Sailing Knowledge, World Voyage

D2D: An Unexpected Masterclass In Disaster

I think it’s fair to say I got more than I expected out of D2D. The race was the very definition of a “firehose of knowledge”. In the span of 12 hours we lost control of our mainsail, split our headsail, lost our steering, blew our alternator, and very nearly considered abandoning ship. After only 15 hours on the waves, we retired and pulled into Arklow for emergency repairs.

Frankly, it was the most fun I’ve had in ages.

I’ll set out the story below and I’ll include a few diagrams, but my drawing skills are appalling. Where possible I’ll add page references for a book called “How Boat Things Work” (HBTW) by Charlie Wing which contains much better illustrations than anything I could produce.

I should also point out that I am still learning about sailing. I may call things by the wrong names below, but I’ll do my best to describe events as they happened. I’m happy to accept any errata that people notice.

A rough hand-drawn sail-plan for the Cambrinus
Rough sail plan

Last-Minute Race Preparations

D2D was due to start at 14:00 on Wednesday 9th June. We would set out from Dun Laoghaire and sail around the south coast of Ireland to Dingle in Co. Kerry. I had already sailed on the boat briefly as I helped Robert move it from Dunmore East up to Dun Laoghaire on Monday. We’d had a few issues on that trip, mostly in relation to batteries not holding any charge, so we knew there was some work to be done before we set sail.

I arrived back on Cambrinus at about 10:30 on Wednesday morning. I was one of the last crew members to arrive. There were eight of us taking part in the race: Robert, Karl, Erin, Lizzie, Fergal, MJ, Niamh and myself. As I boarded the boat, Robert was finalizing the purchase of some replacement batteries.

The boat’s electricity is supplied by two banks connected in parallel: bank 1 and bank 2. Each bank is made up of a number of batteries connected in series. The banks are charged by an alternator on the ship’s engine which generates power while the engine is running.

During the Dunmore to Dun Laoghaire trip, we noticed that bank 1 wasn’t holding charge. We could run the batteries from full to flat in about twenty minutes, which was a major problem as, at that point, all our navigation equipment would turn off. Originally bank 1 held two batteries in series, but it was only possible to source one replacement. Myself and Fergal removed both the old bank 1 batteries, which were disposed of onshore, and connected the new bank 1 battery to the alternator.

This being done, we had a look at the navigation equipment and Fergal plotted our intended route around the south coast into the GPS system. Aside from some other miscellaneous tasks and a safety briefing, we were good to go.

Tacking

Before getting into the race, it is worth describing a few bits and pieces about tacking as it is relevant to some of the issues we faced.

Tacking is a manoeuvre that allows a sailboat to travel upwind. It is obviously impossible for a sailing boat to travel directly into the wind. It can, however, sail “close to the wind”. By sailing as close to the wind as possible and switching tacks from port to starboard and back, the boat can zig-zag its way upwind. Given that we were travelling south along the east coast, and the winds were northerly tacking was an essential manoeuver during the race.

Changing tack with the mainsail is easy enough. As the boat crosses the wind the boom will simply swing from one side of the boat to the other and the tack is complete. This swinging of the boom from one side to the other is called “gybing”. The boom is quite heavy and if it were to strike you while gybing the result could be fatal, so it’s important to keep your wits about you while tacking.

A rough hand-drawn diagram of a boom gybing
The motion of the boom when gybing

The gybing of the mainsail (and indeed the trim of the sail) can be controlled by the mainsheet which runs up to the cockpit (HBTW page 100). Tightening the mainsheet pulls the boom towards the centre of the boat, adjusting the trim of the mainsail and reducing the degrees through which the boom can gybe. Loosening the mainsheet has the opposite effect. The mainsheet is also connected by a shackle to a traveller which runs across the beam of the boat. The traveller contains a traveller car that sits into rails and can slide from side to side of the ship (HBTW page 113). Again, this affects the trim of the sail.

Changing the tack of the headsail is a little more involved than that of the mainsail. There are two sheets connected to the clew of the headsail. one runs to the port side of the cockpit and the other to starboard. On a starboard tack the port sheet of the headsail is under tension, holding the headsail over on the port side of the boat. Meanwhile the starboard sheet is slack (a lazy sheet).

To change the tack of the headsail involves two teams. As the boat crosses the headwind moving from a starboard tack to a port tack, the team on the port size releases the tension on the headsail sheet. At the same time the team on the starboard side rapidly pull in the slack on on the lazy sheet, dragging the clew of the headsail from port to starboard. Once as much slack as possible has been pulled in by hand, the sheet is wrapped around a winch and tightened further, securing the headsail in place.

A rough hand-drawn diagram showing the motion of headsail sheets when changing tack
Switching tack on the headsail

I tried to assist in two tacking manoeuvers. On both occasions, I don’t think I ever actually pulled on the sheet. The best I could do was move the slack rope out of the way. Such was the speed at which the other crewmates were able to execute a change of tack.

The Boom Breaks Free Of The Runner

The D2D race begins with all participating boats sailing out of the Dun Laoghaire Marina. All 43 participants sail in an awkward cluster around each other waiting for the horn which signals the start of the race. As all boats are sailing around each other, all boats will at some point cross the wind and the boom will gybe. Just before the horn sounded, our mainsail gybed violently and the mainsheet broke free of the traveller car, swinging wildly out to port. We effectively had no control over our mainsail. Adding to the danger, the block and tackle for the main sheet – a heavy apparatus – was now swinging freely from the bottom of the boom and could do some serious damage if it caught someone in the head.

There was no panic, it must be said. Only action. The boom needed to be secured to the traveller somehow in a way that would minimize the violence with which the boom would swing. With this done it would be possible to assess the damage and identify a way to reattach the mainsheet to the traveller car.

As the race started and the other boats began tacking down the east coast, we veered off into the Irish Sea, trying to keep the wind on one side so that the boom wouldn’t suddenly gybe. I noticed Lizzie and Erin pulling on the mainsheet in an effort to position it over the traveller so that Fergal and Karl could secure it. There didn’t seem to be much else I could do, so I added my hands to those on the mainsheet, but fighting the boom into position was tough going. At one point I came down awkwardly on Lizzie’s hand leaving a nasty cut.

In a rare moment of good fortune, we were becalmed for about 20 minutes. With the wind gone, we were able to pull the sail into position. Two bowlines were fastened around both ends of the traveller and connected back up to the block and tackle of the mainsheet. This minimized the motion of the boom, allowing Fergal and Karl to diagnose what had happened.

The mainsheet is secured to the traveller car by a small, stainless steel shackle. This shackle had been badly bent when the boom gybed, causing the pin which secured it in place to fall out and resulting in the boom breaking free. Somehow either this shackle needed to be hammered back into shape, or a new shackle needed to be found on the boat.

A rough diagram showing the relationships between the boom, mainsheet, and traveller
The relationship between mainsheet, runner and boom

There was a moment during our emergency repairs where I looked over at the mainsail to see Karl attempting to hammer the bent shackle back into shape with the side of a wrench. He had the shackle (which was about 8mm in diameter) pinched between two of his fingers and was hammering at a rate of about 120 bpm, landing perfect strikes on the shackle as the boat bobbed in the waves. That’s a level of hand-eye coordination that I think is worth documenting.

It was a serious problem, but at least with the boom secured there was time to consider possible solutions and we could start to tack our way back on course.

You can see us grappling with the boom in the video below at the 1:44 mark. We sail right across the camera. I’m swinging out of the mainsheet with Lizzie trying to get the boom over the traveller so Karl and Fergal can anchor it in position and give us back some control.

A Near Man Overboard

A problem that we had when tacking was that the headsail would occasionally get caught in the furler for the staysail. When this happened, someone had to run to the bow and pull the headsail around to the opposite tack. This requires good balance as the ship is bouncing on the surface of the sea, the winds are strong, and waves can break over the front of the ship.

It was during one such manoeuvre that one of our crew nearly found himself in serious trouble. He had completed dragging the sail around the furler, but as he walked back up to the cockpit the ship struck a wave that caught him by surprise and he lost his balance.

The ship is ringed by a series of guard rails which help keep all crew members inside the boat. They are basically a series of wire cords strung between anchor points along the side deck. Although they’re thin, they are quite strong and you can rest your body weight on them. When the crewmember lost his footing, he reached out to grab one of these cords, but as he did so, the cord broke free from its anchor point. He slipped further across the deck, coming down on his knees. He now had no protection along his right side to stop him from toppling overboard. Another miscalculation or rogue wave would have seen him in the water.

A rough hand-drawn diagram showing where the guard rail broke.
Guard rail along the side deck

In this situation, you would expect that a crew member would be tethered to the boat so that, should they slip, they will only fall so far. Apparently this is a bit of a mixed blessing and its up to a sailor to determine whether or not being lashed to the boat is actually a greater danger than simply falling into the sea.

According to some snatches of conversation I overheard, if you fall into the sea you’re obviously in a lot of danger. But there are very well defined things you can do to maximize your chances of survival. Inflate your lifejacket, pull up your spray hood and lie back in the water. Hopefully, some other crew member has seen you fall in. They’ll call “man overboard” and will try to keep track of your position in the water. A lifebuoy with a GPS tracker will be thrown in after you. In theory, the buoy should drift along the same course as you. Whoever is dispatched for a rescue op can track the buoy and will pick you up with it. As it happens, this very thing occurred during D2D this year. The unfortunate sailor was picked up by the Freya after about an hour in the water.

If, however, you fall overboard and are tethered to the ship, the tether can pull you under the hull where you’ll be battered into unconsciousness and drowned. The only winning move is to just not fall into the drink.

Fortunately, in the case of our crewmate, after falling he managed to compose himself. He regained his balance and clambered back up to the cockpit. Within a few minutes, another crew member had been dispatched to fix the broken guard rail.

The Headsail Splits

With our limited control of the mainsail and a couple of tacking manoeuvres successfully executed things were looking pretty good. Myself, Erin, Niamh, and Lizzy sat with our legs over the starboard side of the ship (hiking out) as Robert helmed and Fergal, Karl and MJ considered a better solution to the mainsail problem.

It was paradise. We ate some fruit and watched as Bray and Greystones slowly drifted past, pointed at some dolphins and generally had a laugh. We had overcome a major problem with the boat and were back on course for the race. At one point a wave broke over the side of the ship soaking the four of us and the banana I was eating – a first real taste of the sea.

Suddenly there was a loud cracking noise, and we turned around to see that the headsail had split across its full length from the middle of the leech to the tack. The lazy sheet was flapping and cracking through the air like a whip and the sail itself was spilling over the side of the boat into the sea. I reckon we’d had about 30 minutes of peace since the issue with the mainsail.

A rough hand-drawn diagram of the parts of a headsail and a dotted line showing the path of the tear.
How the headsail tore

The solution was obvious. The headsail had to be taken down and a new sail raised in its place. Precisely how this is achieved is less obvious as it involves a system of winches and lines which are variously pulled on, slacked, detached and reattached to canvas. I had no idea exactly what the crew were trying to do, and in the end the only contribution I could make to this effort was to sit forward of the main mast, tether myself to the ship and try to haul the shredded canvas out of the water so it wouldn’t drag the port side of the ship under.

The sight of Erin and Fergal standing on the bow of the ship battling a torn headsail down, and a new headsail up while waves break over them is one that will stay with me for years.

From what I could tell from my position there was an issue with the runners that the headsail was supposed to sit into. This made it difficult both to raise and lower the sail. Raising and lowering was controlled from a winch on the main mast which was operated by Karl and MJ. Erin and Fergal had to shout commands over the wind to the winch operators to raise, lower, and stop operating the winch. As the sails came up and down, they lost visual of each other and communication became difficult. I was slightly better positioned than Karl and MJ as was briefly able to communicate orders up from the bow, but as the headsail raised and the wind caught the canvas, I was beaten around the head by the tack of the sail and even that short relay became challenging.

Somehow, miraculously, they managed to successfully coordinate and after what felt like an hour of battling the wind a new headsail was up and the boat was back under control.

Seasickness Round Two

While we were attempting to fix the headsail, Niamh noticed that the staysail furler was at risk of shaking itself loose from the deck. The whole apparatus is affixed to the boat by a shackle which is secured by a nut and bolt. The jostling of the boat and the staysail was gradually unscrewing the furler and it was clear that it would eventually break free.

Niamh was able to call Fergal up to have a look and Fergal sent me below decks to grab a set of allen keys and a wrench. I knew from Monday that if I spent too long below decks I would be seasick. I also knew exactly where the allen keys were and I figured that if I was quick enough I could run down, grab them, and be back at the staysail before I was properly debilitaed. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

The lesson here is just how quickly seasickness can set in. I reckon I was below deck for about 30 seconds when I knew I was in trouble. Nausea hit and I started to feel dizzy. There wasn’t much I could do beyond scrambling back up to the cockpit and asking Lizzie to go find the allen keys. I concentrated on the horizon and tried to keep my breathing even but the damage was done. I was in bits.

As we were finally catching the wind, the boat sailed with a heel of about 35-45 degrees. I barely had enough balance to stay in my seat in the cockpit.

Being seasick again was really disappointing because we seemed to hit our stride at this point in the race. We successfully completed a few tacking manoeuvres and the boat was riding the waves comfortably. Karl had begun preparing dinner, a packet of Pringles was being passed around the cockpit and everyone was in decent spirits. I suppose there was a general attitude of “what more could possibly go wrong”.

As we’d be sailing 24 hours a day, the crew was broken into two watches that operated on four-hour shifts. By this point in the day, my team was on watch. I must have been looking green though as Robert threw out the suggestion to the crew, “Everything seems grand if anyone would like to go below decks for a snooze. Maybe if they’re feeling unwell. Even if they’re on watch.” There were still two hours left in my watch, but I knew from Monday that if I caught a brief sleep my stomach would settle. At least, that’s what I expected.

I took Robert up on his offer and headed below decks. No sooner was I in the saloon before I was violently sick in the port head. I was fucked. I climbed into a bunk aft of the ship, Lizzie passed me in a bucket and I fell asleep.

We Lose Steering And Consider Abandoning Ship

I woke up six hours later at around 23:40, twenty minutes before my next watch was due to start. I was still nauseous, but I hoped that I might be able to make my way out of the cabin into the cockpit before getting sick. I figured if I could make it outside and take a few minutes to concentrate on the horizon and breathe some fresh air, I’d be ok. But every time I propped myself up on my forearms to crawl out of the berth I was hit with an almost immediate need to dry heave into my bucket.

Through the open window above my head, I could hear some commotion in the cockpit. I didn’t pay much attention to it and kept trying to figure out how I was going to get out of my bunk, into my wet gear, and out the door to the cockpit before I was too severely debilitated. At about 23:55 the cabin door swung open and Lizzie said to me, “Gary, we need you to get out of the bunk. Get your wet gear on. Don’t panic, but we’ve lost steering on the boat and we’re drifting into the Irish Sea. We may need to jump off the ship. We’re not quite there yet, but be ready.”

At some point, while I was trying to plan a route out of my bunk, the crew member on the helm had tried to change direction. There was a snapping sound and the helm spun free. The wheel had broken loose of the rudder and we had no control over where we were going. The access panel to get into the rudder and assess the damage was behind the bunk where I was sleeping.

Once I was securely seated in the saloon with my head in a bucket, Robert pulled out the access panel behind the bunk and crawled into the stern of the ship to inspect the steering system. He noticed that, while the helm was disconnected, the autonavigation system could still be used to control the boat. By turning it on and using the GPS navigation system to plot a course to land, the boat would more-or-less steer itself into port. So we knew we could retain control.

He also noticed that the emergency steering system still worked. By removing a little access panel in the floor of the cockpit, a tiller could be connected directly to the rudder and the boat could be steered by hand. Steering by this means was difficult though. At this point the general consensus among the crew was that it was time to retire from the race. We’d start the engine and motor for Arklow, the nearest port, where we could look at repairing the boat. There was a general air of disappointment, but it was what needed to be done given the circumstances.

In a moment of almost comical malaise, it was at this point a crew member thought it would be a good idea to switch our power supply from battery bank 1 to bank 2, as bank 2 held more charge. This involves rotating a dial next to the navigation table. If you rotate the dial counter-clockwise, the boat will briefly run on both battery banks keeping the supply of power constant. If you rotate it clockwise, however, you will temporarily cut the ship’s power. As the crewmember turned the dial clockwise there was a brief moment of panic in the cockpit as the crew thought the navigation system had suddenly failed. This only lasted a few seconds as the GPS system came back online after a moment.

We later discovered that this little mistake had also blown the alternator on the engine. Apparently switching battery banks in this manner while the engine is running will result in a brief power-spike which is enough to kill the alternator. What more could go wrong, you ask? What more indeed. We couldn’t charge our batteries anymore. Whatever charge we had was all that was available to get us back to land using the autopilot and GPS navigation systems.

While we did have a life raft on board, I doubt we would have used it. The boat wasn’t sinking (although Niamh and Robert did have to bail out the port head at one point). We were simply drifting. We were probably safer aboard the boat than in a life raft. I reckon a more likely scenario had we been unable to regain control would have been to call in a mayday, close-haul the ship to keep it from moving, and wait for the coast guard to come and get us. At that stage, they probably even could have towed us back to land.

Irrespective, now that we had some control over the ship, the crew brought the boat about and headed for Arklow. I climbed back into my bunk, dry heaved into my bucket, and fell asleep. The next time I woke was at 3:00 as we pulled into the Arklow Marina. I was just well enough to help Niamh and MJ moor the boat before the entire crew crawled into their bunks for some much needed, well-earned sleep.

Arklow

We spent Thursday moored in Arklow. Karl implemented a slightly more permanent solution to the issue with the mainsheet and the runner, and Fergal travelled to Dublin Airport to source a new alternator.

In the light of day, we were able to crack open the pedestal for the helm and found that the source of the steering problem was a broken chain that connects the helm to the rudder (HBTW page 66). Fergal was able to have the chain repaired at a garage that serviced motorbikes.

Having done as much as we could, some of the crew went shopping in Arklow. We had dinner followed by pints on Cambrinus. While there was some frustration with the number of things that had gone wrong with the boat, this quickly abated and a genuinely lovely night was had.

It was decided that the boat would set out for Dun Laoghaire and drop off anyone who wanted to head home before continuing on to Belfast. I was among those who planned to depart the ship. High tide was at 6:00 on Friday morning, but rather than join the crew for the voyage to Dublin, I hopped off in Arklow and bussed it back to Meath. It wasn’t that I was worried the boat would sink, but I felt that my second day of sailing had offered enough excitement for one adventure. It was time to go home and absorb all that had happened.

Final Thoughts

Obviously this experience involved considerably more mayhem than one would have thought. While you do expect things to go wrong on a boat, you don’t really think that everything will go wrong all at once in the span of twelve hours. D2D hasn’t put me off sailing at all. In fact, quite the contrary. During those frantic moments of activity I saw in every crew member one of the greatest qualities that people can possess – the ability to stay calm under pressure. There was no panic, no hysteria, and no arguing. Everything that went wrong was simply a problem that required a solution. And solutions were engineered from whatever resources were available. This is exactly the quality that I would hope to develop by participating in sailing ventures.

It wasn’t until we got to land and had a chance to take a breather that people started to reflect on the magnitude of the problems we faced. Even then, only three of us decided that we weren’t boarding the ship as it departed Arklow. For my own part, this was for a number of reasons:

  1. When things went wrong, I didn’t necessarily understand what had broken, nor what the crew were trying to achieve in formulating a solution. Aside from the fact that this makes me a bit useless, it also makes me a hazard. An uncertain crew member flapping about with nothing to do is just in the way. I need to learn more before I can give Cambrinus the TLC it requires to keep it on the waves.
  2. If I stayed on the boat from Arklow to Dun Laoghaire, it would be as a passenger, not crew. I wasn’t comfortable with that idea. I joined the boat to learn how to sail, not to be a passenger. But I knew come Friday morning I would be in no condition to help with operating the boat.
  3. I felt there was a point to be made in getting off. I knew the boat would be fine on the journey from Arklow to Dun Laoghaire, but some of the things that went wrong seemed so fundamental to the operation of a boat that my refusal to sail any further emphasised my belief that the boat was not sea-worthy.
  4. On Friday morning I was already hungover. I didn’t need to be seasick on top of that.

For all the madness we went through, I’m really happy with the whole adventure. I learned loads, saw some of the best qualities of people, and cemented for myself the idea that working on a boat is an excellent means to improve oneself.

So my planned 13 day adventure lasted a grand total of three days. C’est la vie. I’m grateful all the same.

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