“Boom, we are dismasting! In fact, no.” Story of an extreme rescue

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The detailed account of how navigator and sailing coach Luca Sabiu foiled the dismasting of his Class 40 “Flow” during the Uisp Formative Tour of Italy 2023. A useful lesson in seamanship for all those who practice the high seas.

De-sailing for a sailboat is like a bird losing its wings: you get planted, you plummet, and you can get very hurt. In short, it’s a disaster. Those who are unfortunate enough to experience this on board generally describe it as an absolutely terrifying moment: an explosion-like noise, sails encroaching on the deck and covering the view, a shapeless tangle of metal cables, and the sharp-edged mast trunk that with the boat’s oscillations is like a killer ready to do more damage. This is the quietest scenario. That is, when no crew members were injured under the pounds of metal and carbon plunging down. Otherwise it is just hell.

Displacement is fortunately a rare emergency. Yet in the last few weeks alone it has affected as many as two crews competing in The Ocean Race around the world. The first incident happened on April 26 aboard the Imoca 60 Holcim PRB under the command of Kevin Escoffier, which dismasted off Brazil while leading the fleet. A sudden structural failure, the team speculates, occurred in weather conditions that were not even too challenging. There is video footage of the whole scene at night, and it is impressive for two reasons: the speed with which everything happens and the coolness and perfect self-control with which the entire crew reacts to the emergency. No one was hurt, just great damage and continuation of the world tour in maybe.

Disembarkation is a physical and mental wound

The other dismasting happened to the crew of Guyot Environnement – Team Europe under the command of Robert Stanjek while sailing in the North Atlantic, just over 600 miles east of Newport, Rhode Island. Again at night, but this time in more difficult conditions, with gale force winds exceeding 30 knots. Again fortunately no injuries, but great shock and low morale. Because dismasting is like that for a sailor, a big wound that digs into you.

It has to be said that on modern Imoca 60s, there are numerous load sensors, on the foils and on the mast, precisely to prevent such accidents, which in theory should be increasingly rare. But, indeed, only in theory. On all other boats, however, there is only rigorous rigging maintenance to reduce the risks of dismasting. And the ability to respond in the face of sudden failure. Navigator and sailing coach Luca Sabiu, who suffered the same breakdown during the Uisp 2023 Giro d’Italia Formativo aboard his Class 40 “Flow,” knows this well.

Only Luke’s timely intervention, his extensive sailing experience, and the right respect accessories prevented the worst. What follows is a detailed account of the accident, which occurred last May 4 off the coast of the Marche region, in which Luke goes through the entire sequence of maneuvers and operations put in place that prevented a disaster.

“I looked up and the headsail was gone!”

At night we scaled the Gargano really fast, powerful boat on the waves, a hand to the mainsail to lighten the pilot and away like light always around 10/11 knots of SOG. We were supposed to gain east toward Croatia, so at the wind shift we would turn and straight cannon down toward Ancona. At 8:55 a.m. in a “Breton-style” rain on board, a bang was heard, a real explosion. I was the only one out in the cockpit under the dome. I immediately thought of a collision with a floating object. I turned aft to see what would come out downwind, but there was absolutely nothing. Then I turned my head and was presented with a scenario that was hard to forget: our headsail including forestay and staysail had disappeared. In summary, we were about to undergo a dismasting.

Those who sail with me know how much I insist on working on immediate emergency maneuvers. I repeat it to the point of exhaustion: “in the moment of emergency, tiller to the brim.” I call them “cue maneuvers,” and they are those maneuvers, which are precisely the initial input that open the procedure. From then on you can then conclude the maneuver you need, stop the boat, do a quick stop, etc. It is like a formula: little tiller, lots of time to make other adjustments; vice versa, lots of tiller, little time.

One must react within seconds

These days many trainees have asked me how I decided to go definitely to the lean and not to the heave to avoid dismasting. And the answer is that on these boats you have to maintain lucidity and analytical skills with very tight time frames. We have to have in our heads so many files on how to solve situations, but even before that we have to try to make an immediate lucid analysis, because the wrong maneuver could cost us very dearly indeed. This time, however, the maneuver to be done was exactly the opposite of the canonical one, and it had to be done immediately, without hesitation.

One of the important actions to take when cold, or at least that I do when an unexpected event happens, perhaps one that has never happened before, is to analyze the event that happened, the factors and causes, and proceed to a timely analysis of how it was handled. This is also part of my work.

How do you break a 15 mm steel plate?

At first glance, hot on the heels, I believed that the denouement of our accident at the forestay heath had surely been dictated by luck. But then, analyzing it well, there are too many nuances that have only a small part to do with luck. Such a brutal rupture cannot be predicted. The plate in question is a component made by the manufacturer site, namely Pogo Structures. We are talking about a 15 mm plate that showed no particular signs to suggest a possible breakage. Also because when in doubt we would have replaced it without thinking about it, just as we did with the rigging only 6 months ago. With the rigger, we picked up that piece a thousand times and it showed no signs of failing.

That said, a possible disembarkation we have to consider it a “condition,” an external fact about which we cannot do anything; it has happened. At the moment when the forestay and whipstock are flying through the air mad, what we need to work on instead is emergency management, and we unfortunately have very few seconds.

boat dismasting

That’s why after the “bang” we rested

The student at the helm later confessed to me that at my peremptory command to lean he carried it out without flinching, even though he did not agree with the maneuver. He would definitely hemmed and hawed. This in any case stems from the fact that I have accustomed my students to implement the cueing maneuver in case of a problem with tiller at heave. In this case, however, such a maneuver would have spelled the end of the tree. And perhaps it would also have provided trauma and bruising to the crew with 20 meters of carbon on their heads. By resting instead we discharged the pressure toward the bow and thus gave load to the steering wheels. The blender subsequently more or less re-entered the boat. So I asked the helmsman to stay aft and not move from there, so I was able to retrieve it.

We now come to a piece of respect that has proved decisive in this emergency. Strangler. I am manic and methodological, almost paranoid about where to put endowments and equipment I realize. But it just so happens that when some mess happens I have what I need right where I expect it to be. A few years ago while sailing in the Gulf of Lion for the Caprera Sailing Center, a tall, new and newly installed steering wheel had slipped off. We found it on the deck, but nothing that serious. We hoisted the foresail, low flyers, and arrived smoothly at our destination.

dismasting Luca Sabiu
Luca Sabiu

That strop in Spectra that saved us.

Since that day, however, I have been preparing an 8-mm Spectra strop already plumbed on one side, so that I can make a wolf’s mouth in 3 seconds and be able to parachute in. I always keep it at rest at the stern, and this strop really made a difference: 10 seconds after the bang, I was at the bow holding exactly what was needed. This is not luck, but years of planning and work. At that point with the help of the strop I was able to restore some tension to the forestay. And I was able to rewind the sail that without tension would never have been wound.

For clarity, my French forestay system is without a halyard, so the sail cannot be furled, it can only be furled, since it is tied at the head and tack point. After tying off and restoring tension to the forestay, I put two spinnaker halyards in force on the bowsprit attachment and by cocking them to death the mast was practically secure. In addition, I had already put the movable forestay of the foresail in force. The dismasting was foiled.

One of the skills I work on with students is the two-circle skill. Imagine two equal circles with a space between them. The first circle represents the event or failure, the second circle is the emergency. In the space between the two circles are us with our skills, our choices, our work, and the more ready and prepared we are, the more we will keep these two circles apart. This is exactly what happened to us.

dismasting rescue

PAN PAN launch and use of satellite phone.

The next step was to lower the mainsail as well to avoid additional loads. At that point it was time to launch PAN PAN. I did, repeating it a couple of times, but we were too far from the coast. “They will never hear us,” I told the students, “maybe some Croatian boats. And in fact, we received no response. Little matter, we have a satellite messaging system and a satellite phone on board. I called my shore team explaining what had happened and asked them to launch the PAN PAN for us. However, I made sure to send a satellite message with our position, heading, speed, type of failure, so as to reduce the risk of possible misunderstanding and relieve them of any possible responsibility.

The satellite phone is a most useful tool. There is often confusion with PLB, and many students ask me which one to buy between the two. They are two totally different but complementary tools, and one does not exclude the other. I use the satellite often. I happened to handle a medical emergency of a guy with chest pains who only needed to talk to my doctor on the floor to understand that it was not a heart attack. Or to call the rigger for a consultation on the tension of a diagonal I wasn’t sure about. Then daily at 7 p.m. I also do a “check position” and have a word with my wife.

dismasting

Every action is reasoned: in emergencies you don’t improvise

The students asked me why the PAN PAN, since we were now safe and the tree was still standing. The reason is simple: we were 44 miles from the coast, with no ability to give sail except very little and enough fuel to cover twice the distance between us and the coast. However, with the forecast of an approaching gale, then punctually arriving in the evening when we were now in port, if for some reason the engine had abandoned us, we would have taken it in stride.

With the PAN PAN sent, the Coast Guard tracked our position via onboard AIS until we landed and I cancelled it on the phone. Another reason for launching it is because if my tether had not held and we had disalberated, at that point we would have said goodbye to the AIS antenna. Throwing a PAN PAN does not mean shouting “help, help.” But communicate that you have a problem of a certain magnitude and are trying to solve it.

A valuable safety lesson for sailors

As for conservative sailing to redoubt, with that forecast coming in I chose to motor sail upwind of the course, since in the event of an engine failure with the small tormentor we certainly would not have been able to sail upwind. After more than 10 hours we arrived in port, by now with almost 25 knots of real, but our shore team had already arranged the berth and was waiting for us. In the next few hours despite having delivered our rigging drawings, Pogo Shipyard informed us that they had no piece available in stock. So with one of our technicians and surveyor we are in the process of making the new part.

Dealing with such an emergency, such as a possible disembarkation, and analyzing it in detail as in this article is of course of great value to the protagonists. But also for those who share it. You still take home an experience that happened to someone else and treasure the information you received. I hope I have left with this account food for thought and growth for all who sail and love the sea, risks and unknowns included.

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