How We Broke The Boat

In a head-to-head battle between a boom vang and a topping lift, apparently the boom vang wins. Now I have to admit that there is a certain logic in this. You see, in the ongoing adventure that is a life afloat, Murphy’s Law reigns supreme. Breaking the boom vang is something that could be safely addressed from deck level. But the topping lift? Repairing that means that someone has to be hauled to the top of the mast, six stories above the water. So obviously, the one that requires the greatest physical danger to repair is the one that will cry Uncle.

Some background: a boom vang is used to pull downward on the boom to control mainsail twist. A topping lift is a line that pulls upward on the boom to keep it from falling downward when the sail is lowered. In our case, we use our topping lift to keep the boom elevated to the optimal angle for unfurling and furling our mainsail, which rolls up into the mast like a window shade. If the boom angle is off, the sail won’t roll in and out smoothly, which can be kind of a PITA.

Here’s a picture I found online of a vang in case you’re not familiar. Pulling the line on the vang shortens it, pulling the boom downward.

So there we were in 10,000 feet of water, crossing from the Great Bahamas Banks to New Providence, and the wind was dying. We’d started off moving along well, cruising at 6 knots in an 8 knot (apparent) SW wind. But as the wind lightened, our speed started dropping into the mid-5’s, and at times our knotmeter would read 4.9. We were trying to delay starting the engine for as long as possible, because damn it, we’re a sailboat, and we should be able to do more sailing! But we wanted to make it to New Providence by dinnertime, and we still had over 30 miles to go.

Since we’re cruisers, we don’t normally obsess over sail shape like racers do. As long as the boat is moving along at 5 knots or more and we’re not heeling excessively, it’s a happy day. But since we had places to be, I started fine tuning the mainsail to get everything I could out of what wind was left. I noticed that the top of the mainsail was twisting off to leeward (downwind) enough to spill air from the top third of the sail, costing us speed, and I wanted to fix it. So I tightened the vang, pulling down on the boom, and reducing the twist in the top of the sail.

But I forgot to loosen the topping lift. Because it’s set to a particular boom angle, I hardly ever touch it. And because we don’t race and aren’t constantly looking for ways to wring out another tenth of a knot, I usually don’t mess with the vang much. So I just didn’t make the connection when I noticed I had to winch really hard on the vang to pull the boom down. I didn’t think about the fact that I was stretching the topping lift. Not making excuses really, just a mea culpa.

A few minutes later, a cascade of line rained down onto the port side deck. “What the hell was that?” Rhonda and I asked each other, until I looked up and saw we didn’t have a topping lift any longer.

“Crap.” That’s about all I could think to say.

We were in the middle of a pretty good weather window, one that was supposed to last for several days, and our plans were to stop for the night in New Providence, and continue south the next day to the Exumas. But now we had a change of plans. It looked like we’d be heading to a marina in the hopes of finding a rigger who could fix our broken boat.

We learned an interesting thing about Nassau in the next few days. While it seems that there are sailboats all over the place, it turns out that there aren’t actually any people here who work on them. No matter where we called, looked or searched, we couldn’t find a single business that did rigging repair (note: I see a possible business opportunity for someone who wants to semi-retire to the Bahamas). I even texted our rigger back in Pensacola to see if he had any connections here. He suggested a person in Miami, who referred us to a contact on the island, who passed us on to the same local sailmakers loft that I had already called and who told me they didn’t do rigging. It took two days of phoning around just to find someplace that sold the line we needed, and then they only had it in red. (Red’s fine, red will work, we’ll take the red thank you very much. How much? $190? Sigh.)

We finally felt that we were making some progress when we approached the operators of NavTours, the local sailing charter base here at the Marina. “Sure, we have some people that can help, but you’ll have to talk to them and arrange something, and they’ll have to do it on their own time after they get off work,” we were told.

The next three days were spent talking to a succession of NavTours employees who all claimed they’d be happy to help, but then always failed to come through for one reason or another. Finally, we met Yasmin, the wiry French-Canadian, who said that if we’d move the boat at 7AM to a slip on the other side of the marina that faced into the wind and then take down our mainsail so he could use the halyard to ascend the mast, he’d do it for us. We shook hands and a plan was finally in motion.

We settled on the 0700 appointment for two reasons. Yasmin had to start work at NavTours at 10, which would give him three hours to help us. Also, the winds have been lighter in the morning, picking up significantly in the early afternoon.  Dropping and then reinstalling our huge mainsail would be impossible in any kind of significant wind. So underway at 0700 it was. But that meant the alarm had to be set for 0530. Being retired for several years now, neither of us had been up that early in longer than we could remember. But we rose to the challenge (and the alarm), and at five minutes after 7, we were sliding into the designated slip that faced into the wind, and I started taking down the main.

Things actually went pretty well from that point on. Yasmin fixed up his bosun’s seat to go up the mast, and I cranked him up while Rhonda tended the spinnaker halyard, which he used as a safety line. Of course, it was 10x harder than it sounds. About 50 turns on the winch to lift Yasmin was all my poor heart could handle before I’d have to stop, gasping for breath, and then take a break. It took at least seven or eight episodes of winch, gasp, pause to rest, then resume before he was finally at the top of the mast.

Going Up

Almost There!

Finally At The Top

Rhonda manning (womaning?) the safety line.

It was then that we discovered that I hadn’t just snapped the line. It looked like I had overloaded the topping lift masthead sheave (small pulley) so severely that I’d bent the axle, rendering it unusable.

That shaft is supposed to be straight!

The topping lift normally runs from the end of the boom to the top of the mast, over the sheave, down through the mast to deck level, and then back to the cockpit so it can be adjusted underway. But with the sheave destroyed, there was no good way to run a replacement. So it was on to Plan B. I passed a length of 3/8ths line up to Yasmin, and he tied it to the top of the mast. I could then tie this to the end of the boom, effectively acting as a replacement topping lift. Only it wouldn’t be adjustable. It would have to be set to a specific length and tied off. But that’s OK. We can work with that. It will allow us to keep sailing the boat, until we can make it back to Pensacola, land of readily available parts, overnight delivery, and easily obtainable rigging services, and have a proper repair done.

Yasmine came back down, the mainsail went back up, and a little after 9AM we were slowly sliding back into our original slip, all before the winds started picking up. A $100 bill changed hands, I tied off the new temporary line at what looked like a good height, and we were back in business.

Of course, it took five days to work out a solution, it caused us to miss what had been an excellent weather window, and it now looks like it will be about three more days before the winds again turn favorable for us to continue south.

And that’s the story of how we broke the boat. A simple little cautionary tale about how a brief lapse of judgement led to a week’s delay and over a thousand dollars in unanticipated expenses counting parts, labor and marina fees.

Just another day in the Bahamas, mon!

4 thoughts on “How We Broke The Boat

  1. Neil

    We have Selden in mast furling…you could have used the boom vang as a support for the boom by packing the ram with rope where it slides into itself.
    Neil

    Reply
    1. Robert Post author

      The rigid vang kept the boom from completely falling down, but it wouldn’t keep it high enough to prevent it from hitting our solar panels on our bimini when the sail was furled. The solution was to just swing the boom off to the side. I figured when the sail was unfurled it would hold the boom up high enough for us to keep sailing, but I really wasn’t wanting a work-around, I wanted to get it fixed. Thanks for the tip though, I’ll keep it in mind if we have any further problems.

      Reply
  2. Paul Frymier

    Boy, I can relate to the effort of raising the halyard. Last boat we chartered advertised a hydraulic winch and I was psyched, but when we got on board, it wasn’t working. Best plan is to bring friends who want to play sailor and assign them to raising the main. I am sure in-mast furling can be a pain at times; if it jammed it could be a major problem and the sail shape suffers a bit, but we chartered a boat last year that had it and it was awesome.

    Reply
    1. Robert Post author

      Normally with an in mast main, you only raise the sail once, and then just unroll it and roll it up as needed. We had to drop the main so that we could free up the halyard to use to hoist our helper to the top of the mast. But you’re right about furling mains. When they work, you can’t beat them, especially for pulling in a reef, which is super simple. But neglect them a bit, and they get very finicky and can jam.

      Reply

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