, not making the connection that the antennas were now in the water and useless. I went to the ditch bag where I had put the handheld VHF and found it dead, even though it had been charged a few days previously. I quickly found out that the inverter (which converts our power from DC to AC) was not working, which prevented me from charging the handheld. A breaker had blown when the mast went down and as soon as that happened the inverter alarm went off and that damn alarm kept on for hours, I can’t tell you what that did to our mental state!
I continued to think that I needed to relay what was going on in case it got worse as I had no idea what was going to happen with the weight of the mast and sails pulling on the boat in addition to the steep seas. I’m thinking that it could get more ugly than it already was, so I sent out an sos message through my SPOT connect unit saying that we were dismasted. After we were freed from the mast we found that the rudder was still ok, as well as the engine, and Ñyapa was not taking on any water. We slowly motored away with a strange mixture of heartache for the loss of our rig and gratitude that no one was injured.
After the emergency was over and we were all good, I decided to send a follow up message through SPOT to let them know that the crisis was under control and no one was injured. I went to my iphone and it was completely dead. I tried charging it through a cigarette lighter – nothing. Could this day get any worse? I am realizing that we are well and truly incommunicado, the cavalry was probably on its way and we had no way of communicating with them when they arrived. It was my not so brilliant plan to pull out the portable generator at this point so we could charge the hand held and see if my phone would charge. We were able to charge for only a little while, although the generator was under the dodger, it was simply too dangerous to continue.
We slowly motored south, pointing the bow into what was the largest wave train. The weather continued to disintegrate when the wind veered to the west with some intense squalls. We were actually looking forward to the north winds that would be coming because at least then we would have one major wave train. One good thing that happened is that John was able to attach the cable for the SSB antenna that he had cut from the backstay to a bracket for our grill, which is connected to a stainless stern pulpit, and it acted as an antenna. John randomly put out a call on the station for the Doo- Dah net and someone who was also participating with the Salty Dawg Rally was close, heard us and relayed information for us. I don’t know who that was but thank you!
After the squalls passed we had a lull for a few hours. John was now seasick, and I was steering when I saw some lights on the horizon. It looked like a mast head light at first and I shouted down to John that it looked like a sailboat was out here. Then the lights came directly toward us, very quickly and I wasn’t sure if I was hallucinating. It turned out to be the coast guard, arriving by plane. We had difficulty communicating with them because of the handheld situation but they were able to catch the first word of our transmission. Basically, we communicated that we were not in distress, our engine was working, and we were fine.
Shortly thereafter, the winds began picking up again from the north and we decided to deploy the parachute anchor off the stern so we could rest, we were exhausted. The boat was rolling so violently that trying to set it off the bow seemed life threatening, not to mention that John was incredibly seasick at this point and was losing his lunch even as he set the parachute.
For over twelve hours we lay to the parachute anchor and got some much needed rest. Every hour or two we checked for chafe and let out a little line to prevent it, but in the end it was one of the connections that failed. Ideally we would have 300ft. of unbroken line but we didn’t, we had pieced together 300ft. and once again, we payed the price for our mistake when, around noon the following day, we lost the parachute. Back to hand steering.
The seas were large but manageable and we were able to maintain steerage, drifting south at a speed of about 2 kts. while keeping the seas on our stern. Jordan and Alli had been feeling queasy since we left but were now feeling better so they both took shifts steering while it was relatively easy. I was impressed that the 15 ft. seas were not intimidating them and they both did a great job.
We had an uneventful night and by morning the winds and seas had settled down. The barometer was rising and we made the decision to head in, due west, to return to the Chesapeake. The day was so mild that I was able to heat up some soup and everyone managed to keep it down. Jordan and Alli steered through the day to give John and I some rest and we were all optimistic that we would get in fairly quickly and easily. That is until Chris Parker gave us the bad news, we would be facing 25kts. from the west which would begin at midnight – right in the middle of the Gulf Stream – and turn to the NW in the morning.
Sure enough, right around 1 AM the winds started and the ride began. The misery continued for the next 12 hours and it was the first time in this whole ordeal that I tasted fear. The seas were extremely confused, steep and stacked, in daylight it looked like a boiling cauldron of hell. Ñyapa took a beating, rolling and pounding all at the same time. Eventually John had to take over steering as my arms were like overcooked spaghetti at this point and I could not hold on to the wheel. Sometime in the early afternoon we crossed out of the Gulf Stream, the sea smoothed out a bit, John got some much needed rest and we continued.
Once again we were feeling optimistic that the worst was over and we were nearly home free, until we talked to Chris Parker that evening and heard once again that we were in for another difficult night with 30 kts on the nose. Once the sun set the temperatures began to drop quickly, the seas built, we were getting hit with a lot of spray. Hypothermia conditions. I think it had to be at most 40 degrees that night and between the cold wind and water we faced a whole new challenge, staying warm when nearly everything in the boat was wet. Even my rain gear had passed the point of being useful. John faired a little better as he had an extra pair of rain pants. I came in after my first night shift soaked. After my second shift I finally broke down and had a little crying fest because I’m pretty sure that I have never been so cold, wet and exhausted as I was then. As the day progressed the weather gods gave us a break and by the time we approached Norfolk the seas were flat and glassy. Once we were tied up and Ñyapa was secure we wobbled to the nearest hotel, a Marriott, and I think we had to be quite a sight judging from the looks we got from the black suited businessmen in the lobby. We spent the next few nights enjoying a comfortable, dry bed and showers – heaven!
The biggest regret we have through all of this is we did not heave to immediately and check to see what was going on with our rigging. We payed for this mistake in a big way, yet it could have been much worse so we are also grateful that it didn’t include a serious injury or loss of life. When something major happens to your boat like this, it makes sense that other things are going to go also, we weren’t completely prepared for this. Over the years John and I have attended a number of off-shore seminars and the one thing that gets repeated over and over is to have a back up for the back up. Now I get it. When we lost our parachute anchor we could have cried and we learned the hard way not to skimp on important gear.
Many thanks go out to all the people who helped us along the way; the Salty Dawg Rally, Dick Giddings, Chris Parker, Joan Conover and someone that we didn’t catch the boat name of who relayed information for us. Thanks also to the SPOT connect service and the US Coast Guard who came to check on us not 6 hrs. after we sent a message through our SPOT connect unit. Since we have returned the cruising community has been more than kind, offering assistance and giving us leads for finding a new mast, and giving us hope that we will recover and continue!