Steering loss aboard a Maxi 120 mid-Pacific reminds Charlie Pank of a previous rudder failure on a Beneteau Idylle many years earlier
Santa Cruz harbour, in the Galapagos, is a rolly place and the water is murky.
We’d arrived here from Panama, having quit our jobs and set sail from Edinburgh, Scotland, two years earlier: me, my wife Helen and two sons aged five and seven – on a mission to see the world without flying.
I was happy with the performance of our Maxi 120 on the passage from Panama, so there wasn’t too much to do in preparation for the 3,500 mile journey to Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas.
I managed to get someone to weld a repair on the broken jaws of the spinnaker pole, and straighten the bracket on the mast car that had led to the break in the first place.
My brother and his wife, Lisa, had flown out to crew for Helen and me. I tasked them with cleaning the hull.
William found it difficult to freedive, so he did the waterline and left the keel for me We watched the weather and waited for our buddy boat, Selkie, to recover from COVID-19 so we could leave together.
Galapagos to the Marquesas is the longest unavoidable journey in a circumnavigation, so provisioning is crucial.
We did one last order of fresh fruit and vegetables from the market, then stowed it in all the nooks and crannies in the bilges, behind seats and under beds.
You can tell which boats in an anchorage are due to leave as they have a head of bananas suspended in the cockpit.
I woke up on the first morning at sea to find that the stove wasn’t working.
Despite having installed the Wallas diesel stove myself and fixed it numerous times on this trip already, I kept worrying about the negative impacts of the problem rather than the likelihood that I could fix it.
We had a contingency, a single electric ring powered by the 110V inverter, but it did not seem prudent to continue to head offshore when we were one day in and already down to our emergency cooking solution.
We were still within sight of Isabella Island, so we turned around to head for it, unsure of how I would fix the problem, how long it would take to get parts and what the authorities would say, as we had checked out of the country 24 hours beforehand.
En route to Isabella, I undid the side screws that hold the hob onto the top of the oven. There wasn’t enough space for me to be able to see the connector block and work on it, so I had to do it all blind.
After much swearing and a good core workout (we were still rolling around in the Pacific swell), I eventually remade the connections and remounted the pump on its bracket.
I switched the engine off, and the stove on again and heard the happy sound of the pump ticking away – we were back in business.
We’d motored out from Santa Cruz once the southerly wind that had been blowing for a while finally gave us a break.
The forecast predicted that we’d find the tradewinds 300 miles to the south. It goes against the grain to use up half of your fuel in the first couple of days of a three- to four-week journey, but it proved to be the right strategy – once we hit the trades we flew along with wind and current carrying us all the way to French Polynesia.
Around halfway, some 1,500 miles from anywhere, the seas got bigger and came around to the port side, it was manageable and no adjustments were needed.
Shortly after I came off my night watch, the stern was hit by a large rogue wave. I was shaken half awake in the saloon.
The autopilot was beeping and the boat’s motion suddenly changed. I stuck my head out of the companionway.
At the wheel, Helen said the steering wasn’t working. I felt my stomach sink.
The memory came flooding back: we’d lost our steering once before, 14 years previously, while crossing from Tonga to Fiji in 2008…
It was early morning on the second day of the 400-mile journey from Vavau to Savusavu on a Beneteau Idylle.
The swell was uncomfortable but manageable for the boat and all on board, until, suddenly, it wasn’t.
Within a few seconds of shouting, Pete, the captain, was up on deck stark naked.
Turning the wheel changed the rudder angle reported by the instruments, but the boat continued to spin around in the swell.
We dropped the sails to prevent accidental gybes.
Pete pulled ropes, jerry cans and fenders out of the old Beneteau’s huge cockpit locker, until he could climb inside and see the steering quadrant – everything looked fine.
This was bad news as it meant the problem was somewhere downstream of the wheel, cables and quadrant.
Pete grabbed a snorkel and mask, tied a rope around his waist and jumped over the side to investigate. This was a dangerous thing to do as the stern of the boat slammed up and down.
I held the other end of the rope and watched anxiously over the side. He appeared after 15 seconds and climbed back aboard.
“The rudder’s still there, but it’s wobbling about freely”.
The internals of the rudder must have failed, so that turning the rudder-post no longer turned the blade.
We needed to stop the rudder flopping about so that it didn’t cause more damage and interfere with whatever steering solution we came up with.
We brainstormed options:
- Tie ropes to the rudder so we could pull it side to side to steer
- Secure the rudder amidships and steer the boat to Fiji using sail-balance
- Secure the rudder amidships, build a new transom-hung rudder out of bits on the boat
- Secure the rudder amidships and trail things off the stern to steer the boat
Pete went back over the side and built a tight net of ropes around the rudder. He led a rope up from the trailing edge to each side of the cockpit.
We started motoring and tried to steer by pulling the ropes (option 1). It required such a large amount of force to move the rudder that we had to use winches to pull the ropes.
The boat was not directionally stable and needed constant steering input to go in a straight line.
Steering using the winches, we weren’t able to respond fast enough, and it was exhausting for two people working full-time. This was not going to work.
For option 2, we tied the rudder ropes to cleats, so it was centred and couldn’t swing about. It’s a common skills exercise that dinghy sailors do.
In theory, you reef the sails so that you have the same area in front of and behind the keel (normally the pivot-point of the boat); then if you let the sails out, you turn more downwind, and if you pull the sails in, you turn more upwind.
However, with the Beneteau’s narrow deep fin and spade rudder, in the ocean swell, it was impossible to keep her pointing in one direction by sheeting sails in and out.
For option 3, people normally say they’d use a bit of the cabin sole, or a door. The problem was that the forces on the rudder were huge in the swell (a reason it broke!).
We couldn’t find anything strong enough to use as a post and we didn’t have a good way to attach it to the transom.
We raised a couple of our buddy boats on the VHF. Otis offered us their large spinnaker pole (we didn’t have one) as a rudder post, and within a couple of hours, they were 200nm away.
The logistics of getting something from one boat to another in the middle of the ocean were harder than expected.
After a few failed experiments, we ended up trailing a long floating line with a fender on the end, the other boat fished it out of the water while remaining at a safe distance.
We hauled Otis’s spinnaker pole out of the water and attempted to mount it.
We rigged up some cushions on the transom so the pole didn’t smash it and tied a few lines to strong points on the stern so that the pole pivoted over the cushions in the centre of the transom.
The pole was then trailed in the water behind the boat.
It provided enough resistance to work as a crude tiller and was steerable within about 90°, but it was physically exhausting to respond fast enough with the tiller.
It would turn a four-day passage into a gruelling fortnight.
We ended up trailing the spinnaker pole behind the boat in a fixed central position (option 4), having that length out behind the boat helped to keep her directionally stable, but we couldn’t steer well with it.
A big ketch, with whom we had departed Tonga, hove into view and offered us a tow. We figured we could provide drive with our engine, while the tow kept the bow pointing in the right direction.
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We made a bridle out of mooring warps to allow the tow rope to stay out in front of everything on Yamana’s bow.
The other boat made a long tow-line with an anchor in the middle to pull the centre down to avoid slacking and jerking.
We collected the tow rope the same way we’d got the pole earlier. We were towed 300 miles to Savusavu where our friends deposited us on the furthest mooring from the town.
Tied on the mooring, after catching up on sleep, Pete and I removed the quadrant and I snorkelled under the boat to guide the rudder out while Pete undid the bearings.
Once everything was loose, it wouldn’t budge! All that time we’d been worrying about the rudder falling off, it was actually held firmly up into the boat by its buoyancy.
Pete and Helen had to use force with broom handles on the rudder post in the cockpit to push it down out of the bottom of the boat.
Using a borrowed Hookah (petrol-powered compressed air-supply), I swam below and guided it out.
The instant that the post was clear of the hole, the buoyancy of the foam inside the rudder plate pulled it upwards, and the weight of the stainless steel post pulled it down.
The whole rudder immediately inverted, the post slid out and shot down to the bottom and the foam and fibreglass portion bobbed up to the surface! Oops.
The depth was 40m, and the water wasn’t clear. Pete took the end of a long rope and swam down 30m with the Hookah.
At the full extent of the hose, he left it and swam the last 10m to the bottom and tied a tight cradle around the post. He returned to the Hookah regulator and ascended slowly. Thankfully he suffered no ill-effects.
We hauled the rudder and the post onto Yamana and took a grinder to the rudder blade to split it into two parts.
The outer skin was fibreglass, with closed-cell foam in between. A mild steel plate was set in the centre of the foam.
We could see the failed weld between the plate and where the post used to be.
Pete found a machine shop where an old South African guy called Leon did an excellent job of reattaching the post to the plate. He welded it an inch at a time, so it didn’t get too hot, and added extra brackets around it.
I spent a few days grinding the gelcoat off the rudder, so we could re-glass it all together.
We asked Leon to drill a big hole in the top of the rudder post and then took it back to the boat in his pickup truck.
The top of the post was normally visible in the cockpit floor, so there was a big hole there with the sea at the bottom.
We passed a rope down through the hole out through the bottom of the boat, and up into the dinghy.
We tied the rope through the hole Leon had drilled in the square section at the top of the post (used for the emergency tiller) and lowered the rudder down into the sea.
It floated, but with the weight of the post, only just. I got in the water and pulled the rudder down, when it was lined up, Pete pulled up on the rope in the cockpit and the post slid up back into place.
That day, ‘spare rudder’ was added to the equipment list of my imaginary future boat.
Fast forward to 2022, experiencing loss of steerage aboard my Maxi 120 Lucky Girl, I knew the same memory was going through Helen’s mind.
I took the wheel from her and agreed that it wasn’t doing anything. We furled in the flogging genoa, put a second reef in the mainsail and the reefed mizzen up.
I let the mainsheet about halfway out, and the motion on board became easier to deal with. By this time Will and Lisa were up too.
I grabbed a headtorch and glanced under the cockpit table at the chains and cables driven by the wheel.
I was delighted to see that one of the bolts holding the chain to the cable had snapped – it meant the steering linkage had failed, not the rudder.
I gave each of the crew tasks. Will fetched the spare bolts and my spanners. Lisa stayed with me to be an extra pair of hands. Helen fetched the emergency tiller from under the galley floor.
Sat on the stern deck, I pulled out the cover for the deck hole to feed the emergency tiller through.
In the stern cabin, Helen pulled up the bed to give access. I fed the post down through the hole and she guided it onto the square top of the rudder post.
I bolted on the tiller, and it all worked (phew!).
The emergency rudder was necessary to hold the rudder still, while I replaced the broken bolt in the steering linkage.
Lisa held spanners, nuts and bolts for me and Will held the emergency tiller. I tightened the fastenings by feel in the awkward space, so it took a little while.
Once the chain and cable were reunited, I tried turning the rudder and it only worked one way!
I dashed downstairs to look – when the cable and chain had parted, the cable had popped off the quadrant on one side, which accounted for the lop-sided response – easily fixed by sliding the cable back into the groove.
After the clean up job, and back on track, we enjoyed the best tradewinds sail I’ve ever had and didn’t turn the motor on until we were anchoring in Nuku Hiva harbour, Marquesas.
Lessons Learned from rudder failure
- Carry an emergency rudder – rudder loss is a major cause of abandonment and damage to yachts sailing offshore.
- Try using your emergency tiller before you need it.
- Try using your emergency steering solution.
- Carry spares of everything and loads of nuts and bolts.
- Know how your steering works and how to access it for repairs.
- If possible, depart with a buddy boat on long crossings and stay in VHF, SSB radio or email contact.
Marine surveyor Ben Sutcliffe-Davis, comments:
“For the last 40 years or more rudders have been a problem in many mass production yachts – it is especially noticeable where expanding foam has been used to fill the void around the stainless steel stock and tangs inside the encapsulated rudder.
“The foam can absorb water – it can get in from very basic issues like a poor seal of the blade working around the stock, or small blade tip damage. Stainless steel hates being encapsulated with water that lacks oxygen and in time crevice corrosion will develop.
“Another common issue is the softening of the foam core will allow the tangs to work and – like a coat hanger wire being worked backwards and forwards – they’ll eventually fatigue at the point where they’re welded to the stock. The crew’s ingenuity to get out of a pickle was well thought out but prevention is always better than cure.
“My advice is to give the rudder blade a thorough assessment before any long passage. If you see it dripping for over two or three hours out of the water that’s a sign there’s trouble inside! Moving the blade slightly and listening can allow you to hear if the tangs are moving or broken. If in doubt employ a surveyor!”