All posts by She Who Sails...

Offshore sailor. RYA Cruising Instructor. Clipper Race Alumni. Water lover! Often found sailing around the south coast of the UK, with my partner and family.

A Hellish Night At Sea… Dismasted Off France

Sat here, safely back in the UK, sunshine streaming through the window, tapping away at my laptop to share this story with you, it feels surreal. Did it really happen to us? As I close my eyes and allow the pictures and sounds to resurface… I can tell you yes, it did happen.

Our beloved Ruby May, now finds herself in a temporary new home in France, bare of both running and standing rigging from the deck up. Here is the story of that fateful and hellish night at sea. If you are a fellow sailor, and would like to read about my tips, learning’s and what to expect in a dismasting situation then please click here to see my knowledge share.

Dismasted boat
Ruby May with no mast and lots of damage, on a bouy in L’Aber Wra’ch
Read on for the story of a hellish night at sea…: A Hellish Night At Sea… Dismasted Off France

We set off from Eastbourne in glorious sunshine, and had a fantastic couple of days of sailing, via Alderney for a few hours of running repairs (we had an impeller disintegrate and needed to fish it out of the heat exchanger which was easier on a buoy than upwind in a F5). We were on passage to Spain, via the infamous Bay of Biscay, and were roughly 250nm into our passage. Onboard we had Hodge, who was sharing watches with Smithy (a good friend from my Clipper Race days), and Jerry a long standing friend of Smithy’s and a very competent sailor in his own right. Smithy and Jerry have been friends for many many years, and own a sailing boat together on the Norfolk Broads, along with two of their friends. Between them they have tens of thousands of miles under the keel. It is a pleasure to sail with them.

Malcs, Hodge, Smithy and Jerry heading to the boat in Eastbourne before we set off

On my watch it was just Malcs and I. Malcs, a former Royal Marine, is smart, resilient, and has a great sense of humour. His resilience shines through in most everything he does, with no apparent fear, he is an incredibly strong character and his stories can entertain for hours. Malcs sailed the Bay of Biscay with us on Ruby May last year, and he’s also got lots of other sailing experience with many trips across the Channel, and also a Fastnet Race under his belt.

My watch-mate, Malcs, just off the Sussex coast

Malcs and I had been loving our watches. Doing what is best on watch – talking a lot of nonsense (well I did!), chatting about anything and everything, eating, trimming the sails, looking out for shooting stars, and generally just loving every minute. We had spotted pod after pod of Dolphin. With one very memorable pod joining us near the Channel Islands. A large pod of Dolphins, made up of a complete mixture of sizes, from babies to full sized adults. Typically Dolphins head straight for the bow to catch fish, but some of this particular pod hung back and stayed on our beam just a metre of so away from us. Malcolm was on the helm, and I sat on the low side taking in the beauty around us, as our new founds friends leapt repeatedly out of the water at our side. It was magnificent.

The full crew, ready to slip lines

We had spent much of the 250nm heading into the wind. It was hard work, but good fun. We were rapidly heading towards to NW corner of France, all of us were VERY excited about this prospect. For when we turned the corner and pointed our bow at Spain it was to be a couple of hundred miles of open ocean across the Bay of Biscay, but also (more importantly) we would have the wind on our beam – the most comfortable and efficient point of sail. For days we had been counting down the miles and hours until this moment… that golden moment was getting closer and closer with the change of every watch.

As Malcolm and I came off watch at 8pm, ready for our well earned 4 hours of sleep, we chatted with the oncoming watch. “Not long now!”

Hodge and I had our usual handover, we talked about the weather – it was pretty fair, a Force 6-7 that had beset us 24 hours earlier had well and truly blown through, the storm jib had been tucked away in its bag. We talked about the boat, and our strategy in terms of navigation. We decided that Hodge and his crew should continue on the tack we were on for roughly 10 nm or so, and then when they thought that they could ‘make the corner’ (turning through the wind so as to get us past the NW corner of France) then he would tack. This was it, we were so close to the ‘Champagne Sailing’ conditions that we’d all been dreaming of.

Malcolm and I headed down below, Malcolm to his cabin, and me to my temporary bed on the saloon sofa. The sofa was a welcoming site, complete with a shiny new (and very handy) lee cloth, which was doing an excellent job at keeping both Hodge and I from flying across the saloon when we alternated ‘off-watch’ to get some sleep. Down below, it was noisy, alive with the sounds of the outside world – the crashing of the waves, the rushing of the water, the clattering of blocks and lines on deck – these are the sounds of offshore sailing.

For the first time on the passage I was struggling to sleep. I pulled the duvet over my head, and tried to take my mind to calm, peaceful places, as I listened to the roar of the water rushing past our hull. Eventually I gave up and started making notes on my phone and reviewing the forecast… I tried every trick in the book, but I couldn’t sleep. I had an unsettled feeling. It’s hard to describe, I have only once ever felt the same on a passage, and that was when I was mid-Atlantic and a crew mate had accidently gybed the boat (a 72ft racing boat) and I was worried about the rigging, but also competency. Yet here I was in that same place, unsettled, I had a feeling that something bad may happen.

Hodge came down to write in the log book, peeking out from under my duvet, he came and sat beside me…

“Everything ok? Why aren’t you asleep?”

“I don’t know, I can’t sleep. I’m worried, I feel like something is going to happen. I don’t like it. I don’t feel good about things”

I wasn’t feeling unwell, I wasn’t feeling sick… I just had a deep deep (not fear) but sense, that something bad was going to happen. Now, I hear you cry ‘this sounds like nonsense!’ – and I would normally concur, but after 3 hours of no sleep, and this feeling of darkness inside me, I shared those concerns with Hodge, who replied lovingly “there’s nothing to worry about, why are you worrying? Everything’s fine, you need to get some sleep. We’re going to tack in about 15 minutes, and then we’ll make the corner”. He gently stroked my hair as he sat beside me, kissing me on my forehead, he whispered “I love you” and then rejoined his watch on deck.

I closed my eyes, my mind still whirring, counting down the minutes until I could return to the deck, and shake the feeling that was lurking deep inside me. Ten minutes passed. And then there was two loud bangs, and a slight lurching of the boat to starboard. What on earth was that? It sounded like we were tacking (but badly), like blocks and lines smacking out of control, but we hadn’t turned? And then Ruby May, who had been whizzing along at great speeds, came to a near stand-still.

Our position at the time of the incident

“Sam, can you get your life jacket on and get up on deck. Get Malcolm on deck too. Nobody panic. “

‘Nobody panic??!’ – This doesn’t sound good! I leapt up and darted across the saloon towards Malcolm’s cabin door, grabbing my life jacket en route, as I passed the companionway hatch I glanced up, and could see the strangest site on deck… a spreader?! For the non-sailors reading this, a spreader is an aluminum ‘strut’ that lives part of the way up the mast, we have two pairs, on each side of our mast. They’re attached to the mast and their job is to ‘spread’ the steel cabling, creating as large an angle as possible, so as to reduce the load on the mast. Just so we are all crystal clear – there should not be one laying on the deck! And the fact there was, set alarm bells off. ‘What am I about to find?’ I thought as I pulled on my boots.

I knocked on Malcom’s door. “Malcs, Malcs” opening it a few inches, I heard a sleepy murmur, “you need to get your life jacket on and get on deck, something’s happened, we need all hands on deck, but don’t panic.” I grabbed my phone and knife, and within seconds Malcom emerged in a sleepy haze, wearing a t-shirt and shorts… “you need to kit up Malcs, I think it’s going to be a long night”, he disappeared back into his cabin.

The scene on deck… lines, and tensioned cable everywhere. The foot of the mast can be scene in the air, just to the left of the moon

Climbing the companionway steps, my fears were confirmed. On my left I could see the smooth, grey aluminum length of our mast, partially underwater, flattening our guard rail like a giant’s foot would an ant. In front of me a spreader jutting out from the mast, precariously positioned across the cockpit table, coupled with some highly tensioned steel cables, almost lost amongst a complex maze of lines, snake like in their appearance. The cockpit, normally reserved for crew banter and on-watch snacking, was a mass of metal and rope.

On deck, Hodge, Smithy, and Jerry were working calmly and quietly. To keep the boat steady, whilst tying mooring lines around the mast, attaching those to winches in an effort to gain some control of the 14 metre mast which was laying helplessly across the deck. Hodge immediately confirmed that everyone was ok. Miraculously no one was injured – Hodge had moved out of line of a direct hit, just seconds before. Smithy was sitting on the opposite side of the cockpit, and Jerry was at the helm on the opposite side. If Jerry was using the other wheel he would have been hit, if Smithy was sitting in the same position but on the other side he would have been hit. It really was an absolute miracle.

Hodge taking a moment to stop and think, you can see a steel cable (a stay) in front of him across the wheel, and the mast, and main sail in the background overboard

As I stood on the top step, surveying the scene before my eyes, Hodge asked calmly “what do you think we should do”? “Cut it away, we need to get rid”. My fear that the out of control mast could deliver a final blow of venomous proportion to our weary looking Ruby May, it could hole our hull. “No, I don’t think we should yet. Let’s slow down, let’s think…” Turning to Jerry and Smithy, I ask their views, and they respond with “Let’s wait, I don’t think we should do that just yet”. Fine, yep, I concurred, let’s slow things down and take time to think.

On my hands and knees I crawled underneath the lines and tensioned steel cables, concerned that at any minute, with the lurch of a wave the mast could fall further overboard taking me, or any one of us with it if we were unlucky enough to be caught in the cross-fire. Popping up at the stern, like a meercat from it’s burrow, I turned to assess the full extent of the dismasting. What an unbelievable sight.

I was welcomed by the site of the mast foot in the air, pivoting precariously 10 ft or so above where it’s normally secured to the deck. The maze of lines and cables that I initially saw in the cockpit, seemed to span the entire coach roof, and the foot of the mast was also covered in limp, helpless looking lines.

A wave hit our beam and we lurched. The boat was moving differently to normal. We were bobbing helplessly, without sails and unable to use our engine thanks to the snaking lines that lay beneath us, we felt every wave and rolled from one side to the other. The mass of steel and aluminum creaking and banging as each wave passed beneath us. With every few waves in the train, one would be slightly larger, causing us to lurch even more, making me question our stability a little in my own head. The mast and rigging would respond with glee – smashing against the hull and deck, making the most horrendous, grating noise, a reminder that at any moment this situation could go from bad to worse.

By now, Malcolm was on deck. I headed below to send a ‘Pan-Pan’ – an emergency message, which will alert others that we have had an incident, but we’re currently not in ‘grave’ danger. The radio waves were silent. There was no response.

Returning to deck, I turned to Hodge, and suggested we escalate the message to a Mayday. We were bobbing helplessly 12nm away from land. Our rig was reminding us that at any moment it could punish us further, it was 11.30pm and we are shrouded in darkness, we had lost our AIS, and I was very conscious that it wouldn’t take much for this situation to escalate.

Heading below I press the distress (DSC) button, and am met by beeping and confirmation that my message has sent. I pick up the radio handset, and start the Mayday voice call. My first, and hopefully my last. I sat at the chart table and waited eagerly for a response. But nothing came through. Waiting a couple of minutes, I repeated my call.

“Our position is forty eight degrees, fifty one decimal, zero seven North, zero zero four degrees, one nine, decimal six five West. Our vessel has been dismasted. There are 5 persons on board, and we require immediate assistance.”

Still nothing. The silence on the radio is deafening.

With our VHF antenna secured at the top of the mast, now several metres below the murky English Channel, we had virtually no ‘range’, and our distress calls were going unanswered. Hodge pulled out our emergency antenna and we tried again, with Smithy holding the antenna as high as he could. I looked up at his silhouette, arm raised, antenna possibly 2.5 metres high, Hodge attempted another Mayday. Nothing. This was a nonsense.

We were reluctant to cut the rig away because with so much in the water, yet so much still to go over, we were concerned that it could cause catastrophic damage to our hull as it went. I also had concerns about stability – if more of the rig was to go over, but remain attached, it could put even more weight on one side and make us yet more vulnerable should a wave come along with our name on it.

I pulled out a pen and scribbled an entry into our ships log book. “Dismasted. All crew on deck. Life jackets on. Mayday sent. No response”. I return to the deck with our 2 grab bags, which I had spent a couple of hours 2 weeks before re-stocking, to ensure we had everything we needed. (See this post for full contents of our grab bags). So I was confident that we had everything we needed, should we for some reason end up in a situation where we had to leave the vessel.

Discussing the situation with Hodge, we made the decision to put up 2 parachute flares. We were roughly 12 nm from shore, and were possibly seeing what looked like the occasional twinkle of light, a hint that there is some life out there. There may well be vessels that would see a flare, albeit we couldn’t see any. A parachute flare can be seen for up to 40nm on a clear night. In my mind, it was worth a go. Everyone agreed.

One of the guys pulled out the large yellow flare carton from the starboard locker, which was somewhat buried under a spreader. I carefully unscrewed the lid, and took out a flare. As I removed its cap, a small white pull cord dangled down, almost like the cord you would see on a party popper. I pointed it downwind into the night’s sky, and gave it a hard tug . With an almighty whoosh the flare illuminated the sky, burning bright red in all its glory. I was surprised at how loud it was when it went, and also at just how much light it created . The most incredible red glow, quite a sight.

Our first red parachute flare, lighting us up. We think this is what attracted the first fishing vessel that came to our aid

It was a clear night, with plenty of stars and a full moon for company, we were so incredibly lucky to have such good conditions. “Please see us, please see us” I repeated over and over in my head, as Malcolm set a three minute timer on his watch.

We all fell silent, taking in the moment, staring up the sky, with the deck and sea lit up red. And with that, it silently fizzled out. As quickly as it was there, it was gone. Scanning the horizon there was nothing, and no one. It was just us out there, helplessly bowing down at Neptune’s feet.

2 minutes 30, 2 minutes 40… I have the second flare in my hand. 3 minutes. With the cap removed, I take aim and pull the now familiar flare cord on the second flare. Whoosh. Like a firework, it shoots into the darkness. This flare however, decides on a different path! Initially taking the same position as the first, it suddenly and erratically darted in a totally different direction, upwind of us. Well this is not good news. We all turn and stare intently. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come this way” “yes that wouldn’t be good”. We stare and wait, and stare and wait. The flare slowly starts its decent, making its way quietly in our direction, getting lower, and continuing to come straight towards us in slow motion- this can not be happening! The last thing we want is for the fireball to land on us.

Thankfully it comes down nearby, uncomfortably nearby, but nearby nonetheless. Possibly 10 – 15 ft off our stern, the bright red flaming ball gracefully lands on the water, momentarily creating a fairly sizeable fire on top of the sea, before it finally snuffs out. We breathe a sigh of relief, and see the comedy in the moment of utter terror! Hoping that someone had seen us.

We all stood quietly scanning the horizon. Looking eagle eyed for any signs of life. Every now and then one of us would spot a light. “A vessel, a vessel, it’s definitely a vessel!”… It’s amazing how your brain can invent the things, and see the things it wants to see. That night, I saw several vessels that weren’t.

After some time, we decided it was time to use our last resort option to get some help. We have an Iridium Go Exec, and on it is a ‘red button’ – if we this is pressed, it alerts the Garmin Emergency Centre (in the USA), who will in turn alert our shore contacts, who may be able to get us some help.

I pressed the red button, and at the same time, despite being well out of range, Malcolm tapped out a whatsapp message. ‘Mast down. Need help’ – addressed to a good friend and work colleague of both him and Hodge, someone we know is tracking our every move.

And then it’s back to waiting. We continue the regular scan of the horizon.

Suddenly things started to happen, and I can’t be sure of the order. But incredibly a whatsapp came back through to Malcolm, asking for our position, and a small exchange is had before we could no longer communicate by that means. At the same time, the Iridium Go Exec sprung into life with a call coming through – a lady with a thick American accent, asking where we are. Baffling that despite all the tech, the Garmin Emergency Centre had no idea where we were. The comms are broken, and incredibly difficult. The device rings again, and a crackly male voice comes on, it’s Hodge’s brother, our shore contact, with an incredibly calm ‘Yo, what’s up?!’ We attempt to give our position, and iterate that we’re all (miraculously) unharmed, we give some details, but the comms are so broken, it’s difficult, and again it cuts out.

“A light! A light! I can definitely see a light! It’s a vessel, it’s definitely a vessel!” (This is following several false alarms) On the horizon, we spot a small white light. Grabbing our spotlight, I start flashing it frantically in the direction of the light. It is definitely getting closer, but is not necessarily heading our way. I continue to flash our light, my arm aching, as I hold it as high as I can above my head. As it gets closer we realise that the vessel has it’s own huge search light, and is making regular scans of the horizon, from left to right, and then back again. They are looking for us! Did they see our flares??

“We’re here, we’re here” I’m screaming in my head, and quite possibly out loud, as I continue to flash the torch in their direction. And with that the light once again scans past, before quickly centering, and fixing on us. “They’ve seen us!!!!!!”

After what seems like an age, the vessel gets closer and closer. It’s a huge fishing vessel, the Azkarra. Never have I been so happy to see a fishing vessel. Not usually a massive fan (understatement) of fishing boats, this feeling of elation at being in the company of one was somewhat alien, you could feel the sheer relief wash over us all.

The Azkarra called us on the radio (our handheld VHF which has limited ship-to-ship range), and in broken English they told us that they were in contact with the coastguard and that help was coming. They would be our voice, our link to the outside world. They said they would stay with us until help arrived. Slowly circling us, with enormous spotlights on us at all times, they kept a healthy distance (most of the time!) with huge waves rolling between us to give us perspective.

I have never been so grateful for maritime law.

By now, it must have been 1am or later, time was standing still. Another fishing vessel appeared and made its way close to us. We had regular comms with the Azkarra, and now we had another French vessel, Le Tad for company. Le Tad agreed with Azkarra that they would take over, and would stand-on, so the Azkarra could return to shore to offload her catch in Roscoff. Le Tad was equally as big, and much like Azkarra, circled us, and ‘lit us up.’

I cannot emphasise the relief that we all felt, by having another vessel by our side. It meant that if things did escalate, if we did start to take on water, if we did suddenly roll, if any of the ‘if’s did happen, and one of us or more ended up in the dark seas of the night, that we may just be safe. It meant that people knew where we were, that people were watching out for us. It felt so so good.

Le Tad informed us that a helicopter was on its way, and that a lifeboat was coming too. The helicopter would be 15 mins, but the lifeboat much longer. We responded, letting them know that we really didn’t need a helicopter, that we just needed a lifeboat, to assist and hopefully tow us. The Le Tad said, that the helicopter was insistent, and that it was fine. Communication was tricky, with a mixture of broken English and broken French. Nonetheless, we were going to receive help soon.

Before long, we could hear the familiar sound of a helicopters rotor blades thumping through the sky. As it got closer, salty spray washed across our cluttered decks. We had a brief back and forth on the radio, and a huge spotlight shone down to identify a suitable landing spot for the winchman. Realising our deck was somewhat hazardous, they asked if we had a swim ladder. We do, but it was completely trapped beneath the mast. So that was it, with no further ado, we watched as a real-life action hero dangling from a helicopter landed in mere seconds on our foredeck, somehow avoiding the snake pit of lines and cables. One wrong move, and he would have been seriously hurt. I don’t quite know how he managed to do it, but he did, landing in a space probably half a metre, by half a metre, he unclipped and shook each of our hands in turn, his face beamed as he said a confident ‘bonjour’.

The French Navy helicopter assesing our situation from the air

We welcomed him aboard and he asked who was going up in the helicopter first. He wanted 3 people. Absolutely not, no, no and no. No one wanted to go anywhere. He understood, but was a little surprised. He told us that he wanted to stay with us until the lifeboat arrived. That the lifeboat would tow us, but we now needed to cut the rig away. With that we sprang into action.

Just about to give the final push and say goodbye to our full rig

With Le Tad, and the helicopter watching over us, and our new French friend onboard, we pulled out the bolt cutters, and various implements from the toolkit – hammers, wrenches, screw drivers… and all of us started the job of freeing the rig. We did it in a controlled and systematic manner, working together and communicating constantly making sure that the rig didn’t suddenly heave, or a cable didn’t suddenly fire across the deck. One of the last screws to be undone was by Hodge (he had to climb under the mast), I held my breath as he was out of sight and in such a dangerous position, with the mast continuing to crash up and down. The whole process took us about an hour, and then we were ready. We cut the lines that were just about holding the rig on deck, and on a count of three we pushed everything overboard.

I was towards the stern of the boat, and captured the moment on camera just as we were about to push. We all stood, or crouched exhausted as the entire rig vanished into the deep sea. I watched intently until the white of the mainsail could no longer be seen. Now we just had to hope that nothing was entangled around our prop, and that there was no hull damage.

The bare deck, and the winchman waiting to depart

The deck was suddenly unfamiliar again. Now it was just bare. Where there had once been a mast, shrouds, sails and lines, there was just an empty space. The boat continued to lurch with every wave, now more so than before.

Our temporary crew member told us in a very smooth French accent, that it was time for him to leave. The lifeboat appearing behind us was a welcome sight. And with that he hooked himself to a line and whizzed up from the deck, swinging wildly as he was winched back into the awaiting helicopter.

The lifeboat crew were fantastic. They told us they would throw us a towing line, and they planned to tow us to L’Aber Wra’ch, a small fishing town on the NW coast of France. After a couple of missed attempts, we finally had their line onboard and the tow began. We took turns on the wheel, watching the line snatch and ease, as the SNSM effortlessly dragged us along behind them. The crew were friendly and very reassuring, it felt safe to be in their hands. They called us every 30 minutes to check in, each time giving us an update on progress. On deck the mood had shifted, it was now time for some banter and reflection, as the adrenaline started to subside, what on earth had we all just been through, and what do we do next?!

Approaching the shore, under tow by the SNSM

As the sun began to rise, we were nearing L’Aber. I took the wheel, and we navigated our way through the maze of buoys, still under tow. Just before the marina entrance, the lifeboat coxswain instructed us to enter the marina and moor alongside them. I started the engine (with clenched teeth) and very slowly and carefully put us on to our designated berth. Smithy, Malcs and Jerry worked with the lifeboat crew to tie us up. And before long, it was all smiles and handshakes on the pontoon.

It was so amazing to see the 8 lifeboat crew who had left their warm beds to come to our aid in the middle of the night. We shook their hands in turn, and exchanged pleasantries, and the story of what had happened. They said they would catch up with us later in the day or the next day to do ‘paperwork’ (in France the SNSM, RNLI equivalent, charge for salvage), and with that they were gone, and we were alone once again.

With the adrenaline drained, we were all shattered, but I felt we needed a short decompress and chat on deck before everyone headed to bed. So, like all good sailors do, we cracked open some very very fine beverages (at 7.30am) and enjoyed the sweet taste of ‘surviving’ on deck. We were all fine, it felt good to be safe, it felt good to have come through as a team, we were here, we were ok, and everything else would fall into place. Cheers to that.

Smiles and a ‘decompress’ on deck once we arrived safely in L’Aber Wra’ch

I’d like to say a massive thank you to the SNSM L’Aber Wra’h for looking after us and towing us to shore; the French Navy helicopter crew for lighting us up and giving us the help you did; the skipper and crew of Le Tad and the Azkarra for responding to us when in distress, following the maritime code, and for standing by – whilst also giving us so much hope and reassurance; the marina staff at L’Aber Wr’ach for looking after us and Ruby May so well, and Johnathon at Cafe Du Port for keeping us fed and watered. Thank you also to GJW, and our insurance team who have been amazing since we got back to dry land.

The SNSM 064 French Lifeboat who came to our aid

I would also like to thank Smithy, Jerry and Malcs for the calm, positivity and tremendous team work that night, and of course Hodge for everything pre, post, and on the night that made it a far better experience than it could very well have been. The memory of that hellish night still burns bright, but it is amazing what happens when people dig deep, and team work and experience shine bright. To that point, I also want to say thank you to the many sailors over the years who have imparted their knowledge with either Hodge or I, who inadvertently helped us that night in making us the sailors that we have both become.

The full crew in L’Aber Wra’ch

There’s so may lessons I would like to share with fellow sailors, from that night, I have created a separate blog post, which you can read here.

What To Do In A Dismasting And How To Prepare

Having recently been dismasted off the NW coast of France, I have been asked lots of questions from fellow sailors about what it was like; what we would do differently; what worked well; what didn’t; how could they prepare. To address some of these questions and hopefully help you prepare should you ever been unfortunate enough to find yourself in this situation, I’ve covered all of the questions I’ve been asked below. If you have any other specific questions, please do leave a question in the comments below, or contact me.

< Read the full story of our dismasting >

Were you scared?

No. If you’ve read any of my blog posts before, you’ll know I am of the belief that fear has no place on a sailing boat. You need to be mentally strong, and mentally prepared, and then no matter what the situation, you will be able to stay calm and rational. Two essential ingredients for a positive outcome in an emergency or ‘intense’ situation.

My advice to all sailors before putting to sea is, think through the risks, prepare for them physically and also mentally. What would you do in X situation? What would you do if Y happened? Put in place everything you can to both prevent it, but also to help make life easier if the situation does occur. If you’ve already thought it through, or envisaged it, then you’ll be one step ahead, and you’ll be calmer.

Equally if you are the skipper, or you are an experienced crew member, people will look to you for that ‘calm‘. If they’re scared, and they see that you’re calm it will help keep them calm. If they look to you and you’re riddled with fear, then they too will panic, and then poor decisions are made, chaos ensues, and frankly it can be incredibly dangerous.

Don’t panic, stay calm, be prepared for anything.

What was in your sailing grab bag? Did you have everything you might need?

We carry two grab bags onboard, they had everything we needed (and more) in case of having to abandon to a life raft. Contents are as follows…

Bag 1 – This is a SOLAS B certified 50 litre waterproof grab bag containing the following:

  • Category C 1st aid kit
  • Thermal protective aids
  • A sea anchor
  • Buoyant orange smoke flare
  • 3 x red had flares
  • Waterproof SOLAS approved torch
  • Water rations
  • Food rations

Bag 2 – This is an additional 30l waterproof bag that we put together containing a collection of items that we thought may also be needed if we need to abandon ship. Contents are as follows:

  • More food and water rations
  • Handheld VHF radio (fully charged)
  • Mini dry box containing AA and AAA batteries
  • Waterproof pouch containing the passports of all onboard (collected at the beginning of an offshore passage)
  • A waterproof torch
  • A sharp knife
  • Spare sanitary items
  • Spare medication for anyone onboard
  • A credit card
  • Waterproof pouch containing all crew details (inc next of kin details and medical history)
  • IP66 waterproof box containing a solar powered battery bank for phones and charging cables
  • Sea sickness tablets
  • Glow sticks

In addition to the above, our life raft comes complete with its own additional supplies. We stow our grab bags in an easy access position, underneath the chart table, at the bottom of the companionway steps.

How did you get help when you were dismasted? Did you lose your comms?

On our yacht (like most yachts), the VHF antenna was at the top of the mast. When the mast came down we lost all radio range on our ships radio, and it also took out our AIS. So raising the alarm was challenging.

We carry an emergency antenna onboard, and at the very least I would recommend this. Albeit, it won’t be much help in an offshore dismasting, as the range is incredibly limited if you are unable to hoist to any significant height. We attempted to use it, but got no response from repeated May Day calls. We also pressed our DSC button, but got no response.

We used red parachute flares, which worked well in the cloudless sky. With a range of up to 40nm, there’s a good chance that they will be seen. Advice is to let one off, downwind, and then let another off 3 minutes later. We believe that one of the fishing vessels that came to our aid, was due to us letting the flares off.

We struggled to get outside help, so we eventually ended up pushing our ’emergency button’ on our Iridium Go Exec. This gave us sat comms, and ultimately the help we needed. This is an expensive system, but proved to be invaluable and is recommended if you are going any significant distance from land.

Onboard, we also have an EPIRB, although we’ve never had to use it. We also have a handheld VHF radio, which was incredibly useful when we had vessels close by that had come to our aid.

How did you cut away the rig when you were dismasted?

Onboard we had a set of bolt cutters. Ultimately these were clunky and inefficient. My advice would be to invest in hydraulic cutters, but also a portable angle grinder (and keep the battery fully charged).

We found it simpler to unscrew all of the bottle screws, and use knives to cut the lines when we were dismasted. This meant we could do it in a controlled and well thought out way, without the risk of highly tensioned cables suddenly thrashing across the deck and causing injury. One issue we came up against was that we had ‘taped’ our bottle screws to avoid clothing snags on the split pins. This proved time consuming to take off (even with knives), and we lost valuable time. ‘Taping’ bottle screws, although common, isn’t something I would recommend or do again.

When you were dismasted was there any way to save the rigging?

For us, the whole mast came away from the deck and the mast head was balanced precariously over the starboard quarter (probably 4m under water). Both sails were unfurled and underwater (fully). We believe the forestay failed, but can’t be certain. We attempted to pull it back onboard, and even use winches, but it was impossible. The sheer weight, and size meant it couldn’t be done without potentially causing huge damage to the integrity of the hull (as the spreaders could have punched through).

Ultimately I don’t believe there was any way for us to save the rigging, without unnecessarily putting everybody at serious risk.

What did you do after you were dismasted?

First thing was to just take stock – check everyone was ok. Stay calm, and slow down. I immediately jumped to ‘we must cut it away’, but the right thing to do was to stop and think. So that’s what we did. We took a minute to go over the steps we needed to take, and think through how the situation could escalate.

Rough steps we took in our dismasting were:

  • Wake everyone onboard, with an instruction to stay calm, get dressed and get on deck with a life jacket on
  • Secure the rig that was across the deck with mooring lines (tied to winches) to reduce the amount of banging and ‘give’ and to also stop it from fully going over in an uncontrolled way
  • We made the decision to try and get help, as we were only 12nm from land, and so to have help with us when we cut the rig away and someone to tow us in would be useful
  • Raised the alarm – we tried radio, this didn’t work as we’d lost radio range (due to antenna being submerged), we rigged the emergency antenna, but this gave little range as we could only get it about 2.5m high. Next we put up 2 parachute flares – we believe this got the attention of a fishing vessel (which came after about an hour). Then we pushed our Iridium Go Exec emergency button, this got us in touch with the Garmin Emergency Centre, and subsequently our shore contacts, who called the coastguard
  • Help arrived by way of a helicopter and fishing boat, and we were instructed to start work on getting rid of the rig, which was semi submerged, with both sails fully underwater – we opted to undo the bottle screws, as it would give us more control, and was more manageable. This took about an hour. We then pushed it in
  • We hooked up a tow line and were then towed ashore, and updated all shore contacts that we were safe
  • At all times we were monitoring the crew for signs of shock etc, and after we got back to shore we made sure everyone was ok, and we had a chat/decompress as a crew before people got some sleep – I think this was important, as it allowed everyone to take stock and reflect on what had been quite a big event
Was there anything you would do differently?


I’m very pleased with how we handled the situation and especially how the crew came together. The decisions we made were well thought out, and well communicated. The team came together very well, with no panic, and no stress. The atmosphere onboard was incredibly calm. This helped the situation hugely.

We had all the right prep and plans in place beforehand to handle the situation (any emergency generally), and as such we had everything we needed throughout.

What is your advice to prepare, prevent and respond to a dismasting?

A lot of the below goes for any emergency, and for general safety. But in essence I recommend the following:

  • Prep your shore contacts – make sure they know where you are, and certainly where you’re starting and finishing (and your eta). Give them full details of your boat (type of boat, length, hull colour, MMSI, call sign etc) and full details of crew onboard (including next of kin details). A lot of this will be asked for by the coastguard, and it will speed up the process of you getting help. We have a whatsapp group with our shore contacts, and so each time we go offshore we can send a topline plan and everything is in one place. For us, the shore contacts were the people that managed to get us the help we needed, and it helped hugely that they had all the details they needed.
  • Choose your shore contacts wisely – When it comes to choosing your shore contacts, choose them wisely, and make sure they’re comfortable with this role – they could get a call in the middle of the night saying that you have been dismasted, and they may need to liaise with the coast guard, How will they cope? Will they stay calm? Will they be able to do the job? Choose wisely! Our shore contacts did an incredible job and stayed calm, although they both said it was a bit of an unnerving experience, they didn’t know how bad the situation was, and they had to wait several hours for an update, they didn’t get a wink of sleep that night, but nonetheless they did an amazing job, and we were very grateful for their help and level headedness
  • Do a really thorough safety briefing – we had done just that, we were heading on a 600nm+ passage, and so spent a good couple of hours reminding the crew of the standing orders, where things were (emergency antenna, first aid, iridium go exec, grab bags etc) and going over safety procedures, etc. It paid off hugely. Everyone knew where to find things, so if instructed (i.e. I need a wrench, or I need the emergency antenna) anyone could get it instantly. Hodge is also obsessive with labelling and listing, and this also helped. So invest time in your safety briefing, it will pay dividends if needed
  • Rig checks – when it comes to dismasting, obviously the condition of the rig plays a critical factor – get regular surveys and inspections, and if you know what you’re doing then do regular checks yourself. I had gone aloft and done a full inspection (with full photographic evidence) 3wks before. We have also had 2 surveys in the last 3 years. This gave us peace of mind that the rig was sound, and has also been very helpful in terms of the insurance. It obviously didn’t prevent the dismasting, but at least we know we did everything we could, and ultimately freak accidents do happen, all you can do is minimise the chances
  • Have a decent set of bolt cutters onboard (ideally hydraulic – standard one’s won’t do much). Even better, invest in a portable angle grinder and keep it fully charged
  • Think it through – plan and prepare for the worst, put in place a plan, have everything you need ready (and accessible). Think worst case scenario and work back from there – would you cope? Have you got everything you need? Is everything well located?
  • Have well stocked grab bags to hand (see above) – keep crew passports in them (if going offshore), and any spare medication
  • Have torches to hand – our incident happened at night, having a good supply of easily accessible head torches and a good (very high powered) spotlight was essential
  • Carry a knife – we enforced that all crew had to carry a sharp sailing knife on them at all times, this paid off- we all used them when cutting the rig away
  • Remember to write in your log book – time passes quickly – keep a note of what’s happening and when – it’s useful for communicating with the emergency services and post event, with the insurers
  • Take pictures – sounds silly, but it has been a critical part of the insurance claim – the more pictures, the better. We were even asked if we had a picture of the rig in the water, after it had been cut away!
  • Remember to eat and drink – hours can pass, and it’s essential to keep everyone hydrated and well fueled. So don’t forget to eat and drink, and make sure others do too. Adrenaline may stop them, but when the crash comes, it’s essential that they have good hydration and energy
  • Finally, stay calm – I said it above, but not panicking can make all the difference in the outcome. Stay calm
How has it been in terms of managing the insurance claim for the dismasting?

Our insurance company GJW have been absolutely fantastic to deal with. Our assessor flew out to see us straight away, and has been incredibly professional and really helpful.

I mentioned above – keep a log book, take lots of pictures, have regular rig surveys, look after your rig, go aloft (if you know what you’re doing) and do your own regular checks – all of this will help you maintain your rig and prevent a dismasting, but it will also be helpful if the worst happens and you need to make an insurance claim.

Try not to listen to the ‘doom mongers’ and especially the keyboard warriors – they will tell you that insurers don’t pay out on rig failure, or that they dock 30%, etc etc . Block that out, focus on looking after your rig, doing the right thing in terms of maintenance etc, and should you find yourself in the position of having to claim, then depending on your policy you will get what is fairly owned under your policy terms, which for us has been a full payout.

The insurance process has been a ‘you pay, we pay’ system – so we have had to source all suppliers and quotes, put them to the insurance company, arrange the work, and then either we have paid and been reimbursed, or because of the size of the claim some of it has been paid direct. It’s quite hard work (especially when in a different country with a different language), but it’s fairly standard across marine insurance. We have opted to have the mast, standing and running rigging along with sails sorted in France, and then bring the boat home to do all of the other work with local suppliers, but it has been no easy feat to coordinate and organise!

Note: this feature is purely my own personal view and opinion. I am sharing this knowledge with the aim to help and assist fellow sailors in, what to expect, and how to prepare having been through the experience of a dismasting. This is not professional advice, and I will accept no liability for the knowledge I have shared here.

I would encourage anyone taking to the water to undergo proper training and seek the right qualifications through a recognised body for example the RYA or ASA.

You should always use a recognised and professional rigger when carrying out any work on your rig, and sail within your abilities, and on a well maintained and well-prepared yacht.

Fun in the sun

We are going to be attempting an Ocean Yachtmaster qualifying passage in the coming months. Our last attempt saw us run for a bolt hole, meaning it could not be used as our passage. So, with an ocean passage on the horizon, we’ve been busy prepping the boat, which has seen us invest in a new Iridium system, fit a new cooker, fit a new life raft, do a rig check, and get a new storm and main sail – among other things. It has been a very costly few months!

celestial navigation sailing
Me doing a sun site
Read more: Fun in the sun

We’ve also squeezed in some excellent sailing, including a couple of passages to our favourite destination, Dieppe. Last weekend, we had various jobs to do, including fitting lights to our compasses, doing an inventory check for our victualling, and digging out all of the charts. It was glorious weather; scorching hot sunshine, with a light breeze, so we took the opportunity to have a short sail to test out our never-before-used (by us) cruising chute.

Hodge had a cruising chute tucked away from a previous boat he’d owned. The previous boat was slightly smaller, but we figured that the sail would probably still be just about ok for Ruby May, and to have the option of using a kite in light winds would be beneficial. So, we dug it out for a shakedown.

Locking out in the sunshine, we headed out into familiar waters. After informing me that he’d not so much as had it out of its bag, Hodge and I piled the sail on to the deck. A classic cruising chute, it comes in its own snuffer, making it easy to rig and use, also very easy if ever single-handed. We found the head and the tack, but with no sign of the clew, opted to rig it and start a hoist – we’d then be able to grab the clew and work out a plan for the sheets.

Heading up to the bow, we attached a spinnaker halyard and raised the chute up the forestay, size wise it looked good. After a bit of jostling, with the halyard, sail and snuffer, we grabbed the clew. We didn’t have enough suitable lines to rig two sheets, so we attached our preventer line and just accepted that we’d need to juggle things about a bit on the gybe. The winds were so light, it didn’t matter. We hoisted the sail, and looked up as it filled like a balloon. A beautiful bright blue and white sail, it was perfect.

Making just under 3 knots in virtually no wind, we played around with a couple of gybes, kicked off our shoes and let the tide and breeze gently carry us. We were in no hurry, we had nowhere to go. We marvelled at the feeling of not having a deadline to meet, something that is rare for us. Oh, if life could be this simple all the time.

Sun site celestial navigation
Hodge practicing his celestial nav – despite the sky now looking overcast, with the filters on the sextant, it was possible to take a really good shot of the sun

With the sun in the sky, it was also a great opportunity to practice our celestial navigation skills. We got the sextant out and took turns at shooting the sun. Something we’ll need to do during our upcoming ocean passage. Although for us, celestial nav is just a bit of fun, and another ‘tool in the toolkit’, it’s amazing to think that this was how the explorers and adventurers of ‘the day’ used to navigate. I remember reading the story of Shackleton’s Endurance, and how at one stage he couldn’t take a site for days, and then it was in an open top rowing boat in an angry Southern Ocean. A million miles away from us, off the sunny south coast. Incredible.

With that Hodge heard a splashing noise off our beam, looking at me with a slightly bemused expression “was that a whale?” he asked. Jumping to my feet, I glared intently at the open sea. “There! There!” he points, and with that several glistening, black bodies slowly surface and disappear. Pilot Whales? Then there’s splashes, and tails, and dives. It looks like a pod of porpoises perhaps. Unusually for porpoises though one comes completely out of the water before crashing back into the cold sea. It’s a site to behold. These magnificent creatures, gliding past, going about their business. As quickly as they appeared, they disappeared, and I feel so lucky that we got to witness them on their journey.

With the suns rays beating down, and a big success ticked off with our lovely cruising chute pulling us along. The cool sea is calling me. I undo our stern guard wire and sit on the swim platform. The water is freezing, I immediately feel my muscles tighten, nonetheless it is refreshing, and a great feeling, with the water whooshing past. Acclimatising, I decide to drop the swim ladder and go a little deeper. At first just my calves, then further and further until I feel the ice-cold water hit my spine – it’s debilitating, and I can’t deny that I wasn’t shrieking, much to Hodge’s amusement. I wanted to go all the way. I briefly popped back on to the deck, grabbed a mooring line and tied it around my waist, with the other end tethered to a hard point. I climbed back down the ladder, and let my body adjust before taking the final plunge. The cold leaving me temporarily breathless, a stark reminder of the staggering danger of ‘cold water shock’. I finally relaxed and let go of the ladder.

There’s something absolutely cathartic about pushing yourself, be it physically or mentally. This unexpected dip in the English Channel did just that for me. I wanted to go in, because I love the sea (I secretly also wanted to be in the same body of water as the porpoises who had not long passed us!), but equally it was incredibly uncomfortable physically, and so mentally every part of my brain was telling me to stop. Yet I ignored it all, and (after a lot of shrieks) took the plunge. And it provided an enormous rush!

Fun in the rather chilly sea

Life has a been a little busy recently, with various stresses and strains from many directions, not to mention my beautiful and most loyal companion, my beloved black Labrador of 14yrs being put to sleep just over a week ago. But in the moment, let’s say freezing moment, hanging on to a line off the back of Ruby May, with a huge blue sail flying proudly, everything momentarily paled away.

Experts have hailed the benefits of cold-water swimming on mental health, and I can only agree, I certainly felt the benefit in that moment. Scientists say that it can cause the release of dopamine, endorphins and serotonin – I’ll have some of that, thank you.

I played like a child, pulling myself back towards the boat, and then letting go to see how fast I’d drift to the end of my 12-metre safety rope. I pulled myself up the ladder, and then unceremoniously let myself fall back in. I pushed myself to see if I could swim as fast as the boat. Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t, but that didn’t stop multiple attempts. It was just me, and the beautiful sea… Along with the occasional jellyfish whizzing past , and of course I was under the watchful eye of Hodge.

Nearing the entrance to the marina, and with the depth gauge starting to fall, it was time to return to reality. Pulling myself up the ladder for the last time, a cold-water shower on deck (warm in comparison to the frigid sea!) washed away the salt crystals. We snuffed our cruising chute and made our way back to shore. Sometimes, it’s the simplest things in life that make us the happiest, draining away the complexities and reminding us that stepping back every now and then brings perspective.