Dismasting – What to do if it Happens

Dismasting is one of the worst emergencies that can happen to a sailboat, and if the mast is not managed very quickly the boat may sink as a result.

MaxSea is a technical partner of the MACIF Racing Team skippered by François Gabart and Michel Desjoyeaux. During this year’s Transat Jacques Vabre race, the MACIF boat dismasted, proving that it can happen to anyone at any time.

This week, we provide tips and advice on how to prepare for dismasting, and what to do if it happens.

MACIF team at the Transat Jacques Vabre

MACIF skippers François Gabart and Michel Desjoyeaux

There’s always the risk of dismasting, especially when you encounter a bad storm while out at sea. This can be due to a rigging failure or extreme conditions. However, dismasting can also occur without a storm as a result of a structural weakness in the masthead or inside a turnbuckle.

It’s essential for owners of cruising sailboats of any size to be prepared for a possible dismasting and to have the right equipment and knowledge to act immediately.

All experienced sailors know they should have equipment on board to cut the mast free as quickly as possible. You just need to determine what the right equipment is for your sailboat and your budget?


Usually only a sharp sailor’s knife is needed. In order to cut the halyards and other lines joining the boat to the mast, you will only need a sharp sailor’s knife. It is more difficult to cut through the stays and shrouds, which are made of steel wire or rod. To do this, you will need special equipment.

The typical equipment used are hacksaws, bolt cutters, and pin removal gear.

Hacksaw: Very well suited to small to medium sailboats. However, coastal sailors should have another type of equipment on board too, to be prepared for all situations.

The hacksaw is undoubtedly the cheapest emergency de-rigging device. However, sawing is much slower than other methods, with greater risk for hull damage when time is of the essence. It is also impossible to saw through rod rigging, and very difficult to saw steel wire unless it is held still and tensioned, which is almost impossible for one person to do on a pitching deck.

Tip: If you do depend on a hacksaw, use a tungsten carbide blade and have a couple of spares.

Bolt cutters: Manual cutters are the traditional first choice for cutting wire (not rod) rigging. They cost more than a hacksaw, often more than $200) but will work on rigging that is either slack or under tension from the mast.


  • Get cutters larger than what you think you can get by with. The manufacturer may promise one size cuts up to 3/8 wire, for example, but 3/8 stainless steel marine rigging wire may be much stronger than what the manufacturer tested.
  • Try them out on wire as large as your rigging to be sure you can trust them in an emergency.
  • Add a lanyard you can slip around your wrist – it’s easy to drop them overboard when you’re working on a pitching deck.

Hydraulic bolt cutters do a great job fast but cost upwards of $1200; unlike regular bold cutters, they work on rod rigging.

Dismasted boat

Pin removal: On most boats the turnbuckles at the bottom of shrouds and stays are connected to chainplate fittings with a clevis pin kept in place with a cotter pin or ring. Some sailors choose to release the rigging by removing the pin rather than sawing or cutting the rigging. The biggest issue is that clevis pins are very difficult to remove when under significant tension, and the process can be almost unmanageable on a pitching deck.


  • Your de-rigging kit should include strong pliers for quick removal of the cotter pin or ring. (Many riggers recommend not opening the ends of cotter pins more than 20 degrees so that they can be removed more easily.)Use a mallet or hammer along with a center punch or similar tool to pound the pin back out through its hole. Don’t trust a screwdriver for this, and make sure your chosen tool is small enough in diameter to follow the pin through the hole, because otherwise it may jam halfway.
  • Since clevis pins are easily and quickly removed when not under tension, first release the shrouds and stays that are loose, saving the one(s) under tension for last. (Unless, of course, the end of the mast in its current position is already threatening to hole the hull.)
  • Be aware that if the turnbuckle is bent or heavily torqued to one side, the pin may have so much pressure on it that it won’t come out. Have at least a good hacksaw handy just in case.

Hopefully these tips will be useful to you. Remember that it’s very important to be prepared for dismasting. Having a plan could save you life!



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