It was May 1976. We had entered the 50' Rhodes cutter, Mistress in the upcoming Trans Pac yacht race. My brother Owen was to be skipper and I was the navigator. We knew we needed a couple of shake down races before the Los Angeles to Honolulu classic. For our first race we chose the 100 mile Los Angeles harbor around Santa Barbara island and back to the L.A. lighthouse. Mistress was built in the early fifties by the Lester Stone boat yard in San Francisco. A lovely design with a center cockpit and aft cabin. The entire crew was chipping in for sails and gear. This was to be the home town boys attempt to win the Honolulu race. Almost everyone in the crew had raced Trans Pac before, so we all knew what we were getting into.
Everything was going great on our shake down race till about one in the morning. It was a moonless night, wind 18 to about 25 knots and seas 6 to 8 feet. We had one reef in the main and the #2 jib up. Navigating was a bit of a challenge because there was only one light on S.B. island and a dangerous reef about a half mile to the west of the island that we had to go around. As we worked our way up the west side of the island I was constantly taking bearings on the light and soundings. I was a bit nervous because we were on a lee shore and could see white water breaking on the treacherous rocks less than a mile down wind of us. When I estimated we were about a half mile from the reef to the west I told a crew member to button up his foul weather gear and to go forward and sit in the bow pulpit and watch for white water. Hopefully he wouldn't see any because we should be about a half mile west of the reef. As my lookout started up the lee side of Mistress and got to the shrouds, we heard a tremendous crash and then thunderous luffing and flogging of our #2 jib. My god I thought, did we hit the reef? I then grabbed the huge spot light we kept in the cockpit and shined it forward. The unbelievable sight I saw was four feet of Mistress's stem, with short pieces of planking on it, the bow pulpit, head stay and #2 jib totally adrift and trailing off to leeward from the top of our mast. Seeing what the problem was we ran off towards the horrible lee shore knowing we could only do it for a couple of minutes or we'd drive onto the rocks and possibly lose our lives. We got the engine going, and then ran forward and captured or wayward head stay with part of the bow attached. We lashed things as best we could to the anchor windlass, got the jib down and then set the jib halyard up as a temporary head stay to the anchor winch. By now we were in the kelp beds and keeping our fingers crossed that the kelp didn't overload our engine or cause it to overheat. Luck was with us and we were soon able to jibe around, get more sea room and eventually set a course back to the L.A. light house. Once out of danger I went forward and inspected the damage. First off, what had saved the mast from coming down when the stem came out of the boat was the fact that we had the removable staysail stay in place and set up. Plus, Mistress had a very heavy Sitka Spruce mast that I feel is much more forgiving than aluminum. Close inspection where the stem had broken off about four feet down showed signs of an old fracture. The boat had probably been in a collision or rammed into a sea wall years ago and cracked the stem all the way across. All that was really holding things together was the plank ends etc. The hard beat to weather was just too much, and BANG, everything just let go. The man upstairs was certainly looking after the crew member that would have been sitting in and hanging on to the bow pulpit thirty seconds later. It took several weeks and thousands of dollars to but Mistress back together. We all worked together, and were on the starting for the Honolulu race, July Fourth..... Picture above is the America's cup contender "Shamrock II" having a bad day. Picture is a Beken of Cowes photo taken in 1901. The new king of England, Edward VII was aboard when the mast came down.