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Preventing the loss of washboards during heavy weather sailing

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What is the issue?
It is crucial that the companionway is kept secured during heavy weather sailing. Yet washboards, the traditional means of securing the passageway, are difficult to handle in the best of times. A crew member has to dismantle and reassemble the washboards each time they pass out through the hatch. This involves replacing typically two to three washboards in the correct sequence and orientation to correctly fit. Performing this operation in rough conditions makes it easy for a board to be lost overboard. Worse, in particularly difficult situations where the hatch needs to be secured the most, such as if the boat has been rolled or pitch-poled, the washboards tend to fall out only adding to the critical survival situation.

Why address this?
The blocking arrangements for the main companionway must be totally secure. The loss of a washboard breaks the watertight integrity of the vessel and may place the vessel in jeopardy of subsequent significant flooding. It is essential for the welfare of the vessel and crew that the washboards are not lost.

How to address this?
Place an eye upon each washboard so that they may be individually tethered when engaging heavy weather. We installed an eye immediately inside the companionway where a made-to-measure three-way line was ready to quickly clip-on and attach to each board as needed. With a safety line attached the washboards cannot be lost.

Tethered washboards for heavy weather sailing
Image: Tony Gibson

The slight problem with using a standard D type eye is that the boards will no longer stow flat. We overcame this in our implementation by using brass recessed ‘insert handles’ instead of a standard eye on the washboards. This enabled us to have a solid attachment point when required but allowed us to continue to stow the washboards flat.

Insert handles
Photo: Michael Harpur

This will help overcome one of the most serious defects that was identified in the 'Fastnet 79' (link to download as zipped PDF of the special incident report External link). During the disaster at least 18 boats were rolled through a full 360°, there were approximately 170 incidents of boats being knocked down until their masts hit the water and the lives of 15 sailors were lost. One of the earliest inquiries into the disaster was published jointly by the RYA and the Royal Ocean Racing Club (available as a PDF External link) where it was noted the traditional companionway arrangement proved problematic and represented one the largest areas of vulnerability across the racing fleet...

Many crews made strong comments about the dangers of inadequate closing arrangements for companionways, stressing that this was a major and important weakness... Some crews were reluctant to keep all the wash-boards in place because they felt that communication between companionway and cockpit was essential. Others discovered that the only way of positively securing the wash-boards was to lock the hatch over them from the outside and some were reluctant to do so because of effectively trapping those off watch in the accommodation. Some of those with angled sides to companionway entrances commented that this was bad design, as each wash-board had only a few inches before it fell out completely. In general, crews felt that the sides of the companionway entrance should be vertical or nearly vertical and that it must be possible to secure and open the hatch from both inside and outside. A number commented on the lack of strength of both hatches and companionways and a minority felt that it was necessary to carry spare wash-boards. Some of those who lost or broke washboards plugged the aperture reasonably effectively with a bagged sail.

See also securing the main hatch for heavy weather sailing Experience.

With thanks to:
Michael Harpur, Yacht Obsession.
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