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paperback writer


paperback writer

Chris Stanmore-Major may not have much chance at a podium for leg 1 of the Velux, but there’s still thousands of pounds up for grabs for ‘best media effort’ for the leg.  And with this great story of a mast breakage that could’ve been much worse, he’s making his move:

I awoke after 18 minutes and realized that something was wrong, the boat was lolling to windward and above me I could hear the sails slatting. On the side deck the sheet banged like an off-beat metronome as the head sail alternately pulled it tight and released it.  I stretched and went up through the narrow companionway hatch and out into a gloomy South Atlantic dawn. About me the swell was small but sharp and it added to the percussion of the rigging with its own melody played upon the hull.

I looked at the instruments and took in the facts.  We were heading 180 degrees and travelling at a speed of 3 knots.  This does not a racing boat make. I needed to bear off a little further to power up the sails and get what drive was available from the faltering breeze but to do so would require me to head away from Cape Town so rolling stiff shoulders I prepared to tack.  On this boat tacking takes as little time but if you do not have to move ballast, which I did not and you propose to move all the gear you have stacked inside the boat a little later you can centre the keel, raise one dagger board and drop the other, prepare the rotating mast for tacking and bring on the new runner in about five minutes. With this all done I engaged the auto-tack function on the Raymarine autopilot and as the head passes through irons I whipped off the Solent sheet hauled in on the other side and dropped off the new leeward runner, as this was happening I flicked the switch to bring the keel across and as it moved into position I trimmed on the headsail, adjusted the traveller and ran the redundant runner forward to save it from rubbing on the back of the main.  My idea was have a look at the heading and get an idea of what speed I would be able to make to the waypoint so I had a reference for what was obviously going to be a morning of tacking practice.  As I trimmed on the mainsail I hear that noise aloft I have come to hate.  CRACK!

Immediately the front edge of the mainsail went loose, dropping about two feet.  I felt the trapdoor of fate position itself beneath me;  if the breeze came on with the main loose like this, I would be in for trouble, as from the noise and the associated movement of the sail we were obviously dealing with a main halyard issue.  I eased the mainsheet so there was no load and rotated the mast the wrong way – meaning the sliders were at right angles to the track causing a huge amount of friction between the two and ensuring the sail was not going to fall down any further in the next two minutes whilst the breeze was light- which might give me enough time to get out the binoculars and make an assessment.

Steadying myself against the runner I looked aloft expecting to see the block which is on the head of the sail hanging uselessly to one side and the halyard snapped where it meets the mast head crane and jammed somehow in the block.  Not so.  What I saw made no sense.

There was the block- but it was standing up pretty straight and so obviously had load on it. And there was something big hanging out of one side of it – something tufty, too big to be the broken splice…and then it dawned on me.  What I could not see was the crane.  It was the crane that had snapped off and was stuck in the block.  Still staring up through the binoculars the trapdoor opened. The crane is a protrusion that sticks out of the back of the mast and into it the end of the main halyard is made fast.  The halyard then goes down through a block on the head of the main, back up and over another turning block which leads it down inside the mast to the winch here I earn my bread and butter hauling reefs in and out.  The purchase this system creates is 2:1, which halves the load on the turning block, the winch and the winch operator.  With the crane snapped off and jammed at the head of the sail the halyard was now just a standard 1:1 so technically I had a halyard still but no quite what Finot who designed this boat had in mind!  I wondered initially whether there was any point in climbing the mast to deal with it in situ, but without anyone to operate the main halyard winch whilst I was aloft, there would be little I could do. I began dropping the main; all the while trying to work out how big a problem this was.  Combined with this I was still on starboard tack (which I had dropped onto for a minute to check out) and I can tell you it was pretty crumby. 

The wind had shifted back within five minutes of my tack and I was now running due North.  When your destination bears East and you have your bows North your VMG is 0. I knew whatever I was going to do had to happen fast. With the main down the damage was clear.  Either through wear and tear over twelve years or possibly as a result of damage inflicted during the incident with the runaway reacher off Gran Canaria, the crane w(hich is a meaty piece of carbon construction with a sizable metal pin in it) was totally separated from the truck.  This part of the mast is integral – not bolted on – so any repair would have to be a professional one capable of bearing the halyard tension.  That made my options very clear- there was no way I could fix it with what I have on board, swaying around at 30 metres. I shuddered at the thought of all the squalls we had been through and for the weather that lay ahead in the Southern Ocean- although this damage was serious it could have led to so much worse had it peeled away in 50kts. I took the only action available and lashed the halyard directly onto the sail and rehoisted, being mindful not to over tension the halyard for fear of damaging the turning block pin. but I found that actually the job was much easier than it was with a 2:1 halyard!  The main went up much quicker and I found it was impossible to over tension it as the winch just didn’t have the guts- As I tidied up my lines and began to tack back onto a reasonable course I began to wonder whether I even needed a 2:1 halyard – maybe this was a blessing in disguise.

As the thought formed in my head and as if to underline the point, not twenty feet away to port a whale suddenly broke the surface of the water, half his body it seemed became airborne and then came crashing down in a white explosion that showered myself and the decks with spray.  I was dumbstruck. He blew out a mighty gust of air and spray and rolled slightly onto his side to have a look at me.  My worries over the halyard and lost time melted away as for a second or two I watched his head, back, pectoral fin and then tail ride along the surface of the water only just beyond the span of the deck spreaders; then in a graceful arc he melted back into the water and disappeared. I began running up and down the deck like a mad thing hoping he would reappear, looking this way and that but sadly not- it was a once-only show. From the look of his jaw line and fin I would place him as a Right Whale, but I am not sure if they are in this area at this time of the year.  Safe enough to say that he was almost the size of the boat and magnificent! I finished my tack, slightly bemused.  I had lost two hours, broken a major piece of hardware, sweated my bits off rehoisting the main, and was once again worrying over the fact that we have no sponsorship to pay for any of these repairs in Cape Town.  Yet I felt only happiness, thanks in part to an unexpected but inspiring encounter at the very end of the work with a shy, elusive giant who came to look at me whilst I was just about to begin stressing over another broken bit of kit.

Suddenly, the damaged bits just weren’t so important.  Little things can have you singing and dancing on the decks out here, and yet it only takes a similarly small agent to put you under a cloud for an afternoon.  Ok, so my main masthead crane has snapped off, we have no sponsor and no cash to pay for any repairs in Cape Town and I still have six days to go to get in.  But the main is back up, the boat is on course slipping along at 10 knots, and the whale didn’t seem bothered at all.  So I’m going to stay relaxed and take his lead.

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