Three Emergency Steering Solutions

April 26, 2017

A veteran offshore sailor offers a multilayered defense for avoiding rudder failure—and for coping with it when it does occur.

BASED ON STATISTICS THAT MY partner, Beth A. Leonard, and I’ve been gathering in the decade we’ve been out cruising, approximately five to 10 boats out of 1,000 suffer a rudder failure while crossing oceans each year. Experienced offshore voyagers consider the successful steering of a boat without a rudder to be one of the most demanding feats of seamanship. Faced with the challenge, some crews simply give up and abandon their boats. However, with the proper preparation and attitude, almost any boat can be steered to within sight of a safe harbor. We’ve met several crews who’ve sailed hundreds of miles—and, in one case, more than 1,000 miles—without a rudder.

Rudders Fail in Four Ways

The rudderstock breaks: If the stock fails, the rudder blade will be lost, leaving only the stub of the stock in the boat. A severe impact can break the stock, resulting more often in damage to unprotected spade rudders than to skeg-hung rudders. Corrosion of a stainless-steel stock, though, can result in failure of both spade and skeg-hung rudders. Improper lamination can result in stock failure on fiberglass/carbon stocks. Previous strain can also cause a failure.

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