Panama to San Diego: Breaking the Boom

1100 hours – Breaking the boom. Steve and Linda are kicking themselves for passing up Acapulco!

1100 hours. About two hours after we passed Acapulco the wind started to build and it became more squally. With the breeze in the high 20s gusting into the mid-30-knot range, and visibility severely limited by rain, we were kicking ourselves for not having ducked into Acapulco when we had the chance – but not so much that we considered turning around and beating back.

Waves have not been particularly big, but they are quite steep. The optimum jibe in terms of comfort and control – starboard – brought us into the shore – so we were forced to stay on port jibe. We rolled up the jib to reduce our speed in the poor visibility – but still were averaging 13.5 knots.

Because we were worried about other traffic we gave a “securite” call every hour on channel 16, stating our position, and heading, and requesting that any traffic in the area notify us. Although we’d seen a ship every couple of hours prior to the visibility going to hell, we did not hear a single reply to our securite calls.

As night progressed towards morning the wind continued to build. By 0600 the wind was a steady 30/32, gusting into the high 30s. Rain was continuous so we decided to drop the mizzen to further slow our speed. Our usual procedure is to wait for a lull, bring the boat up a 40-degree apparent wind angle, and then fight the sail down.

The two of us were harnessed up, waiting for a lull, when it started to blow a steady 38 to 40, with torrential rain. Fearing that the wind would build even more we brought BEOWULF around on the wind and commenced to drag down the mizzen. It was raining so hard that it was actually flattening the waves – something we’ve only seen a couple of times before.

Surprisingly, within five minutes the mizzen was secured on the boom, and we were running off at reduced speed. Back in the pilot house we noted the wind was a steady 40 knots.

We should mention at this point that during the night the port main boom rail vang had failed. As we were running at a deep angle it was set up very tight, and there must have been a chafe spot. This forced us to sail with the main a little tighter on the traveler to keep the sail off the spreaders. Not a big deal as long as we didn’t allow BEOWULF to get by the lee and start the main jibing.

Replacing the vang was not a big deal – spare spectra line was easily accessible under the aft starboard bunk. But this would be a very wet project, so we decided to wait until the situation quieted down on deck.

We were congratulating ourselves on the easy removal of the mizzen and how much more comfortable BEOWULF was riding, when the squall we’d been in for the past couple of hours gave one last huge paroxysm of wind. No big deal, except that this was accompanied by a backing wind shift, to which we did not respond quickly enough on the pilot control. As a result BEOWULF surfed down a nice wave at high speed, went by the lee, and before we could react the main boom slammed across the traveler at full speed.

Neither one of us could believe the result. Our enormously strong boom bent, and then broke right where the sheet attached. This left the sail out against the spreaders, with a six foot piece of boom swinging wildly from the mainsail clew. Not a good situation!

After quickly thinking about our options we brought the boat around onto the wind using the engine, and then held her at an angle where the boom end dangled over the side. We are happy to report that the main came down without difficulty, and the sail and boom are now secured on deck. What could have been a very dangerous situation was ameliorated with ease – there was probably a big helping of luck involved in this happy ending.

So what did we do wrong? Several things. First, it was stupid to pass up Acapulco. Sure the wind was fair and we were making great time, but why take risks with a potential tropical weather development. The fact that the National Hurricane Center and Commander’s both said things were cool for at least another 48 hours is no excuse. The pro’s are often wrong and taking this type of risk, albeit a small one, does not make good sense, when there is a secure harbor of refuge close by.

Second, running at deep angles with big seas, in squally/shifty winds without boom preventers is asking for trouble. In ten minutes we could have replaced the broken boom vang/preventer line. Waiting to do so until conditions improved was asking for trouble.

Finally, after dropping the mizzen we proceeded to sail at a deeper wind angle as we did not have to worry about the mizzen blanketing the main. This increased the risk of an accidental jibe – which the broken vang/preventer was required to guard against.

In this case we got away with some minor damage which can be easily repaired. But we both realize we were very, very lucky in the outcome. Next time, we’ll stay on top of the repairs when they are required, nor wait until it is convenient!

Posted by Steve Dashew  (June 8, 2002)

Comments are closed.