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Emergency Steering

This article was originally published on SailNet in September 2000.

Not even the pros are immune from disaster. Team SEB was forced to retire from Leg Three of the ongoing Volvo Ocean Race, when she lost her main rudder.
How serious is losing your boat's rudder at sea? Consider this: In compiling his comprehensive world-cruising survey several years ago, noted sailor, rally organizer, and author Jimmy Cornell observed that many seasoned skippers considered losing the rudder more traumatic and dangerous than losing the mast. Rudder failure ranks right behind holing, collision, and fire on that dubious list of "bad things that happen to good boats."

Without a rudder you are adrift, literally. Until a jury rudder can be fashioned, you will have little directional control of your boat, even with the sails set, and the situation is exacerbated with flat-bottomed, fin-keel hull shapes. If the wind is strong and a steep sea is running, there may be nothing you can do to prevent a knockdown. This point was proven during the infamous 1979 Fastnet Race when 14 boats suffered rudder failure and a few were knocked down or rolled as a result. Adlard Coles, in the Fastnet Race appendix of his classic volume Heavy Weather Sailing (third edition), attributes rudder breakage to the loss of life in two yachts. A well-thought-out plan for emergency rudder construction might just save your boat and your life.

There is a distinct difference between steering system problems and rudder failure. If a steering cable slips a sheave, a turning block pulls out of a bulkhead, a hydraulic cylinder springs a leak, or an overloaded tiller snaps, it is an annoyance. Of course, depending upon when it happens, steering failure can lead to serious trouble, but at least the boat can be directed with an emergency tiller and quick action usually averts most problems. Also, don't forget about the autopilot during a steering emergency—if it is connected to the rudder stock directly, you can probably use the autopilot to steer the boat.

" If we had lost the rudder, the situation would have been more interesting to say the least—we were 500 miles from the nearest landfall!"
Some steering problems are more vexing than others. I was nearly knocked down in the middle of the Pacific Ocean when the steering chain parted on a Gulfstar 50 ketch that I was delivering to Japan. We were running before accelerated trade winds and large seas when the wheel suddenly went limp. We broached before I could find and fit the emergency tiller, which, absurdly, could only be used from inside the aft cabin. Luckily, I was able to con the boat into the wind and heave-to. Jury rigging a chain link required imagination, but at least when the repairs were completed we were able to get underway again. If we had lost the rudder, the situation would have been more interesting to say the least—we were 500 miles from the nearest landfall!

Losing the rudder is rare, but, as an article in BOAT US magazine notes, it does happen. In June of 2000, a Texas couple had just begun a passage from South Padre Island to Galveston in their Ericson 32 sloop Papa's Boat. According to the news report, "35 miles offshore the rudder dropped off and disappeared." The couple spent an hour trying to contact the Coast Guard without success before deciding to activate their 406 EPIRP. The article boasts about how efficiently the 406 EPIRP signal helped launch a Coast Guard rescue, but it unfortunately doesn't mention whether the crew took any measures to regain steerage before triggering their emergency beacon.

The rudder stock, or iron, can become detached from the fiberglass blade.

Rob Jordan, a friend and yacht broker in Ft. Lauderdale tells a story of losing the rudder while on a sea trial. Jordan and the prospective buyer were enjoying a pleasant sail aboard a lightly used Beneteau 40 in 10 to 15 knots of wind, approximately five miles off the coast. "Things were going great," Jordan says with a laugh, "I was already counting the commission." Then, suddenly there was no steering. "I was sure it was just a problem with the steering cables, or maybe the quadrant," Jordan explained, "I didn't believe it was the rudder." Jordan inspected the steering system, but nothing seemed amiss.

Fortunately it was downwind back toward Port Everglades and Jordan managed to steer by flopping the genoa from side to side, literally jibing again and again. He made radio contact with Sea Tow and the two boats rendezvoused just off the sea buoy. The boat was towed to a yard and hauled out. "It was amazing," Jordan explained, "the carbon fiber stock was cut clean at the first bearing. The boat looked weird without a rudder."

The rudder doesn't have to disappear into the deep blue to be disabled. Rudders, and more importantly, rudder stocks, can be bent and twisted by groundings or collisions. A seriously bent rudder stock is almost as useless as no rudder at all. Indeed, in some ways a bent stock is more dangerous than a lost rudder because it may cause the fiberglass rudder tube that houses the stock to flex and subsequently crack as the rudder is turned. Poorly constructed rudders can also come undone under load, causing the rudder stock to break lose from the reinforcing web that holds the blade to the stock. At this point the stock turns freely but doesn't turn the rudder blade. You should always check your rudder condition when hauled. Lash or lock the wheel or tiller and push hard on the rudder. If any movement is detected between the rudder and the stock, the rudder needs immediate attention.

Another way to lose the rudder is when inadequate pintles and/or gudgeons fail on outboard-hung rudders. A friend recently told me how he was sailing his O'Day 23 from Naples to the Dry Tortugas (an ambitious passage in an O'Day 23) and he lost steering and nearly the complete rudder when the lower gudgeon pulled out. The O'Day 23, which is a fine little trailer sailer, came standard with pintles and gudgeons that were ridiculously undersized. If you have an outboard rudder, carefully inspect how it is attached to hull and if you have any misgivings don't hesitate to beef up the hardware.

Beefy pintles and gudgeons should keep an outboard rudder where it belongs, but it never hurts to make regular inspections of these items.

What should you do if you lose your rudder at sea? Should you simply call the Coast Guard, and if you can't reach them, trigger your 406 EPIRP and sit back and wait for help? I hope this isn't the way you'd respond to a crisis, unless of course your boat is in imminent danger of sinking or being rolled. I firmly believe that you should make every attempt to deal with the situation on board before putting out a distress call. While communication, especially in an emergency, is always prudent, self-reliance is at the very center of what makes offshore sailing so satisfying. Besides, accepting a tow in rough conditions can ultimately be more damaging than trying to resolve the problem yourself. If the situation isn't dire, use your energy to find a solution, not to cry for help.

Once you have determined that you have lost the rudder, the first step is to make sure that the boat is not leaking. My boat is fitted with a rudder stuffing box that is below the waterline and serious rudder damage could easily result in a leak. Many fiberglass boats have tubes that house an upper bearing and encase the rudder stock until it is above the waterline. Carefully check the tube-to-hull joint. It is likely that when the rudder failed, this joint was severely taxed. Len Ackley, who sailed his Challenger 32 across the Pacific, nearly sank when his spade rudder was bent from a collision with an unseen piece of flotsam and the wobbling stock cracked the rudder tube.

Your course of action depends on your location and the weather conditions. If, like Rob Jordan, you lose the rudder in moderate conditions close to port, you can attempt to steer the boat with the sails. Some of us remember learning to steer dinghies as kids without the rudder; unfortunately the same principles rarely work effectively on big boats. The problem is that the mainsail and boom become dangerous when you can't prevent jibes and without the main it is hard to develop directional control. Also, you can't shift your weight around to alter trim. Still, in general, to steer off the wind with sails, luff the main and ease the jib until it fills. To bring the boat up, luff the jib and sheet in the main. The only way to steer straight is to achieve a balance between the main and jib, which is most likely occur on a moderate close reach. You must be alert to ease and tighten the sheets constantly. Once you gain a bit of speed it becomes easier to steer by sail trim.

If you lose the rudder in moderate conditions close to port, you can attempt to steer the boat with the sails. This is a somewhat daunting task, which works best with long keel boats that track well.
Long keel boats that track well make steering with the sails a bit more viable but if you have any distance to travel, some type of steering system will have to be improvised. Trailing buckets, warps, or improvised drogues astern can help steering under sail. One technique is to set a warp, which might be a short heavy line or small sail, from a bridle and lead lines to each sheet winch. The warp is trailed directly astern and your course is adjusted by taking up on the bitter end on the side to which you hope to turn. A more effective method is to trail two small drogues (fenders work well) off each quarter, and turn by adjusting the line lengths. Some sailors tack about using buckets, but unless the bucket is made of wood or metal and a towing line can be attached through a drilled hole, the bucket won't last long. If a bucket is all you have, cut a small hole in the bottom to ease the strain.

Rudder failure offshore, as in the case of Len Ackley, is a more daunting prospect and some type of jury-rigged steering system with an alternate rudder will need to be devised and deployed. A spinnaker pole and plywood from a settee are good ingredients for a stern sweep. Drill through one end of the pole and bolt the plywood in place. If you don't have long bolts in your spare parts kit, you can usually pirate them from another part of the boat, including the temporarily useless rudder quadrant. If you have a saw aboard you can shape the plywood, but do this by trial and error—don't cut off too much before attempting to steer. Also, the plywood may need to be weighted to keep it vertical in the water. Lashing the spinnaker pole astern, most likely to the backstay or to the stern pulpit if it is stout, is necessary. Naturally the lashings will chafe quickly and will need to be checked and frequently retied. Also, if your boat is large, you will need a long sweep, which requires a lot of muscle to steer. You may need to lead tackles to the sheet winches for additional mechanical advantage, taking care that the downward thrust of the tackle doesn't lift the rudder blade out of water.

If you're lacking a spinnaker pole, use your imagination. When the Miles Smeeton's 46-foot ketch Tzu Hang was capsized and dismasted in the Southern Ocean, it also lost its rudder and tiller. Undaunted, crew member John Guzwell fashioned a 16-foot long sweep by joining corner posts taken from the interior. He made a rudder blade from a teak locker door and the whole assembly was lashed to the mizzen chainplate. The three brave sailors steered with this makeshift rudder and a jury rig for 1,350 miles.

This is the business end of your steering system, but don't overlook the shaft, tube, bearings, and quadrant of a free-standing spade rudder. Everything needs to be checked and well maintained to ensure safe offshore voyaging. 

If you are well offshore, a jury rudder, stock, and tiller are probably the best emergency steering system and surprisingly can often be fabricated from materials aboard. If you have a self-steering windvane, of course it becomes the first logical alternative to the rudder. Lacking a vane, a section of a spinnaker pole might provide a nifty sleeve for a reaching strut, or if the spinnaker or whisker pole is telescoping, the outer section is the perfect sleeve for the inner section that will be used as the rudder stock. Using a hacksaw, cut the pole to length so that it reaches down to the approximate depth of the original rudder. Secure the sleeve to the stern pulpit and or backstay with large hose clamps. Also, if there is way to secure the outer section to the transom it will really help steady the assembly. The rudder blade, which again can be shaped from any wooden surface, should be bolted to the stock. Drill holes through the blade and run lines back to the sheet winches to steady the blade and keep it from wobbling. The emergency tiller, a pipewrench with an extension or any solid piece of wood or metal, can be used to rotate the the assembly for steerage. Of course you will have to be on a constant lookout for chafe, and you should try to minimize course adjustments by trimming the sails.

Rudder failure is a serious and potentially dangerous problem. However, if you have already anticipated the problem, you will be much more effective when the crew summons you from your bunk and says, "Hey skip, we don't seem to have any steering."

Suggested Reading:

Offshore Perils by John Rousmaniere

A Nearly Doomed Delivery by John Kretchmer

Rudder Hardware

John Kretschmer is offline  
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