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Preparing for and dealing with a dismasting in an emergency situation

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What is the issue?
A well-maintained, well-built rig is not going to collapse of its own accord under normal conditions. But a badly maintained rig, or one that is operating under abnormal conditions, can fail very easily.

America's Cup J Class Yacht Columbia dismasted
Photo: CC0
The potential list of equipment that can fail upon a badly maintained rig is long. The stainless steel stranded rigging that extends from the mast-head to the larboard and starboard sides of the vessel and stem to stern, is unfortunately subject to stress cracking, which is caused by hardening, and a corrosion called crevice corrosion, which attacks hidden parts of the structure that are not exposed to air. The rig also needs to be properly tensioned or a build-up of pressure against the spars and the points where it is connected to the deck will be subject to fatigue. But even something as horribly trivial and unlucky as a clevis pin working loose could cause a dismasting in the lightest of airs. If the rig is not well maintained, and its various connectors secure, a failure of any of its individual components could take the whole rig down at any point.

Poor seamanship is also a major contributor. A skipper that shrugs off the old seagoing adage of ‘if you’re thinking about it, it’s time to reef’ is likely to be unnecessarily stressing the rig. Add to this an accidental gybe, especially in strong winds, and it can be all too much. Yacht racing is particularly vulnerable to the masts of contestants colliding at various race points or perhaps a simple mistake when using complicated running rigging such as not setting the running backstay after a manoeuvre.

Heavy weather sailing also places the rig at peril and, rather unfortunately, if anything has not been maintained, spotted and is about to give, it will most likely happen when you are already enduring a seaway. Even with best endeavours it is highly unlikely that the most secure and robust of rigs will remain standing if the vessel is pitch-poled or rolled.

Why address this?
In sheltered waters with ample sea room, a dismasting is usually not too dramatic an event. Although it can entail an embarrassing and abrupt end to a day’s sailing, you may be easily able clear all the lines, fire up the motor and return the slightly shaken but otherwise uninjured crew to the vessel’s berth with the conspicuous absence of everything above deck. All that should remain of the event in a few weeks is an expensive story to tell.

However, dismasting on the open ocean is a different matter. The collapse could have injured the crew and the broken rig is a great danger to the vessel in heavy weather conditions. Tethered to the boat by the standing rigging it becomes a giant pickaxe within the seaway that could drive a crosstree through the hull. This could breach the watertight integrity causing a total loss of the vessel. This then puts the lives of all aboard in jeopardy.

How to address this?
The old seagoing expression of prepare for the worst, hope for the best and make the most of what comes applies to dismasting and its prevention. Regular inspection, maintenance Experience and good seamanship will help prevent a dismasting and, should you be unlucky, being fully prepared with the right tools and knowing what to do will help to minimise the potential of losing the vessel.


In all cases, the most important preparation for a dismasting is to have the means to cut the fallen mast loose so as to minimise the chances of a drama turning into a total loss. Essential for this task are the following tools which must be considered part of the vessel’s standard safety equipment:

Quality bolt cutters should be considered an essential safety tool
Photo: Michael Harpur

  • • Manual bolt cutters. An ocean-going boat should carry a bolt cutter that is appropriate to cut the largest size standing rigging wire aboard. Do not go for a low-cost unit as your boat and life may depend upon this tool. Make sure that the cutter is strong enough and wide enough to enclose all your boat's rigging before purchasing it - the forestay is usually the trickiest to cut. The much more expensive hydraulic wire cutter is the best possible tool for the job and the only option if you have to cut through rod rigging. Not only is it a much more powerful tool it also has the advantage of being quick and easy to use and capable of being used more easily on a rolling deck.

  • A hydraulic wire cutter
    Photo: Courtesy of s3i
  • • Hacksaws. A high-quality hacksaw is also a necessity and a useful general tool to have aboard. Select tungsten carbide blades and carry plenty of spares making sure that they are protected against corrosion. A hacksaw can be used one handed but is slower and a much more demanding tool. It is not a tool that can be used in an emergency to cut through rod rigging, at any time.

  • • Pulling and punching tools: The simplest way to jettison unloaded portions of the rig is to remove clevis pins. But do not rely on the clevis pins coming out easily as they could be battered and or deformed by the dismasting. A set of pliers, traditional nail pinchers plus a mallet and centre punch will be essential additions to the toolkit for this purpose.

  • • A heavy sharp knife. This will be needed to cut halyards and other lines between the mast and boat. If the lines are too large for a knife to quickly cut through, get an axe for this purpose.

  • • A pop rivet gun. Used to apply pop rivets to a workpiece this is a very useful general purpose tool to have aboard a yacht. Should you ever have to improvise a jury rig, as discussed below, this would be the tool of choice.

  • • Optional grinder: A battery operated or electrically powered angle grinder is a useful tool to have aboard for general purposes - see emergency electrical power Experience. It is, unfortunately, a dangerous tool that could not be considered on a wet, rolling deck. But in benign circumstances, if it was available and safe to use, it could be the tool to make very short work of this task.

  • • Optional Satellite Phone: When the rig goes so does long-range VHF and SSB ship radio communications as the VHF antenna is typically at the masthead and the SSB attached to the backstay. Having an emergency antenna may help, but this will still need plenty of height to work. A backup satellite phone, however, will continue to work which makes it a useful piece of equipment when sailing offshore.

A silicon-based water-repellent steeped hiking sock offers tools good protection
Photo: Michael Harpur

The jaws of a bolt cutter are made from an unprotected forged metal that has a tendency to rust very quickly in the seagoing environment. We found the best way to keep it in tip- top condition is to place a thick hiking sock over it and liberally coat the sock with a silicon-based lubricant/water repellent. If you do this from the outset and stow it below decks in a dry locker the bolt cutter will remain perfect for decades as our cutter, illustrated above and below, will testify well into its second decade. The same approach may be used to protect all the other hand tools set aside for a dismasting.


The sea state and sea room at the time of dismasting, and the availability of a safe haven, will play a big part in the appropriate recovery plan. Prompt and deliberate action will be vital, as in all cases any increase in the time taken to resolve the issue increases the risk of hull damage. The following checklist will provide some measure of guidance on what to consider, and generally what applicable steps to take:

  • ☐ When you see that the rig is about to go, the safest place to be is down below decks. If you are above decks, expect the wreckage will fall to leeward, so good places to stand are aft of the backstay(s) or dive down and lay flat upon the cockpit sole.

  • ☐ Once it has gone the first thing to check is that all the crew are still aboard and uninjured. Carry out a headcount straight away and check everyone's condition. It is surprising how rarely people are injured in a dismasting, but if anyone is injured that becomes the priority.

  • ☐ Get on lifejackets and harnesses and, if the skipper feels it is applicable, make the coastguard aware Experience of the situation.

  • ☐ Brief the crew to be ultra-cautious working around the rig in particular and the dangers of the motion of the boat. In a short space of time the yacht should lie windrode, beam on to wind and waves, to leeward of the wreckage of the rig and sails that will be acting as a sea anchor. Without the rigs damping effect, the vessel will roll faster and more frequently. The deck will be covered with lines and shrouds and the lifelines will be hard to access and may possibly be no longer relied upon. The engine cannot be used to steer into the wave until all rigging and sails are clear of the propeller. This creates a very real risk of somebody falling overboard without the ability to manoeuvre the boat to fetch them and or getting tangled up in the rigging and getting pulled overboard. Crew care is essential.

  • ☐ Check that parts of the failed spar are not causing further damage to the boat. If the damage is being done the priority is to stop it and quickly. If the situation is dire it may be possible to use fenders or the dinghy to cushion the hull from mast impact in order to buy some time to cut it away.

  • ☐ Work out what can be salvaged. A quick decision has to be made at that moment of the two options available: lashing the rig down, in order to salvage as much as possible for later, or jettison it for the safety of the vessel. Broadly speaking and even in the best of circumstances, it’s just not possible for an average cruising couple to retrieve a mast of a vessel from 10 metres LOA and upward. The best outcome would be to save the boom, mainsail and any spars of a reasonable length as they may come in useful for the jury rig. But remember this can be a very dangerous process that could easily result in crew members being injured. Likewise, although desirable to save a sail, or part of it, it is most unlikely that a halyard will release smoothly along a broken mast so you can consider it a highly fortuitous event to bring the mainsail back on board. The welfare of the crew and the boat have to be balanced carefully in this decision.

  • ☐ Once the plan has been decided start working to free the hull from the wreckage, pulling out clevis pins with the above-mentioned hand tools and cutting shrouds with others. Expect all deck movement to be on hands and knees. Extra caution is needed with heavy, two-handed cutting tools, so crewmembers must securely brace themselves. Unloaded stays are usually the easiest to clear and the loaded ones should be left until last. Crew should be exceedingly careful to be well clear of any entanglement with rigging that is sliding over the side.

  • ☐ When it is finally cut free, the wreckage should be hauled ahead or astern so that the yacht can ride to it as a sea anchor. It is important to try to preserve the wreckage as it is bound to contain much that is expensive to replace such as stainless shrouds, turnbuckles, mast track, masthead fitting, etc., etc. If the dismasting happened way off-shore it will be all that you have available from which to construct a jury rig.

  • ☐ Once the rig has been jettisoned and any components retrieved focus on the lines and wires in the water that could wrap themselves around the propeller.

  • ☐ Only start the engine when all the trailing lines have either floated free or been retrieved aboard.

In rough conditions, motoring is normally the only option. Having an engine with plenty of fuel aboard is clearly very important in this situation.


The phrase jury-rig, or jury-mast, refers to a temporary mast put up to replace one that has been lost. If the dismasting happens too far offshore for the fuel to take the vessel safely in, or for some reason the engine cannot be used, there is no alternative but to carry on under a jury rig. Even if you have enough fuel to make it to somewhere useful, the motion of a demasted sailing yacht is so awful that rigging some sort of jury sailing rig will be a must, even if it's just to steady her down.

Jury Rig that saved the life of a solo sailor
Photo: US Coastguard

If the dismasting happens in rough conditions you will have to wait until the situation calms before the construction of a jury rig is feasible. A compromise rig can usually be made utilising the surviving sails and spars, albeit dramatically reduced in size and efficiency, to enable a boat to make moderate progress towards a destination that is downwind and perhaps even to a degree across the wind.

Almost certainly the mast will break above deck level, in which case, the task of rigging a jury will be less troublesome than if it has to be stepped below. It is however beyond the scope of this piece to even begin recommending means of setting up jury rigs. Suffice it to say that thinking outside the box always seems to be the answer. Many a dismasted crew have proved themselves extraordinarily resourceful when it comes to improvising rigs that they have used to sail hundreds of miles back to safety.

With thanks to:
Michael Harpur, Yacht Obsession.

Crash Test Boat Dismasting

Crash Test Boat Jury Rig

A hydraulic bolt cutter

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