Illywhacker - Mast Step Repair


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Author Peter Aston
Date 01-April-2001
Map Ref Solomon Islands


This article was published in the April 2001 issue of the Australian Cruising Helmsman

They say cruising is all about sailing around looking for suitable places to do repairs to your boat. If this has to happen, then we think such a place would mean being tied up alongside a pleasant marina in Queensland with electricity, water and a convenient workshop nearby. In our experience though, the serious disasters seem to happen when you’re farthest away from your comfort zone and repair jobs become a test of ingenuity, often with a strong reliance on local support. But sometimes you can be lucky and meet up with members of the cruising community when you need them most.

For us, the bad luck came in the form of a collapsed mast step but the good luck came in being at Gizo in the North Solomons at the same time as two Kiwi cruising yachts equipped with all the skills and materials necessary to solve our problem.

We spent 8 years building illywhacker, our second cruising yacht in which we indulged ourselves by ticking off all the items laboriously entered in our "next boat" book, an accumulation of ideas, needs and wants from the previous 9 years of cruising. There are many merits in building your own yacht, not the least being the fact that it will be done so well that when you finally get to go cruising nothing will go wrong…go wrong…go wrong!

To a point that was what happened for us too. We had a years’ shakedown cruise from Sydney to Townsville, exploring all the inlets and bays on the way and revelling in the comfort and performance of our own creation. There were really very few repairs needed over that period, mainly refinements in the form of alterations and additions. Certainly the deck-stepped mast required no attention with the rigging needing only minimal adjustment after those first few thousand miles. It was the first trip offshore from Townsville to Gizo, via the Louisiades in PNG that really tested the construction of the boat.

In late August, "reinforced Trades" often predominate the Coral Sea weather patterns and we experienced E/SE winds 25 to 30 knots at that time with an uncomfortable chop most of the way on a course approximately NE. In a heavy displacement yacht like illywhacker with all your home contents on board, the trick in passage-making is to determine the most comfortable speed and not try to get there in record-breaking time. We were searching for the elusive "comfortable motion" and going a bit too fast when we experienced several almighty shudders as we crashed from one wave to the next. There were no serious repercussions, or so we thought, and we reached Gizo in one piece.

It was the next evening after our arrival at happy hour when Kiwi #1, Ron from Karaka II hoisted himself aboard using the cap shroud, only to find that it was dangerously loose, the cause soon being identified as a collapsed alloy mast step. A tabernacle arrangement, it was one of those "good ideas at the time" that was to allow controlled, but unassisted lowering of the mast at remote locations, at a place like Gizo! Lyndall had heard a sharp "crack" from up on deck during the day which in hindsight must have been the delayed last gasp as the alloy finally parted after the stresses of the journey.

A glance along the Gizo foreshore from on board a yacht anchored quietly to a reddening sky against the magnificent backdrop of Kolombangara island is immensely satisfying to anyone looking forward to a season of gentle and remote tropical cruising. To someone seeking a well equipped workshop with a mast crane, it presents a bleak expanse. So it was a great relief to hear Ron say that he’d experienced repairs of this sort before and that he knew of another Kiwi yacht in the area who could be convinced to lend a hand.

Next morning saw illywhacker firmly tied up and fendered at the centre of a 3-boat raft-up in a tiny, secluded anchorage a few hours from Gizo. Karaka II on one side and Platypus on the other were fixed securely to terra firma via several anchors and lines ashore. Using halyards from the two outer yachts, the rigging was eased and illywhacker’s mast carefully lifted a few centimeters and the broken mast step gingerly reassembled. Local hardwood was used as packing between the base of the mast and the deck mounting plate with the end-grain taking the compression load, the whole assembly then being saturated in epoxy. Terry on Platypus kindly provided the chemicals and volunteered to apply the epoxy. The timber and reconstituted mast step he then wrapped in glass and kevlar and again this was saturated in epoxy. The whole operation was completed in a few hours and the rigging was able to be reconnected and tightened the same day, allowing us all by sundown to get on with the serious business for which a raft-up is intended. A few days after drying out, (the epoxy resin sic) the repair was filled, sanded and painted.

Timber packing is glued in place
Glassed and drying Lifting illywhacker's mast using halyards

The mast now looks as though it carries through to the deck mounting plate and when the time comes to lift it, some radical surgery will be needed to release it and a new mast step will be required. But that’s not such a big deal really and for us, the exercise was a pleasing example of a simple solution well executed by 2 willing and competent cruising companions. Our first thoughts had centred on how we could replace the mast step with something similar, using a mast crane and facilities as we would back home. No wonder the task seemed hopeless, it just took a fresh mind to turn the situation around into a simple solution using what was available.

This arrangement has carried us a further 4000 miles to Japan were we are now enjoying a very different cruising lifestyle. But our lives have been made richer by the memories of our Solomon Islands adventure thanks to 2 great cruising friends.


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