Surviving the Death of a Dream

Published on April 6th, 2017

Lisa Blair aimed to become the first woman to circumnavigate Antarctica – solo, non-stop and unassisted.

After leaving from Australia on January 22, she and her Open 50 were well on their way to also bettering the outright record of 102:00:56:50 set by Fedor Konyukhov for the 16,400 nm course.

And then her rig fell down.

After 71 days, after clearing every Cape, with only the Indian Ocean to cross, Lisa not only lost her dream but was on the verge of losing her boat. Here she tells the story

Well what a long 48 hours it has been and a heart breaking one as well.

On April the 3rd the day was for me finishing like any other. It was 1:30 in the afternoon and I had completed the blog for the day and eaten a hot meal and went to bed. The conditions were 35-40 knots from the NW with a large messy sea of 7-9 meters. My barometer had finally stopped falling and was at 988 mb.

I was in the peak of this little blow sailing with my storm jib up and the no 3 reef in the main sail. Remember that the third reef for me is smaller than my storm trysail. My boat, Climate Action Now, was handling conditions well and I was not expecting it to get any worse so sleep it was.

I had been in bed for a few hours having light nap and keeping an eye on my instruments. I had recently gotten up to go to the loo, it was still very cold so I jumped back into bed after a quick deck check to warm up. I was laying there half asleep when I heard an almighty bang.

I bolted out of bed and looked out my dome. I could hear the rigging shaking and initially assumed that my running backstay had snapped, however as I looked at the mast through the dome, it resembled a belly dancer jiggling around on the waves and I thought S@#*, as I realised it must have been a piece of rigging wire that snapped. The D1 on the port side had snapped at the swage fitting.

I grabbed my life jacket and was clipping this on as I stormed towards the main companionway hatch to get on deck in a real hurry. Just as I was almost there I heard the worst sound imaginable. The sound of screeching metal screaming loudly as it rips apart.

It was deafening, all the groaning and screeching of the mast as it toppled down, taking my chances of a world record with it. I stood there with my eyes closed as I listened, my whole body was tense as my afternoon went from a pleasant sleep to survival. I didn’t note the time, but it was a dark night outside so it was around 1800-1830 local time.

After the grinding and screeching stopped I just stood there for several more seconds in doubt and disbelief that this has happened. I was only 4 weeks away from the end of my record. So close, however, the need to survive kicked in. I bolted on deck in my thermals and mid layers to take a quick look at the situation.

I have never seen a mast come down before but even still I wasn’t expecting that it would snap clean off at deck level but as I absorbed the picture in front of me that is exactly what happened. The mast had fallen 90 degrees to the boat over the beam of the vessel and a section of the boom and the bottom meter of the mast was still on deck.

As the waves passed underneath me the mast and boom would grind and sea saw back and forwards across the edge of the deck making an almighty racket. It was somewhat trapped there by all the halyards that were still tied to the deck, but they were chafing fast and snapping so I needed to act quickly to save the boat.

I was running off pure adrenalin by this point. I knew that if I didn’t get rid of that mast fast enough the ropes would snap and allow the bottom end of the mast enough freedom to fall off the edge of the deck with a wave and with the next roll pierce the hull of the boat and possibly sink the boat.

This was the situation I was trying so hard to avoid. I ran below and grabbed my ‘demasting kit’. This is a collection of tools that I had already in an easy to reach place that would help me to undo the split pins that hold the joining bar in on the rigging sections.

In my kit, I had a hammer, 2 flat head screw drivers one large, one medium, a pair of multi grips, a wrench and a pair of needle nose pliers. I also knew by this stage that I would be on deck for hours trying to save the boat so I also got into my foul weather clothing even though I was already really soaked, it would be better than nothing.

The closest piece of rigging was the back stay so I set about trying to free the split pins. It was harder than expected because the angles that the rigging had fallen had also put pressure on the joining bolt as it was pulled at odd angles. In the cold and dark with waves breaking over the side of the boat and with the boat pitching and rolling hard I fumbled and cursed as I tried to get a solid grip on the split pin.

After about 5 minutes of wasted effort I ran below and grabbed the bolt cutters and at the same time I made a quick call to Jeff, my Shore Manager. Given that it was about 2:00 am in Australia when I called he probably knew something was up but I am sure he didn’t expect the message I gave him.

“Jeff I have de-masted, the mast is laying at 90 degrees to the boat and the end is still on the deck. I am issuing a Pan Pan and request that you make contact with Marine Rescue Coordination Center in Cape Town. The boat is floating and I am about to try to free the mast. I will keep you updated.”

Understandably, Jeff’s response was something like “Oh no are you okay?” I very quickly said I was fine but needed to hurry and free the mast. As he was talking again I could hear the mast grinding back and forwards again and very hurriedly said “I gotta go, I gotta go.” and hung up.

Now that Jeff was alert he could touch base with the rest of my shore team and my family and keep them informed, but right now I needed to save my boat. I ran back on deck with the bolt cutters in tow.

Back at the back stay I set about trying to cut the wire but it was no good. I would not have a chance of cutting with these bolt cutters. I was only making a dent in the wire with all of my body weight behind it, so I abandoned that plan and went back to Plan A of undoing the split pins.

Now that the initial shock had passed and the panic that you get in a high stress situation like this, I was able to free the split pin after a few minutes and after 10 minutes the backstay was released from the boat. Knowing time was of the essence I then went forward to tackle the inner forestay. The piece of rigging that had my No 3 head sail attached to it on a furler.

I was now on the bow of the boat in these heavy seas and as the boat bucked and rolled the inner forestay would jerk back and forward aggressively. I took note that as soon as I released this I would need to be clear of the stay. Another 30 minutes and the inner forestay was free and as expected jerking around on the deck. I tried to push it over the rails but the extra stiffness of the furler was preventing this, along with the fact that I hadn’t released the jib sheets yet.

I carefully walked back to the cockpit and freed all the sheets, I then walked forward and was able to throw the inner forestay over the railings. The next piece of rigging was the forestay itself but there was a bit of a problem. The split pin was on the very forward section of the stay. If I wanted to stay clear of a jerking and rolling stay with the furler and my jib on it then I would need to climb over the mangled bow rail on to the prodder.

With nothing to hold on to and my feet dangling over the edge, I would need to lock my legs together under the prodder to keep my seat in the swell. I would be unprotected. If I fell in, even tethered on, I would likely not be able to get back on the boat and would need to cut my tether and try swimming in all my layers to the back of the boat. Not a scenario that I would like to have happen.

Understanding that this was really risky but necessary, I decided to go below and give Jeff another call. I was also freezing by this stage and my Beanie was soaked and the water kept getting down my neck so I wanted to add a few layers. I called Jeff and told him what I was about to do and that I have managed to free both the back stay and the inner forestay. Going onto the prodder in these conditions was really dangerous.

I told him that I have my PLB on my life jacket, so if that is triggered you know that I have gone overboard. He acknowledged that all was understood and I bolted back on deck again. The railings were unreliable and the starboard side was a mangled mess from the mast landing on it so I was mostly crawling and bum shuffling around on the deck. I was keeping tethered to anything I could find that would work. My port side jackstay survived so I used that mostly.

So when I finally finished my bum shuffle to the bow I just sat there and stared at the forestay and the prodder. The boat kept getting tossed around and was rolling widely making it hard to even kneel on the deck let alone climb outside the railing on to the slippery prodder and attempt to hold on with my legs to keep my hands free to undo the split pin.

It was madness and I was so not wanting to go out there. I just stared and stared as all the scenarios played out in my mind and none of them had a good ending. As I was kneeling frozen on the bow another rope snapped that was holding the mast above the deck. I was running out of time and I didn’t have a choice. It was go out on that bow and free the rigging or lose the boat. Losing the boat was not an option.

I would consider my chance of survival for a few days in a life raft was slim at best, so I took a few deep breaths and stared some more. Finally, after 20 minutes I started moving, I watched for a gap in the swell and crawled out on the end of the prodder. A few seconds after I sat down we were hit by a large wave and the boat started rolling even harder. My legs were clamped so hard and I was gripping the remaining bit of railing with a death grip as I held on.

My legs were getting dunked in the water as the waves went past, trying to wash me from my perch. I remember looking to the left at the waves and seeing only darkness, but there was the just enough difference in colour for me to just make out the waves. They were well above me, the height of your average tree. Just towering over me and I just kept thinking “Oh crap, Oh Crap, This is so not good, Oh Crap” as a mental motto those words kept repeating in my mind.

Thinking also that the faster I got this done the quicker I got to safety, I sucked in a huge breath and started working at freeing the rigging. Trying to time my work with the gaps in the waves, I started with one hand bending the split pin back to straight and then the hard bit came where needed both hands. So in the troughs of the waves I would let go and hammer hard then re-grip as the boat would roll over the next wave.

In my haste, I did hit my hand almost as often as I hit the screw driver but I was making progress. After about 5 more minutes, I had the split pin out and the forestay free, but it was caught on the railing. The very last thing I would want would be to be sitting up on the prodder and have the only thing that I can hold on to rip off the boat, so I hastily tried to push it clear and with the help of a wave the forestay fell into the dark black sea.

I wasted no time in getting back on to the deck of the boat and it was a few more minutes still, till my white knuckled grip eased.

The only bits of rigging that were left now was the shrouds on the starboard side and the remaining rigging wire on the port side. There were only a few ropes left holding the rigging in place. The problem though was that the shrouds on the starboard side were directly under a pitching rolling stump of twisted metal and I couldn’t get to them.

I decided that I needed to add more ropes to it first as I really didn’t want to lose the boat if the mast went over the side. I also needed to call Jeff again and let him know that I was safely back inside what was left of the rails and that the forestay was now free.

I added a few more bits of rope to the bottom of the mast to give me some time to come up with another plan and called Jeff. In that conversation, I just updated him on how I was going and about my problem of the shrouds. He also asked if the boom was salvageable for a jury rig. I immediately said no, but then once I thought about it there was a slight chance that I could save it.

I still had no options for getting the starboard shrouds free but was thinking along the lines of letting the mast go by releasing the last of the wires and ropes and then hope that the mast would sink or move sideways so it wouldn’t put a hole in the hull while I was freeing the starboard shrouds. It wasn’t a good plan but it was a plan.

When I went back on deck I noticed that the boom had snapped free of the mast at the goose neck so the only thing holding it to the mast was the lazy jacks and the main sail. So I figured that I would be able to retrieve this and set about adding some lashing lines to the boom to make sure it would not fall off the deck.

Half of the boom was on the deck but the other half was in the water on a 45-degree angle to the boat. I needed to be able to reach the back of the boom to cut the sail free so I tied a rope to the boom and started winching it to the boat. When I cut the back of the main sail free I also realised that I could reach the topping lift.

The topping lift rope goes to the top of the mast, so I had the brain wave of winching the top of the mast towards the boat to force the bottom section away from the hull. The mast had snapped in half just above the top spreader so it was not that effective, but I hoped that once the bottom of the mast was free of its restraints that it would be enough.

To do this game plan I also wanted to minimize the damage to the side of the boat as the mast went over, so I grabbed a thick towel and tied this around the stump to help protect the boat and myself from the twisted metal that was there. While I was doing this, I noticed that the mast had shifted forward enough for me to just get access to the shrouds on the starboard side. Phew! There wasn’t any need for my risky plan then.

I also wanted to keep the mast to tow behind the boat for the night until I could decide what to do with it. This would have the added benefit of acting like a drogue in the rough conditions, so I added my thickest rope around the mast base as well and tethered the other end to the drogue attachment point at the back of the boat. I started to think of the final game plan and in what sequence I needed to release everything to ensure that I could free the mast safely.

I had two shrouds on the starboard side still holding the mast there and only one on the port side left after the other one snapped, so I ended up releasing the inboard shroud on the starboard side first and also flattened the split pin on the outboard shroud on starboard and pulled it almost the whole way out so I would just have one big knock and the rigging would be free. I then released the remaining port shroud.

The only things left holding the mast in place was the one starboard shroud and a collection of stripped and chafed halyards. I cut away all the ropes except for the two strongest and then released the last shroud and quick as I could cut the last two ropes. They cut easy as they were under tension and within seconds the mast slipped away and all I could see was my blue rope pulling straight down as the mast sunk.

I raced to the back of the boat and put out the rest of the line. The boat wasn’t happy with this arrangement. As I rolled in the swell the rope would creak loudly as it was under tension but then seemed to settle in. As the boat was now free, the rigging was no longer acting as a drogue and holding me in the swell, so I also got the helm centered and lashed it in place.

It was still very cold. I was now soaked to the skin and had started shivering, so I got below as quick as I could. Once there I needed to call everyone and let them know I was okay and the boat for now was safe. As it was midnight by now I didn’t want to do anything else until the morning, when I could see everything. I was quite aware that I might go into a mild level of shock and that I really needed to get dry.

I called Jeff, and said that the boat was free and I will speak to him in a few hours when it’s light outside. I then tried mum but couldn’t get her, so I called Tracey from Twentieth Letter Marketing and Communications to give her an update so she could share it with everyone for me.

The moment I heard her voice my eyes started watering and I struggled to keep my voice straight as the reality set in. I had just lost my mast and my record is now over, but I have survived the night. After a few minutes I calmed down enough to talk a bit.

I then needed to call mum and as you would expect I got really emotional again, but also while I was talking to her I had started to shiver very hard and my teeth were chatting and my skin was turning a bluish tinge. I needed to get warm. So after a brief chat, I stripped all my clothes off and put all fresh base-layers, thermals, fleece vest and mid-layers on, while at the same time I boiled the kettle for my hot water bottle. I also needed to get some fuel into my system so I had a protein shake and some mini bounty bars to keep me going. Once dry I crawled into bed and snuggled as deep as I could in my sleeping bag and had a good cry.

It was more than 30 minutes later by the time the shaking had subsided and I fell into a light fitful sleep for 2 hours. Dozing on and off I got up 3 hours later to touch base with my shore crew. While I wasn’t rested, I was warm again. I was feeling a bit better than last night I spent a good few hours on the phone giving a more detailed description of the night before.

At first light I went on deck to assess the damage. My starboard railing was ripped in sections and there was a hole approximately 15cm x 15cm on the outside of the deck that went right through to the sail locker from where the mast had been sea sawing back and forth. The two breather tops were broken into the ballast tanks and that would also need plugging. Oh, and also the big hole in the middle of the boat where the mast use to stand. The boom was still there but it was half off the boat and blocking my access to the hole in the deck,so I would need to get this back on deck.

I decided that today was also going to be a long day, so I went and made a bowl of porridge and then set to work. It took me 3 hours to get that boom on the deck but finally it was lashed down and secured. It also had the added benefit of giving me something to hold on to as I worked on the repairs. I stuffed rags in the breathers and sealed them over and then started working on the larger hole on the deck.

This was half on the deck and half on the hull as it was right on the corner. I stuffed a towel into the hold packing it as tight as I could and then using sika flex I glued a doubled over section off one of my really strong dry bags over the top and then screwed this into the hull using washers to spread the load.

I then used one of my storm boards to seal up the hole left from the mast and set about clearing all the ropes and debris from the deck. I started on deck at 7.30am and it was now 5pm so I was really starting to get tired, but there was one last thing that I needed to do and that was test the engine and start motoring.

When I went to turn it on it was a no go, but after a further 30 minutes on the phone to my friend Chris from SLR in Albany we got her running and purring like a kitten. It was a corroded throttle cable causing issues but she is now running great. Once I knew I had a working engine I went to pull in the mast and cut it loose. This is not ideal for me, however, there was no other option given how far away from land I was, so it was a surprise to find that it had sent itself to a watery grave sometime in the night, as the rope I pulled in had nothing on the other end.

Once the boat was cruising I did a quick clean up down below, as I had ripped stuff out of lockers all over the boat throughout the night. I had a hot meal and fell blissfully into bed and didn’t wake for 7 hours. I feel a lot better for the sleep but my lingering cough that I had before this all happened had noticeably worsened from all the exposure, so I called MedAire and ended up getting prescribed some antibiotics to help.

So now I am on the mend, I’ve made temporary repairs to the boat and am focused on getting to Cape Town. I am not carrying enough fuel to motor the whole way. A ship has been diverted to assist me and will be dropping off some fuel late tomorrow. I also plan on building a jury rig to help make the passage easier. It will still take me just over a week until I make landfall so there is plenty of time to come to terms with my loss.

While I am gutted and so disappointed this happened I am also strengthened by how I handled myself in that crises, so it is with a positive spirit that I make my way to land. My mind is already filling up with sailing adventures that I wish to have.

Finally, I just want to say thank you to everyone for your amazing support and comments. While I don’t have access to Facebook, or my website I have been relayed the outstanding support that I am receiving both in Australia and around the world, so thank you and I will keep you all updated as I make my way to land and set about repairs.


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