Steering without a Rudder


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Daria Blackwell
Daria Blackwell
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Michael Keyworth has tested methods for steering without a rudder and has published his results in this white paper. It is well worth reading.

We lost steering when a gear box on our Bowman 57 seized mid-Atlantic. We reduced sail and I stayed on deck adjusting sail trim and essentially steering our ketch with the sails while Alex took apart the complex rod steering system. I also established contact with the vessels in our SSB net and two boats behind us diverted to our position to assist if necessary. Fortunately, Aleria sailed herself beautifully.

Eventually, after many hours of coaxing, the gear loosened to work well enough to reach Barbados. Although we did suffer a second steering failure en route -- and totally different problem which was probably caused by the first problem but was much easier to fix, we had to continue on to Grenada as there was no one who could help us fix it properly in Barbados. We prayed a lot on that trip.

We thought of several alternatives while we were at it and had suggestions from the SSB net as well. Virtually all of the alternatives would have required cutting the steering shaft, which we thought was a rather drastic matter but would have done it if we couldn 't work out a viable alternative. We do have an emergency tiller but it involves standing up through an open hatch in the aft cabin coach roof to steer, which is not a great ocean crossing option. The Monitor self-steering has a backup rudder option so that was another thing we could try. Fortunately, soaking the gear box in Liquid Wrench and a lot of "manual persuasion" did the trick.

Michael Keyworth 's solution seems very elegant and a very good use for a drogue.
Every boat is different so each solution is likely to be different. Has anyone else had the experience of rudder failure? What did you do?

Vice Commodore, OCC 
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Steering-without-a-Rudder.pdf (204 views, 307.00 KB)
Northstar82
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Our Shannon 38 cutter has steering in the pilothouse and the cockpit. The strain on the push pull cables that control the large rudder makes the pilot house steering a little more difficult. To have a cable break would likely not impact the boat at all, since there is an immediate backup in the other separate helm. The rotary drive electric autopilot is connected to the pilothouse steering system and is used typically when we need to maintain a particular course. It can aid the wind vane if it is set at reduced tolerance to catch the boat if it gets out of the tolerated swing.

If the rudder were to jam and no longer be functional from the steering stations, the cockpit deck access enables connecting a separate tiller to the rudder post. When North Star is offshore the AutoHelm wind vane, made by Scanmar, is usually steering using an auxiliary rudder with a trim tab to position the auxiliary rudder and steer the boat, using the main rudder as only as needed to help balance the sails. We have had excellent response from this system in all points of wind.

If the main rudder were to fail completely the AutoHelm would serve as the primary rudder. Because the AutoHelm rudder is so far aft has sufficient to control the boat even with usual sail configurations or rudder offset. For approach to land and channels the vane can be rotated, simulating wind and cause the auxiliary rudder to move appropriately and steer the boat. It takes a little practice, but it seems to work pretty well.
Dick
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Hi all,
First, it should be distinguished whether we are talking about being without a rudder or a failure in the steering mechanism: the control of the rudder. They present quite different challenges. The initial report was not about a loss of a rudder, but rather a breakdown in controlling the still intact and functional rudder. I would venture to say that the majority of actual rudder losses at sea result in the loss of the vessel. Loss of control of a functional rudder can usually be repaired or jury rigged.
This article is a good argument for those below deck autopilots that are independent of the primary steering apparatus. (Most wind vane designs depend on elements of, if not the whole, steering system.) As long as the rudder shaft is in place and the rudder is attached to the shaft, our autopilot (an Alpha 3000) will steer our boat independent of the quadrant, cables, wheel etc. It should be a primary consideration when purchasing a below decks autopilot. Most may do so as I have only experience with the Alpha.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy
Roger Harris
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I’ve not yet lost a rudder, and hope I never do.

I have experienced steering gear breakdown, when one of the sheaves that guided cables from wheels to quadrant separated from the hull. We rigged the emergency tiller and used it to steer for the next 36 hours. By the end of that time the tiller was flexing quite a lot, and I suspect would eventually have suffered a fracture from repeated loading (much like spare tires, most emergency tillers are probably not intended for prolonged usage).

The boat was fitted with twin wheels: a configuration that permitted a long emergency tiller to fit between the two helm stations. That was a much better setup than the stubby tillers one often encounters (required by cockpit space limitations), or the uncomfortable helming position Daria mentioned aboard Aleria. The only (minor) issue was that steering in the forward portion of the cockpit it was impossible to see the magnetic compasses that were located aft at the normal helm positions.

Here are several references that are worth careful reading:

1) a Flying Fish article by member Patrick Marshall, describing his mid-Atlantic rudder loss and subsequent passage completion using a drogue: A Directional Challenge. See also his Yachting World article Rudder Failure, which contains a diagram of the drogue arrangement successfully employed;

2) a good academic overview by Evans Starzinger: 3 Emergency Steering Solutions;

3) a Yachting Monthly test report of three makeshift methods (trim and balance, improvised rudder, towing a drogue): Jury Steering;

4) "a simple design for a backup rudder that is light, small, and cheap": A Simple Backup Rudder;

5) various commercially-available options are discussed in this detailed Sail magazine article by Robin Urquhart: Rigging Emergency Rudders.

Dick
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Roger Harris - 18 Feb 2021
I’ve not yet lost a rudder, and hope I never do.

I have experienced steering gear breakdown, when one of the sheaves that guided cables from wheels to quadrant separated from the hull. We rigged the emergency tiller and used it to steer for the next 36 hours. By the end of that time the tiller was flexing quite a lot, and I suspect would eventually have suffered a fracture from repeated loading (much like spare tires, most emergency tillers are probably not intended for prolonged usage).

The boat was fitted with twin wheels: a configuration that permitted a long emergency tiller to fit between the two helm stations. That was a much better setup than the stubby tillers one often encounters (required by cockpit space limitations), or the uncomfortable helming position Daria mentioned aboard Aleria. The only (minor) issue was that steering in the forward portion of the cockpit it was impossible to see the magnetic compasses that were located aft at the normal helm positions.

Here are several references that are worth careful reading:

1) a Flying Fish article by member Patrick Marshall, describing his mid-Atlantic rudder loss and subsequent passage completion using a drogue: A Directional Challenge. See also his Yachting World article Rudder Failure, which contains a diagram of the drogue arrangement successfully employed;

2) a good academic overview by Evans Starzinger: 3 Emergency Steering Solutions;

3) a Yachting Monthly test report of three makeshift methods (trim and balance, improvised rudder, towing a drogue): Jury Steering;

4) "a simple design for a backup rudder that is light, small, and cheap": A Simple Backup Rudder;

5) various commercially-available options are discussed in this detailed Sail magazine article by Robin Urquhart: Rigging Emergency Rudders.

Hi Roger,
A nice piece of research and good knowledge to have in one’s mental background. Thanks for putting it together.
There are certain complementary sayings that I believe all off-shore sailors should adhere to. The first is: If you go overboard, you are dead. The second could easily be: if you lose your steering ability off-shore, you will (likely) lose your boat.
Now there are exceptions to both these statements, but the ratio of “saves” to “tragedies” is such that it is wise to treat them as facts.
And, should the worse happen all efforts should be made, but…
To prepare, it is my observation, that most skippers pay a good deal of attention to their jack lines, tethers, etc., but not so much to their rudders and steering gear. And, to my mind, many boat’s rudders are not well designed right out of the factory.
For example: those free-standing rudders that follow the contour of the hull beautifully also make it likely that any deflection of the rudder shaft will have the aft upper portion of the rudder jam into the hull. This can be engineered as to be strong enough but often is not. Or the rudder can have “break-away portions. If you put enough miles under your keel, bumps of a log slipping along the hull and hitting the bottom of the rudder (or hitting a whale or a grounding etc.) will occur.
And then there is Nigel Calder’s (among other experts) suggestion that one’s steering cable and chain be replaced every 5 years. When was your last swap? (And, again for off-shore venturing boats, I would do the job yourself: I am experiencing diminished confidence in yard personnel competence and this is not an area where you want a forgotten cotter pin).
And, has there been consideration of a drilled hole in the upper aft portion of the rudder to accept a rope in order to steer if the cable breaks or a sheave comes loose (the hole is filled-in in everyday use by putty -or something- able to be easily pushed out).
And, I have not mentioned the regular maintenance that most steering systems require.
So, at the same time you are reading of emergency procedures, make a list of preventative measure to make rudder/steering failure less likely.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy


Roger Harris
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Hello Dick,

'An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure' certainly has much application at sea; and you are right that rudder loss can be catastrophic. Your analogy to man-overboard situations seems apt.
[M]ost skippers pay a good deal of attention to their jack lines, tethers, etc., but not so much to their rudders and steering gear

I agree. It's human nature to be lazy and focus on obvious and easily-remedied problems rather than more hidden and difficult issues. But considering the potential consequences, we need to resist the temptation.

Appendix L ("Model Keel and Rudder Inspection Procedure") 
to the OSRs may be of some general guidance, so I'm posting a link here. It does not purport to establish definitive standards, and of course has no direct relevance to cruising yachts; but like the OSRs generally, it is at least a starting point for preparing for offshore or ocean conditions.

Best wishes, Roger

Dick
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Roger Harris - 18 Feb 2021
Hello Dick,

'An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure' certainly has much application at sea; and you are right that rudder loss can be catastrophic. Your analogy to man-overboard situations seems apt.
[M]ost skippers pay a good deal of attention to their jack lines, tethers, etc., but not so much to their rudders and steering gear

I agree. It's human nature to be lazy and focus on obvious and easily-remedied problems rather than more hidden and difficult issues. But considering the potential consequences, we need to resist the temptation.

Appendix L ("Model Keel and Rudder Inspection Procedure") 
to the OSRs may be of some general guidance, so I'm posting a link here. It does not purport to establish definitive standards, and of course has no direct relevance to cruising yachts; but like the OSRs generally, it is at least a starting point for preparing for offshore or ocean conditions.

Best wishes, Roger

Hi Roger,
This is another nice piece of research and would be valuable to any doing an inspection, but also really valuable for anyone purchasing a new/used boat.
Someone once said, in essence, that running a seaworthy boat was not in any way rocket science: it is just choosing to do the hard thing with consistency and regularity.
On Alchemy, we have coined a pat phrase when faced with a task that we are reluctant to address that goes something like this: “It is just work.” Which leads to the unstated: “Just go ahead and get it over with.”
My best, Dick Stevenson

Roger Harris
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Thank you Dick. Good expression!

Here is a relevant article by Wayne Canning in Ocean NavigatorSteering Inspections. He recommends removing the rudder for detailed inspection every five years. I would prefer to see that done more regularly - say, bi-annually - but appreciate that on larger yachts that is probably asking too much.

For ease of reference, here is an additional article that is less detailed but nevertheless may be helpful: Steve D'Antonio in Cruising World, Sailboat Rudder Inspection.

One small tip I might pass on - I don't believe it's noted in either article - is that whenever you drop the rudder, be sure to weigh it and record that number for future reference. A rudder that gains significant weight is almost certainly absorbing water, which generally leads to weakened laminates.

Finally, owners of yachts fitted with Edson chain and wire rope steering system should be aware of the maintenance routine described in the final page of their Planning, Installation and Maintenance Guide.

Best wishes, Roger

Dick
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Roger Harris - 18 Feb 2021
Thank you Dick. Good expression!

Here is a relevant article by Wayne Canning in Ocean NavigatorSteering Inspections. He recommends removing the rudder for detailed inspection every five years. I would prefer to see that done more regularly - say, bi-annually - but appreciate that on larger yachts that is probably asking too much.

For ease of reference, here is an additional article that is less detailed but nevertheless may be helpful: Steve D'Antonio in Cruising World, Sailboat Rudder Inspection.

One small tip I might pass on - I don't believe it's noted in either article - is that whenever you drop the rudder, be sure to weigh it and record that number for future reference. A rudder that gains significant weight is almost certainly absorbing water, which generally leads to weakened laminates.

Finally, owners of yachts fitted with Edson chain and wire rope steering system should be aware of the maintenance routine described in the final page of their Planning, Installation and Maintenance Guide.

Best wishes, Roger

Hi Roger,
Another good set of reference material.
I have known (and done some writing for) Steve D’Antonio for years and consider him to be one of the most knowledgeable and experienced people in boat inspection, maintenance and repair. But possibly his greatest attribute is his ability to communicate what is often complex material to the average sailor/boater. His web site is a wealth of knowledge and can be searched.
As to weighing rudders, at first blush, it sounds like a good idea. I would be interested in field reports of skippers who have found help in doing so.
I am skeptical as (it is my take) most composite rudders (stainless steel shaft to a fiberglass rudder) are pretty quickly saturated (drill a small hole in your composite rudder’s bottom and most of us will find water flowing/dripping out: sometimes an impressive amount. It is pretty much impossible, over time, to seal the ss to fg joint.
If you have the rare monocoque (not sure I am using this term correctly) rudder where there are no seams for water to enter (such as a carbon fiber one piece shaft and rudder or an all-metal assembly), then weighing might makes sense as the “as manufactured” weight should never change (need to take bottom paint into account or strip it off).
As to Canning”s recommendation of dropping the rudder every 5 years (and yours of doing so every 2 years): I would likely temper those figures with rudder design and use. An unsupported spade type rudder hard used by a racing boat might definitely benefit from bi-annual removal. A rudder hung well supported and protected on the aft end of a full keel might not need such regular removal. A skeg hung rudder would be somewhere in between. If you are lucky enough to have many sister-ships made by the same manufacturer, field reports from other skippers can be a good guide to the boat’s vulnerabilities.
I would recommend rudder removal after a hard grounding, even if, the rudder seemed not to have been involved.

My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

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