What is the issue?It has been estimated that somewhere between 0.5 and 1% of the boats crossing oceans experience a rudder failure. Losing your rudder, or the means of controlling it, suddenly puts the vessel at the mercy of the seas and handling this situation can be one of the most demanding feats of seamanship. Sadly, faced with such an overwhelming challenge, crews often give up and abandon their boats. It is a sad statistical fact that loss of steering is one of the most popular reasons for yachtsmen to surrender their self-reliance and call for help.
Why address this?A failed steering mechanism is undoubtedly a serious matter, but it doesn't necessarily mean abandoning ship. Unless you are on a lee shore, in a tight shipping channel, among the rocks or enduring overwhelming seas, the vessel should remain intact and afloat indefinitely and it does not usually present an immediate threat to life. With some proper preparation and or determination and some grit, almost any boat can be steered close enough to a safe harbour to ask for a tow in for repair.
How to address this?The primary focus should always be to avoid steering problems in the first place by selecting a vessel with naturally strong rudder and keel attachments. Second to this is strengthening the existing rudder and its connecting system, keeping it well maintained and planning and being prepared for a steering failure. Should the worst case materialise it is desirable to have a good understanding of well-proven strategies that can be relied upon to take you to a safe haven to effect a full repair.
The rudder is such an important yet vulnerable part of a yacht that it should be a primary consideration when selecting an ocean-going vessel. Long keeled vessels are wonderful ocean-going craft because of their innate tracking capabilities and the high degree of safety the design offers to the rudder. Second to this are vessels that have a strong full skeg to support the rudder and protect it from damage.
Photo: Michael Harpur
Rudders that are concerning, are the broadly used spade rudders widely used today on production yachts, and transom hung rudders. The latter transom hung rudder, should not be used for deep ocean passages unless the rudder has a protective skeg. But these are rare as it is spade rudders that are widely used on most modern production boats. Without a protective skeg, an unsupported heel, and an unprotected leading edge, this type of rudder is particularly vulnerable to damage. So the strength of the design must bear careful scrutiny. If the rudder is well built, well supported by two bearings, it can be made as durable as a skeg protected rudder.
Image: Yachty4000 via CC BY-SA 4.0
Likewise, the steerage mechanism is also important. A failure on a tiller based boat is highly unlikely as it is reduced to basic elements that are simple, straightforward and easily addressable. But wheel based systems add layers of cabling or hydraulic complexity and many more moving parts that are subject to failure.
When preparing for long distance sailing you should take it as a given that at some time, for some reason, the steering system will fail. This is particularly the case if you have a spade rudder when it is vital to pre-plan a system and to try it out beforehand.
Aquire a good understanding of the steering system and take advice from experts as to where its likely failure points are and carry spares that mitigate these risks. This is where a regular inspection of the steering mechanism by a skilled craftsman will serve you well. In time you may be able to thoroughly inspect the steering system yourself and identify issues. Having a good understanding of your steering system will help you in plan what spares to take with you and useful materials.
Cable driven systems usually show issues by pulling out and being out of alignment. Their swages must be inspected for signs of slippage or failure. Check the quadrant that is secured to the rudder stock for any play. All the systems bolts should be tight and secured with locking nuts. Carry a spare steering cable with at least one correct sized swaged eye already fitted and some swageless terminations , or compression terminals, end fittings ready to attach once you cut the wire .
Make certain the shafts and gears of a geared system are in good condition, all bolts are tight, that there is no obvious wear or slackness in any of the connections. Lubricate everything liberally every quarter.
Well-installed hydraulic steering systems tend to require little or no maintenance but all its connections should be periodically inspected for leaks. When a hydraulic steering fails it is usually due to a blown oil seal resulting in the loss of fluid. So carry spare seals so you can replace them and sufficient oil to refill the system after the repair.
Photo: Tony Gibson
If you can devise an effective backup before departing so much the better. For instance, some rudders may even lend themselves to emergency steering by adding an appropriately sized slot in the trailing edge of the rudder as illustrated above. This enables a knotted line to be dropped into the slot to provide a very straightforward jury rig steering line system. Connect the lines to a roughed out jury tiller and you are quickly back helming.
Likewise, an emergency tiller, which should be conveniently accessible, is part of every wheel-steered vessel's inventory. Rig it up and try it out before you need it.
The most powerful resource in the world today is always resourcefullness. Having a good range of tools, skills and first-hand knowledge to address problems when called upon will be more provident than having specific spares. Multipurpose alternatives that can be used, inspected and tested every day are infinitely better than single purpose, sealed & untestable, ‘safety’ gear. Match these tools with a significant inventory of diverse and useful materials, along with sufficient fasteners, fittings, rope, wire, wood and you can fabricate a wide range of items to address most situations.
Loss of steering can take any number of forms, depending largely on the type of steering gear fitted, the position of the rudder, tiller or wheel, etc. If a rudder itself is lost the first priority will always be to make sure the boat is not leaking.
Normally, one can expect either to have the rudder swinging free, or jammed solid one way or the other. If the rudder is jammed, then heave the yacht to on whichever tack is dictated by the angle of the rudder, and try to do whatever is necessary to free it. If the autopilot is connected directly to the rudder stock, check that this is still functioning. If so the vessel may continue to be steered by 'button'.
If the problem is in the wheel steering mechanism deploy the emergency tiller. Taking quick action to find this will usually avert most problems. Most emergency tillers can be found in the cockpit locker and after a removable deck plate is lifted, located above the rudder, it can be connected directly to the head of the rudder stock - on some boats the emergency tiller arrangement is addressed from below decks in the aft cabin. The emergency tiller can then be used to drive the rudder directly. But it may be torturous to use or even not work very well at all.
Some wheel steering failures arc readily repairable at sea, others are totally impossible. The most likely cause is that a wire cable has come off, snapped or snagged or as already mentioned there is a leak in the hydraulic steering system. If you are familiar with the system, competent and it is something small, like a wire off a block, it may be worth a try for you to repair it. Your best bet is to heave to, have a crew member halt any movement with the emergency tiller so you don't lose your fingers trying to put the wire/cogs back to rights and fix it.
But, beware, these items are not always as easy to repair in a seaway when you are seasick and in danger. If all attempts to fix the system meet with frustration, or you just cannot deal with it in the conditions, try to simply centre the rudder if it is still attached. The boat will steer a lot better with the rudder intact and lashed amidships than she will without one at all.
If you have a team of skilled sailors aboard it may be possible to steer the boat by trimming the sails alone. This is usually best handled on a moderate close reach but is ineffectual downwind as, on any course below 120° apparent wind angle, the jib is overpowered and eventually shadowed completely, by the main. Skilled mariners have brought a vessel home simply by balancing the rig, but it must be said that this takes a level of skill and degree of concentration that would soon become exhausting for a short-handed crew on a fin-keeler.
Realistically a rudder failure far offshore means some sort of improvised system or jury-rig must be created. Two of the most reliable approaches are the emergency drogue method and the pole and board jury rudder.
Most of today's authorities agree that the drogue system is most likely to succeed. Fortunately, it is also the easiest system to set up and manage in operation.
Photo: Fiorentino Para-Anchor
Attach a pair of blocks to the midship cleats or stanchion bases if they are strong enough and drop them outboard. Then form a bridle from the vessel's longest mooring warp(s), ideally, you are looking to achieve a length of about 80 metres overall, attaching a drogue at its midpoint. Feed the ends of each line through the blocks and to a winch on each side of the yacht. The bight of the warp is then trailed behind with the drogue located about 15 metres off the stern. This towing system creates a method of steering by winching in the side towards which you want the vessel to turn.
This approach will prove slow going, particularly in light airs, but it can be relied upon to provide a safe and secure way to regain steering. The system largely looks after itself and the only point of sail that requires a set-up adjustment is a downwind run. In order to perform a gybe, the lines have to lead out from the boat much further forward to help the vessel pivot around her keel.
If you like you can get achieve further leverage by strapping the spinnaker pole across the front of the cockpit and running the bridle out through each end. Mounted in this way, the pole increases the drogue's leverage and steering performance, reduces chafing and keeps the control lines clear of the cockpit.
It is also essential to have the best quality drogue for this purpose as cheap drogues simply shread themselves as the drag loads increase. This is especially the case with larger yachts as the larger the vessel the greater the amount of resistance the tow must exert to steer. Trailing sturdy buckets with holes in them, heavy warps or improvised drogues made up of small sails will also work. Larger yachts have been known to steer effectively by towing a tender half-filled with water.
Once set up the system requires very little input. The downside of this system is the towing of a drogue kills off the boat speed. In deep ocean passages, this could cause other problems, such as running out of food and water before getting in.
This method takes the most obvious approach, of replacing the rudder in some temporary way. The most commonly effective method is to press the spinnaker pole into service or a mizzen boom, a thick section of wood or even an oar will suffice. Then attach or lash a flat panel to the outboard end, such as a storm board, under-bunk panel, sole section cabin or locker door to turn the pole into a huge oar.
This ensemble is then lashed loosely but safely to the pushpit so that the paddle blade is well submerged and the inboard end can be man-handled. Then using this improvised oar as a sweep to steer the yacht the helmsman is back in control.
The biggest difficulty with the jury oar system is keeping the panel down in the water. When underway the flow of water tends to push on the structure causing it to ride up in the water. Shackling a anchor sentinel , or even an anchor, to the lower edge to keep it down will help and add some drag. Chafing on its supporting structure is also a problem and must be checked regularly. The other difficulties are all to do with its handling.
At the best of times, it can be heavy going and it is advisable to rig control lines through blocks and then take them back to the sheet winches for them to assist. It also takes some particular effort from the helm to steer when changing direction. The helmsman has to forcibly dig the board in, in order to turn the vessel. Conversely, very little of the board needs to be in the water to maintain direction. This significantly reduces the drag allowing for the vessel to progress without reducing boat speed too severely.
Finally, and this is the case with towing an emergency drogue too, it is best used in conjunction with effective sail and boat trim. These are always important, but when the rudder is lost they become vital, because no jury rudder is as effective as the real thing, so it needs all the help it can get.
The majority of cruising boats will be fitted with a windvane steering system that has a rudder of its own, such as a Hydrovane or a Windpilot Pacific. This, and its attendant servo or auxiliary rudder, may be improvised into a steering mechanism.
These rudders meet the various design specs for an emergency rudder and may be used to steer the vessel. They work very well in flat water, but the performance goes downhill very quickly as ocean waves build up. In biggish waves, you have to cut the boat speed to half normal to maintain a course. Alternatively, the devices, or framework upon which they are attached, may lend themselves to helping create an effective jury rig emergency rudder.
If the rudder is carried away, it is not the end of the world, you can still get the crippled boat in provided it is not driven too hard and its speed is kept down, even if the seagoing conditions are challenging.
Deploying the drogue is the easiest and quickest way to regain control and it will happily take you to safety, albeit very slowly. At the very least it will steady the boat and buy you time whilst you figure out how to improve upon it. If you then deploy a spinnaker & board or even use it part of the time, you will be increasing your speed home. Few jury-rigs are really efficient but the spinnaker & board can with, some good materials, ingenuity, trial and error and time, perform almost as good as if the rudder itself was in place in good conditions.
With thanks to:Michael Harpur, Yacht Obsession.
Steering a boat without a rudder
Emergency Steering Drogue Training
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