Join Date: Feb 2000
Location: Annapolis, Md
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Lessons from my honeymoon....
No, not those kinds of lessons…. For those of you who missed it, I tied the knot back in late June and Barbara and I spent our honeymoon out cruising around the Choptank River on ‘Synergy’. Although the weather was hot out there, with the harbor awning rigged, the temperatures were not too miserable and all in all, it turned out to be a very nice week away. Despite the warm weather, we actually had good sailing breezes almost every day. We spent much of the time exploring in the inflatable kayaks we carry on Synergy. But again that is not the point of this discussion either.
Coming back from the cruise, we had solid breezes in the 10-15 knot range. We had reached and beat our way out of the Choptank, and had begun the long dead downwind leg back to Choptank Annapolis. In order to keep our VMG up I had been deep reaching and surfing on the larger of the waves. We had been moving well and it was a fun sail until I felt something in the steering starting to go. In a matter of seconds the steering had failed and the boat had started to round up into the wind. With the mainsheet eased, I backed the jib and hove-to.
Lesson 1: Practicing being hove-to is not the same as being hove-to in all conditions:
In the past, I had experimented with ‘Synergy’ to see how she well she would hove-to. On quite a few occasions I had hove to on ‘Synergy’ to make lunch or use the head, and so I knew she would hove to with the rudder turned hard a-lee but I had no idea whether she would hove-to without the rudder being turned hard over to head her into the wind. Much to my surprise and delight, she hove-to without me being able to turn the rudder. That said, she hove-to so easily and balanced do nicely, I have to really wonder how she would behave if hove-to if she had totally lost her rudder and so would have a completely different underwater configuration without any rudder below the boat to help balance the rig.
But that’s another story. Things were now calm for at least for a moment. This gave me time to begin to evaluate the situation. I first looked at our rate of drift and where we were relative to shoals and the shipping channel. I had been watching a tug and barge, which were potentially headed our way and were perhaps 15-20 minutes away. I then quickly opened the lazarette to see if I could figure out what had gone wrong and make sure we weren’t taking water.
Lesson 2: The right sequence of actions may not be as obvious as it should be when something goes wrong:
By that I mean, I probably should have checked for water coming-in before looking for items which are likely to become a problem later, but I had been watching the tug and barge and had edged over toward shallow water to get out of the way, so both of these potential hazards were the freshest items on my mind.
I got on the VHF radio to try raise the tug and barge. Last time I hailed a ship I did so first on 16, and then switched over to 18, so I tried 16 and the commercial frequencies above 16. When that failed, I “pan-panned” the Coast Guard and explained that I had lost steering, and asked them to contact the tug and advise the Tug of our situation. The Coast Guard did contact the tug and advised them of our situation. The Tug was monitoring 13 but that was not conveyed back to us. The tug actually saw another sailboat ahead of them which they thought was us, and so altered course to avoid hitting them and in doing so avoided both of us. The tug later contacted us, and advised us that they were avoiding a boat that they thought was us, but by that time we were well in the clear.
Lesson 3: Put on your life jacket (I am too much of a dinosaur to call them a PFD):
With all that was going on, I did not think of putting on a lifejacket. I keep a pair of inflatable lifejacket’s and few conventional lifejackets near the companionway so that they are within easy reach. It did not occur to me to put them on until the Coast Guardsman asked if we were all wearing a “PFD”. Duh!
While the boat had a comfortable motion when hove to, every once and a while a wave would hit us from an odd angle and this sudden change in motion would be unpredictable. It made moving around the boat slightly more difficult than usual. If I had it to do over, I probably should have grabbed the lifejackets, then checked to see if we were taking water, and then checked our position relative to other potential hazards.
With life jackets on my new wife and myself, I began trying to figure out what had happened. ‘Synergy’ has a rack and pinion style steering system. My initial hunch was that the gear set in the binnacle had failed. But as soon as I opened the lazarette, I noticed that the push-pull rod that connected the binnacle to the rudder post had snapped in two pieces and that the piece still attached to the rudder was acting like a battering ram, punching holes in the bulkhead between the rudder post compartment and engine compartment. Initially, I tried to tie the rod to the rudder post, but it I was concerned that it could still get to the hull and potentially punch a hole, so I ended up unbolting the stub of the link rod.
Lesson 4- Check your emergency tiller after doing any work on the rudder which might affect its fittings.
After I was sure that we were safe from the tug and barge, I proceeded to rig the emergency tiller. At this point I was pretty confident that this all was just a minor inconvenience. As we all know to be a good practice, shortly after buying ‘Synergy’ nine years ago, I had actually done a test run to see what was involved in rigging the emergency tiller and to make sure that I knew how to do it quickly and that it actually worked. I even had gone so far as to buy the right sized socket to fit the nut that holds the wheel on since wheel needs to be removed quickly in order to operate the emergency tiller.
But a few years ago I had a boatyard remove the rudder and rebuild it, and replace the bushings. I also had replaced the wheel mounted autopilot a few years before that. I had not rigged the emergency tiller since. As it turned out the end of the emergency tiller perfectly aligned with the new position of the peg that is mounted on the binnacle and which engages with the autopilot to keep it from spinning. That was no big deal, I only had four machine screws to remove, and they had been installed with Lanacote and so came out easily.
The problem became more serious when I tried to steer with the emergency tiller. When the rudder was rebuild and the bushings were replaced, the new bushings included a custom machined Delrin thrust washer at the top of the rudder, which takes the vertical weight of the rudder. When this was replaced, the new thrust washer was approximately an 1/8” too thick, which prevented the rudder head fitting from seating properly against the end of the rudder post.
As designed there was a keyway in the end of the rudder post and a keyway in the rudder head fitting, which would then receive a woodruff key locking the two together. But on my boat, the rudder head fitting did not have the keyway. Instead there was a setscrew that engages a recess on the rudder post, but with the rudder head up an 1/8” too high, the set screw only hit the side of the rudder post and could not seat itself in the socket. This permitted the rudder to rotate independently of the rudder head when I turned the emergency tiller, which in turn began to loosen the thrust nut which held the rudder in the boat.
I tried a few tentative experiments to see how hard it would be to steer home without a rudder and while I could steer pretty effectively within a 15 or so degree course range, the possibility of accidental jibe seemed very real. The idea of steering dead down wind without a rudder and sailing through the traffic at Annapolis Harbor seemed foolhardy, especially since it was readily apparent that I would not be able to get through the narrow channel at near my house without a rudder, and so would need a tow at some point.
Lesson 5: Carry towing insurance.
With that in mind I called the Coast Guard back. I felt like a jerk, but I saw no other good option. Coast Guard went through their usual questions and we gave our answers: “Is anyone injured? No Are there any children on board? No…. Are you in danger of sinking? No….What is your precise position? ” And so on. Finally, deciding that our lives were not in immediate peril, the Coast Guard gave their typical response, which is for all intents and purposes was “Well, I guess you don’t need us. Do you subscribe to a towing service?” I carry BoatUS towing insurance and so BoatUS was dispatched to tow our sorry butts home. This was the first time in the 49 years that I have been sailing that I have needed to get towed home.
Lesson 6: Its not so easy to tow a sailboat without a rudder.
At various times in my life, I have been involved in towing boats. When I worked in boatyards I occasionally went along to move boats using the yard launch. Or when I raced dinghy’s they would tow a line of us to the race course and back. Sometimes after a windless race, the J-22 that I am on will catch a tow home behind a boat with an engine. When a boat has control of its rudder, getting towed is no big thing, even in a following sea.
This is not the case when you don’t have control of the rudder, especially when towed above hull speed. That was surprising to me. At that speed, when the boat skews off course, the pressure of the water on the blade kicks it over so that it actually turns harder from the course. When we slowed down, in the following seas, Synergy would catch a wave and try to overrun the towboat’s transom. And over taking waves would also kick over the rudder unexpectedly. Not a good thing. We ultimately rigged a drogue in an effort to prevent the swinging.
Lesson 7: Steering with a drogue may be possible, but it’s not very precise, reliable or easy.
Initially we rigged the drogue from the leeward side of the boat. Somehow that seemed to make sense at the time, but since the waves were actually quartering, I ended up having to rig a bridle and then hauling in on the weather side of the bridle so that the boat basically hung on the windward side of the bridle more than the leeward. Even so the boat still wanted to skew and take the stern of the tow boat with her.
I have often heard of people suggesting steering with a drogue or towed warp. I really doubt how effective that would be. For a while, as each wave passed, I tried playing the bridle with a line on the winch as a way of steering in the following seas. Forget about it! Even with shifting the load from one line of the bridle to the other, which meant quickly hauling in 3 or 4 yards of heavily loaded line, the net result was only a very small and unreliable difference in our course. This experience has me curious and I would like to experiment with this more, but for now, I am dubious that it is possible to steer using a drogue sufficiently well enough to stay out of trouble in big seas.
Lesson 8: Don’t stop trying to find solutions.
While in tow, I began working on trying to find a better way to regain a little control. I found that I could put my leg into the lazarette and push with all my strength against the short arm that the broken link strut had been bolted to and that in doing so, I could keep the rudder basically centered. I also discovered that I could tighten the set screw against the face of the rudder post and use the emergency tiller for short periods of time. This eventually became critical when it came time to get the boat into a slip.
Lesson 9: You may have previously thought of alternative solutions that could get you home safely but they are of no use if you don’t think of them.
Shortly after I bought ‘Synergy’ I was thinking about the whole emergency steering business. At the time I had noticed that there was a large pad eye inside on the transom and a second large pad eye on the bulkhead forward of the steering arm on the rudder post. There are chains which connect these pad eyes to the steering arm on the rudder and limit the amount that the rudder can be turned. At the time, I had figured that I could put a snatch block on the pad eyes and steering arm and steer with a line through each block in an emergency. I had completely forgotten about that possibility until days later.
In examining what had actually failed on the steering, its failure seems almost inconceivable to me. To describe how this is constructed to those of you who are unfamiliar with rack and pinion steering, there is a gear set in the top of the binnacle that converts the horizontal axle rotation of the wheel axis to vertical shaft which is rotating inside the binnacle. At the end of this shaft, there is a small arm that emerges from the bottom of the binnacle. On ‘Synergy there is an 18 mm diameter (roughly 5/8”), 2 foot long solid stainless steel rod connecting link that is bolted to this arm. On the other end this link connects to a short arm on the rudder post. There are aircraft style ball type universal joints at each end so the rod only takes tension and compression, no torsion. On Synergy the link rod was made with a slight curvature so that it could miss a structural hanging knee that ties the transverse bulkhead to the deck and to the rudder tube.
It was this 5/8” diameter solid stainless steel link rod that snapped cleanly in two. The metal failed precisely perpendicular to the bar, with a perfectly clean edge. Looking at the end of the rod, the metal in the break looks granular. My best guess is that the link bar had fatigued after 25 years of small amounts of flexure and un-flexing as it went from compression to tension and back again.
So anyway, that is my story. We did get home safely, but only with outside assistance. I suspect that I probably might have gotten her home without assistance if forced to, but in the heat of the moment, I was not able to come up with a responsibly safe solution, one which would have gotten us home without risking rig or collision. At this point in time, Synergy is repaired. I had the new link bar made a little larger in diameter than (but with twice the cross sectional area of) the one that snapped, filed the thrust bearing thinner so the rudder head seats properly and worked out a way of installing the rudder head so that the emergency tiller will actually turn the rudder. Life is good once again.
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Curmudgeon at Large- and rhinestone in the rough, sailing my Farr 11.6 on the Chesapeake Bay
Last edited by Jeff_H; 07-26-2010 at 01:21 PM.