Article published in Blue Water Sailing Magazine
and in La Revue Maritime l'Escale (in French)
The four ton displacement of my
Alberg 30 reveals that it had been
built before the first energy crisis and
that glassfibre had been used liberally in its construction. It had been my
sailing home for five years when I understood this : Cape Horn fascinated it
as much as it did me. I had grown to know my boat and knew it possessed all
the necessary qualities to face the seas of the Southern Ocean. Yet, it
seemed to me its mast had not been designed to resist a capsize, an
eventuality I knew I had to consider : most small yachts that go play in
these waters end up getting their mast wet! I was spending that winter in
Brittany, near Saint-Malo and worked in a small yard that built aluminum
dinghies. I went to the Paris Boat Show and consulted a few spar makers who
confirmed : to have any chance of resisting a capsize, my new mast would
have to weigh at least five kilos per meter, and my present extrusion was
about half as heavy.
A few weeks later, a friend told me he had
just bought a stock of mast extrusions from a bankrupt yard. He had the one
I needed and I could afford his asking price.
had lots of time and could take advantage of the resources of the yard to
built the masthead, step and spreading fittings, as I could not afford to
purchase them ready-made. With the advice of the yard owner and my future
sailmaker, I made a super-strong mast, supported by a double set of
spreaders, and an over-size rig. I was convinced I had made Jean-du-Sud
the present of a capsize-proof mast.
On Sept. 1st 1981, Jean-du-Sud left
the harbor of Saint-Malo, in France. My plan was to reach Gaspé, in Québec,
single-handed, non-stop, the other way around the world, via the Roaring
Forties and around Cape Horn.
sailed down the Atlantic, rounded Cape of
Good-Hope, crossed the Indian Ocean, Bass Strait, the Tasman Sea and entered
the Pacific Ocean. On Feb. 15 1982, after 156 days at sea, I was 700 miles
East of New-Zealand, on lat. 47°
South. It had been blowing a storm for the last 24 hours, and
Jean-du-Sud was running before it, under a double-reefed foresail
sheeted flat. That summer had been exceptionally hot in Australia, and vast
high-pressure zones would leave the continent and drift East. I got caught
between one of these highs and a normally deep depression, and that caused a
very steep pressure gradient, with winds reaching Force 10.
I knew that there was a danger of being
knocked over and was prepared accordingly : the deck was bare, all openings
closed and below, everything was stowed or seized. I was lying in my bunk
with two stout pieces of nylon webbing tied loosely but solidly around my
body to keep myself from being flung across the cabin. One AM. First
knockdown, mast well below horizontal. The self-steerer brought the boat
back on course despite its aluminum storm vane being bent. Only apparent
damage, the line securing the aft end of the boom to the backstay had
parted. From below, I could see it swinging lightly with every roll, still
held by the topping lift and mainsheet. During long minutes, I hesitated :
should I leave it the way it was, or take the risk of going up on deck to
fix it? I knew that if I was knocked over again, the topping lift would
part and this could cause the gooseneck or boom to break.
I was pulling up my oilskins in the narrow
space opposite the head, when I heard a great noise. I felt Jean-du-Sud
thrown over once again, but this time, the movement did not stop and in a
flash, I realized I was on the cabin top : we were going through a complete
roll. In a matter of seconds, my world was right side up again. The damage
below was minimal : everything was well stowed and only a few buckets of
water got through the closed hatch. But looking through a porthole, I could
see the boom lying on the side-deck.
I refused to believe that the mast had
gone and thought the gooseneck had broken. But when I opened the hatch, I
had to face reality : the mast was overboard, broken in two, the lower
section hanging over the starboard side, still held to the step by the
halyards; the upper section had sunk and hanged below, still held by the
rigging. Fortunately, Jean-du-Sud did not appear threatened by the
mast punching a hole through the hull, so I did not cut the rigging to
Without the inertia of the mast, the
movement of the boat was amplified and it was almost impossible to stay on
deck. I could not do anything, so I went back to my bunk, as it was the
only place where I did not have to hang on to anything I could grab.
The shrouds still holding the mast that
was hanging below were chewing into the toerail with a sickening noise with
every jerk of the boat. At dawn, they had carved a deep groove. But I
refused to let it go : I had built every piece of it with great
concentration and had the impression I knew every screw, every rivet by its
first name. I also knew that I could not afford to purchase a new mast and
all its rigging.
The following day, the wind dropped to
Force 9, but the seas were still huge and each move I made required ten
times the effort. I managed to detach the boom and recuperate the mainsail
which did not suffer, being tightly furled. But I could not say the same
for the staysail, which was still hanging below; to get it aboard, I would
have to pull up the upper section of the mast and after a few attempts, had
to admit defeat : the movements of the boat were still too violent and each
halyard I hauled on soon parted after chafing against the broken mast.
I had maintained daily radio contact with
a ham operator and attempted to rig a jury antenna. In a small vice held to
the deck by suction, I clamped the antenna lead and a 2 meter stainless
steel rod. If this jury antenna did not allow me to reach Montréal, at
least I had a chance of being heard in New-Zealand.
When radio contact time came , I was
dismayed : no signal came out of my transmitter. Some water must have
entered from the Dorade vent above the head and found its way to the
transmitter. I bitterly realized that a radio is great as long as it keeps
working, but if it stops, it will cause undue worry to those who used to
daily hear from me. In my last transmission, I had reported Force 10 wind
and huge seas. What conclusion will they draw from my silence?
In spite of
the strong roll, I took the transmitter apart and spent the rest of the day
trying to dry contacts and relays, using Q-tips and alcohol. No success :
it still refused to transmit. I only succeeded in draining my batteries.
Now that I was motionless, I could not use my hydro-alternator, driven by a
propeller towed behind the boat. I had two small solar panels, but they
were useless in this totally overcast sky.
My ham rig could not transmit, but it
could still receive and I kept hearing people calling me. After a whole day
of hesitation, I turned on my emergency beacon (this was before the
satellite EPIRB). Not that I wanted to be pulled out of here : I was in no
immediate danger and was confident that I would eventually be able to reach
land. But my main concern was reassuring my family and friends by telling
them that I was still alive. I knew there was a minute chance of an airplane
flying over me and receiving my signal. but I felt I was doing something
positive. I also rigged a jury antenna on my VHF and sent a call every hour
Looking why the mast broke, I noticed that
the two lower-shroud chainplates had pulled from the deck, bolts neatly
sheared. The mast broke at the first spreaders. I realized it was entirely
my fault : I had increased the size of the bolts holding the backstay and
capshroud chainplates, but had judged these strong enough. The original
lower shrouds were 3/16 in. -5 mm- while the rest of the rigging was ¼ in
-6,4 mm- and I replaced the whole rigging with 7 mm cable. I had figured
that the resistance to shear of the 3 ¼ in. bolts on each chainplate was
equal to the tensile strength of 7 mm cable. Now, I know it was not.
days after being dismasted, I finally succeeded in pulling the mast on
deck. I had to get in the water and dive down, to tie a line around the
center of the section that was still hanging vertically below the hull.
Only this way, could I bring it in a horizontal position and winch it up.
In trying to untangle the mess of lines on
deck and in the cockpit, I realized the amount of rigging necessary for
single-handed sailing : halyards, sheets, down-hauls, topping-lifts, running
backstays, reef lines, steering lines, lifelines, all this was tangled as if
a huge spaghetti fork had made a few turns on deck!
The next day, I succeeded in rigging the
boom as a jury mast, but the seas were still too heavy to step it.
last, after four days, I was sailing again, doing 1.5 knots under jury rig.
The Chatham Islands, the nearest land, was 300 miles to the West, to
windward. I could not sail closer than a beam-reach, so I headed North,
hoping I would eventually find easterly wind. After two days, the wind
turned to the Southwest, then Southeast. Finally, a week after the capsize,
it blew from the East and allowed me to head straight towards land, at 3
knots, just fast enough to turn the hydro-alternator and send a few dozen
amperes into one of the batteries. This encouraged me to try again to fix
my transmitter. This time, I dared take it a bit further apart and I could
reach contacts and relays I had missed in my first attempt.
Hurrah! After 8 days of silence, I
finally succeeded in contacting Montréal. First a weak Morse signal, then
my transmitter warmed up and I could take the microphone and announce I was
Ten days after being dismasted,
Jean-du-Sud reached the Chatham Islands, a group of
islands and rocks, in the Pacific Ocean, 500 miles East of New-Zealand.
It was almost March and the end of the
Southern summer. The time needed to repair the mast would make me arrive at
Cape Horn at the end of autumn, so I decided to wait until the following
season to pursue the voyage. I pulled Jean-du-Sud ashore and came
back to Québec, to edit the film I had shot during the first leg.
A visit at the plant of Yachtspars
New-Zealand, in Auckland, on my way back, dispelled my worries about
repairing the mast : I would be able to do the job myself when I came back.
I could see a mast being repaired and found answers to all my questions.
I still had a 1.5 meter section of the
extrusion I had used to build the new mast, in Saint-Malo. I had considered
taking it with me in case of such an event, but had finally left it there,
my boat being already overloaded. I had it shipped to Montréal and when I
returned to the Chatham Islands, the following September, I stopped again at
Yachtspars. They kept 6 inches to replace the irregular edges of the break
and in the rest, cut a sleeve : two cuts on either side of the sail track,
with a round at both ends to avoid concentration of effort. They insisted
on the necessity of an intimate contact between the sleeve and the mast,
achieved by tapping the sleeve, once it was in place, and driving bolts to
pull it against the inside of the mast.
in the Chatham Islands, the following October, I tackled the job, trying to
follow their recommendations closely, adding for safety a generous amount of
epoxy glue and stainless steel rivets.
I was worried about stepping the mast.
Waitangi harbor was at the bottom of a wide bay open to the north and a
permanent surge prevented any attempt to step the mast afloat from the
dock. Ashore, the small crane used to handle goods would not be high
enough. I was forced to use the system I had foreseen, in case I had to
step the mast by myself, without a crane, using only a spinnaker pole, a
hinged mast-step and cap-shrouds hinged at the same level. I had used it
often with the previous mast, but not yet with the new, which was more than
twice as heavy, with its heavier section and oversize, double-spreader
On December 8, the mast of Jean-du-Sud
was stepped again. Two weeks later, I left the Chatham Islands, sailed
across the Pacific Ocean, rounded Cape Horn and on May 9 1983, landed at
Gaspé, Québec, after 28,200 miles and 282 days at sea.