Summerouting ends with a crack

Published on Thu, May 27, 2004 by ack Kintner

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Summer outing ends with a crack

By Jack Kintner

A failed turnbuckle turned what was supposed to be a family outing to Sucia Island into a struggle just to make it back home last weekend when the Blaine-based 38-foot Windless II lost its mast west of Birch Point.

“It sounded like a shotgun blast,” said the boat’s owner and skipper, Doug Towle of White Rock, B.C. “I heard the bang and then turned into the wind and it all came down,” he said.

No one was injured in the mishap but it left Towle and his family stuck several miles offshore in a brisk 20-knot wind without communications, since the boat’s radio antenna at the top of the mast went underwater.

“The radar still worked,” Towle said, “but its mount was carried away and the dome was on its side in the cockpit, so we couldn’t see anything useful.” He added that the way the electrical system had been rigged in the 26-year-old boat meant that his bilge pump was also inoperative.

“And with the top two-thirds of the mast over the starboard (right) side along with all the lines and other rigging attached to it, we couldn’t go much over a knot or two under power. I was afraid if we really pushed it we might foul the prop and not be able to move under our own power at all,” Towle said.

As it was, Towle figured that from their position they could just make it back into the Blaine Marina before sundown. “We had a favorable current,” he said, “a flooding tide. We saw another fellow out there trying to go against it with all the power he had but he wasn’t going anywhere.” It took three hours but shortly before sundown they slowly made it into the harbor entrance and tied up for the night at Westman Marine.

Towle had been motor-sailing, using his engine to power into the wind with his main sail set to steady the boat, so when the mast went over the side one of his two primary sails was furled, creating much less drag in the water.

Towle said that a few boats came by to offer assistance. “One fellow in a power boat was quite indignant with me when I wouldn’t cut the mast and let the whole mess go over the side,” he said, “but that’s a huge chunk of aluminum. If I’d tried to cut it with a hacksaw or something I’d still be out there sawing away,” he laughed.

Towle and his wife Martha have often taken their four girls and black lab Jake on weekend cruises since buying Windless II seven years ago. “This is the most relaxing thing we can do for a weekend,” Towle said, “but you’re always thinking about safety when your family’s along because you’re always having little semi-disasters in boating, little things here and there going wrong. This has sure raised the bar as to what’s going to freak us out in the future.”

The mast weighs several hundred pounds and extends from the bottom of the inside of the hull to 40 feet above the deck. It’s held in place by shrouds and stays, long cables or rods that are adjusted for length and tension with large turnbuckles. When it failed, four of the six people on board were below. “The end of the mast that’s below the deck made short work of the table that surrounds it and lifted my daughter’s boyfriend off his feet,” Towle continued.

Also on board, beside Towle and his wife, were three of their four daughters and Jake, “who took it the worst,” said Towle, “he really freaked out at first but eventually was OK, especially after he got back on dry land.”

Ironically, Towle had ordered replacements for the part that failed just a week ago. “I heard that there might be problems with the turnbuckles on these boats,” said Towle, “but the replacements hadn’t arrived by the weekend.”