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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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 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?!
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.
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.
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.
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.