top of page

The Topaz Problem


by Ted Robinson

The Topaz came from the factory designed for performance sailing on lakes and inshore waters. For the 2003 Bermuda 1-2, I thought it prudent to make some structural modifications to make her sound for offshore weather contingencies. The plastic cabin window frames were replaced with stainless, a doghouse support strut added, and selected areas of the hull structure beefed up with stringers and added layers of glass. An added turtledeck to reduce cockpit volume doubled as housing for a 10 lb genset of my own design.


The 10 lb genset using a 4 stroke weedwacker installed under its turtledeck.

To widen the wind range of her sailing performance, an inner forestay had been added, the boom attach point had been lowered, her regular foresails replaced with low profile "mule" jibs, and a 5 foot bowsprit added to accommodate a code zero twice the size of a 110% genoa. She was trimmed to more efficiently surf offshore waves by moving batteries, water, and ground tackle aft, and reducing the radii of the leading edges of her rudder and keel. The inch thick foiled oar of her self steering vane was replaced with a 1/4 inch piece of G-10 fiberglass.

The weather forecast for the 2005 doublehanded leg appeared routine, with the Bermuda Weather briefer calling for reaching breezes increasing to 20 knots for the first two days followed by a front stalling and light conditions for the second half of the race from the Gulf Stream northwest into Newport. Weather sites I had glanced at online indicated a possibility of more excitement, a compact mass of showers drifting up off the East coast along this front supposedly not becoming organized as a low pressure until after it crossed our path. To prepare for the possibility of a northeast gale and large surf in the Stream, heavy stuff was moved further aft and the tie-downs to the bottom under the cockpit were doubled. 

The rig concerned me, as the lower shrouds had been showing off-scale strain readings estimated at 1400 lbs (between 30 and 35% of breaking load) when sailed hard. Sailing less aggressively at decreased heeling angle had reduced these numbers on the singlehanded leg. As I had been unsuccessful in replacing the 3/16 wires with 1/4 inch, I slacked off the lowers to allow us some leeway.

A 750 square foot kite had been brought along, graciously loaned to me by Kiteship. This sail was a derivative of the kite surfers' rigs, and offered two advantages over conventional spinnakers. First, there was no heeling limitation to the traction kites' pulling power, as they pulled from deck level, and second, they could be flown off a dismasted boat. This latter somewhat offset my concerns regarding loss of the rig.


Topaz leaving Town Cut in racing mode.

Hammer Down
On Thursday, June 16 Topaz started her fourth race across the gulfstream, the first with crew. Drew Wood, who had sold his Olsen 30 "Banzai", would enable us to take turns hand sailing much of the time in an over canvassed "racing mode" rather than the autopilot driven cruising mode I had used on the three previous solo trips. Passing Kitchen Shoals we set the code zero. With its 55% midgirth and low cut foot (using the sea as an end plate), its thrust was low enough that the tender Hobie was controllable in the 15 knot breeze.

With Drew driving, Topaz surfed the 8' seas easily, hitting 12 knots occasionally. We began putting the hurt on competitors who were unable to keep their chutes working in the beam-reaching breeze. A loud "twang" got our attention, but everything seemed OK, and rig loads were under 35%. It removed any doubts in our minds, however, that we were on the edge of our rig's envelope. The wind continued to increase, and we began taking turns trying to keep Topaz under control. 

Toward evening we set the "mule" jib, equal in area to a 100%, but with a longer foot and shorter hoist. The longer foot overlapped the main for added power, and the short hoist lowered the center of effort, stabilizing the boat. It cost us less than a knot of speed, but did little to reduce the strain on the rig. It did let us use our Sailomat wind vane to do the driving, with the new G-10 oar slicing the water like a knife, even when the boat surfed.  

Friday featured a 12' swell kicked up by an eddy setting against a 20 knot SW wind. We got some 14 knot surfs with the code zero up, finishing the day with a 24 hour run of 169 miles.

The predawn hours on Saturday the 18th brought us a series of squalls and the liner Nordic Crown bound for New York. There was enough lightning to force us to shut down all our electronics and loop the anchor chain overboard (to keep lightning from holing us). With the Crown growing larger on the same bearing, we turned on the VHF to hail her. She had apparently left her electronics on, had already calculated our position and heading, and asked us not to alter course. We stayed ahead of her for an hour, surfing the stiff gusts in the squalls while she had to slow down to avoid numerous other targets besides ours.


Nordic Crown's sister, the Nordic Majesty, putting the Cut to use.

After sunup the winds died, and we spent the day Saturday with the code zero moving us at close to wind speed in lumpy seas, getting us to 37 degrees North by dinnertime. As we later found out from the satellite trackers' hourly position reports, we were now 30 miles behind class leader Barrett Holby's Quest 33 Wazimo.

With 290 miles, or about half the race to go, the evening forecast over the HF was for a low pressure to bring gale force winds late tomorrow south of the 40th parallel, bearing out my pre-race suspicions. By midnight the wind had come up out of the east, and increased till we were putting a third reef in the main by daybreak on Sunday, June 19.

At 8 AM we celebrated Father's Day with a deluxe hot breakfast. With 215 miles to go, the Topaz was approaching the north edge of the Gulf Stream at the 38th parallel, bashing through a rapidly growing 4' chop on top of a west swell emanating from the approaching low. We had kept the mule up all night, which had paid off, as the trackers on the boats would later show Barrett's margin had been cut from 30 miles to 19 during the night while we rested and the vane steered. At this rate we would beat him by 6 miles at the finish.

Our unusual speed in these conditions was made possible not only by the power of the low cut sails, but also by the Hobie's seaworthiness at speed. When swatted sideways by a steep breaker, Topaz didn't roll, but merely sideslipped several yards and weathercocked slightly, presumably due to her low freeboard, light weight and undersized rudder. When surfing down into a deep trough she kept her bow up. While moving the center of gravity over a foot aft had much to do with it, without her light construction and fair lines, it probably wouldn't have worked as well. We later learned these conditions were rough enough that a number of competitors in the vicinity were heaving-to.

We noticed as we were cleaning up the breakfast dishes that the boat was beginning to pound heavily, and decided to change to the smaller 65% mule after finishing. Had we been five minutes quicker, the rig might have lived to pass Barrett.

The initial failure was the starboard lower T-ball fitting parting in mid-shank. With its side support suddenly gone, and the sail load unopposed, the middle of the mast fell to leeward, buckling it at the spreaders. The lower half hit but did not break the lifelines. The top half of the mast hit the water with such violence that the top mainsail batten broke. We heard the bang. The change in the boat's motion left no doubt in Drew's mind as to what had happened.  

Topside inspection showed no immediate threat to the hull, as the pieces of the mast were still on deck. With no injuries and no leaks, a successful recovery was merely a matter of not messing up. A sail headed south was visible in the distance, so I got the handheld VHF from below and hailed her on 16, asking for relay of a message. The boat appeared to ignore us. With our tracker showing a sudden stoppage, there would be worried people ashore, and stopping the possible dispatch of an expensive, unnecessary rescue mission was a priority.

Setting the windvane for a course straight downwind got the boat end-on to the seas and calmed her motion. Getting the boom off was next, in order to get the top of the mast aboard and remove the sail. Shroud pins to the chainplates were pulled next, to allow a quick jettison.. As we were addressing these tasks, John Molocone's Flash Point circled us close by once. We gave them thumbs up, shouted that all was OK, and that we'd have a jury rig up and be under way shortly.. The time was 9:15 AM, and our position was 38-13 North by 69-31 West. Later inspection of satellite sea surface temperature maps indicated this location was right at the north wall of the gulfstream.


Dismasting location superimposed on sea surface temperature image.

Living up to its reputation as a truly nasty spot for weather, the seas had doubled in size in a matter of two hours, persuading us that jettisoning the mast and rigging was an immediate need. It would be no great loss. Drew found not only the broken T-ball, but also a stay that had rusted out from within, perhaps the source of the twang we'd heard the first day. Part of the mast had been so corroded it had been pulled off by its rivet to the tabernacle.

To dump the mast without damage or injury required unlashing its two pieces from the rail and getting them both, along with all the attached rigging, wiring, and halyards cleanly overboard without snagging. With a little help from a passing swell, the two of us managed this, watching it sink with surprising speed. 

As our new mast, the 12' boom offered six shivs of the jiffy reefing for two halyards and four stays. The other end had a gooseneck that wouldn't fit into the tabernacle socket, until I persuaded it with a hammer. By now the swells' tossing the boat around made the boom heavy and unwieldy to raise. We got the storm jib rigged to the new forestay, using the second hank as the head, and the second to last as the tack. It was sheeted into a workable shape, and we got moving at 4 knots heading west, toward Norfolk, Va, 300 miles away. Heading more upwind, toward Newport was not possible. The boat rode easily under autopilot, and we rested. The boat remained stable, even when hit with the larger waves, which were now breaking in 100 foot long rollers.


Jury Rig, initially with jib only. Mainsail was added following day.

Our final task was getting our HF communications back. Stringing a spare power cable up our new "mast" and coupling it to our backstay eye got us heard on the 20 meter Maritime Mobile net about 4 PM. In order to send the most reassuring message, we decided to declare out intention to keep racing, and estimate a specific finishing time. This was accomplished byW3ZU, Fred, whose powerful station in Florida gave us a clear telephone contact with my daughter, Anne, at home.

She said that the race duty desk had already called about noon with the news that we were in difficulties, which had the home front worried. I explained what a jury rig was, and answered a few questions, which greatly reassured her.

Subsequent ham contacts got us telephone calls to Drew's friend Kate and the race duty desk, which further reassured the folks ashore and confirmed we were still racing. Finishing was actually problematical, as the boat could steer no closer than 120 degrees to the wind. By 7PM dropping water temperature, winds and seas indicated an exit from the Gulfstream was at hand. By 1 AM seas had dropped to 12' and the water temperature was cold, indicated we were clear of the Stream.

By daybreak Monday we added a second sail by hoisting the top of the main, doubling our sail area and adding a knot to our speed. We could now sail within 90 degrees of the wind, and could bring our heading up from Norfolk to Atlantic City, a hundred miles closer. During the day increasing water temperatures, seas and wind marked our passage past a monster warm eddy immediately upwind. Our first 24 hour run under jury rig was an encouraging 70 miles.

By midnight Monday the easterly winds began to back towards the northeast, forcing us to lay our course broadside to Newport and stopping our homeward progress at 150 miles. Daybreak Tuesday brought an unwelcome change in the forecast, which now called for the light northeasterlies to continue for the next several days, rather than the previously forecast southwest winds. With our speed down to less than 2 knots and no weatherly capability, the risk of stranding on a lee shore or being blown out to sea now made waiting for the right wind to use the kite impractical. With 100 miles to Atlantic City's broad Absecon inlet, we reluctantly decided to motor to safety.

Raising the engine proved interesting without the usual block and tackle, as the backstay hoisting point was gone. After an hour of careful wrestling this was done without injury, and at 9 AM we were once again making 4 knots. By noon the 20 meter band was working, enabling a phone patch to inform the duty desk and Customs of our change in plans. 

At midnight, we could see the lights of the tall casinos from 33 miles out. Seas were 6' and the SW winds were 15-20. By 6 AM Wednesday we were 26 miles out with the wind down to 10 and the motor running. Over the last of our coffee Drew recounted a thrilling crossing of the shipping lanes before daybreak in which the speeding leviathans were going almost nose to tail, presumably headed along the coast for New York. Reaching cell phone range around noon, we made our calls to the home front and to the local Atlantic City Customs inspector, who welcomed us home by telling us we didn't even have to clear. By 4PM Topaz was tied up at a local Clam Cove marina, and by 7PM we were in a rented car savoring the cultural joys of racing New Jersey rush hour traffic with a couple of margaritas under our belts.


Alongside at Atlantic City's lovely Clam Cove.

bottom of page