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Old 09-28-2003
John Kretschmer John Kretschmer is offline
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Avoiding and Surviving Rig Failures


The best cure for rig failure is prevention because  it only takes one fitting, clevis pin, or tired shroud to send the rig over the side.
I have had my share of mishaps at sea, some caused by poor judgment and some by sheer bad luck, but one fate I haven't suffered yet is the loss of a spar. I used the word ‘yet' in the previous sentence by design. Although losing the mast is incredibly rare these days, I never underestimate the capricious whims of Neptune or his spirited sense of irony. The crumpling of an otherwise perfectly good aluminum or carbon fiber section is just one bad swage fitting or one dose of bad karma away.

I remember interviewing Swedish sailor, Anna Drougge during the Ft. Lauderdale stopover in the last Whitbread Race (now called the Volvo Ocean Race). Drougge was a crew member on EF Education, the all-womean team that lost their mast in the Southern Ocean, 1,000 miles from the nearest landfall, which just happened to be Cape Horn.

"You can't help but think, this isn't fair," she told me. "Why us, why did we lose our mast? Was it just bad luck or was it our seamanship?" For the crew of EF Education it was a combination of the two. The women were very much in the hunt at that point and were pushing the boat hard, maybe too hard. Suddenly a terminal on one of the diagonal stays gave way. "Just like that we were out of the race, all the training, all the hopes, gone."


This rig failure meant not only the demise of the mast but a sad state of affairs down below after the mast jumped its step and punctured the deck.
Of course few of us sail with the intensity of an around-the-world race crew. Instead, good seamanship dictates that prudence win out over speed and recklessness. Seamanship also dictates periodic inspections of the standing rigging that will alert you to most impending problems. One of the few rituals I maintain when at sea is my morning inspection of the rig. I spend a few moments making my way around the deck, inspecting the chainplates, toggles, turnbuckles, terminals and wire everywhere I can reach. This sounds more thorough and time-consuming than it is. My inspection is quick, I make sure the cotter pins are in place, an obvious crack hasn't developed in a swage or toggle, a turnbuckle isn't bent, or a wire doesn't have meathooks (broken strands).

Usually my rounds are constrained to the deck-level fittings, I have to be in a particularly spry mood or unnaturally worried to go up the spar for a look-see. In practice, most failures occur at the lower fittings anyway because they are subjected to regular dousings. If a rigging failure problem turns up, I don't tarry, I correct it right away. Once, on a delivery to Japan, both running backstays developed cracks in their Nicro Press fittings and, although the runners weren't critical, I replaced the fittings promptly. Even if you do lose a stay or shroud without warning, with some advance planning, quick action, and a good supply of spares, you should be able to keep the stick in the vertical position.

"It is easy to preach that you should never head to sea with a questionable standing rig, but we all do, at some point or another. "
Most rigging failures are a result of fatigued metal, usually a fitting and rarely the wire or rod. It is easy to preach that you should never head to sea with a questionable standing rig, but we all do, at some point or another. Rigs wear out quietly, fatigue can be hard to spot, especially on fittings aloft. Sometimes we sail older boats where the rig looks fine but is really suspect, and sometimes we just try to stretch another year or two out of our old rigs. There are a number of reasons why we might have a rigging failure; however, there is no excuse for not having a plan on how to deal with it and the spare parts to affect a jury rig.

A standing rigging emergency kit should include some or all of the following items: Bulldog (cable) clamps, thimbles, shackles with pin sizes that match chainplate and terminal eyes, a spare turnbuckle, clevis pins, cotter pins, a mast tang and mounting hardware (usually a long bolt and lock nut), light dacron line for immediate repairs, a hacksaw and spare blades, and, if you can afford it, quality wire cutters. If you have room aboard and the budget to manage this, it really makes sense to carry one spare upper and lower, each set up with terminal ends and all of it ready to deploy. If you do this, one way to keep the cost down is to buy galvanized shackles and turnbuckles. If you're forced to jury-rig something, you really won't care what it looks like, and galvanized fittings are strong, flexible, and cost a lot less than stainless-steel fittings.

Naturally, if your boat is rigged with mechanical terminals like StayLok or Norseman, then you should carry at least one spare for each size terminal you have aboard. After all, being able to replace these fittings in situ is their key advantage. You should however, practice assembling a mechanical fitting on the dock, even if it's just a small terminal for the lifeline ends. The deck of a pitching boat during an emergency is no time to be carefully reading the instructions.


A little time inspecting fittings aloft will pay big dividends down the road. 
Two or three bulldog clamps and a thimble can make a strong and fast eye on the end of any piece of wire. I recommend this approach over trying to use an oval swage sleeve and a small swager. With an oval swage sleeve you really need a cleanly cut wire end and that can be difficult to achieve in an emergency. When you need a fast way to secure the new wire end to a chainplate or shackle, use line. Take many turns of small diameter line, which not only tensions the wire as you pull it through each time but it is also surprisingly strong. By using small line, you can often rig a more permanent repair with hardware while leaving the line in place and cutting it away afterward.

Speaking of cutting, cutting wire to fashion a repair can be maddening—stainless wire rope is tough stuff. The truth is, unless you're prepared to spend a lot of money for a pair of cutters, like hydraulic cutters, you are almost better off with a good hacksaw and several spare blades. Also, the key to cutting with a hacksaw is to have a mobile vice jaws so that you can hold the wire firmly and rotate it as necessary to cut through the strands.

Let's assume you are at sea, in a sloop, on a close reach and a swage fitting on the forestay lets go. What should you do? The headstay is probably the least likely member of the standing rig to cause you to lose the mast. The headsail luff will offer some immediate support, but you should still turn downwind as quickly as possible. At this point, rigging up a spare jib or spinnaker halyard as far forward as practical will usually offer enough support to keep the mast up. If you have an optional baby or tensioning stay, by all means set that up too. Once the spare halyards and or baby stay are set up, drop the headsail, but don't round up if at all possible, just try to muscle the sail to the deck.


If the backstay gives way while sailing upwind, the jib needs to be released immediately. The leech of the main will hold the mast up temporarily until the topping lift or spare halyard can be rigged as a makeshift backstay.
If the failure is on a lower fitting, you should be able to affect a repair fairly easily. Use a couple of bulldog clamps and a thimble to make a loop taking care to line up the cast part of the clamp on the long end of the wire. Then use line to seize and draw the wire tight. At this point you can use a combination of shackles to reach the turnbuckle or toggle and make a more permanent repair.

If it is the upper fitting, things become more complicated. Have the best helmsperson aboard steer before the wind on a heading that produces the least motion. If the conditions are not too bad, you should be able to go up the mast and install your spare or repaired forestay. It is amazing what you can do when you have to. This is when mast steps, or some type of mast climber really prove their worth. Headstay foils and furling extrusions complicate matters further, and are often rendered useless as the forestay bends. One tip, take your time to make sure you have everything you need before you head up the spar, whether you are ascending in a bosun's chair or on your own. Remember, clevis pins can be a bear to remove and install, so bring a punch and a hammer.

"Losing the backstay, especially a single backstay, presents the most dangerous scenario."
If you have fore and aft lower shrouds, losing one of them should not prove catastrophic. The obvious maneuver is to tack as quickly as possible to relieve the pressure on the other shrouds. If you have single lowers, things can be a little more interesting, and you must relieve the pressure right away. Don't think about it, just tack! Losing an upper or intermediate shroud also requires urgent action on the helm or the result might be a mast break at the spreaders.

Losing the backstay, especially a single backstay, presents the most dangerous scenario. If you are sailing on the wind, release the jib sheet immediately. The mainsail leech will hold the mast temporarily. Try to set up the topping lift as an emergency backstay as fast as possible. If you are running downwind when the stay fails, it may be hard to save the mast. Naturally, you should release or even cut the headsail sheet pronto and bring the boat up into the wind. Again, deploy the topping lift as an emergency backstay. Once heading upwind, you may be able to drop the main and rig the main halyard as a temporary backstay.

Like most things on a sailboat, a plan of action and the right spare parts can usually avert a serious problem, including a standing rigging failure. Keeping the mast standing is one of my top priorities and I'm hoping that just having written this piece will appease old Neptune for a few more passages.

The Following User Says Thank You to John Kretschmer For This Useful Post:
Imprezza72 (10-29-2013)