Two seconds is all it takes.
Two seconds to ruin your home. Two seconds to do $60,000+ worth of damage. Two seconds for your entire rig to come down. Two seconds to change your life.
We were on an overnight passage from St. Martin to Antigua, about 30 miles from Jolly Harbor, when one of the things that every sailor has nightmares about happened.
We left Simpson Bay at around 5 p.m. with steady northeast winds at 10-15 knots. We settled in to our course for one long tack, put out the sails and watched the sun set behind us over St. Bart’s.
As night fell, I gimballed the stove and prepared a gourmet dinner of brats and beans. Claire wound down with an audio book before falling asleep in our aft cabin in a mountain of blankets and throw pillows. And Aaron and I prepared to start our night watches – two or three hours on, two or three hours to sleep. We even remarked to each other how easily the passage was going, unlike some other overnight sails we had done. No squalls, plenty of moonlight. Sure, the wind was a bit flukey and we hit some unexpected current, but overall, we were able to keep the boat moving steadily at four to six knots and keep the engine off.
At around 6:30 a.m., I woke up from a two-hour sleep and readied myself to take over watch from Aaron. The sun had just come up and the boat was still making steady progress – only four or five more hours until anchor down in Jolly Harbor! I was standing on the companionway steps leading up to the cockpit, getting the report from Aaron on how his watch went, when we both watched in horror as the entire rig came down.
I’ve heard a lot of people recount traumatic events and say, “It was like it happened in slow motion! My life passed before my eyes!” This wasn’t like that at all, at least, not for me. One second, we were slicing through waves with a full sail plan happily trimmed. Two seconds later, our mast was hanging on by threads over the starboard railing, the boom was bent in half, I saw our full sails billowing under the water. I don’t even remember it being that loud, though given the amount of metal that was twisted like tree limbs and the guts of our rig that were ripped from the deck, I’m sure it was. Aaron says it was like a gun went off, but not only was the noise deafening for him, but he could feel the vibrations through the cockpit floor and seats.
I will say it’s a video that’s currently on repeat for me, and one that I will never forget.
My tears were immediate, like a faucet. And Aaron’s, too, though he pushed them aside and sprang to action. We both tried to stay as calm as we could, he admittedly more than me, because we knew this was just the beginning. Was the rig still connected? Where? Could we salvage anything? Was the hull damaged? Were we taking on water? This was when our lives, and our home, passed through my mind – would we have to get the dinghy down as fast as we could, grab the ditch bag I had packed before we left the previous day, and abandon ship, leave our home for the last three years to float away and sink? This has definitely happened to some when they suffered a dismasting.
Wake up, wake up, JUST WAKE UP, I kept thinking. I’m still waiting to wake up from all of this.
Aaron quickly assessed the situation on deck and realized that, unless he got in the water, which would not have been safe, we wouldn’t be able to salvage anything. Parts of the rig had started knocking against the hull, and to prevent any further damage, he began cutting away the remaining pieces with a hacksaw, rotary cutter tool, and wire cutters.
I immediately ran down below to tend to Claire, who of course had woken up when the rig came down. She was crying, knowing that something had happened, and that it was bad. Still half asleep in her dream world, she asked, “Was it a lion, mom? Or a tiger? Is something breaking our boat?” I explained as best I could, trying to keep calm, and looked around for any signs of water down below. Seeing nothing immediately alarming, I asked her to stay down below to stay safe, and went back up to assist Aaron.
He cut away each piece, each finger still trying to keep its hold on us, and as he severed the last bit, we watched in silence as the whole rig sank and the boat popped up, relieved of the weight it had been dragging through the water. We both then went down below, me to comfort Claire, and Aaron to check all of the bilges and see if the hull was compromised. With everything appearing to be in tact, we fired up the engine. I will never forget the wave of relief when it immediately jumped to, and we confirmed that our steering was still good.
I got the boat back on track for Antigua as Aaron continued checking the damage. Eventually, all three of us settled in to the cockpit.
We spent the next six hours motoring to Jolly, and this was the worst part for me. Six hours to do nothing but stare forward at the massacre that had just happened – wide open sky where there were meant to be sails, bent and twisted rails that had held fuel cans and water jugs just an hour before.
To add insult to injury, without the weight and windage of the rig, we had no way of stabilizing the boat, so we were fully at the mercy of the waves, bobbing violently starboard to port and back again, with each set. Claire and I both got seasick, as if things weren’t bad enough. Aaron created seals around the holes in the fiberglass, which were allowing saltwater to spray down into the salon with every wave. The holes looked like open wounds, the layers shredding like paper, flaking and cracking.
Aaron and I were both delirious, he coming down off of the immediate adrenaline of just executing when it all happened, and both of us naturally short on sleep due to the overnight watches. Claire kept saying, “This is horrible. What happened? Why did this happen to our home?” I didn’t know my heart could break more.
It was a good question, though – why did this happen? How does the entire rig of a sailboat just come down – poof – like the mast was made of playdoh? The conditions were not rough, the waves, averaging at four feet, were reasonable. The sails were full but not overpowered, and there were no squalls – the sun was shining.
Exactly a year ago, we had Clarity hauled in Puerto Rico for a planned replacement of the saildrive and some through-hulls. As the boat sat on blocks, Aaron noticed that one of the diagonal shrouds had broken a couple strands while being transported by the travel lift. Realizing that this was bad news, we called around and had two riggers assess the boat. We had purchased the used boat two years prior with the original rigging, and though it passed the initial survey, we knew we’d likely have to replace the rigging during our tenure with it. It turned out that our time was up. After a thorough review both topsides and down below, the rigger said that we needed to replace all of the standing rigging. We weren’t thrilled with the $5,500 check, but we knew that it was critical to maintain the safety of the boat, so we did it.
What happened while we were near the end of a lovely sail to Antigua, is for the insurance company and surveyor to decide, but given that we had just taken the necessary steps a year prior, we were absolutely baffled.
We finally came into the bay at around 12:30 p.m. We dropped the hook (thank god our windlass was still working), turned off the engine, and sat there. What do you do? What do you say? How are you supposed to feel?
There’s the obvious of what we do now: we file the claim. We wait to see what our insurance company decides, and pray that we are compensated for something we know in our hearts was beyond our control.
We clean up what we can, we prepare for the unfathomable amount of work ahead of us, we try to process what happened.
But then what. When the literal to-do list is done, what do we do? This has broken us. Do we keep sailing? Do we park it for awhile and take a break? Do we cut our losses and bail out?
I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.
As human beings, we are trained to look on the bright side, to find the silver lining. Things always could have been worse. There’s so much to be grateful for. That’s all true, and I am.
But sometimes, you just have to sit with the reality. Living on a sailboat that had its heart ripped out. And finding the pieces of your own.