Is any command less welcome on a boat than “all hands on deck!”? And short of “man overboard!” is any cry more guaranteed to wake you instantly from the deepest of slumbers? It came, as such things do, in the wee hours of the darkest of nights.
“The bowsprit’s broken,” the skipper, Casey, said tersely as I blinked myself awake. “Get your gear on and meet me on the foredeck.”
Topside, white-tipped waves reared out of the murk and gleamed briefly in the spreader lights as they raced under the 52-foot ketch. The wind had not abated since I’d gone to my bunk—still blowing a solid 20 knots, still from the north right out of our destination, still whipping up 6- to 8-foot seas against the Yucatan Current.
Alongside the cockpit, the boat’s twin backstays whipped loosely in the wind as the masthead wagged back and forth. As I slowly made my way forward on the pitching deck, the lifelines alternately went slack and snapped taut each time the 8-foot bowsprit dug into a wave and lurched upwards, then slapped down again as the bow lifted clear of the water, unpredictable as a fractured limb.
Each time the bowsprit lifted, the forestay with its furled genoa sagged way off to leeward and then jerked tight again. The sprit appeared to have gained a hinge just forward of where it met the stemhead, and it was obvious that the only thing preventing it from detaching completely was the bobstay wire that ran from the tip of the sprit to a fitting on the stem, just above the waterline. How long would it be before one or the other broke?
I took all this in as Casey, prone on the deck, inched forward with a rope lashed to the detachable cutter stay. I winced each time the bow plunged into a wave, envisioning the sprit breaking completely and flying back toward us, complete with its pair of 60-pound anchors, immediately followed by the mast snapping at the lowers and probably bringing the mizzen down on our heads as well. It was an altogether too plausible scenario, and I tried not to dwell on it.
Casey passed the rope through one of the enclosed fairleads and back to Joey, our third hand, who handed it back to me. I took its tail around a mast winch and wound it in tight. The bowsprit still lifted and fell, but the cutter stay was taut, and at least we had done something. More was needed, though.
Before long I had identified and freed a spare genoa halyard, as well as the staysail halyard, and these were taken forward and lashed through the bow fairleads, then cranked in hard on the mast winches. Then we took the running backstays aft and tensioned them as best we could. Now, at least, the mast might stay up should the bobstay break.
This entire procedure seemed to take only minutes, but looking at my watch, I was surprised to see we had been at it for well over an hour. Time flies when you’re moving around on your hands and knees.
Back in the cockpit, we caught our breaths and looked at each other. This was far from the first incident we had dealt with in the preceding three days. Three of us—me, Joey, and his wife, Micaiah—had signed on to help Casey deliver the ketch from Guatemala’s Rio Dulce to Galveston, Texas. We were barely 300 miles into the 1,100-mile passage, and even before this latest mishap we had all decided to jump ship in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. It had become painfully obvious that the boat was too unsafe to take across the Gulf of Mexico. Never mind Texas; now our attention was focused merely on getting safely to the nearest port.
The Bill Garden-designed Mikelson 52 had languished on the Rio Dulce for many years, its solid, Taiwanese-built hull possessing a fine pedigree but concealing a raft of aging systems. We had already encountered the fallout from many of them. She was a complicated boat, with the usual snake’s wedding of hoses, tubes, cables, and wires under the cabin soles, with no schematics or labelling to show what anything was or what it was supposed to do. First the hydraulic steering played up, then the bilges overflowed and all the pumps stopped working, then there were fuel problems, then the boom-furling mainsail blew out of its sun-perished track during a squall. Poor Joey seemed to spend most of the passage head-down in the bilges, trying to keep up with the latest failures.
The only functioning electronics on board were an elderly Raymarine plotter and a depth sounder, not counting a fixed VHF that proved to only work at short range. Fortunately, I had brought my Navionics-equipped iPad, a PLB, and a Garmin inReach satellite messenger that could get weather forecasts offshore, not to mention alert friends and family if we ran into trouble. Equally fortunately, Joey had brought his handheld VHF.
Now, with the voyage effectively over, we only had to make it 90 miles to Isla Mujeres where we could leave the boat for repairs. Turning back was out of the question, for we knew we were low on fuel. The big diesel had been gulping it down while keeping our speed up against the steep seas, and Joey warned us that the main tanks were perilously low. The only option was to keep going north to the island of Cozumel, where we could anchor and wait for the promised southeasterly wind to knock down the seas.
We had 20 gallons in jerrycans on deck, and we decanted a couple of them into the tanks as we continued motoring toward Cozumel, trying to keep the speed down enough to stop the bows from digging too deeply into the head seas. It was going to be a long night.
The overriding question was would the rig stay up, especially in the current conditions? My trepidation was not eased when I heard Casey discussing what we should do “when” the rig came down, not “if” the rig came down. We should knock the pins out of the turnbuckles to free the rigging, apparently.
Fair enough, established practice, but with what? There was a pathetic shortage of tools on board, and certainly no sign of either a hacksaw, a small club hammer, or a center punch, all of which would be useful for freeing rigging. Perhaps it was a good thing that most of the turnbuckles were either lacking cotter pins or secured with ones that were so small as to be useless. No, if the rig came down in that sea state, there would be an unholy mess and no quick way out of it before the mast punched a hole in the hull. Plus, with the mainmast connected to the mizzenmast by a triatic stay, and the mizzen rigging surrounding the cockpit, it was likely that someone would be badly hurt or worse.
Not far away were the bright lights of an almost-stationary cruise ship, waiting until dawn before docking in Cozumel. I suggested we make a pan-pan call, just to alert nearby vessels of our situation. Casey reluctantly agreed and spent the next few minutes making the call. There was no response. It wasn’t until we tried Joey’s handheld that we got a reply from the nearby cruise ship. By then Casey had gone down for a nap, and I talked to the deck officer on the MSC Divina. I gave him the name of the boat and the number of persons on board and told him we had a damaged rig and were low on fuel but that we were not in need of immediate assistance.
The officer—I regret not getting his name—called back 15 minutes later. He told us he had contacted the Mexican navy station in Cozumel, which was sending out a small patrol boat to escort us in. The Divina would stand by until the coast guard arrived, then steam ahead to dock in Cozumel. Casey, when he emerged, was not happy with this news.
“We don’t need an escort,” he groused. To which our answer was that although we might not need one at this moment, we would most certainly be glad of it should the rig come down or the engine quit, which it had done several times already. The liferaft was several years past its service date, and the dinghy lay partly deflated on deck—its pump lacked the vital adapter—so our abandon-ship options were rather limited.
The Defender-class SAR boat—the same as those used by the U.S. Coast Guard—approached in the predawn, and the Divina powered up and headed into Cozumel. As we motored up the island’s west coast, shadowed by the navy, we debated our next steps. The wind had abated a little, but with a north-setting current running at 3-4 knots there was a healthy chop. Casey, reluctant to enter a marina with an engine that could quit at any time, wanted to anchor; Joey and I, wary of further compromising the bowsprit and well aware that the windlass itself was loose in its mounts, were pushing for a marina or a dock.
The standoff was resolved when the navy shepherded us to an unused commercial mooring, which we gratefully picked up. Our new friends circled us to make sure we were safe, then the captain came aboard to go through some paperwork for their report. They were friendly and professional throughout, and we were glad of their assistance.
We stayed on the mooring that night and left next morning for Isla Mujeres, 50 miles away, with the wind back in the east and a much more benign sea state. It was almost funny when the engine died about an hour out of Cozumel—sure enough, we had run out of fuel. Joey and I poured in the last two-and-a-half jerrycans, and we were soon under way again, running slowly to conserve fuel. True to form, we got to Isla Mujeres after dark, so we had to anchor outside. Fortunately, it was a calm night.
At the dock next morning, Joey and I finally got a close look at the bowsprit. It had broken along the lines of a recent repair, and there was rot at its core. The dolphin striker, which had not been clamped to the wire bobstay and relied solely on tension to keep it in place, had worked enough as the rig moved to eventually lose its grip entirely, allowing the sprit to move upward and break.
Looking at the rig, it was obvious that the mizzenmast, with its aft-raked spreaders, had helped steady the mainmast via the triatic stay. Certainly, the mainmast’s twin backstays were so loose as to be of little use. The bowsprit carried both the forestay and the cutter stay, and had the bobstay snapped, the two ancient halyards we had used to stabilize the rig would have been all that prevented the mast from collapsing. The margaritas we knocked back at Skull’s Landing later that day had never tasted so good.
What We Did Right
• We reacted quickly to support the mast with halyards taken to strong points on deck.
• Making the pan-pan call was the right thing to do under the circumstances.
• It was a good move to bring a handheld VHF, a Garmin inReach, and a tablet with Navionics charts. Redundancy is everything on a seagoing boat.
• There was no panic. We knew what we had to do, and we did it.
What We Did Wrong
• We went to sea on a poorly prepared boat with aging systems and the bare minimum of navigation and communications gear. And yes, we should have known better.