The following is an account of total rudder failure, which occurred on a delivery undertaken by OceanTrax. The manufacturer of the yacht is not mentioned on purpose, as this article is about the actions we took in this situation rather than assigning blame.
The yacht in this event was new and commissioned five days earlier and the delivery from Poland to Norway was its first passage.
The first 36 hours were uneventful in calm seas with little to no wind between Poland and Denmark. The delivery skipper put in to Nexo on the Danish island of Bornholm for fuel and provisions and carried out checks on the yacht. After a meal ashore, the skipper and crew left that afternoon in calm weather.
That evening the wind picked up to around 20-23 kts across the beam, the 30ft yacht with lifting keel, was reefed down to minimise weather helm and for a comfortable ride. These conditions lasted for about 2 hours before the wind dropped to around 15 kts and shifted to the starboard rear quarter. The yacht was comfortable the sea calmed and the weather helm minimal to none.
At midnight the delivery skipper took over watch and it was approximately 15 minutes into this watch that the yacht suddenly rounded up and the wheel had no effect. The vessel came to a stop into the wind. The headsail was furled and the main sheet eased, the boat settled just off the wind. At first it was not known if the issue was mechanical or if the problem was due to rudder failure.
The delivery skipper looked over the transom. The problem was easy to spot, even in the dark. The folding rudder was no longer attached and was being towed behind the boat by its control lines.
A quick check was made below to ensure there was no damage to the hull, rudder stock or water ingress. All was still good and the failed rudder brought up on deck.
The skipper assessed the situation and determined the closest port of refuge. The lights of the Swedish coast were clearly visible and a quick check on the charts showed the port of Ystad approximately 7.5 miles away to the north. The chart plotter showed a large entrance through the harbour wall and relatively easy access to the inner marina.
The casing that held the folding rudder was still in place and although small, did provide limited steering. The engine was started and the skipper tried to steer a course to Ystad. However it was impossible to hold a course with the limited steering that was left.
As the yacht was only 30ft. and light, it sailed much like a large dinghy, so the decision was made to balance the boat by her sails and attempt to hold a course. With the engine running on low revs, the headsail was unfurled and locked off. The yacht was balanced by using the mainsail which was easy to sheet in and out, controlling the yacht’s course with the wind now across her beam.
Occasionally swell or a gust of wind would knock the yacht off balance, causing her to tack, which meant putting the engine in neutral, going round a full 360’ and getting settled again on course for the coast.
Once at the harbour entrance the main was dropped and the headsail furled. With no wind or tide (Baltic sea) in the harbour it was possible to very slowly motor the vessel into the marina using the rudder casing for steering and on to the first free pontoon. It took 4 hours to cover the 7.5 miles.
In daylight the damage was inspected and it was found to be limited to the rudder. The casing, although slightly bent was still intact and all controls still functioning. The factory was contacted but the bad news was that there was no rudder in stock and it would take at least 10 days to make one, followed by a further few days to get to Sweden.
The boat owner was on-board and keen to carry on as quickly as possible so as not to miss a good weather window. The decision was therefore made that we should make our own rudder replacement.
We had approximately 260 miles left to go to get our destination in Norway, would never be far offshore as the rest of the passage was following the coast of Sweden, and there was a favourable forecast of light winds. The replacement only had to last approximately 48 hours, so functionality was more important than aesthetics and longevity.
Armed with pen and paper the crew made their way to the nearest warm bar where a plan was hatched!:
- Source some marine-ply, wood glue and screws
- Glue and screw together enough sheets of ply to achieve the correct thickness
- Use the old rudder as a template to cut the correct shape and drill holes to mount in the casing.
The next morning the crew went on their mission and thankfully they hit lucky almost straight away.
In the marina was a chandlery, the owner of which knew a nearby timber supplier. He agreed to allow the crew use of his power tools and workshop with the added bonus of the use of his Land Rover to collect the supplies!
Within 48 hours the new rudder was ready to be fitted – a relatively simple task, or so they thought!
Trying to push a five ft. wooden rudder underwater when all it wants to do is float is hard enough! Now add the fact that this is the Baltic Sea in March with a water temperature of 3- 4’c, with arms rapidly turning blue and losing feeling; trying to slot the top of the rudder into a casing under the boat that you cannot see but only feel, and then put the locating bolt through.
There was no option – the yacht had to be booked for a haul out the next day.
The next morning the boat was lifted and it became obvious that the replacement rudder would never have fitted as it was 5mm too thick for the casing (it was difficult to accurately measure the case underwater). The rudder was sanded to the correct width and by lunchtime the yacht was back in the water and ready for a test sail. The temporary fix was perfect; in fact under sail it was impossible to tell the difference from the original.
So with light winds, the crew motor sailed the remainder of the way to their destination in Norway in just under 48 hours.
We never fully discovered the cause of the rudder failure. It could have been a manufacturing fault or maybe we hit something in the darkness, although there was no visible sign of impact damage on the rudder and certainly no impact was felt on-board.
Dealing with rudder failure lessons learnt
We were lucky that when the rudder failure occurred the wind was reasonably light at just 15kts and dropped to no wind when coming in to the marina. If it had been strong wind we would have struggled and needed some sort of jury rigged rudder. It is hard when delivering numerous different boats to come up with a system for this emergency on every vessel, however if it is your own boat try a system before you need it.
Reduce your speed. In this situation we were just trying to get to the closest safe port, not win any races. Reduced speed will make any part of the rudder that is left, or any emergency system you have rigged easier to control with less force on it.
Be prepared, you never know when rudder failure may occur, even on a well maintained boat hitting a submerged object at night could be enough to leave you with out steering. Practise sailing your boat without using the rudder. Lash or lock the helm in position and try balancing your yacht with the sails and holding a course. Find out how your boat behaves in different conditions.
Never panic, especially when you have safe water around you. When our rudder failure occurred we were nearly 8 miles offshore with no other vessels close posing danger and we had all the time in the world to come up with solutions.
And finally, with the aid of a Land Rover, some power tools, a few sheets of ply and a friendly Swedish chandlery owner you can achieve a lot!!