“It goes without saying; problems that occur whilst in open water can be slightly more challenging than those that occur whilst in sheltered water. Whilst running an RYA Coastal Skipper Practical Course last month we had just completed a passage of some 70 nautical miles in a northerly wind, Force 6-7. Ideal conditions some might say for completing your coastal skipper course! On this particular day we were sailing a short passage from Tarbert to Largs with a strong easterly blowing. Whilst rounding Ardlamont Point we had to keep a short distance off the buoy due to a military exercise taking place in Ettrick Bay. The boat was well reefed down with three reefs in the main, and a small handkerchief of a head sail in light of the conditions. We were close-hauled to keep ourselves clear of the lee shore and whilst doing so we heard a loud bang sound and suddenly the rig went loose. Our first reaction was that something must have snapped and unfortunately we were right.
We looked up to see the backstay flaying around and the head of the mast rocking to and fro. The first question for me to ask was whether all the crew were safe and ensure no one was hurt. Once I was sure everyone was okay I took the helm and organised the crew, giving them all specific jobs to do so that we could bring the situation under control in a safe manner. Looking more closely at what we had lost it appeared to be the forestay. First and foremost we needed to secure the mast to prevent losing it. Arranging for two of the crew to go forward with life jackets on and harnessed to the jackstays, they were able to bring the spinnaker halyard forward to tie down. Whilst this was happening I was attempting to keep the head sail filled despite the head of it being some 5m from the hounds. By keeping the head sail filled I was able to keep the mast pulled forward. I used the engine to get us further away from the lee shore, in case the mast was to come down.
Once we were further away we then opted to lower the main sail and tie it down, all the time making sure that the crew did not venture to the leeward side of the boat. We were unable to roll all of the head sail away so we gingerly motored slowly head to wind. This helped us lower the foresail and foil onto the deck were we secured it down. Once safely ashore we inspected the damage. We discovered it was the toggle at the top of the foresail that had snapped, which is very unusual.
Although very rare, dangerous situations can arise when at sea. It is always important to keep calm and use all of your training and knowledge to assess the situation and keep the crew safe. Our coastal skipper courses, with senior instructors like Angus, will set you up well to be able to handle lots of different types of situations, but hopefully not a repeat of this incident any time soon!