On our last day en route from Geraldton, Western Australia to the Cocos Keeling Islands, we broke our whisker pole. It was entirely my fault. I was hand-steering Nine of Cups, something that is necessary when we are sending and receiving emails via HF radio (our autopilot causes too much radio interference). We were sailing almost downwind, and a combination of a moment's inattention coupled with a large, unexpected wave caused us to jibe. Before I could react, the poled out genoa started flogging, and in a flash, our 28-year-old whisker pole broke in half. BAM!
A whisker pole attaches to the front of the mast on its inboard end and extends out either to the starboard or port side of the boat. It lets us “pole out” the head sail to windward on the opposite side of the boat from the mainsail when we are broad reaching or sailing downwind. Without a whisker pole, the mainsail blocks the wind, causing the head sail to flog uselessly. With the whisker pole, we can move the head sail out of the wind-shadow of the mainsail, and both sails pull effectively.
The optimal length of the whisker pole depends on the size of the head sail. Since we have two headsails that are different sizes, rather than have two whisker poles, we have one that telescopes. It has an inner tube that can be extended or retracted to change its length. Our whisker pole is a Forespar with an outer tube that is about 13.5 feet (4.2m) long. It has an inner tube that can be extended another 11 feet (3.4m). Depending on which headsail we are using, we usually extend the inner tube somewhere between 5 to 11 feet (1.5-3.4m). The two diagrams show a simplified external view of the pole, as well as an anatomical view. The 'extend/retract' line is attached to the outboard end of the inner tube, routed along the top of the pole and around a sheave on the inboard fitting. It is then led along the inside of the two tubes and around a sheave on the end of a long piece of small tubing, called a stinger tube, and then attached to the end of the inner tube. When everything is functioning properly, we can extend the inner tube by pulling on the 'extend/retract' line towards the outboard end of the pole. We retract the inner tube by pulling on the line in the opposite direction.
When it broke, I had this vision of the severed remains of the 24 foot (7m) aluminum pole swinging wildly about as the headsail flogged, puncturing the inflatable on the foredeck and generally wreaking havoc on the deck and topsides. Luckily,the control lines contained the broken pole until I could get the genoa furled. We lashed one part of the pole to the lifelines and the other to the mast. Then we dropped the mainsail and sailed on with only the genoa .
Once we arrived at Cocos Keeling, I assessed the damage. The inner aluminum tube had broken about 4 feet (1.2m) from the inboard end, and another foot (.3m) or so was bent. I thought that if I cut the damaged section off the inside tube and reattached all the bushings and fittings, I would have a shorter, but usable whisker pole.
I set about dismantling the whisker pole. Most of the fittings were riveted in place, so the disassembly process involved a lot of drilling. The inboard end-fitting was corroded to the larger tube, and no amount of heat and coaxing would break it loose. I finally cut another 2” (50mm) off the inboard end of the tube, then cut the corroded section of tubing into pieces, so it could be removed from the end-fitting.
Once everything was apart, I found a number of other issues besides the broken inner pole. The stinger tube was bent in several places. The sheave on the end of the stinger pole was frozen. A toggle fitting that attaches the inboard end of the pole to the mast was badly bent. I straightened the stinger tube as best I could and repaired the frozen sheave. The bent toggle on the end of the pole would have to wait until I could find a machinist – maybe Rodriquez or Mauritius. All the rest of the bushings and fittings were salvageable.
The inner tube was easy to cut. I used masking tape to mark the cut and then employed my trusty hacksaw to cut it.
Once the inner tube was shortened, it was fairly straightforward to reassemble the poles. The bushings on the ends of the poles were riveted in place, with new holes drilled as necessary. I used machine screws to attach the end of the stinger tube to the inner end of the large tube. The remaining pad eyes and cleats were attached, again, drilling new holes as required.
Once everything was back together, we mounted it on its track on the forward side of the mast, and made sure we could extend/retract the inner pole, and raise and lower the entire whisker pole. There are still a few issues. Because the stinger tube is still bent, until we can replace it, there is more friction than usual when extending the inner pole. With its shortened length, we will be limited to using it with the smaller Yankee jib rather than the genoa. That isn't a big problem – the genoa is now about 12 years old and has been repaired and patched a number of times – it is probably time to retire it anyway. One final issue is that, because of the bent toggle, it cannot be stored on the mast. We will have to remove it from the mast and stow it on deck when it's not in use.
The jury rigged repair is certainly not perfect, but it will get us the rest of the way across the Indian Ocean – if I can manage to keep from jibing with it again.