Marsden Cove, New Zealand
And so, we ended the season as we started: dealing with ‘enhanced trade winds’. We’d asked Bruce, our weather man, to find us a weather window to head back to NZ. The winds in the last week had been pretty strong – there was a squash zone between two weather systems that were pushing the trade winds up to 25 knots. Bruce said that, if we left on Friday, we’d have 36-48 hours of fairly boisterous conditions, but then it would be a smooth run all the way to NZ.
Sailing lore has it that you WILL get smacked by a cold front and/or low pressure system somewhere on the trip from the tropics to NZ: the lows come rolling through from the Southern Ocean and the Tasman about once every 5-8 days, and since it usually takes around 8 days to do the crossing, you’ll meet one somewhere. The best you can hope for is that you hit the front north of 30 degrees south, when it is less intense….
We’re a bit faster than most of the cruising boats to which that ‘lore’ applies. But this was also a pretty exceptional window – it didn’t look like we’d hit a low anywhere, as long as we left by Friday. “Cool,” we thought. “That’s gotta be an improvement on the trip up here!”
So we set off and made really good time. The first 24 hours we had steady 25 knot SE trade winds and we were were flying along on a beam reach – the boat wanted to be going a lot faster, but with a 2.5 metre swell and us not wanting to bang the boat (or ourselves) around, we had two reefs in both the main and the headsail. Still, we did 241 miles in the first 24 hours. That might not sound much if you’re thinking land travel, but most cruisers dream of doing – but rarely do – 200 mile days, so it was pretty damn fast, and we were pretty happy with how things were going.
Everything was fine. Right up until it wasn’t.
It was Saturday night, around 9.30. Black as the inside of a cow outside. We do three-hour watches at sea, so I was asleep, while Damian was on watch, sitting at the chart table. There was an almighty crash: our mast had come down.
Just like that.
The next three hours or so were fairly torrid. The mast broke into three pieces (as far as we could see in the dark) but they all remained linked together by the mainsail, which is on a car system that runs on a track right up the mast and held at the top of the mast by the halyard. The middle section of the mast was bent back toward the boat, the sharp end of it being driven into the hull by the wind and waves and the downward drag of the top two thirds of the mast which was submerged, still loaded with the bulk of the mainsail, and sinking under the boat and in danger of fouling props and rudders.
Our main concern was to avoid being holed by the broken mast – losing the rig was one thing, sinking was an altogether less attractive option…
I won’t go into the detail here as it would all sound too scary (especially the part about Damian getting into the dinghy to release the gennaker from the prod) and too technical, but if you’re interested, you can read the full, four-page story I wrote for New Zealand Boating Magazine, here:
Suffice to say, our beautiful sails, our new radar, and two of the three sections of mast are now at the bottom of the Tonga Trench (think Marianas – about 4000m down).
We didn’t sustain any major injuries and were able to get cleared up and underway by about 12.30am. The interesting bit then was whether or not we had enough fuel to get home… This happened 925 nautical miles NW of New Zealand. We could have turned around and gone back to Tonga, but that wouldn’t have solved any of our problems: one way or another, we still had to get the boat back to NZ, and since we were already 300 miles out and it looked like we would have good weather most of the way home, we decided to press on.
We notified NZ Search and Rescue and kept them updated twice daily with position reports. We had to estimate our fuel consumption – fortunately, Damian is totally anal about keeping records of such things, so we had a reasonable idea, and were reasonably confident we could make the distance (having filled the tanks just before leaving Neiafu). So we became a motor boat and motored for the next 7 days straight – very grateful, once again, for being a catamaran and having 2 engines, rather than having to rely on just one!!
Our last night at sea we encountered a cold front that pushed the winds back up to 25 knots and we had a few ‘issues’ with engines and autopilot, which we didn’t really appreciate at that point, but nothing insurmountable. The smoke stacks of Port Whangarei appeared on the horizon in the early hours of Saturday morning and by 11.30 we were tied up on the Quarantine dock at Marsden Cove: our home away from home. We were greeted by Bruce, the local Customs officer, Karen, the manager of the marina and another friend, Ian – bearing food, flowers and a bottle of Bombay Sapphire! Since then, we’ve been overwhelmed by the kindness of everyone here – they have been tremendously supportive.
The boat is pretty banged up – the solar panels are smashed, the forebeam that joins the two hulls is twisted (staggering force required to do that); the mast and boom have had it, sails gone, stack pack torn, hole in the cabin top, lots of scuff marks, dents and grazes. Amazingly, there is little damage at the waterline – we think there must have been some sail between the hull and the sharp end of the broken mast.
We spent six hours yesterday with the insurance assessor and have, we think, identified WHAT happened, if not WHY. The U-bolt holding the D1 (inner shroud) to the cabin top sheared off, about 20mm below the surface of the deck. Once it let go, the mast (which was carbon and had no spreaders) was unsupported in the middle, so warped like a noodle and snapped.
The Assessor, who has 30 years experience, has never seen anything like it. So it will be interesting to find out the “WHY”, which will involve having the bolt examined by a metallurgist.
The upside of it is that he said we did a ‘superb job’ of handling the situation – that we’d done everything possible in advance to make the boat safe, to prevent it happening; and that we did everything right when it did happen. There was nothing else we could have done either to prevent it or to salvage anything. So that’s good for our confidence. The flip side of that is, we did everything right but it happened anyway – don’t know what the odds are (one in ten thousand?) but how unlucky can we be?
At this stage, there seems to be no reason why we won’t be covered by insurance, but we won’t count those chickens just yet…. We have a huge job ahead of us to make the boat right again – it’s feeling pretty daunting at the moment, but we’ll be able to find the help we need – NZ is probably the best place to be to do the work and of course, after our experiences last year, we know all the local contractors…
We were due to fly to Europe to visit Damian’s family and our friends, flying out of Sydney on November 29. Not sure what we’re going to do about that trip yet – we need to get some timeframes around getting a new mast (might have to come from France) etc. Obviously, we want and need to be here to oversee the work, but yards close over Christmas and it may take some time to get all the bits and pieces we need.
At this stage, we’re still feeling a bit stunned – we wake up each morning and have to remind ourselves what has happened. But we are fine, and we’re safe and that’s the main thing.
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