People often ask us "isn't it dangerous sailing around without a motor, what would happen if you loose your mast?". Before this experience, I always answered with a bit of hesitation and lack of confidence because my answer was really only based on theory. I would hesitantly answer with “Well you can always build a jury rig and sail safely to the next port of call".
We were hauled out in Barrington, Rhode Island to do our major refit on Messenger when things took a decidedly wrong turn. The guy who ran the marina was, well to put it lightly, a real special character who was affectionately known as "Napoleon". He also happened to be a large share holder in the company, which is why he has been able to have such a complete lack of customer service while still keeping his job. There were many stories about Napoleon, one in particular that always stuck with me and really sums up his approach to a problem. One day a customer parked in a fashion that was not acceptable to Monsieur Napoleon, so he got in a fork lift and put that ill-parked black BMW on top of a shipping container. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and figured they had prior history or something that would excuse such a drastic act.
Monsieur Napoleon and I had our differences, exchanged a few harsh words here and there nothing to notable until the day we splashed Messenger back into the water. As I payed for our bill he decided to inform me that he would not do anything more for us. Not thinking too much of what was said I left and began to put the finishing touches on the mast that was still inside the yard. When I was finished I asked for the mast to be stepped and of course not only did he say no but I think I saw the few remaining grey hairs on his head leap to their death. He also added that we had to be out before the weekend and it was Tuesday. As he was yelling at me his words started to slur as I had visions of Messenger on top of a shipping container or worse at the bottom of the harbor. A mad dash ensued and Natasha and I started to plan what we were going to do. We called around to find a mast transport but most said they wouldn’t come to that location, once I finally found a mover, when he came to pick up the mast Napoleon unleashed his rathe on the poor innocent worker. I must confess I felt a bit defeated.
For me the best motivation in life is to tell me "I can't do something”, so after a bit of shuffling around the boat feeling sorry for myself, I came up with a plan. I checked the forecast and viola, the prediction was perfect for us to sail the 27 nautical miles down to Newport where I could step the mast. We were up a river that was very skinny and it was December in the north east of the U.S., making it all a bit more “exiting”. I was feeling quite rejuvenated with our plan coming into action.
It was Sunday night a few hours before high tide. Natasha and I went to the parking lot to retrieve the mast while the girls slept, it was a cold and rainy night. We put the mast on a couple of dollies and pushed it through the parking lot, down the ramp and finally along side Messenger. Our mast is 20 meters (58 feet) long and although it doesn’t weight a lot, it is cumbersome and very flexible, we needed to be skillful. We could only lift one side at a time, so up went one end and then the other. We muscled it into place along the starboard deck of Messenger and Natasha began to secure it to the deck while I went to work on the jury-rig. I used our sculling oar which is 6 meters long (21 feet) and the spinnaker pole which is the same length as the sculling oar to make an A shaped frame. It even had a halyard at the top of the A frame with a block to raise a sail. I then used the #2 jib to give us power. The sail was rigged with the clew at the top and the tack at the bottom so that it set horizontally with the head of the sail at the stern. The only problem with this set up was that when I tacked or gybed I would have to run the head of the sail around the mast and back down the other side, really a minor issue taking into account there is no mast on the boat.
Everything was ready as the high tide started to ebb sucking the water out to the bay. We moved Messenger into position and said “ciao cabrón” as I hoisted our only sail. It worked like a charm. We flew by the last channel marker of the river as we entered the open water of the bay. It was a beautiful night, the rain stopped, the skies cleared, and the moon and stars came out, a night I will remember for the rest of my life. It was clear but very cold, below freezing for sure. That winter was special because it was very cold, so cold in fact, that the snowy owls that normally reside in Canada had been pushed down to seek better conditions. As we slipped silently through the water one owl decided to perch at the end of our mast that was sticking a few meters over the stern, as I turned around it flew ahead into the darkness. I approached a channel marker and as I got closer I could see several owls perched on the top with their white feathers flashing red from the channel marker light. It was a fantastic experience and I knew at that point that if I could hang with the snowy owls, then I could sail to Iceland and beyond…
We came around the headland into Newport Harbor as the night started to clear into day. We had to sail a bit up wind to reach the anchoring area. It was a bit tricky but we managed to make it dropping anchor in a good spot with enough time to grab a quick nap before morning, when we would be meeting a good friend that would tow us to our winter berth at the Newport Harbor Hotel and Marina.
The jury-rig worked well and now I know what is possible with such a rig and ways I can improve it. Now when people ask me "isn’t it dangerous, what happens if…” I know I can reply with confidence. As for Napoleon, I could almost thank him for that experience but I won’t, I just wish I could see his face when he arrived at work ready to sink our boat only to find that we had vanished over night without a trace. I did see him a while after, I waved and smiled from across the street, he just shook his head in defeat with a few less hairs on his head.