Dismasting is one of the worst emergencies that can happen to a sailboat, and if the mast is not managed very quickly the boat may sink as a result. It's essential for owners of cruising sailboats of any size to be prepared for a possible dismasting and to have the right equipment and knowledge to act immediately.
Why It's Important to Be Prepared
Dismasting can occur at any time due to a rigging failure or extreme conditions. It doesn't require a storm - a structural weakness in an unseen connection at the masthead or inside a turnbuckle can lead to sudden failure.
Dismasting can rapidly threaten the boat because inevitably at least part of the mast is in the water still connected to the boat by standing and running rigging. Wave action and the boat's motion cause the mast to bang against the hull, and a fiberglass hull cannot take blows from possibly sharp metal for very long before being holed. At this point the emergency becomes life threatening.
All experienced sailors know they should have equipment on board to cut the mast free as quickly as possible. The question is what is the right equipment for your sailboat (and your budget)?
Usually only a sharp sailor's knife is needed to cut halyards and other lines between the boat and the mast - it's the stays and shrouds made of steel wire or rod that require special equipment. The typical equipment options are hacksaws, bolt cutters, and pin removal gear. Each has advantages and disadvantages to consider.
Hacksaw. A lot of coastal sailors with small to medium sailboats feel comfortable having just a hacksaw on board, though this is seldom the best choice. Consider:
- A hacksaw is certainly the cheapest emergency de-rigging device, but don't let price be your only consideration.
- Sawing is much slower than other methods, with greater risk for hull damage when time is of the essence.
- It is impossible to saw through rod rigging, and very difficult to saw steel wire unless it is held still and tensioned, which is almost impossible for one person to do on a pitching deck while also trying to hold on. If you really feel confident in your hacksaw, try cutting a loose piece of wire of the same diameter at home, without securing both ends with a vice or other gear, and see how difficult it can be.
- If you do depend on a hacksaw, use a tungsten carbide blade and have spares.
Bolt cutters. Manual cutters are the traditional first choice for cutting wire (not rod) rigging. They cost more than a hacksaw (good large ones upwards of $200) but will work on rigging that is either slack or under tension from the mast. Consider:
- Get cutters larger than what you think you can get by with. The manufacturer may promise one size cuts up to 3/8 wire, for example, but 3/8 stainless steel marine rigging wire may be much stronger than what the manufacturer tested.
- Try them out on wire as large as your rigging to be sure you can trust them in an emergency.
- Add a lanyard you can slip around your wrist - it's easy to drop them overboard when you're working on a pitching deck.
- Hydraulic bolt cutters do a great job fast but cost upwards of $1200; unlike regular bold cutters, they work on rod rigging.
- At about $600, a powered bolt cutter like the Toolova Shootit (literally uses a form of ammunition to shoot through the wire or rod) is used by many professional racers - but consider the extent of your trust in complicated technology to work always when needed.
Pin removal. On most boats the turnbuckles at the bottom of shrouds and stays are connected to chainplate fittings with a clevis pin kept in place with a cotter pin or ring. Some sailors choose to release the rigging by removing the pin rather than sawing or cutting the rigging. The biggest issue is that clevis pins are very difficult to remove when under significant tension, and the process can be almost unmanageable on a pitching deck. Consider:
- Your de-rigging kit should include strong pliers for quick removal of the cotter pin or ring. (Many riggers recommend not opening the ends of cotter pins more than 20 degrees so that they can be removed more easily.)
- Use a mallet or hammer along with a center punch or similar tool to pound the pin back out through its hole. Don't trust a screwdriver for this, and make sure your chosen tool is small enough in diameter to follow the pin through the hole, because otherwise it may jam halfway.
- Since clevis pins are easily and quickly removed when not under tension, first release the shrouds and stays that are loose, saving the one(s) under tension for last. (Unless, of course, the end of the mast in its current position is already threatening to hole the hull.)
- Be aware that if the turnbuckle is bent or heavily torqued to one side, the pin may have so much pressure on it that it won't come out. Have at least a good hacksaw handy just in case.
Plan the Process
Ultimately the choice of equipment is your own, based on your boat's particulars, your cruising realities, and your budget and preferences. I myself like the pin-removal method, since my boat has rod rigging and I can't yet afford expensive hydraulic cutters; I've also read several stories of dismastings of similarly rigged boats where the pins were removed successfully. If I had wire rigging of medium or less diameter, I'd probably invest a couple hundred on some big bolt cutters. But these are just my own preferences - sailors continue to debate the pros and cons of all these methods.
Equally crucial, keep the tools accessible! The boat could sink before you search through to the bottom of every deep locker. When voyaging, make sure at least one other crew knows the location and use of your tools. It's a good idea to keep these tools near other emergency gear such as a TruPlug for quickly stopping a leak and your ditch bag.
Except in very calm conditions, don't bother trying to save the broken mast. It is almost impossible to pull back on board, and it presents too much deep drag to tow back to land.
Even when the mast is free, there will be lots of wire and lines in the water. Be sure to check all around the boat before starting the engine to avoid fouling the prop.