Sailing Disaster – 50 knot gusts, shredded mainsail & snapped steering chain

We left the island of St Lucia in the Caribbean heading north for Antigua – a 27 hour/180-mile passage. Unfortunately, due to our buddy boat experiencing a massive sailing disaster, we didn’t make it very far. The good news is that everyone is okay. The bad news is all the damage that was done.

Our buddy boat, Mohini, a 40′ Island Spirit Catamaran, left the anchorage around 5:30 am. It had been raining all night and at daybreak, the conditions weren’t much better. We planned for Mohini to leave before us as our boat is slightly faster and we’d catch them up. Onboard Mohini is Len, the captain, and Cassi, his 10-year-old deckhand (and beautiful daughter). It was Len and Cassi’s first long passage – just the two of them. Len’s wife, Shelley, and another daughter, Sabrina, recently flew back to Canada.

We offered to shadow Mohini as a buddy boat to ensure we were on hand if there were any issues.

An hour or so after Mohini left St Lucia, we hoisted up our anchor and set off in the direction of Antigua. The swell was substantial causing Britican to rock from one side to the other. Laying back leisurely in the cockpit was not an option. We had to hold on to ensure we didn’t roll off our seats! Being optimists, we visualized the skies breaking and the sun coming out.

For some reason, however, our forward path was dark gray and very gloomy.

Normally, cruisers wouldn’t head out in rain or when the squall activity is heightened. We, however, had to set sail to ensure our stupid PCR test results were validated by the time we reached Antigua. We had 72 hours from the results being published. If we didn’t leave when we did we would be cutting it short. The one thing we always say to new sailors wanting top tips is to NEVER sail to a schedule. Ho-hum.

Some countries require a negative test to enter the country and then another test upon arrival. Tests cost anywhere from $50/person to $200/person (Antigua). If you have to test before entry and after entering the cost for us can be as high as $1200 to go to one country…and then add another $600 when leaving to enter the next country.

The ironic thing is that sailing cruisers are probably some of the healthiest people around.

We live in the fresh air, we don’t mix much with high populations of people, and we’re the most tested people on the Earth. I’m sure you can sense my aggravation!

Anyhoooo, as we were sailing along the southwestern region of Martinique, the very next island above St Lucia, we were shocked to hear Len over the VHF broadcasting a MAYDAY.

The short version is that Len got hit with 50 knots of wind in a surprise squall that shredded his mainsail and snapped his steering chain. It was a full-on sailing disaster.

This is how Len describes the experience:

We had an interesting day. Left St Lucia at about 5:30 this morning with a goal of getting to Antigua before noon tomorrow. The first part of the sail was spirited but fun, with steady 6 to 8 ft waves of the stern quarter. We flew (by sailboat standards) at an average of about 9 knots, seeing 13 at one point surfing down the waves.

Once in the lee of Martinique, the wind dropped to about 15 knots with a gentle following sea. By all accounts, we expected a leisurely trip for the 25 or so miles until we hit the passage to Dominica, the next island north of here.

Mother nature had another plan for us.

We got into a rainstorm that came with some wind, up to an expected 25 knots or so. I turned downwind to relax the pressure on the rig, but within a minute that had grown to almost 50 knots. The autopilot was overpowered and I had to switch to manual steering. Within seconds I heard a snap and lost all helm control. My steering wheel was no longer attached to the rudders.

At this point, I put out a call to the local coast guard for assistance. The language barrier was a challenge, as was the wind in the radio. My attempt to quickly let them know our position and situation was moderately successful. Fortunately, we are traveling with our friends on Britican, who were following not too far behind us. As they’re a faster boat, we left before them and they were rapidly catching up. They relayed my position and situation to the coast guard and headed our way to assist if needed.

By now we had big waves on the beam, full force winds on the same angle, no steering, and a boat pretty much out of control. A sailing disaster!

We were tossed around and did a complete 360 as I attempted to sheet in the boom and furl the genoa.

I managed to get the autopilot working and pointed the boat south towards Britican and in the general direction of Martinique. Using both engines as steering, and the partially functional autopilot, I managed to regain control until the wind died down to a manageable level.

It took about two hours to get to a safe anchorage where we are right now. Cassi and I anchored the boat with only the engines for steering and had to do it twice as it wouldn’t set the first try. Throughout this whole ordeal and despite being scared, she was brave and helped me deal with it. I couldn’t be more proud of her.

We managed to completely shred our mainsail, but fortunately, our friends on Knowhere gave us their old one as a spare. It will be going on tomorrow. The chain that is part of the steering system broke and caused our lack of helm control. Hopefully, we can replace that here and carry on soon.

So now that you’ve read Len’s story, you can watch how things unfolded from the cockpit of Britican.

We’re so very thankful that Len and Cassi handled the situation so courageously. I’m not sure how I would have reacted! Getting blasted with 50 knots of wind, seeing your sails blow out, and losing control in the midst of zero visibility must have been horrifying.

Sailing Disaster Video

So…right now (as I’m writing this) we’re anchored in Fort de France, Martinique. We have not booked into the country nor have we stepped on land. Fortunately for Len, he was able to get a courier to bring the chain to the dock where he collected it by dinghy. This morning Len, Simon, and I created a video on how to fix the steering chain. The guys got the spare sail set up. A storm is passing over us now. We’re thinking that we’ll be able to head back out making our way to Antigua within a day or so. Watch this space!

Any Questions or Comments on our Sailing Disaster video?

Have you had a sailing disaster you want to share? Do you have a question for us? Please leave your comments below.

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Sailing Disaster

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Posted by The Sailing Traveller