Two Steps Forward… Unstep Mast

Well, we were hoping to put Madge back in the water this weekend. Not gonna happen. Things had been going pretty well for most of August. We pulled Madge out on August 1 (my last post), and figured all we needed to do was paint the bottom and finish a couple of upgrades. The sanitary work is almost done, as is the installation of the new power inverter. We’re just waiting on parts to finish those. We discovered a leak in the dinghy, had it patched, and bought a new outboard motor for it that will give us better mobility. We won’t paint the bottom until right before we put the boat back in the water. While we’re waiting on other items, I’ve replumbed the sink in the galley, adding a drinking water filtration system to improve the taste of our water. More on this in a later post.

Meanwhile, a friend in the boatyard was having his rigging inspected, and since it had been awhile since anybody but me has looked at Madge’s rigging, I caught the Rigger while he was on site and had him inspect our standing rigging. For our friends that aren’t sailors, the “standing” rigging is all the hard stuff that makes a sailboat a sailboat rather than a motor boat – including the mast and all the cables that hold it up. [Note: The soft stuff – the sails and the ropes that make them work – are called “running” rigging.] The mast is “stepped” (anchored) on the keel, but on Madge there’s a joint at deck level. The keel carries all the downward force of the mast. To hold the mast upright, there are guywires, just like a utility pole on land. The guywires are 90 degrees apart to support the mast in all directions, and are connected to the hull of the boat. The two cables connected to the bow and stern are called “stays,” and stabilize the mast fore and aft. The cables on the sides are called “shrouds,” and provide lateral stability. The stays and shrouds are connected to “chainplates” at the hull. These are stainless steel straps that are bolted to the hull, poke up through the deck, and provide an anchor point for the cables supporting the mast.

The Rigger gave me good news and bad news. The bad news was: 1) that my cables sorta looked okay, but were beyond their safe life and needed to be replaced if we were going offshore; and 2) that my chainplates showed signs of cracks and corrosion – which indicates potential failure. The good news was that we found this out now instead of learning of it when the mast fell down while we were out in the ocean in the middle of nowhere. I’m lucky – and even happy – that I had the inspection done, but am bummed out about the significant financial hit this is going to have on our cruising kitty. It also means that Madge is going to stay on the hard for about another month. We’re still going to be able to meet our Thanksgiving departure date, but we won’t have as much time for shakedown cruises before then.

IMG_1254The first step in replacing the rigging is to remove (or “unstep”) the mast. It’s a fairly straightforward process – if you have access to a crane, which our boatyard has – as long as there are no complications with disconnecting everything that’s connected to the mast. Fortunately, Madge’s builders put her together in such a way that all the necessary connections are accessible – which isn’t always the case on a boat – and we were able to remove the mast above the joint at deck level without issue. The next step was to remove the rotten chainplates. Again, all the parts were accessible – though some were more accessible than others – and after half a day of bending myself into some rather unnatural angles, I was able to get all the chainplates removed.

IMG_1271This is why I’m happy about the inspection. Pictured is the chainplate for the port side cap shroud. That’s the cable that runs from the top of the mast to the hull on the left side of the boat. This 3/16-inch thick strap of stainless steel was straight when I pulled it out through the slot in the deck, but it was completely cracked through and broke under its own weight when I laid it down. Had this part failed under typical sailing conditions, there would’ve only been one bolt (instead of four) anchoring the stay, and Madge probably would’ve lost her mast and who knows what else when the force of sailing broke that one bolt. I found another full-depth crack that went 3/4 of the way across a chainplate on the other side of the boat. It’s a good thing we are replacing everything. So, in a couple of weeks we’ll have all new rigging and chainplates.

Dodging a bullet like this is a real slap in the face. I wasn’t planning on a rigging inspection at this time, so it’s just dumb luck that the opportunity arose and I had one done. I’ve been a sailor for 15 years, and owned two boats, but when you look at the details, I don’t have that many sailing miles under my belt, and almost no bluewater (open ocean) experience. Compared to many sailors, I’m still basically a newbie, and prone to newbie mistakes. I’m gonna have to be more careful. Now that Madge is sound again, I’m going to add a couple of things that I’d thought we could do without, but which I now think we need to have. The first is an honest-to-goodness Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) in addition to the SPOT personal locating beacon which I had planned to rely on. The difference is that the EPIRB is a registered beacon that immediately and directly contacts Search and Rescue (SAR) in the event of an emergency, instead of relying on the global satellite telephone system like the SPOT. It’s like the difference between calling the Fire Department directly rather than calling a neighbor and asking them to call 911. The SPOT has tracking and messaging capabilities, so we’ll still have one, but if we end up in the water, the EPIRB is the best choice for a speedy rescue. I just hope we never need it.

The second additional piece of equipment is a marine High Frequency (HF) Single Side Band (SSB) radio, to augment our regular VHF radio. Our VHF radio allows us to communicate over line-of-sight distances (up to 30 miles). An HF SSB is like a shortwave radio, with a global reach. It will allow us to communicate with other cruisers anywhere, receive special weather information from both NOAA and private sources regardless of where we are, as well as providing other features that will enhance our connectivity with the world. I expect this piece of equipment to get plenty of use.