Tragic stories of the Westsail and lessons to be learned

The Westsail 32 is a stout boat. With a gross weight of more than ten tons, and a ballast of three and a half tons, the remaining weight of wood, metal, and fiberglass is six and a quarter tons. An excellent choice for anyone looking for a hull that can fend off damage from running aground or boarding seas. The ballast is also encapsulated inside the keel so the only component under the water subject to damage is the rudder, which is protected by the keel and oversized bronze gudgeons and pintles. The rigging is also constructed with a stout mast, outboard chainplates and oversized cables, which can keep her mast upright even after being knocked down. Her balanced sail plan is designed to allow three sails to fly, with the jib stay extending six feet beyond the deck and the mainsail boom extending to the furthest aft part of the cockpit. The working sails are a 374  ft² yankee, 320  ft²  mainsail and 150 ft² staysail. Satori is 844 total ft², but the sail plan is calculated as 663 ft2. A reduced sail plan is an 80 ft² trysail and 85  ft² storm jib, a total of 165 ft². To keep keep the mast up, there are six shrouds extending outboard, a forestay, an staysail stay at two-thirds up the mast, and a single backstay. An additional set of running backstays provide opposing force when the winds are greater than twenty-five knots and the boat is running downwind under staysail or storm jib. The simplicity of a tiller prevents any potential risk of loosing steering because there are no moving parts aside from the gudgeons and pintles holding the rudder to the keel.

So with such a massively build boat, is it possible for a Westsail to sink or become dismasted? Absolutely. One thing to consider about owning a Westsail is the age of the boat and rigging. Bud Taplin provides a list of known part failures that have occurred over the last forty years. Rarely will you hear of a Westsail becoming holed from running aground but there are rare occasions where the captain made a fatal error in navigation, which caused the demise of their vessel. In the video below, you’ll see that this particular incident happened on the Coast of California against sharp rocks.

Most of the reports from Westsail being lost are due to rigging failures or neglect and abandonment. If the rigging has been well cared for and serviced regularly, the rig could be strong enough to handle a complete capsize and 360 degree roll. Sundowner is one boat in particular that has been rolled, yet did not suffer a dismasting. Likely this was due to the fact that the owners were meticulous in keeping the rig in good condition, and likely serviced and replaced any suspect part that has a potential to fail. Westsail ‘Pilot’ had also suffered a dismasting after enduring big seas and gale force winds. They attempted to run before a gale, then endured a complete roll, and finally lost their rig after attempting to run under bare poles. ‘Tar Baby II’ had also suffered a dismasting but not due to storms and heavy seas. This time it was a rigging failure from one of the toggles on a boomkin stay. The lower stays that hold the fore and aft stays are crucial to supporting the mast and are often neglected. They chose to abandon their boat instead of attempting a jury rig, and were rescued by a fishing vessel. The video below shows their wonderful journey, which includes the abandonment. What’s interesting about this particular situation is how the rig ended up failing. Since the downward support of the boomkin was no longer in tact, the wooden boomkin sheared right where the thru-bolts held it in place. The lesson for all Westsail owners is to make sure that these four stays that support the spars are new and their chainplates are also replaced. Bud Taplin suggests that every boat replace the chainplates that hold down the spars if they are original.

Another example of a Westsail suffering a dismasting due to a complete rollover is ‘Aissa’. In this incident, the boat was in the high latitudes, southeast of Stewart Island and was also reaching before the wind and seas under only the storm jib. Perhaps at this point of sail the waves had a good chance of rolling the boat, but as mentioned in this story, the seas were steep enough to potentially pitchpole the boat, which might cause even more damage or worse. This is yet another story of the captain deciding not to tow a sea anchor, heave-to or set a bow anchor. Fortunately they were able to run under jury rig and motor to get their boat to shore.

Finally, the last story was also a scenario where the boat was in the high latitudes near Cape Horn with an accomplished sailor named Tom Corogan, who extensively sailed his boat ‘TLC’. In this scenario, it is uncertain if the backstay broke or if it was also a result of the boomkin stays breaking, but it did lead to the mast coming down and the boat being abandoned. There is a photo that shows how the boomkin looked after the rigging failed, and it looks as if the entire mess of steel had lifted and moved to the port side, which may indicate that it was indeed the boomkin stays and not the backstay. Also in his interview he mentions “two little cables” instead of the single long backstay, which also indicates the boomkin stays had failed. The confusion is he also says, “after the two backstays broke”, but two backstays would not be considered little so I’m speculating that it was the boomkin stays. I am looking towards other to get more info on this incident. Another discussion seems to indicate that it was the backstay, but that was provided by a news article so there is still some uncertainty. What is known is that the wreckage caused the tiller to become jammed, which prevented him from steering the boat, then later caused the abandonment. Wether it was the backstay or the boomkin stays, a rigging failure yet again caused the boat to become disabled.

Perhaps the most known story about a Westsail abandonment is Satori. Many people mistake this Satori for the Westsail that is also named Satori on the Atlantic side of the country. By coincidence they were both named around the same time. My Satori did do some cruising in the North Pacific, but the infamous Satori only sailed the North Atlantic. Coined, “The Perfect Storm”, a popular novel included Satori and Captain Ray Leonard. The story begins with a well rigged Westsail with two crew members. The boat was knocked down in a storm that absorbed Hurricane Grace and another no-name storm becoming, “the storm of the century”.  There is an excellent article that documents the account which led to the abandonment of Satori. In short, the Coast Guard rescued the crew and the captain left the boat to sail under storm jib and pointed it towards New Jersey. Later the boat was found on a sandy beach on the shores of New Jersey and later repaired. Nothing more than a some light damage occurred to the boat after running aground. Later the boat was repaired and continued to sail without issue.

There are other stories about Westsails being lost at sea but much of it is limited information and not much to be learned from them, other than perhaps to carry the proper emergency radio communication equipment. I have not heard of any stories where the crew had rigging failure and the boat and crew perished as a result. I’m sure there are stories though. There were over eight-hundred Westsail 32 hulls manufactured so there must be more stories out there. Readers if you know of any, please add your comments and link to any other accounts that are available online.

So for future Westsail owners who plan to take their boat into the great big blue, perhaps the two biggest lessons I learned from the accounts above are:

1) Learn and use storm tactics that are known to succeed. Lin Pardy’s book, ‘Storm Tactics‘ describes heaving-to and deploying a para-anchor from the bow in a bridle to keep the bow to the waves. Bernard Moitessier tried trailing warps on his first trip around Cape Horn, then later learned that he could surf waves coming from his stern quarter under bare poles and keep the boat in control at all times. This meant having someone at the helm at all times as well. Many people believe that the Jordan Series drogue is a better solution for keeping the boat stern to the waves and slowing the boat down to prevent capsize. John Kretschmer describes his best heavy weather tactic as beating or heading to wind when the winds are gale and beyond. There are many other opinions and ideas regarding heavy weather sailing, but the most popular and perhaps the most successful is knowing how to avoid heavy weather all together. Either way, not one tactic will win but also not one tactic will work for all boats in all situations. I am still working on outfitting Satori with storm equipment. I have a new trysail and storm jib for when the winds allow for sailing, but am not further equipped with a para-anchor, Jordan series drogue or additional high-load tackle. I am planning on outfitting with both bow and stern anchors however.

2) Prepare and maintain your rig and rigging. In the most popular accounts of a Westsail becoming dismasted, it seems that the rigging could have been inspected, replaced and maintained to prevent a failure. This includes the chainplates, the mast assembly and toggles, turnbuckles and anything else that may not have been inspected or replaced before heading offshore. When I purchased Satori, I thought simply replacing the standing rigging would be all that is needed to prepare the rig for offshore sailing. I’ve now decided that I was naive to think that the four stays and chainplates would suffice, as would not rebuilding the mast and inspecting every single fitting. I’ve since decided that I will continue to refit Satori during this upcoming winter, with the primary project being the mast, boom and any other rigging that has not already been serviced or replaced. Another idea I’ve had is to make sure there are backups for the backstay and forestay. A dyneema solent stay would be useful to allow Satori to run under two sails, or allow a genoa to be deployed without having to take down the yankee on the roller furler. It would also allow the storm jib to be deployed on the forward triangle to balance the helm in winds from twenty-five knots to thirty-five knots. Currently the plan only allows for the staysail and mainsail triangles to be utilized. It would also serve as a backup forestay in the event that the steel stay failed. The backstay could also have an additional dyneema stay that could be attached like a running backstay but when running with only a sail on the forestay or spinnaker, as opposed to only the staysail and opposing runners. When neither of these stays are needed, they can be lashed outboard to a belay pin and because of their light weight, would not cause a sacrifice in weight aloft.

I do not expect anyone to believe that I am an experienced offshore sailing captain, or even experienced with Westsail 32 sailing yachts. I am only in my second year owning a sailboat and have never been offshore. I have only learned from the media that is available to read from other accounts. These accounts are perhaps the most critical elements of preparation. Even Bernard Moitessier did not have experience with heavy weather and big seas when attempting Cape Horn the first time around. He asked his wife and co-pilot to bring up books into the cockpit from their library so he could come up with a solution from other accounts. Vito Dumas provided enough insight in his account to allow Bernard to come up with his own ideas. He also knew that Tsu-Hang was pitchpoled by running directly before the sea under bare poles, which should be avoided. Only when he cut his warps and surfed on the stern quarter did he finally maintain control in such a sea state. Much of today’s information is no more than the same information that previous sailing authors had learned. I have chosen to stick with stories that would also apply to the type of boat I am sailing. Much of the stories written in the early 1900’s through the 1970’s were of double-ended, heavy displacement boats. Perhaps the only difference between today’s version of the same offshore boats would be a ketch-cutter rig versus a cutter rig, plus the addition of more advanced structural materials and rigging. The weight has decreased and durability has gone up. Only the quality is left to question when deciding which product will suit the application. Because of my extensive research, it has enabled me to conglomerate some of these accounts and lessons into something I can pass on to my fellow readers. I hope it has been insightful and useful for your own preparations. Please comment if you have any additional insight or opinion.

 

4 Replies to “Tragic stories of the Westsail and lessons to be learned”

  1. Wow! I don’t know what to make of this article. It covers some important ground, yet it doesn’t seem to have a clear editorial theme. You start off really concerned about rigging, then evolve into off-shore tactics. What are you really concerned about, and what was your reason for making this post?

    I think any Westsailor that hopes to do off-shore sailing should install oversized standing rigging. My boat had something like 5/8ths stainless. That’s going to stand in most scenarios, unless I’m rolled around Cape Horn, then, my deck might be swept clean, and it wouldn’t matter what my standing rigging was.

    The people who pitch-poled rounding Cape Horn did everything exactly right, just not at that moment in time. Vito Dumas and Bernard didn’t pitch-pole, because they tried different tactics, OR, they got lucky.

    Bernard is one of my personal heros, especially on a philosophical level, but please don’t forget that he sailed several boats up onto the reefs and lost them, with disastrous results.

    The mark of a true sailor is that you know that you are going to suffer loss… you know that you are going to suffer failure (equipment or otherwise), but you also know that you will figure out a solution to help you and your crew survive.

    I don’t have much more experience than you. I had to move my boat from Daytona Beach FL to Manhattan, so, we went off-shore all the way. We got our butts kicked by weather systems, but the rigging held (though things came unshackled that shouldn’t have)

    Whenever you decide to go off-shore, you are going to have to deal with things. In my mind, you are ‘over-thinking’ things. If you over-think things, you won’t go. Maybe that is what you want. If you actually do want to go, then say to yourself ‘I take that under advisement, but I’m going anyway!’

    1. Michael,

      I don’t carry a degree or a career in writing and I am sorry if all articles on the internet must be clear in their editorial theme from your perspective. I compiled some stories about Westsails that were rolled and/or dismasted. I provided my thoughts on the lessons learned. I disclosed my inexperience with offshore sailing, and even provided some of my ideas on preventing these mishaps. Everyone has their own way of preparing for offshore sailing. You may think I am overthinking things, and that’s okay. It’s my boat, it’s my money, it’s my time, and it’s my adventure. That’s all that matters.

  2. There are 2 bolts that attach the short boomkin cables from the boomkin(s) to the hull of the boat at the stern. They enter the boat in the engine compartment and are difficult to reach. These actually can be below the waterline at certain angles of heel and/or if the boat is fully loaded. It is a terrible design on an otherwise well designed boat. If one or both of these fail the boomkin will lift and tear free of the stern. Replacing the boomkins with steel ones still does not change this design flaw. I would strongly encourage anyone refitting a westsail 32 to go to a split backstay design, with sturdy stainless chainplates on either side of the stern, well above the waterline. Fair winds!

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