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Broken mast in the North Atlantic: one solo sailor’s story

They say bad things happen in threes. Sailing solo in the North Atlantic, Rob Henshall loses windvane self steering, then electronic autopilot and wonders what’s next

A contess 21 being sailed on an ocean
Maria approaching
Porto Santo, Madeira. Credit: Rob Henshall

Broken mast in the North Atlantic: one solo sailor’s story

Buying a boat abroad during a pandemic, when it may not be possible to visit it in person, presents its problems, writes Rob Henshall.

But during the months before my solo trip back to Ireland, from Portimão via Madeira and the Azores to Sligo, I had developed great trust in the vendor.

He had been superb in his assistance in prepping the boat, which had been out of the water for two years.

He took deliveries of gear by mail, received a pallet of my equipment from home, dealt with the horrible new customs arrangements as a result of Brexit, payed bills on my behalf, and answered my endless questions!

A Contessa 32 with a blue hull berthed in a marina. Once sailing at sea, the boat suffered a broken mast

Maria in Portimao in preparation for her sail home, Credit: Rob Henshall

Maria, a 1975 Contessa 32, had been sitting on the hard for two years, so the insurance company requested she had a full survey, which included the rigging.

I was happy with the reports and dealt with all the recommendations. I added a drogue, a parasail sea anchor, an extra EPIRB, a new DSC VHF radio, an IridiumGO! satellite phone system, and up-to-date flares.

There was an AIS receiver on board, but I fitted a small chartplotter with a built-in transponder.

As a singlehander I had to be visible by all available means.

Gear failure

The 455-mile trip from Portimão to Porto Santo in Madeira, nearly all under Neptune windvane steering, had been blissful and uneventful in winds up to Force 4.

Having taken a day off touring Porto Santo, I topped up with spare fuel – 80 litres tank capacity plus 4 x 20 litres in cans gave me a motoring range of 400 miles at 5 knots.

The crossing to Santa Maria in the Azores was again fairly uneventful with winds to Force 5, then four days later I got forecasts and set sail for home.

Immediately after leaving Terceira I was faced with headwinds, and after a steering line breakage I hunkered down for a rough night under the guidance of the windvane.

Storm jib linked via pulleys to tiller made for effective self-steering. Credit: Rob Henshall

Storm jib linked via pulleys to tiller made for effective self-steering. Credit: Rob Henshall

I was cold and tired, and surprised when Maria suddenly shot to windward. The windvane had collapsed.

I secured the flapping paddle and saw that the steel rod that connects the servo pendulum had snapped at its base. It was irreparable at sea.

I furled the rest of the genoa and put up my storm sail to make boat and sail balance better.

I reverted to the autopilot, but it frequently cut out with the heavier strain.

I rigged lines from the tiller in through the cabin washboards to assist it, but with 800 miles still to go to Sligo the Autohelm expired.

A skipper of a yacht wearing a red jacket looking tired

A very tired skipper after the first few days of headwinds and breakages, including a broken mast. Credit: Rob Henshall

I discovered that a corroded live wire had shorted with other terminals, and that there was no fuse at the switchboard or anywhere else in the circuit.

I set the tiller with shock cord and string, balanced the storm jib and triple-reefed main as best I could but my tired and fragile mind could not work out how to get the boat to sail unaided.

I slept on it anyway and on wakening picked up one of the many books I carried on board – Singlehanded Sailing – Thoughts, Tips, Techniques and Tactics by Andrew Evans.

It all came back to me.

Within 15 minutes I had her rigged with ‘storm sail’ steering to the tiller and I was cruising downwind at just over 120°.

I could make it home unaided, though my revised landfall would be Crosshaven in Co. Cork, where I could get a new autopilot.

A broken mast

At 1400, in 50 03 N 12 28 W, about 120 miles south-west of the Fastnet, with the wind gusting over 30 knots, there was a sudden loud crack, then stillness.

The port cap shroud U-bolt chain plate had failed and the mast had folded at the spreaders.

Thankfully the genoa was fully rolled and the main appeared undamaged, and I managed to retrieve the working jib and secure the genoa and the upper half of the mast.

A yacht sail Reefed and poled- out genoa with shock cord steering.

Reefed and poled-out genoa with shock cord steering. Credit: Rob Henshall

By 1530 I had stabilised most of the carnage on deck, the engine was on and I was headed somewhere.

But I was gutted. I knew what this meant – steering by hand for a long way to make landfall. I was already exhausted, and now began to doubt my chances of coming out of this misadventure.

I had fuel and plenty in reserve, so perhaps I could make it, but I was already too tired to manage logical thought.

If only I had just motored then slept under sea anchor, and then repeated, I might have made it unaided.

Continues below…

I had decided to aim for Crosshaven, 190 miles away, where I knew I could get help with the boat.

I dressed in warm dry clothes, thick socks and dry shoes. This was comforting as I addressed my next problem – how to get fuel from the 20-litre containers into the fuel tank.

There was no way I could open the deck filler as more seawater than fuel would have gone into the tank.

So I removed the jubilee clip from the top of the sightglass inside the port lazarette, attached a wider piece of tubing from a spare syphon jiggler, so that I could use another jiggler to decant the contents of the fuel cans to the tank.

A yacht sailing under job and reefed genoa

Working jib and reefed genoa worked well together. Credit: Rob Henshall

My log entries are at this stage scanty; however, I do note that I switched her off and got two hours’ sleep.

Also that my AIS had started working again after a few days of shutdown, but as my numerous GPSs (all except that attached to my radio) had gone down at a similar spot, I thought there may have been some sort of naval blocking exercise.

The recovery of my AIS was a relief during a time of increasing mental distress.

I brought up two cans from below to top up the fuel tank the next evening.

I decided to put in only 20 litres, which should give me a further 50 miles, and add a further 20 litres in the morning.

A yacht with a broken mast being towed by a lifeboat

Maria with her broken mast under tow from Courtmacsherry RNLI. Credit: Rob Henshall

I’d been at the helm motoring for 36 hours. The Fastnet light was flashing on my beam. I was nearly back in Ireland.

Then at 0600, following a beautiful sunrise, the engine stopped. The voices that I’d been hearing for the last few days through the drone of the engine fell silent with their incessant chatter, and all was silent.

I cursed the silence and the absence of the voices. I added the diesel I should have added the night before and attempted to start the engine.

It obviously needed bleeding and I started to do it, methodically. I failed time and time again, and the starter battery became weaker and weaker.

I resorted to my phone – which by now had a signal – and contacted the previous owner.

A yacht with a broken mast tied up alongside a pontoon

Maria with her broken mast safely tied up and drying out in Courtmacsherry. Credit: Rob Henshall

He was so understanding and helpful, but was unable to talk me through finding the fuel lift plunger, yet I had the engine manual in front of me.

I collapsed in exhaustion and cried; he reassured me on how well I’d done getting so close to Ireland and that I should get help to finish my journey.

I gratefully hung up, accepted his advice and in tears, sought help. I was too gone, too drained to even remember how to get help.

I phoned Crosshaven Boatyard Marina, because their number was sitting in front of me.

A man wearing pink shorts and a blue tshirt and a hat standing next to a boat with a blue hull

Rob Henshall is a retired former outdoor pursuits instructor living in Northern Ireland. He has had
a lifelong love of sailing and solo adventure, having previously made four solo and unsupported circumnavigations of Ireland by kayak, Laser, windsurfer and Drascombe Lugger. He has previously also crossed the North Atlantic alone. Credit: Rob Henshall

A wonderful woman (Judy) picked up the phone. I broke down again, but Judy was so kind and I gave her my position and she looked after the rest, calling the RNLI.

By 1300 I was in a different world; ashore in Courtmacsherry following a gentle tow the final 15 miles through calm seas, with Maria moored to the visitors’ pontoon.

Courtmacsherry is a seafaring village full of character and characters – a wonderful place with helpful people so full of kindness – a place to which I shall return.

My grateful thanks go out to the crew of the RNLI Courtmacsherry lifeboat, the lovely Judy for relaying my position, Norman Kean for making arrangements for me and Maria, and the people of Courtmacsherry who befriended a distressed sailor.

Sailing with a broken mast and gear: Lessons Learned

  • Sleep is vital: Sleep deprivation will lead to an inability to make sound decisions. The lack of sleep will impair the processing of information and logical thinking processes, and continued sleep deprivation will lead to hallucinations.
  • Check your wiring: An inspection of the wiring on a boat (which caused the autopilot’s failure) falls outside of a normal survey’s remit. My mistake is that I failed to inspect the autopilot wiring and chain plate U bolts.
  • Know how to bleed the engine: I should have practised bleeding the engine before leaving Portugal.
  • Ask for assistance: Try your utmost to be resilient but never be too proud to ask for help when it is truly needed.

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