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Sea Tales - The Incredible Escape

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From Crayfish to Iron

2. Buddy System - The Schaafsma Family & SailTrader

In such a sea we had chosen to sail 'buddy system' with SailTrader, a 48 foot boat sailed by South African Rob Schaafsma and crewed as inadequately as mine by two small children, a wife condemned by seasickness and a tall young lady from New Zealand named, honestly, Actually Julie. Because we had a Furuno SatNav (and SailTrader, propitiously, had radar) and since celestial navigation is notoriously unsatisfactory amidst the heat-wayv horizons of the Red Sea, they were using our fixes to get to the Indian Ocean.

As we cleaned up, SailTrader hovered around us like a mother hen unable to do more than cluck some encouragement. SailTrader was to provide a far more important service later when the time came to make our run from the Ethiopians.

We were confronted now with the immediate task of cutting away 14 stainless steel cables of from 8 to 10 mm diameter. On that rolling deck, with our physically weak and small crew, the long bolt cutters which most boats carry, would have been unusable. To hacksaw through the cables, the only other alternative, would have taken two days of exhausting, back-wrenching labor - much more labor than we were capable of.

The actual cleaning up was accomplished chick chock, as the Israelis like to say, only because of our 'secret' weapon, the hydraulic cutter. The Norseman cutter, the only model of its kind on the market, is small and relatively light. It opens to accept cable for which there is no free end and the actual cutting takes about 15 seconds. I later had Bob Schaafsma's eight year old daughter cut through some 10 mm stuff as a test, 15 seconds, no problem.

The stays and shrouds that were still attached to both mast and stub had to be cut away as quickly as possible lest the mast let go and haul the stub down with it. The three of us went to work as a team. The lass held the cable, I pumped the cutter and the other old guy lashed the cut cables to the hanging mast to prevent them from swooping about and doing unnecessary damage. To our incredible surprise, all of the cables were cut away and secured in 30 minutes.

The second half hour of cleaning up was used to secure the hanging mast to the starboard quarter, the hour after was dedicated to clearing any trailing lines that might foul the propeller. During this time we also retrieved, undamaged, our working jib which had fallen into the sea.

The dismasting had occurred as we were reaching southwest under working jib alone. It was pulling us along in 30 to 40 knots of wind at a reasonable five knots when, as we discovered later, the backstay broke clean near the top of the mast. That's what brought the thing down. The previous year I had experienced a broken forestay in the Indian Ocean, which should have been a clear warning that the stainless was aging and needed replacement.

Although the winds that morning were fresh and the seas 10 feet high with only 40 feet from crest to crest the boat had been reaching comfortable, taking the seas gently aft of the beam. The cause of the break was not the weather, but clearly the aging steel. My rig was then 7 years old and should have been replaced at 5. Ocean sailors, take heed. If you are pushing your boat around the world, especially in the tropics, 5 years is plenty.

Thought this recounting may seem bland, it is exactly as it happened. After the initial psychological shock it became clear that some dismasting, perhaps even most, are not disasters and that survival in good and sailable condition should be the expected norm.

Others may argue that we had some very special good fortune, or complain that the dismasting took place in daylight and not at night, or that we did not have our main up which might have complicated matters, or that the mast fell into the water and not on deck and that the 20 foot stub made jury rigging possible. To these claims (that we can now answer from experience) we believe it would not have been difficult to lash the mast and wait for daylight, the main could easily have been cut away and the stub, while convenient was not central to our jury rig. We are also convinced that most broken mast sections, if they are long enough, reach the water before they can hit the deck or hang about deck level if the broken section to fall directly onto the dick would require some remarkable bad luck.

Having cut the cables, secured the hanging mast section and cleared away the trailing lines, we now needed a quiet place in which to jury rig. We turned on the engine and headed for the coast. Here is where we made our first mistake. Our chart showed an anchorage on the Ethiopian coast about 35 miles to the west. Since it was already midmorning we could not reach it before dark, but our buddy SailTrader, had radar and the entrance looked open anyway. So we took off for Ethiopia even though we had been warned that the folks there were (not to make too find a point of it) less than friendly. Our error was in not carefully studying the chart. In our haste to find shelter we missed an anchorage less than 20 miles to the southeast, the direction we were headed anyway. There, on an uninhabited Yemeni island called Jazirat Zuqar, was a nifty little anchorage. We were soon to find that the coast of Ethiopia was inhabited, watched and jealously guarded. Why we ignored the safe and empty haven less than 5 hours to the southeast (which we could have reached in day light), can only be ascribed to carelessness.

Next: Page 3: The Perfect Hills of Ethiopia

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