It’s Friday morning four days after our start in the Pacific Cup race and I’m sitting at home. The past four days have not been anything like we had planned.
The wind for the start at 10:00 Monday morning off the St Francis Yacht club was stronger than we had expected. so we used our smaller #3 jib expecting the wind to build, it didn’t. In fact, once we passed under the golden gate bridge the wind began to die. Redhead, another Cal 40 like ours and our main competition, had started with their bigger #1 jib and they were sailing faster than us. We changed sails and began catching them as we headed 25 miles toward the Farallon Islands. Our goal was to get into the stronger synoptic wind past the Farallon’s before nightfall, and we did.
Just past the golden gate we must have passed about a dozen humpback whales which we took as a good sign. Just off Point Bonita I was sitting on the deck and about 5 yards ahead of me I heard the “swoosh” of breath and spray of two humpback whales coming up right next to us. Their strong gray backs and small dorsal fins arching in the water next to us was a beautiful sight to see. Then their huge graceful tails guiding them down to depths below us as if they were waving good-bye.
I went down below deck and rested for a few hours before my first watch from 1000 – 1200. Below decks the cabin was organized to us, but would have looked cramped and chaotic to any sane person. We had our nine sails arraigned on the portside of the cabin floor with our gear bags and foul weather gear thrown on top of them.
By the time I woke for my first watch the wind was up to 20kts and building, we were in the synoptic wind before sundown that we had hoped for. For the next hour it increased to 25kts and we decided it was time to put a reef into the mainsail. A reef is when you lower the sail about 3 feet down the mast and tie the part you lowered onto the boom. This has the effect of decreasing the sail area and giving you more control over the boat.
By the time I went off watch at 1200 we were sailing along at 8-10kts with winds 25-28kts and the seas were 8-10 feet crashing over our bow. Every few minutes a huge wave would come crashing against the side of the boat and gallons of cold (53 degree) seawater would come pouring over us, drenching anyone on deck.
Our watches consisted of two of us taking turns at the helm for an hour each. I shared my watch with Steve Calhoun and Bill Wright. When I came up on deck I relieved Steve who went off watch to bed, then Bill came up and sat with me as I steered for an hour. When my 2-hour watch was over I went down below and woke Jim up to stay with Bill as he drove.
My next watch was at 0100 the next morning. As I got out of my warm bunk I could tell it was still blowing strong outside. With the boat pitching and rolling 45 degrees in the dark it seemed like it took forever to find and put my wet foul weather gear and boots on; including my PFD (life vest) with the harness used to clip into the boat whenever we were on deck.
On watch Steve was driving as I took a tour around the deck to make sure things looked as they should. The wind had dropped down a little, to about 20kts, so we determined it would be a good idea to take the reef out of the main. We got Jim and Scott up and on deck to raise the sail back up to its full height. Our speed stayed the same and we were still under control so we felt we made the right decision.
By this time the wind had clocked around and was coming off our weather rail at about 60 degrees. This meant that we had the boom out about 5 feet over the side of the boat as we trimmed the sails for maximum speed. The seas were still very rough and wet, cold water was still spraying us as we hunkered down in the cockpit. As I drove from 0200 to 0300 I couldn’t help think of the fireworks I saw the weekend before during the 4th of July. The spray off the bow was illumined by the red and green running lights of our ship made them look like our private firework show along with the sound of the crashing hull against the waves.
There were high clouds during my watch which kept the stars and moon hidden from view. This meant that the only light was from our running lights. As I looked into the darkness I could see only the white crests of the waves as they rolled and growled beneath us. The only sound we heard was that of the wind howling in the rigging and the sound the sails as they strain to pull us forward.
At 0300 my watch was over and I went down below to wake up Jim who was to relive me. As I put my head in the cabin to wake him I hear an unusual noise, a clanging and rattling that I hadn’t heard before. I asked Jim about it and he said he heard it too. We agreed that when Jim went up on watch that he’d look around the deck to see if something was loose.
Jim got his foulies on as I was taking mine off and crawling into the warm bunk he was vacating. Bill was steering now and I hear Jim walking around above me checking things out. Then all of a sudden I heard him scream in a panic I had never heard before.
“ALL HANDS ON DECK, WE’RE LOSING THE MAST!”
Steve, Scott and I scrambled to put our foul weather gear, boots and life jackets on as quickly as possible then rushing outside in the rolling seas and howling wind. By the time we were on deck Jim had used a spare line to lash the base of the mast in place, which was sitting on the cabin top two inched next to where it was supposed to be, hopefully to prevent it from sliding any further and falling into the water.
As Bill kept the boat on a steady course the rest of us struggled to take down the two sails and get them below deck. We then went about lashing the mast and boom into place to try to make it as secure as possible in these rolling seas.
Once we had things tied down we checked to make sure there were no lines in the water before we started the engine. The last thing we wanted to do was to have a loose line wrap itself around the prop and disabling our only means of propulsion.
We checked our position on the chart and determined we were about 140 miles west of Monterey Bay where they would have a boatyard suitable to help us. We plotted a course and with our engine running at a steady 5kts headed toward land.
Once we felt we had our emergency under control we called the Coast Guard to let them know of our situation.
Steve: “Pan-pan, Pan-pan, United States Coast Guard this is the vessel Psyche. Our position is 36.31 North, 124.40 West. We have five crew onboard, all safe. We have lost our mast but have it secured to our vessel. We are on a heading 65 degrees for Monterey California and wanted to make you aware of our situation. Do you copy, over?” “This is United States Coast Guard San Francisco Station we copy you Psyche. We will monitor your progress and we ask that you put your lifeboat on deck ready for deployment in case you need to abandon ship. We also ask that you check in with us every hour to keep us informed of your situation”. “Copy that Coast Guard, Psyche out.”
We also made a call to the Pacific Cup race committee informing them that we were withdrawing from the race and we called our wives to let them hear directly from us of our situation and that we were safe and abandoning the race.
Thirty hours later we pulled up to the dock at the Monterey Boat works and went about the process to have the mast pulled off the boat. We consider ourselves very fortunate that during the day and a half we had to motor Psyche to safety that we were able to keep the rig onboard. We had two fears after the initial accident, one was that the rig would be knocked over in a huge wave causing more damage to Psyche or to one of us. The other was that we would run out of fuel before we made it to a safe harbor. As it turned out we had about seven gallons of diesel left over.
As I look back over the events of the past few days I realize how fortunate we were. If the mast was going to fail, at least it did so in a place that we could safely make it back to port. Looking at the weather forecast for the rest of the race it could have been dire if we had dis-masted in front of one of the hurricanes that are heading toward Hawaii.
We felt we would have done very well in this race. As of this morning Redhead is leading our class and is in 4th overall. They heard of our situation and relayed how disappointed they were that they didn’t have us out there to race against.
There is a saying that life has a way of happening when you make other plans. Perhaps we lost our mast where and when we did in order to save our boat and perhaps our lives. We’ll never know but at least we’ll be here to race another day.