At crack of mast, EF Education went to work With boat dead in water, crew stayed methodical

March 06, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SAO SEBASTIAO, Brazil -- At dawn on her 17th day in the Southern Ocean heading for Cape Horn, Anna Drougge, cold and wet, was sitting on the windward rail of Whitbread racing yacht EF Education, looking over the gray waves and thinking of breakfast at the end of her watch in an hour.

Below decks, Marleen Cleyndert, lying in her bunk in her thermal underwear, was trying to stay warm and sleep as the 60-foot boat headed into the wind, banging into wave after shuddering wave.

The boat was doing a comfortable 11 knots. For the all-female crew of EF Education, it seemed to be just another day in the nine-month, 31,600-nautical-mile Whitbread Round the World Race.

Suddenly, there was a crack. Drougge looked up. Cleyndert jumped out of bed. Both instinctively knew what had happened. The 85-foot-tall mast had broken.

It broke at the first spreader -- one of four horizontal bars that hold the rigging that runs from the deck to the top of the mast -- and crashed into the sea, opposite to where Drougge was sitting.

"You hear the crack," Drougge said. "It's coming from the mast. You look up, and you see the whole rig is falling down. It always falls on the leeward side. The risk of being hit by the mast when it falls is quite small."

She called out: "Broken rig! Come up on deck!"

Already, Cleyndert, knowing she was in for a long spell of hard work in the cold, was struggling into her yellow survival suit.

"There are a lot of things going through your mind," she said. "But then you're pretty quick picking up the pace again. For me, there was no fear at any stage. Fearers don't make it to the race start."

On deck, she found Drougge and her two watch partners, Leah && Newbold and Marie-Claude Kieffer, struggling to prevent the 1,000-pound mast section, dangling from its twisted, stainless steel-rigging, from banging against the hull and possibly putting a hole in it.

"I don't think anyone really got scared or frightened when we lost the rig," Drougge said. " There's not much you can do. You're not going to disappear out there. Our lives weren't in danger just because we lost the mast."

Added Cleyndert: "It doesn't threaten your life. It just makes your journey a bit longer. It's like breaking a sail, except you have

many sails and only one mast."

The first priority was to get control of the wallowing mast. They didn't want to cut it free because it might be useful in making a jury, or emergency, rig, and its stays and fittings were valuable.

"That would be the last thing you would do," Cleyndert said. "If you can, you always want to get it back on board."

Finally, they got lines around it, and, with a jockey pole, used for flying a spinnaker in certain wind conditions, they levered it aboard, tying the lines off each time they inched it toward the deck.

"That piece was quite heavy," said Cleyndert, the boat's rigger, noting that a full Whitbread-60 mast weighs more than 1,700 pounds. "We just put the pole in, levered it out, tied the ropes, put it in, levered it out, tied the ropes."

Securing the mast was eased because when it fell it stripped life-line stanchions along the starboard side of the boat, clearing the path to the deck.

Skipper Christine Guillou went to the navigation station, the electronics and communications heart of the boat, to inform Whitbread race headquarters, the boat's shore crew and the Swedish sponsors. They would have to decide where the boat should put into land for a new mast, which would have to be flown to the chosen port. "There were quite a few options," Cleyndert said. "The shore crew had to figure out which one was best."

Once the mast was secured, the crew set about making a jury rig, cutting storm sails so that they could form small fore and main sails and attach them to the 23 feet of mast that was still standing. While they did this, the boat had no headway. Breakers kept washing over the marooned yacht.

"They would crash into the cockpit," Cleyndert said. "You're harnessed in so you're not going to be washed overboard. It's just very annoying."

With the sails rigged, the boat started sailing again, at 4 knots.

"Everyone knows what we have to do," Drougge said. "We have to take the boat in one piece, with what's left of the mast, to Cape Horn and just get into port and fix it. That's what everyone was talking about on the boat -- the things that need to be done."

The decision was made to put into Ushuaia, Argentina, for a new mast. The crew already was planning to stop there for repairs because, nine days before the mast broke, the D-2 diagonal, a stainless-steel rod running from the end of the first spreader to the mast-end of the second, had snapped.

The cause of the breakage is not known, but the parts have been sent to the maker for analysis.

"It's a technical fault," said Cleyndert, who flew here from Ushuaia to prepare new running rigging for EF Education. "We can't really tell what was wrong," said Drougge, here to ready new sails.

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