A stuck halyard (rope used to hoist the sails), a mainsail stuck halfway up the mast, a gennaker (large jib) which does not want to come down... Many problems can occur above deck level, forcing the sailors to climb up the spar : not being able to control the sail plan comes down to driving a car which power is not manageable. If the wind freshens, one has to reduce sails quickly : on the contrary, encountering light airs after a squall means that the boat will need more power, i.e. more sail surface. When racing, the sail plan has to be dealt with quite quickly – that's why sailors do not hesitate to climb up the mast as soon as a problem occurs. "But one has to realise that it's very shaky up there, says François Denis, and even in the harbour, when someone walks across the net, the guy who's working on the mast is subject to the boat movements, amplified by the height". It's easy to imagine how hard it must be in rough sea conditions, with the automatic pilot ! Certain skippers even wear a crash helmet to climb up their mast, in order to prevent knocking their head.
Controlling the damage
"Usually, adds François Denis, the solo sailor has a 'man halyard' and some mountaineering gear to get up there (some 30 metres above sea level). In Lionel's case, when Gitana X's mast broke 7 metres below the mast head, he could not use that solution, since the halyards were stuck. The main sail was hoisted up to the second reef point, and he could not lower it". A quite uncomfortable situation, especially when the weather is getting bad and the navigator does not have the possibility to adopt a low profile by reducing sails ! "Lionel handled that very well, getting the broken part of the mast down very smoothly, and that's why it did not cause any damage to the structure. If the broken part had fallen suddenly, it would probably have perforated the float or the crossbeams – since the mast portion has sharp angles and metallic edges". We've seen this happen to Loick Peyron's Fujifilm, when the mast made a hole in the port float when it fell.
Brought back without any further damage to La Trinité-sur-Mer, Gitana X has not suffered much apart from her mast damage, thanks to Lionel who perfectly managed the situation. But now the trimaran needs a new spar – a job that's already well under way : "the engineer in charge of structure calculation is coming to the yard this afternoon", explains François Denis.