Dismasted in the Red Sea


Bang, Sigh, Splash, Thump.

Those were the sounds my mast made as it came down in a Red Sea storm. From what I had read of dismastings I expected something more dramatic. Perhaps more clattering and ripping. Perhaps the sounds of tearing sails and rending aluminum and the pounding of the mast as it sought to stove in the hull. But after the initial gentle nudging of the gunwale by the broken mast, a vast peace came over the boat as she settled down, unstrainedand ahull in the nasty little seas.

The bang was the backstay parting. The sigh the sound of the mast, still draped with stays and shrouds, as it leaned to starboard and subsided majestically into the sea like a felled giant redwood. The splash, hardly audible, absorbed much of the energy of the fall, so that when the mast went thump against the side of the boat it barely left a mark on the teak toerail.

I was surprised, perhaps even a bit disappointed, that when the time had come for my dismasting, long feared, it proved to be so anticlimactical.

My mast is 53 feet above the deck level from which it extends down another 11 feet to rest on the keel. Of the 53 feet above deck there remained only a stub no more than 20 feet. 33 feet of mast was hanging from the stub by its entrails of cables, wires and line. The top of the mast with its array of instruments, antennas and lights was upside down in the water alongside the boat.

As I watched the mast splash into the sea I did four things, in retrospect seemingly simultaneously. I called my two crew members on deck, asked for the new hydraulic cable cutter that I had just purchased (after much soul searching over the price), tied a lanyard to the cable cutter lest it fall into the sea and found a comfortable vantage in the cockpit from which I could survey the damage. I spent the next ten minutes doing nothing, just taking stock.

The crew which I had summoned on deck was composed of an aging boulevardier who should have been sipping his morning cup in the Cafe de la Paix and a nineteen year old innocent lass from Liechtenstien (of all maritime places) whose experience of the sea had been mostly lifted from halcyon TV commercials. I myself, half a decade older than the boulevardier, might well have been playing golf with boring colleagues in Miami Beach. Instead I was in the inhospitable Red Sea, with untested crew, a crippled boat and half a ton of liberated mast poised to do God Knows what to me.

I considered my predicament. As the minutes passed, and we remained afloat and intact, I began to suspect that some of the tales of dismastings, recounted by sailors eager to sow terror among the uninitiate and bloat there own bravery, were perhaps a bit on the wilder side of what actually happens in a dismasting.

In my case, although most of my mast had fallen down, no one was hurt, the integrity of the boat was unchallanged and, most important, the boat lay ahull with a reasonable, although rough and jerky, motion. It became clear that the task of readying her for a jury rig was not going to be impossible even for two creaky ancients and a small and unsuspecting girl whose eyes by now had become quite as big and round as Necco wafers.

The Red Sea is no place to practice dismasting. It is hardly a place where a sailor should find himself at all as it is laced with threats that sailors pray to Poseiden they may never face. Big Ship traffic is intense. During the time that we lay ahull cleaning up the mess, the big boats dodged about us like electric cars at the fair. Most turned away in alterations of courses that must have cost them a thousand dollars in fuel and time. Some came over to see if they could help. The very last thing a small boat needs in a heaving, pitching sea is an iron giant hovering about. One even called us rather petulantly to ask, "What", ('the Hell' was implied), "we were doing out there", in the main ship channel of the narrow, busy sea.

The Red Sea is unpredictable, made unstable by its lack of depth, coral reefs and shallow banks, subject to fierce hot winds (Hamsin) and short, steep, choppy seas. It is, as we were to discover, completely surrounded by third world countries whose hatred and jealousy of all things Western has only been heightened by their recently won independence. The only really bad time we were to have would be at the hands of armed Marxist Ethiopians, who were intent on taking, or at least stripping, our boat.

We were confronted now with the immediate task of cutting away fourteen stainless steel cables. On that rolling deck, with our physically weak and small crew, the bolt cutters which most boats carry would have been unusable even if they could be made to cut through 10mm of stainless cable. The problem with mechanical bolt cutters under emergent circumstances the roil of the ship leAves no place to take a firm stance. Tohacksaw through the cables, the only other alternative, would have taken two days of exhausting, backwrenching labor. Much more labor than we were capable of.

The actual cleaning up was accomplished ‘chick chock’, as the Israelis like to say, only because of our 'secret' weapon, the hydraulic bolt cutter. The cutter is small and relatively light. It opens to accept cable for which there is no free end and the actual cutting takes about fifteen seconds of light pumping.

The stays and shrouds that were still attached to both mast and stub had to be cut away as quickly as possible lest the mast let go and haul the stub down with it. The three of us went to work as a team. The lass held the cable, I pumped the cutter and the other old guy lashed the cut cables to the hanging mast to prevent them from swooping about and doing us unneccessary damage to our persons. To our incredible surprise all of the cables were cut away and secured in 30 minutes. What would have taken us hours of agony with a hacksaw was accomplished in half an hour of mild activity with the hydraulic cutter.

The second half hour of cleaning up was used in securing the hanging mast to our starboard quarter and the next full hour was dedicated to clearing any trailing lines which might foul the propellor. During this time we also retrieved, undamaged, our working jib which had fallen into the sea. The sail was floating out to windward since the boat was moving faster to lee than was the water logged sail which was acting like a sea anchor. When we freed all the halyards and sheets on the leeward side, the sail streamed out clear of the bottom and was easily hauled aboard.

The mast had come down at seven in the morning. By nine, two short hours later, we were ready to find quieter waters in which to jury rig. We turned on the engine and headed for the coast. Anticlimactical indeed.

The dismasting occurred as we were reaching southwest with only our working jib set. It was pulling us along in 30 to 40 knots of wind at a reasonable 6 knots when, as we discovered later, the backstay broke clean near the top of the mast and brought the mast down. The previous year I had experienced a broken forestay in the Indian Ocean (no other damage) which should have been a clear warning to me that the stainless was aging and needed replacement. The cause of the break was not the weather. The cause was clearly the aging stainless. My rig was then 7 years old and should have been replaced at 5. Ocean sailors take heed. If you are pushing your boat around the world, especially in the tropics as I was, five years is plenty.

If this recounting seems bland and unexciting, it is exactly as it happened. After the initial psychological shock, it became clear that some dismastings, perhaps even most, are not disasters and that survival in good and sailable condition should be the expected norm.

Others may argue that we had some very special good fortune. Others may complain that the dismasting took place in daylight and not at night. That we did not have our main up which might have complicated matters. That the mast fell into the water and not on deck and that the 20 foot stub made jury rigging possible. To these claims that we were merely lucky we can now answer from experience that it would not have been difficult to lash the mast and wait for daylight, that the main could easily have been cut away, and that the stub, while convenient, was not central to our survival. We also became convinced that most broken mast sections reach the water before they can hit the deck or hang above deck level if the broken section is short. From what we were able to observe it appeared that for a mast section to fall directly onto the deck would require some really remarkable bad luck.

The real point is that we had come face to face with that central terror from which all sailors suffer, a dismasting, and in the actual event it proved to be a paper tiger. Dismasting, like other imagined terrors that keep folk off the sea, is less fearsome when it happens than in the anticipation. The real problem is not the fallen mast or the jury rigging (which proved to be fun) but the deadly physical confront of having to hacksaw through a forest of stainless, stubborn cable. That is the real threat of a dismasting.

That threat is now behind any sailor who will carry a hydraulic cable cutter. Expensive? Yes, but worth it, if needed, whatever its price. The few hundred dollars it costs is the price for reducing the possibility of losing vessel or lives.

Having cut the cables, secured the hanging mast section and cleared away and trailing lines, we now needed a quiet place in which to jury rig and here is where we made our first mistake. Our chart showed an anchorage on the Ethiopian coast about 35 miles to the west. Since it was already mid morning we could not reach it before dark but the entrance looked open. We took off for Ethiopia even though we had been warned that they were, not to make too fine a point of it, less than friendly. Our error was in not carefully perusing the chart. In our haste to find shelter we missed an anchorage less than 20 miles to the southeast, the direction we were headed anyway.There, on an uninhabited island called Jazirat Zucar, was a nifty little anchorage. We were to find that the coast of Ethiopia was inhabited, watched and jealously guarded. Why we ignored the safe and empty haven less than 5 hours to the southeast (which we could have reached in daylight) can only be ascribed to carelessness. Carelessness which was to give rise to the only moments of terror in an otherwise 'piece of cake' dismasting.

As we headed for the Ethiopian coast the 'piece of cake' quickly went stale.


It took us all of the daylight hours to raise the smooth and perfect hills of Ethiopia. Night fell long before we reached the lee of the sheltering string of islands and, with no moon, we crept in, feeling, rather than seeing, the looming rocky islands off to port. The islands, so welcome for their shield from wind and sea, were later to figure in not so friendly a way in our escape.

There were no lights on the coast. None. No navigational lights and no lights on shore. It was that special pitch blackness of a Third World desert coastline where even kerosene is too valuable to burn. When the sun sets in these blank places people go to sleep.

We let go anchors in aboout eight meters of water and settled in for the night, tired but Oh so grateful for the surcease from 30 knot winds and the rolling and tossing of our boat unsupported by the steadying pressure of sails. We had earned a nights sleep. We had survived our dismasting. There was not just a little pride in our exhaustion as we fell on deck, almost where we stood, and slept till the rising sun etched out the land about us. As the light grew we found ourselves in a cozy, seemingly uninhabited and totally protected bay. Just what we needed to lick our wounds.

Early in the morning we were visted by three Ethiopian fishermen in a narrow 15 foot canoe. They seemed friendly and begged for gasoline. Their friendliness waned when we signed that we had none aboard (we did not) and then they asked for water. From long experience in desert areas I had learned that water is never refused, so they got 5 gallons, asked for more, were refused and seemed to paddle contentedly off. No talk of papers, officials, entrance formalities or any of that nonsense. We took them at face value. Just local fishermen making a touch.

I turned to the task at hand. First we had to bring the broken mast section down. It was hanging by its entrails of tensioned wire and cable and line in such a manner that I was fearful that if we went up the stub to cut it down it could do the person on the mast real bodily harm on its way down. We hauled and tugged and pulled from deck level to no avail. Nothing worked, the morning was wearing on and I was very uncomfortable about the visit of the Ethiopians. I wanted to have nothing official to do with them.

Finally I sent everyone below, released the dangling section so that it hung more or less straight down along the two remainig lower shrouds, went below and brought up my Kalashnikov. A Kalashnikov is the famed Russian automatic assault rifle that played hell with our troops in Viet Nam and which the Russians have sown throughout the Third World like fabled Dragon's Teeth. It had been loaned to me for this passage and, although I had never used one, I was familiar with its awesome potential. I was going to shoot down the damned, stubborn mast even though I had never heard of one being being brought down in that manner. My crew hooted with doubt and dismay as I stretched out on deck, loaded a fifty cartridge clip, took aim and let fly. The Kalashnikov worked like a pair of giant scissors. One after the other it snipped the offending stainless steel wires and, after only the ninth shot, the broken section slid quietly and obediently into the bay.

With the mast section down we went to work early, familiar already with the midday Red Sea sun which puts a halt to all activity. We were able to work on the rig from 6 in the morning till about 11 and then from 3 in the afternoon to sundown. All told we had about seven good hours and in that time we rigged twin downwind sails with a pair of upside down working jibs using the storm jib and storm trysail. With them we rigged a set of sails that, given a stiff breeze, would take us to windward.

The new jury rig was all very neat and provided the security and control that we would need to sail the few hundred miles to Djibouti where I planned to step a new mast. At about 5 in the afternoon we tested our new sailplan and were amazed at the ease with which it went up and grabbed the wind. Things were going very smoothly. We had cleared away the dismasting in two hours the day before and in less than a day we had completely rerigged the boat and were ready to sail out.

I was eager to get away from Ethiopia and my heart sank when I saw the same canoe, this time with 5 people, take off from the shore and head determindly our way. As it came close I knew we were in trouble.

The 'innocent fishermen' were now armed with their own Kalashnikovs and had uniformed themselves with assorted webbing, belts and pouches. It was clear that these were 'fishermen' only incidently. They were, in fact, coast watchers and were not nearly so friendly as on their earlier visit.

We had no language in common but it was easy to determine that they wanted us to weigh anchor and follow them to Edd, a little town about 15 miles to the north. I began to get really frightened. When I absolutely refused to move (I told them we could not sail because of the damage) they finally left after indicating that they would return tomorrow with officials from Edd. It was very clear that they expected us to remain where we were. We were, in a real sense, their prisoners.

Our predicament was serious. It would not take any official too long to determine that my boat had come down from their arch enemy, Israel. We were stocked with Israeli foods and some of us had Israeli stamps in our passports. If we became entangled with the Ethiopians, after having come to their coast without visas or permission, it would take months before we would be released. There was also the real possibility of impoundment, and the subsequent loss, of my boat.

It would, I knew, do little good to claim the right of refuge for a damaged vessel. There are no such things as 'rights' in these benighted parts of the world anymore. Most of the new 'nations' do just as they damn please with no regard for long established international concords.

But the plight of our 'buddy boat, SailTrader, which had been sailing along with us, was much, much more serious. They too had come down from Israel but the real problem was that Bob Schaafsma and his little family are white South Africans. When the black Ethiopians figured that out, and they would, there was the very real possibility that, while we could be inconvenienced for a month or two, Bob and his family might just disappear.

We were up to our kazoo in alligators. Our euphoria over the ease which the dismasting had been dealt with blew away in the cold wind of realization that we were in much more danger from the Ethiopians than we ever were from the sea. Something had to be done.

As soon as the 'military' left we called a council of war. we decided that the only chance we would ever have to get away would be this very night. We hoped that the Ethiopians had bought our story about being unable to move. We had the advantage of no moon. We made our preparations in full knowledge of the risk we were taking. If we were caught and stopped, God Knows what the outcome would be.

Surprise was at the core of our plan, so the sooner we cut and ran the better. Time was the enemy's ally. Time would either allow them to bring officials up the next day or mobilize some local assistance to keep us pinned down until someone decided what to do with us. Just now all appeared very quiet. The 'fishermen' had disappeared as night began to fall over the little bay.

In order to get away as quickly and quietly as possible I took a line from SailTrader and hauled in my clattery anchor chain. Bob was hanging on Nylon so he could hand haul quietly. I could not. We ordered absolute lights out and, as the sun disappeared, I was dismayed to see a light on our sister ship. It was only their compass light but it was a dead giveaway. Out it went and SailTrader, unable to see her compass, now had only her radar to sail by. Bob felt that he would be able to follow us out by radar and thus would not need his compass. As it happened, his radar played an infinitely more important role in our salvation.

We both had VHF and I quickly rigged a deck level emergency antenna to replace one lost when the mast came down. We selected an obscure radio channel and, at the moment that full darkness fell, I radioed that I was taking off and that Bob was to follow.

As I pulled out I glanced back and caught the faintest glimmer of a light on the beach. It quickly went out and as I turned to peer ahead into the hazy blackness I saw an answering pinpoint from seaward off to our port. With all our careful planning and hopes we were found out! The Ethiopians, not so bemused by our claims of incapacity as I had hoped, had anticipated a run and had a boat out to pen us in.

I called Bob and he said he could see the boat on radar but that it did not seem to be coming our way. He could see nothing following us from shore.

Suddenly the VHF crackled with his shout, "Turn north, Turn north". North was the last place I wanted to turn since that put me on course with the light I had seen but I put the wheel hard over and pushed my speed, at Bob's command, up to full.

His radar screen had lighted up like a Christmas tree. The Ethiopians had hidden four, fast, 35 foot fishing vessels behind the headlands of the sheltering islands that we had to pass to get out of the bay. At the signal from shore, all four moved out to join the boat we had seen to our port. They proceeded to effectively screen the mouth of the bay. Not only were we found out, but we were probably trapped.

But we had two enormous advantages that the Ethiopians lacked, interboat radio communication and radar. In the pitch blackness that enveloped the bay, Bob could see the enemy as they tried to close their net but they could not see us. For the next two hours Bob, hidden close in to one of the rocky islands where the Ethiopians would be loth to go, directed my escape. I dodged back and forth around the bay missing one of their boats by less than a hundred feet in the pitchy dark. They were blind. We were not. Had they thought to cut their engines and listen for us we would have been caught in a minute. But so sure were they that we were trapped and so sure were they that we had no way of knowing that they were there, they simply proceeded to tighten their net toward land. At a crucial moment, Bob spotted a hole in the tightening net and, at his shout, I took off at full speed and was able to slip out and head for the sea. Bob quickly followed and watched on radar as the little flotilla closed in behind us on nothing. When they discovered our absence they wasted a half hour criss crossing the bay looking for us. Had they come after us immediately they might well have caught us but by the time they realized that we had given them the slip we were an hour ahead of any pursuer. Although they tried to follow they were too unsure of the direction we took to make the chase meaningful.

The deep breath I took was, I believe, the first in two hours.We were clear and, as soon as we could lose ourselves among the Anish Islands, 40 miles further south, we would be free of the Ethiopians.

We did just that and from the islands we were able to squirt ourselves eastward into the international waters of the big ship channel heading down toward Bab al Mandab. Never was I, a small boat sailor, more happy to see the big iron monsters looming about us, shielding us from all possible pursuit.

Like so much else in this tale, all the rest was anticlimax. Under our nifty jury rig we sailed on down to the Gulf of Aden, said farewell to the bravest sailor I have ever known, my South African friend who had refused at his own and his family's peril to abandon me to Ethiopia, and scooted for Djibouti where Unlikely was to receive her new mast.

Skipper, if you plan to sail in these troubled waters you need four good tools. An hydraulic cable cutter, a Kalashnikov, a good VHF and the inestimable advantage of radar. Make that five, because a large dollup of luck did not hurt.

Without which this tale may well have had a different ending.