November 29, 2023

Alex o'Loughlin

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Learn How to Replace an Intermediate Shroud at Sea

Making good time sailing into the advancing twilight of yet another magnificent tropical evening, all is well with the world and she is feeling quite grand, settling in for a good nights’ progress toward Manihi. Skipping along on a port tack, her cutwater effortlessly slicing through the faintly ruffled but slinky water, she knows she is cutting a fine image, and just faintly irritated she has no gallery of onlookers to acknowledge her finery. Her crew appreciate the show, but some recognition from others would do wonders for her self esteem – she likes to show off just as much as the next ship! Pride always comes before a fall and with no warning whatsoever and certainly with no foreknowledge on her part or the crew a thundering crack shatters the evening calm. Her captain and sibling crew race up the companionway to see Anglo crew staring skyward at a lazily swinging starboard intermediate shroud. It has parted at the upper spreader tang, dropped into a half hoop and now drooping out to starboard.

Aghast, her crew stare at one another. Having heard and read many stories of yachts losing their rigs at sea, thousands of miles from the nearest yard, because of failed rigging, they are speechless for a few moments. The scene before their eyes spells disaster if they cannot effect a solution quickly. She brings her head around through the wind, and into the hove to position. She is most remorseful but hasn’t time to worry about that now. Fortunately, the weather is benign and her crew determine that providing they remain on a port tack, the port side rigging will take the very considerable strain. Equatorial darkness is now upon them, so they secure the swinging end to the starboard lifelines and plan to jury rig another shroud in the morning. Immediate crisis over she returns to her heading, gingerly gathering speed again with no apparent problem.

‘Phew, that was tricky’, she thinks. Maybe she will get out of this one relatively lightly?

Head down and serious she now wants to atone for her earlier rush of vanity. Over an obligatory nerve settling cup of coffee, her shaken crew discuss the problem. Firstly, Manihi Atoll being sparsely inhabited and therefore unlikely to be of assistance is struck off the itinerary. Her course is altered to Rangiroa Atoll which has the greatest population in the Tuamotus’. Fishing is the mainstay income earner for most of these atolls and that means boats, ropes, cables, wires, will be in abundance – sailors are the same the world over! Into their second cup and with their minds more settled with some reasoned thinking, the major implications of the problem appear to recede for the moment. Given that if all things remain equal, most of her sailing will be on the port tack the entire way to Tahiti, where they know all things marine are available. They are carrying a considerable length of spectra rope and this will be fashioned into a replacement shroud tomorrow. This Spectra line has an even lower stretch factor than Kevlar and if it can be drawn down tight enough over the spreaders and onto the deck fittings it may suffice until they make landfall in Papeete.

When Mother Nature is in the frame, nothing is equal. She carries out her vocation at her discretion. Running a printout from the weatherfax shows no alteration in the weather pattern anywhere in the area of the ocean they are sailing – just the steady SSE trades the whole way across this sector. Within an hour of their mishap however, cloud covers the night sky, blackening out the stars. The rising wind backs, bringing rain with it, and our little ship is continually buffeted. It is suddenly squall like, with winds up to thirty knots and likely to come from any direction. Thirty minutes into these conditions, the captive hoop of steel wrestles itself free and commences a pattern of wild arcs amidships. Its main target is the mainmast and every few seconds this eleven millimetre diameter steel punch wants to embed itself into the aluminium spar. The tang originally attached to the end has long since disappeared into the sea with a loud hiss, leaving a lethal steel rod hell bent on penetrating anything in its swooping path. Aluminium, wood or a skull would make no difference, in that all would accept the flying projectile to a depth dependent on its own physical resistance.

Her mainsail had been dropped earlier at the beginning of the squall attack, and she is sailing under genoa only, therefore her sails are under no threat of damage. How to quickly secure this flailing missile and survive before it wreaks major havoc? With a now heaving deck her skipper, lifejacketed and clipping onto the jackline, scrambles portside. Crew, shining the weaving spotlight in the general direction through the rain, observe the wet and glistening shroud flashing back and forth through the beam – they are thankful to be in the cockpit still. Her captain, crouching low and dodging it at the same time, attempts to catch it as it swoops past.

By the time it reaches the end of its arc to port it is way too high anyway, and out of reach – so plan A is not going to succeed. By now, it has whacked the mast many times already, fortunately, not always head on. Crew, seeing the black shape slumped in the port scupper think he has given up or been hit. He rises again, this time with the port side halyard loose in his hand and following several misses manages to catch the tip in the slack halyard, whip the cord around the steel as many times as possible, draw it down taut and fix it to a port side pad eye. Job done, he straightens and scuttles back into the cockpit grinning from ear to ear. No doubt he thinks he is a hero now, not realising that it was a pure stroke of luck the shroud caught in the halyard on its wildly gyrating path. However, the possibility of any further immediate damage being eliminated, she is content, allowing him to bask in his thirty seconds of fame. Tomorrow is another day, when options will be examined, but for now cosy bunks are awaiting. Filled they are, leaving the remaining crew on watch to ponder what might have been.

Gently swinging from her mast head, her captain surveys the scene all around him. A brilliant tropical morning, swept fresh and crystal clean by the overnight rain, leaves a scintillating picture. Three hundred and sixty degrees of perfect and sparkling blue disc encircles her, holding her permanently captive, dead centre. Swivelling his head, he marvels at the outrageous extent of it. Endless, like a womans’ love, the blue ocean seemingly stretches to infinity. The canopy overhead is without blemish, but for several fluffy and harmless looking thunderheads dotted low on the horizon in the south west quadrant. Probably hovering over some distant speck of land, but being so far off, cannot be seen over the horizon. For the rest, a broad canvas of wide shades of blue, lightly brushed with glittering sparkles as the sun reflects from the wave tips in the wispy breeze. No camera, restricted as they are to a small window, will ever be capable of capturing the overall uplifting feeling of seeing and being part of such a scene. Pumped full with a tranquil joy of being alive, her captain turns his head to the job at hand. Dawn breaking, as it had this morning, into a beautiful unruffled day with only a light breeze on her stern, her captain had decided a trip up the mast was in order to see what could be done about her errant shroud. He would also inspect Miguels’ swage on her forestay.

‘Waste of time even looking at that!’ she says, ever practical, ‘good or bad, what does he imagine he could do about it out here?’

Human nature being what it is, there was no way he wasn’t going to be hoisted up the extra height to the truk for an inspection. Apart from anything else, that is as high as he can go on her and he will go there! Normally at sea, a trip up the mast would only be contemplated in an emergency. Five degrees of movement on deck translates to a fifteen to twenty degree arc up here. It is imperative that the mast is clamped firmly between the thighs of the climber to avoid swinging out and slamming back into the spar. These youngsters doing a round the world race, go up in all weathers – the fearlessness of youth no doubt propelling them. One becomes a little more prudent with age.

Miguels’ engineering masterpiece is of course flawless and he feels a spurt of affection for that moustachioed man and the product of his craft. Three thousand five hundred nautical miles in their wake, toiling he will be still. Drinking in the view, lingering as long as is practicable without the crew on deck becoming suspicious, distracted (it’s a twenty metre drop to the deck!) or just leaving him up there, he hails the deck to lower him to the intermediate spreader. Hooked to his belt is the spectra line, and in his pouch a replacement tang. Glancing down the whole length of rope all the way to the deck, he is momentarily fascinated by the convoluted gyration it takes from in close to the mast, to way out over the sea. With its woven diamond blue and white pattern it looks much like a very long and very lazy python, snaking all the way up to his rear end!

‘Come on’, she checks him, ‘get on with the job!’

It is relatively easy to double loop the spectra cord through the tang, hook it into the keyhole in the mast and drop the two loose ends down to deck level for attaching to the deck fitting. On the way down he checks the leather spreader end covers for wear. Back on deck with several inner thigh skin burns, the results of which are deposited somewhere up and down the mast, the episode is shared over a cooling beer – cannot rush these jobs at sea!

Thoughts of lazy days in those far off, but approaching ever closer, fabled south sea islands, spur them on, and her captain and Anglo crew set about drawing down the jury rig shroud as taut as their combined strength will allow. With no block and tackle system available that would work in this situation, they will have to rely on pure physical strength. This is quite considerable in Anglo crew but her captain’s contribution will be somewhat puny by comparison. Being on the starboard side, the slack side, they surprise themselves as to the degree of tension they are able to exact upon the brute. Even tension with its twin intermediate shroud on the port side is not so much an issue now, as having in place a rig that will keep the standing rigging upright without breaking or collapsing. In the event, the product of their exertions preserves this premise admirably all the way to Papeete Port. Meanwhile, the arrival of a platter of steaming scones liberally coated with globs of rapidly melting bright yellow butter part way through the operation, undoubtedly inject them with sufficient hairy chested drive to crank down that extra pound or two required.

‘Men!’ she thinks, ‘they’re so easy!’

The completed assembly, without too close an inspection, looks passably shipshape. Strong enough for fair to moderate weather anyway, and her crew admire their resourceful handiwork from her cockpit. Both she and her captain pray for the Trades to hold until Tahiti.