Friday, October 01, 2010


I am not a violent man.

I am not an especially aggressive or energetic man as Laser sailors go. But on two consecutive outings in my Laser on my home waters in Rhode Island (the one before I went to the Worlds in the UK and the one immediately afterwards) I managed to destroy two Laser masts.

This is how it happened the first time...

On the Tuesday before our Thursday flight to England I went for a last blast tune-up on the Sakonnet River launching on the north side of Fogland. I had made a few minor improvements to the way I rig the Laser and I wanted to check they worked OK and just stretch out my hiking muscles a bit before the Worlds. It was a perfect late summer day, about 15 knots out of the SW, with some typical rolling Sakonnet waves.

So there I was tootling along upwind in my ticky-tacky blue and white Laser, hiking hard, when I noticed that the big flappy white thing with the long stick thing through it wasn't pointing at the sky any more but was lying on its side in the water. This isn't an unusual event on the Laser except that this time the hull wasn't on its beam end as per normal, but was still floating right way up.

Hmmm, I thought, how could that be?

At first I thought the mast step must have collapsed but then I noticed that there were a few inches of lower bottom mast, with a jagged top edge, still sticking out of the hull. The lower section of the mast had sheared off at the vang fitting, actually tearing through 3 of the 4 holes in the mast where the vang is (normally) attached.

Hmmm, I thought, this is not a good thing. I had two major concerns...

1. Am I going to die? Probably not. It's 2pm, the water is warm, and almost certainly some passing fisherman or recreational boater will happen past this point before dark and tow me to shore.

2. Am I going to lose the rig totally, along with all the fancy lines and pulleys that I need to take with me to England on the day after tomorrow? Probably not if I'm careful about taking the rig to pieces while always making sure each piece is still attached to the boat in some way.

So I detached the boom from the mast and the sail, pulled the mast on to the boat lying along the center line and wrapped up the sail a bit, so that at least I would be ready when that helpful fisherman or recreational boater passed by. I looked up the river. I looked down the river. No boats in sight.

Hmmm, I thought, this could be a long wait.

It was at this point that I regretted not having a cell phone or VHF radio with me.

So there I was, drifting in my little ticky tacky Laser, about half a mile from either shore, totally immobilized, in no immediate danger, but with no immediate prospect of reaching land in the near future either.

It seemed that the wind and the waves were taking me towards the Portsmouth shore at first. Maybe I could make landfall somewhere near Sandy Point, pull my Laser up on the beach, borrow a phone from someone, call Tillerwoman, have her drive out to pick me up and then drive me the twenty or so miles by land to Fogland on the Tiverton side, and then I would have to drive the twenty or so miles back to Sandy Point with my dolly and my trailer to retrieve my boat.

After a few minutes contemplating this prospect I decided that it would be infinitely preferable to drift into the Tiverton shore nearer to where I had left my car and trailer. So I waggled the boat's bow around with the tiller until it was pointing towards Fogland and willed the boat to drift that way. After about ten minutes I realized that there are certain limits to my ability to direct inanimate objects by my willpower alone.

Hmmm, I thought, what other options do I have?

I experimented. I picked up the clew of the sail, now approximately amidships, and made a sort of long, low horizontal cylinder with the sail. It caught the wind. It propelled the boat slowly towards Fogland. Very slowly.

All was going well until I was about 100 yards from the shore when I realized that the boat would drift north of the Fogland peninsula (where my car and trailer were.) So I jumped overboard and started to "swim" the boat towards the beach. This was an even slower (and more exhausting) form of propulsion but I eventually felt solid ground under my feet and was able to walk the boat the remaining distance around the headland to my launching point.


I called my wife. "Ummm, I'm OK, but I've had a bit of an accident...."

I examined the torn mast. I wasn't really surprised or annoyed that it had finally broken. It was 15 years old, the original mast that came with the boat, and it had seen much use in those years. I had already through-bolted the vang fitting once when the rivets started to work loose so I knew that there was some corrosion around the rivet holes. I guess my bolts held and the aluminum mast finally gave way. No big deal really.

So the next day I went along to Laser Performance Sail and Sport Rhode Island a.k.a. the boat shop next to the Laser factory in Portsmouth. The two very helpful gentleman at Laser Performance Sail and Sport Rhode Island were more than happy to sell me a new Laser mast bottom section for only three hundred and twenty five dollars and eighty two cents including sales tax.

One of the helpful gentlemen at Laser Performance Sail and Sport Rhode Island asked me if I planned to sail in the New England Laser Masters at the end of the month and I explained that yes indeed I did, but that first I was going to England for the Laser Masters Worlds and I wanted to make sure I had a new mast for the New England Laser Masters before I left.

So home I went with my new bottom mast section feeling fat, dumb and happy. Now you may think that three hundred and twenty five dollars and eighty two cents including sales tax is a lot to pay for a few feet of aluminum extrusion with a plastic cap at one end and two stainless steel fittings. But I didn't begrudge the price because I knew that I was buying a finely engineered precision piece of sailing equipment that would probably last me another 15 years.


Sam Chapin said...

Do you rinse that baby out with fresh water? It maybe time to get a new top mast, they go more often for us. Maybe we will get donations and a new boat and everything. 15 years and it should be getting soft now. Thanks for the good story.

Tillerman said...

Yes Sam, I rinse my mast with fresh water whenever I can after sailing in salt water. The only time it hasn't been rinsed has been when it has been kept a sailing club or community sailing center for frostbiting. Those places usually turn off their outside freshwater hoses during the freezing season.

Top masts do go more often, I think. I broke the top mast on my first boat when it was only a couple of years old, and the boom on my current boat when it was about 8 years old. But my current top mast is still going strong after 15 years.

My wife is telling me I should get a new boat this winter. (I guess she is wondering what is going to break next too.) Didn't I marry a wonderful woman?

Sam Chapin said...

How can you beat that Tillerwoman!!

O Docker said...

I hope he's not beating that Tillerwoman.

But congratulations, Tillerman, on sailing your way back.

Frankie Perussault said...

You're brilliant at understatements. In French I'd say it has been a bloody lousy day.

Anonymous said...

I wonder whether using the daggerboard as a paddle would work as a last resort?

Tillerman said...

I did wonder about paddling. The Laser daggerboard might work although it is somewhat large and unwieldy to use as a paddle.

Also I have seen Laser sailors, when becalmed in light air, lie face down on the foredeck and paddle with both arms like a swimmer.

And on my Sunfish I used to carry a small paddle called a "praddle" which was quite effective when the wind died on Wednesday nights. I think it might make sense to carry one on my Laser when doing solo sails (if I can work out some place to fix it.)

Carol Anne said...

New Mexico state boating regulations require that all boats have a paddle on board at all times, as well as a bucket or other bailing device and a rope at least as long as the boat. It's amazing how many people don't carry even those items.

At least sailboats are fairly sure to have a rope on board!

Pandabonium said...

Wow. You've had a raft (pardon the pun) of adventures. You handled this one very well.

Cell phones - well, I'm not a fan. And when we capsized Kimie counted on her waterproof one but alas, it came loose from her neck strap and went to the bottom.

word verif: rhing - the sound a cell phone makes underwater

Pat said...

Would it hurt the tiller all that much to scull? Seems better to have some wear and tear on it than get in trouble.

Of course, no one was probably around to criticize you for any "rule 42 bad habits" so you could have viewed this as the idea opportunity to scull, rock and ooch to your heart's content.

Tillerman said...

Maybe I could have sculled Pat. It wouldn't hurt the tiller. But the Laser rudder is so small that it's a very slow way to propel the boat any significant distance. Also, with the mast lying fore-and aft on the boat it would have always been in the way of the tiller for any sculling action.

There wouldn't have been any point in rocking without a sail in the air. And ooching would have been even slower than sculling I expect.

Anonymous said...

Just discovered this post today (linked to your todays posting of another broken mast)
We were becalmed about 2 miles away from the club, and decided to try paddling. Unhooked the boom from the rig, sat in front of the mast and used it like a double ended canoe paddle. I would guess a top mast would be even better.
Got back to the club at the same time as the rescue boat towing a lot of other sailors, so it is reasonably efficient.
Hope you dont need to try it again!

Tillerman said...

It was blowing about 10 knots yesterday so if my gooseneck had broken I might have been able to do something other than row with the boom. I was thinking afterwards that I would probably derig the boom from the sail and then use the outhaul that would still be shackled to the clew as a sheet and somehow use the mainsail like a giant jib. Might have worked going downwind and if I didn't sheet out too far maybe I wouldn't deathroll. Or maybe I would have used that method with the sail luffing all the time to reach slowly to the nearest shore.

I ought to practice some of these jury rig options I suppose. Although I do know how to "sail" after the mast breaks by using the method I described in this post.

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