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The Mysterious Dismasting of Wingman

Wingman in Richardson Bay
This photo, sent to us by a reader, piqued our curiosity — and sympathy.
© 2021 Anya Bandt

Wingman’s Mast Crumples

“On Saturday, March 6, we were sailing in the Corinthian Yacht Club Midwinter race, headed to the weather mark at Point Diablo,” reports Jim Diepenbrock, owner of the Swan 44 Wingman. “We passed under the Golden Gate and tacked onto the port-tack layline. The true wind was 15-17 knots, and seas were calm with a 3-ft swell. We were in the remnants of a flood.

“Three or four minutes into the port tack, I saw the headstay fall off to leeward and then saw the top third of the mast collapse. I heard nothing. Some of the crew report hearing a pop and might have seen a metal part fly through the air. The headstay was slack, the jib was in the water, and the backstay was slack and mostly overboard, but the rig remained supported by the running backstay.

Wingman's mast top
Moments after Wingman’s mast folded at the top spreader.
© 2021 Jim Diepenbrock

The Crew Reacts

“We immediately turned downwind and checked on the crew status. Thankfully all were onboard and uninjured. We attached the inner forestay and tightened the port running backstay to attempt to keep the rig standing. We wanted to lower the sails, but the halyards were jammed in the mast crease and would not release, nor could we pull the sails down. We could not find a safe way to climb to the unsupported top of the mast and cut the halyards. Also, consider that the top 15 feet of mast was bent in half and hanging off to starboard over the water.

“We retrieved the angle grinder with a cutaway blade in case we needed to cut the shrouds. There was 15 feet of slack in the backstays and we could not get the sails down, so we prepared for the possibility of a total rig failure.”

Wingman motorsailing
Wingman motorsails back to Sausalito.
© 2021 Jim Diepenbrock

“Given no alternative, we checked for lines overboard and motorsailed to a dock in Sausalito,” continues Jim. “Once docked, we again tried to find a safe way to scale the mast, and determined it was time to call Ken Keefe at KKMI. Ken and his crane operators met us at KKMI, and we were able to release the halyards and lower the sails. The cause of the mast failure is unknown but will be determined when we get the mast out of the boat.”

Man on crane
A rigger hanging from the wire of a crane works on getting the sails down at KKMI’s boatyard.
© 2021 Jim Diepenbrock

In Retrospect

Jim shared his analysis of the incident with us. “What we got right: The entire rig had been removed and inspected, and all standing and running rigging replaced five months before the accident. We were prepared to cut the rig away from the boat with a grinder and a stack of cutaway blades. The crew was calm and efficient in spite of the circumstances. Before starting the motor, we did an exhaustive check to make sure no halyards, sheets or shrouds would foul the propeller.

“What we will consider: We were lucky not to be mid-ocean or in 30 knots of wind. I don’t know how we could lower the jib and a full batten mainsail without getting to the masthead to cut the halyard — this needs to be solved. Cutting the mast slides from the sail would have made matters worse as the top 1/3 would still be attached. The same is true of the jib. Perhaps your readers will have an answer?” Readers can enter a comment below.

Two Weeks Later

Jim gave us a call and said that the rigging company’s insurer, GEICO, is stepping up to pay the insurance claim, without further investigation into the cause of the rig failure. It appears to Jim, however, that the spreader cap came off, causing the shroud to come out of the spreader. Along with so much else, the spreader cap had been replaced last summer.

Offshore Spars is building Wingman a new carbon-fiber mast. It won’t be ready until August 1, so in the meantime, Jim says, “I have an 8-knot powerboat!”

Jim bought the 2001 Swan last July and spent about six months refitting everything. Wingman lives in Schoonmaker Point Marina; she’s the fourth Swan in Jim’s family. “Wingman will live to fight another day,” Jim told us.

1 Comment

  1. Richard Bradly Smith 3 years ago

    People thought it was crazy but I still like the idea of firing a flare gun at it if your chute is going to put your boat on the rocks! In this case I suspect that mid-ocean or in 30 knots of wind nature would take care of it in short order.

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