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.
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.