I’m still shaking as I write the start of this blog and it’s been a full 24-hours since the biggest disaster of our circumnavigation … ironically not even at sea.
Baggy was dramatically dismasted by the V&A Marina bascule lifting bridge in Cape Town, South Africa.
It was a Wednesday afternoon (9th March) and we were excited about our 1,700 mile, two week, sail to the remote UK flagged island of Saint Helena.
Baggy was full to bursting with a three months supply of food and water; our visas had expired and we’d checked out of the country. We’d used the last of our phone data and bought a Cape Town mug with the last of our Rand pocket change. We were as ready as ready things.
To exit the V&A Marina yachts pass under two pedestrian bridges – first the bascule lifting bridge, then a swing bridge. These bridges both have operators and are lifted and swung, on request, twice an hour – at quarter to the hour and quarter past.
Ready for the 15.45 lift and following the marina rules we called up the bridge operator, named ‘Swing Bridge’, on VHF Channel 71 with our boat name and intentions. The operator replied and we motored towards the bascule lifting bridge. We’d heard another yacht on the radio and saw it pass through in front of us, and as we approached the bridge was open and not closing.
Even if it had been closing there was nothing to indicate this – no lights or warning alarm. We motored on, but as the bow started to go under we saw the gap in the middle was narrowing and then with horror saw the bridge was building up momentum to close. By now we were at a point of no return. The mast went through but the spreaders hit the bridge sides.
The rigging pulled taut on the aluminium 13 metre mast until it folded in half, ripped out of its deck step and crashed like a tree into the sea.
Along with it went every strand of our four month old standing rigging, the boom, main sail, genoa – everything crashed down around us.
The boom missed Paul by inches as it fell and he was whipped across the back of his neck by a lazy jack.
Time then momentarily stood completely still, poised, as if nothing had happened. It seemed a miracle we weren’t hurt and deep down we knew we could have been killed. All Paul could say was “It’s over. That’s it; it’s over.”
Then, as if a light switch had been flipped, the world around us burst into action. The bridge finished closing and shocked pedestrians started crossing, calling out to us and taking photos.
The bascule lifting bridge operator appeared at the dock side. A young slip of a lad dressed in smart black trousers, a well ironed white shirt and badged officers hat, radio in hand.
“We radioed you – didn’t you see us?” Paul shouted. And this is what the lift operator said “I can’t see you from where I am.”
I CAN’T SEE YOU FROM WHERE I AM?
The bascule lifting bridge operator sits in a metal porta-cabin, with small, dirty, barred windows. He has a clear view of the entrance side, but absolutely no line of sight of our exit side. He really hadn’t seen us and had closed the bridge.
The Rescue Operation
Helpful people magically appeared on the scene to hold lines and carefully turn us round, without crushing the mast hanging over the side. The engine was unaffected and we limped back to the first empty pontoon in the V&A Marina.
For several hours there was a flurry of attention, talk, tutting, advice and consolation.
But, eventually, we were able to make just enough room across the hatch to go below into Baggy’s homely belly, hug and feel emotional. We apologised for hurting her, had a cup of tea, calmed down and made a plan.
And the plan was this. We would not be broken by this and whatever it took we would repair Baggy and sail her home. We’d come so far. We only had six months to go. It couldn’t end like this.
The speed of care and attention that Baggy received from then on was startling.
Thursday 10 March: the next day
👍 Associated Rigging visited early to assess the damage and reassure us. Impressively they’d read our blogs, knew all about Westerly Conways and appreciated Baggy’s advancing years – 43 years old this year. Practically vintage. She was in reliable hands.
👍 The V&A Marina Manager said we could stay in the marina, at no charge, for as long as it took us to get repairs done.
👍 Stamp, stamp, smile. Immigration renewed our visas, without a quibble, for another three months.
Friday 11 March: salvage operation
A team of five burly riggers and a specialist from Sparcraft Masts, arrived bright and early to salvage the mast from the water. After an hour of team rope pulling, the dripping mast was laid out on the deck like a dislocated limb.
And they sawed it in half, with an angle grinder, just like that, right there and then.
Honestly, it was like watching a leg being sawn off at the knee.
And just like that Baggy’s mast was in two parts, carried through a gap that had to be made in a fence, and strapped to the top of a van, ready to be transported to intensive care.
Next up, the sail was removed from the 13 metre genoa foil; it was badly bent and unusable.
All the standing rigging and shrouds were taken away for evaluation and Paul tidied up the deck so we could at last see what deck damage remained.
Once everything was cleared up the damage didn’t seem so bad. The topping lift had snapped in half, blue bridge paint was smeared across the furled genoa and shards of bridge paint lay scattered across the deck.
The tedious ‘who did what, to who, why, when and how’ then began.
There are, of-course, two sides to every story. But we know this.
We followed protocol and radioed ‘Swing Bridge’ with our boat name and they confirmed the two bridges were opening.
For whatever reason, it appears our message was not relayed to the bascule lifting bridge operator. But then these operators don’t have radio licenses; apparently not required as they are not operating at sea.
The bridge has no stop/go, or flashing operating light. The bridge has no audible warning. The operator can’t see yachts approaching and there is no look-out.
Statements were gathered and emails sent. We knew serious conversations were being had behind closed doors.
It was implied we hadn’t radioed and the bridge operators were allegedly polygraphed.
But as Paul (with thirty years of sailing experience) pointed out, “Look. We’re British. We all think we’re in the Royal Navy; we follow the rules and do things the right way.”
It was an anxious time because we don’t have fully comprehensive insurance; the sale value of Baggy didn’t warrant it. And our piggy banks are dwindling fast. Contingency budgets had already been gobbled up by two complete re-rigs. Financially this was a hard hit.
But, confident we were not at fault, we advised the marina we were seeking legal advice and made plans to take the issue further, if required.
Monday 14 March: 3rd working day after the dismasting
Fault blaming aside, our mission was to get Baggy in and out of intensive care as quickly and effectively as possible and continue with our journey. And thankfully her team of ‘mast doctors’ were on our side and couldn’t have been more helpful.
We were picked up by car and driven to the SparCraft Mast workshop to discuss repair options. Sat around a meeting table we were offered a brand new 15 metre aluminium mast section, for free! The only additional cost would be modification, hardware and labour.
Rejected by the original purchaser because of a cosmetic issue in the anodising process, the mast was at their Durban workshop. Without hesitation we said yes! We were then told it was already on its way and would arrive in a few days. We couldn’t believe our luck.
The plan was:
👍 To cut the new mast to size, remove all useable parts from the old mast and transfer them to the new mast. If we’d repaired the old mast we would have lost over a metre of height and the sails would have had to be re-cut. A new, modern mast was more cost-effective.
👍 To replace the four month old rigging with stronger 8mm wire.
👍 To fit a replacement boom, compatible with the new mast.
👍 To find replacement parts for the bent genoa furler.
Once the new mast was re-sized and set up we would move to the Royal Cape Yacht Club and a crane would put the new mast in place. The standing rigging would be put back up; and, fingers crossed, Baggy would be fit, refurbished and good to go.
Friday 18 March: 8th working day after the dismasting
The new mast had arrived. We went to inspect it and confirmed the work required. Game on!
Monday 21 March: 9th working day after the dismasting
The quote arrived and we promptly sent it to V&A Marina for the consideration of their lawyers and management board. Work began and we waited.
Thursday 7 April: 22nd working day after dismasting
At last. The new mast was ready to be fitted and we motored Baggy to Royal Cape Yacht Club, just 30 minutes away, where a crane was used to lower it into place.
We radioed the dreaded bridges again, but this time passed through with no mast … and no drama!
Friday 8 April: 23rd day working day after dismasting
On a fearsomely windy morning the mast was swung over and installed into a new deck step. And re-rigging began in earnest.
Thursday 15 April: 27th working day after dismasting
Work was completed. The furling drum, genoa, backstay, inner forestay and boom, kicker, main sail were all in place. Baggy was literally swaggering with pride!
We even received an email from V&A Marina’s public liability insurance broker … we had a case number. Wheels were turning!
Then … we sprung a leak
You couldn’t make it up.
On Saturday 16 April we cleared out with immigration (again), bought bountiful supplies of fresh food (again), used up our Rands (again), said our goodbyes (again). We were all set to leave for the remote island of Saint Helena on Sunday (again).
Then we looked in the bilges … they were full of water. Sea water!
We emptied, drained and dried the bilges and traced the leak to where the mast compression post meets the inside of the hull.
Then we dived under the boat and found THE CRACK ⚡️
The hull must have initially weakened when the mast came down. Then, when the new rigging was tightened, it pulled the mast down onto the hull and opened the crack.
We have a bilge pump and can empty the bilges daily; but old Baggy isn’t going to make a long voyage up the Atlantic.
We are so fortunate to have found this problem before leaving Cape Town. And we realise now why so few people manage to sail all the way round the world.
It’s another problem we need to fix. So, we’ve cleared back into the country (again) and will see what can be done after the Bank Holiday weekend.
One thing’s for sure … we’re not going anywhere sometime soon!!
Disasters aside, what have we been up to?
V&A Marina in Cape Town is world class, nestled under the majestic Table Mountain and national park. And V&A Waterfront is a bustle of live music, funky bars and eateries, craft stalls, galleries and sea front. There was stacks to do.
Amongst the city busyness our nature fix was a raucous fur seal colony which lived just ten metres away. Here’s our short video all about them.
⭐️ We enjoyed the colourful Cape Town Carnival.
⭐️ We climbed Lions Head, next to Table Mountain.
⭐️ We supported four different Park Runs around the district.
⭐️ We spotted sea otters frolicking by the boat; helped out at a dinghy regatta; cheered on over 20,000 cyclists in the 68 mile Cape Town Cycle Tour; and visited one of the world’s greatest botanical garden, Kirstenbosch.
The conclusion? We don’t know what the future holds. But, we can say this for sure, Baggy wants to finish sailing round the world. We’ll keep you posted.