Tom Cunliffe introduces a section from Vivien Cherry's book recalling when her British Steel challenge crew jury rigged a broken forestay in the unforgiving southern ocean
The first British Steel Challenge Race west-about around the world via the Great Capes was a one-off back in 1992. Most people thought it was crazy to sail ‘the wrong way’ around the world, but the event proved otherwise, though the various broken forestay stories do show how tough it was.
Four years on, it morphed into the BT Global Challenge and went on to great things. The race gave ordinary people – not highly paid professionals – the opportunity to find out what they were made of in the toughest school of all.
The ship-breaking windward passage around Cape Horn and the Southern Ocean tested skippers and crews to near-destruction and rig failure became endemic. In this account from her book, Woman of Steel, we hear from 32-year-old skipper Vivien Cherry about losing the main forestay on Coopers and Lybrand.
An engineer by trade, Cherry and her team worked out how to jury-rig the boat with almost zero suitable hardware so it could still be sailed hard. And sail hard they surely did, into a creditable fourth overall out of 10 boats. Great seamanship at its finest.
The story begins
Sunday 6 December found us tramping along making 9 knots. Robert, who was helming, got caught by a big, unavoidable wave. As he surged down its back with speed beginning to pick up, there was a bang followed by a scream of, ‘The forestay has gone!’
As we rushed on deck to assess the situation, Robert was already bearing away to ease the load from the forward rigging and the foredeck crew were in action grabbing wet flogging sails to prevent further damage.
Working with bare hands on wet, cold steel at a temperature of around zero limited the time spent on the foredeck. The crew had to take it in turns to go below to warm their hands.
The loose forestay was tied off and all available foresail halyards were attached to the foredeck to support the mast. As a further precaution, a third reef was put in to bring the mainsail load below the next mast support.
With three reefs in, it was possible to tension both runners without interfering with the sail and therefore stabilise the bottom two thirds of the mast.
We surveyed the damage: the bottom rigging screw – a 20mm threaded metal bar – had sheared. The sail appeared to be intact though two hanks had broken off.
A subdued atmosphere pervaded the yacht. The two previous yachts that had suffered rigging damage had both gone to land for assistance. Initially there was a somewhat natural expectation that we would too, but the thought filled us with despondency.
We didn’t carry any rigging spares and were 1,000 miles from land. This was the same failure that had occurred on Group 4 at the beginning of this leg. A brainstorming session was needed. All suitable spares, shackles, lines and anchor chain were assembled. Consideration was given to cannibalising other rigging, namely the baby stay; although it was a bit smaller, we thought it would do the job.
The option of returning to land was hardly considered. It was apparent to me that we had to effect an immediate repair and then decide where we were going. Valparaiso was the only feasible contingency port and this was half way up the Chilean coast, not in the southern section.
We would be closing an unfriendly lee shore with a damaged yacht, and spares flown out from England could take a considerable time to reach us. On consideration, I firmly believed that if we went back to Chile we would not catch up with the fleet, we would never make it to Australia and would be effectively out of the race.
However, we still had to make a repair before we went anywhere.
Matt inspected the baby stay and inner shrouds and recommended the aft lower fitting as suitable. Arnie, Bertie and Titch took it in turns to dismantle the port leeward lower (it was not loaded because we were on starboard tack) and rebuild the forestay with the bottom fork and the threaded screw.
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Once it was reassembled, Matt and Arnie put the tension back on the forestay. It was an extremely wet, cold job to carry out right on the bow of the yacht whilst we were still sailing, digging into these Southern Ocean waves.
The repair to the forestay proved 100% effective on this tack – we were amazed and delighted as we’d not thought it would be possible to sail on at maximum efficiency. With all the crew clear of the foredeck we set the yacht back on course.
We were able to resume our track with only a two-hour delay.
We surprised the fleet at the speed of our repair, as similar damage had cost Group 4 a two-day delay and had forced one of our competitors to head for land. It called for a celebration – a mid morning beer, chilled of course.
The true cost of our misfortune was to lose approximately 20 miles to our competitors. We managed to hold on to third place, but the race was getting closer and there was still 4,400 miles to Hobart.
However pleased we were with our quick repair, we still had to find a suitable way of tensioning the aft lower shroud. Shortly, we were going to have to make some northing, which meant tacking to port. We were already at 59° south – as far as we wanted to go.
It was therefore pressing to get the aft lowers tensioned. We weren’t convinced the temporary lash-up would hold, but until we needed to tack it could not be tested. We tried further modifications to achieve suitable tension on this shroud.
Attaching block shackles and lines in the conditions that prevailed was an acrobatic feat. Harnessed on to the leeward side with the sidedeck awash, icy waves swept over crew struggling to work. Half an hour was the absolute maximum before fingers became too numb and stiff with cold to function properly; many of the crew couldn’t manage that long.
We had reached our seventh jury rig design and were still convinced that taking the rigging screw from the aft lower to the forestay was the best answer, so we persevered. However, we began to doubt our conclusions after two attempted tacks resulted in failure.
In the first, the lashing cord between the bottlescrew and the deck clevis pin snapped and in the second, an 18mm Spectra line broke in two places. The importance of this piece of rigging was becoming more and more apparent, as was the side bend in the mast. Since the aft lower was the same size as the forestay it must be carrying a big load and we were fully aware of how vital it was to keep the mast straight.
Eventually, to enable us to tack safely, we dismantled the repaired forestay, returned the vital bits to the lower shroud and tacked. We went back to the drawing board or, in our case, the chart table, to come up with a solution. A lot of the other skippers called us on the radio offering ideas and suggestions.
Turn for the worst
Gloomy Monday took a turn for the worst when Group 4, who’d had the same problem two weeks ago, lost their forestay again. Six hours later Hofbrau joined the ‘forestay club’. We were going slowly – not really in the right direction – and had lost our third place to drop to a dismal sixth.
I was becoming convinced that a jury-rigged forestay had to be a better solution. Robert, Matt, Titch and I bounced ideas around before we came up with a sound scheme. Further thought produced a sketch and a plan, but it was now late in the evening. Tomorrow would be the day to put it into action.
On Tuesday, the plan was set and all procedures written down in the order they needed to be carried out. To jury-rig the forestay, all the rigging tension needed to be released to allow the mast to go straight and forward; once the forestay was tied up, the mast could then be moved back again to tension it.
We began at 0830 and eventually finished 4.5 hours later. We kept the deep-reefed mainsail up to ease the motion because these jobs were time-consuming enough without having to concentrate on keeping your balance. We still had to prove that our jury rig would hold.
If we had lots of breeze we’d be happy as we wouldn’t need to carry any sail on the forestay to make up the boat speed. We were still in touch with the fleet but there was another 4,000 miles to go.
It was the following day that we first had a sail on the repaired forestay. We hoisted the No2 yankee and there was no noticeable sag, although the cap shrouds and the lowers still needed tightening. We again took the No2 yankee down to effect this adjustment, which took another three hours.
The other problem, when we got as far as trying to put the full mainsail up, was that the mast was obviously more raked and the boom was sitting on the kicker strut, so we had to shorten the kicker strut to maintain the correct sail shape. My private concern was that I knew we’d damaged the mast, it was certainly bent and there was the possibility that further damage had been done.
We therefore worked very hard at keeping the mast straight and in column. It also became apparent from below that the mast was actually moving at deck level. As long as that movement stayed within the boundaries that I had set myself, we would continue.
If these boundaries had been exceeded prior to reaching the waypoint at 120° west and 52° south, then I would have turned the boat round and headed back to Chile.
Those were the thoughts in my mind. Every other day we were making some adjustment to the rig. It was also coming out that people were seeing icebergs around the waypoint.
As I began to realise how badly the mast was damaged I resolved to keep the knowledge to myself. I hated the awful prospect of having to stop racing and run for Chile, and the last thing I wanted was for the crew to be as worried as I was.
I would sit at the chart table lining up the edge of the mast with the bar in the forepeak, squinting at it to see if it was moving more than yesterday.
If it was going to break it would go either at deck level or close to the gooseneck fitting. On the same day that we went round the waypoint, Heath Insured’s forestay had broken and the final act of the Great Bottlescrew Saga was the news that British Steel II had lost her mast.
Reflecting on this mishap made me glad that I had stuck to the jury-rigged forestay, even though it appeared I was bucking the trend and acting against advice from base. I was convinced that our method was the best one, but I still had to keep justifying it to the crew.
I would say to them: “The forestay can break, but at least the rig will stay up. So we’ll just jury-rig another forestay until we get there.” I was determined that we would carry on racing.
When the mast was finally pulled in Hobart we found a crack from the track almost two thirds of the way round. The spar had a distinctive kink and bend in the lower half section.
All credit to the integrity of the repairs and the faith of the crew that we were able to sail in with the kite flying.
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