What would you do if, in the middle of an Atlantic crossing, you happened to lose your rudder? That’s what happened to Patrick Marshall’s Sweden Yacht 390 Egret, which, 1,500 miles out of the Caribbean (departing from Cape Verde) found itself facing half the Atlantic Ocean without its rudder blade attached to the hull anymore. You know, difficulties sharpen the wit, and check out what system Mr. Marshall came up with (on board only with his wife) and then shared on the pages of Yachting World. The question arises: how do you steer a 39-foot hull weighing nine tons in challenging weather conditions (force 7 wind) without a rudder and having to sail even at night?
EGRET OWNER’S TALE
We were sailing beautifully by slack, under an incredible full moon, surfing the waves at seven knots. Suddenly we heard a loud clanking sound coming from under the hull, the sails started flapping as the boat had gone off course. The first thing I thought was that it was a problem with the autopilot, but it remained impossible to steer the boat even from the wheel, so we decided to furl the sails (we were sailing fortunately only with a genoa and staysail to butterfly) to figure out what was going on.
The second assumption we made was that the problem was the connection between the rudder wheel and the blade, but when we realized that it was not possible to steer even after installing the emergency tiller, we realized that the damage was below the waterline: we had lost the rudder blade.
WE LOST THE RUDDER BLADE!
The first fear was that the blade leak had also damaged the hull, so we immediately operated the bilge pump and inspected the area where the rudder shaft enters the hull: everything was fortunately okay. Meanwhile, the sun had begun to rise, and we took a moment to pause with the intention of radioing nearby boats what had just happened to us. Immediately we received instructions appropriate to the situation: what we had to do was to make a drag system to be thrown aft that would allow us to steer the boat.
We immediately set to work to improvise one. We secured two lines to the stern bollards joined in a triangle to a system consisting of: a 12-meter line, 4 meters of chain to which our Bruce anchor was attached with a fender secured, another 4 meters of line with fender, and finally another 4 meters of chain with two fenders, for a total of 32 meters of drag. Then we connected the spinnaker sheets to the first section of chain, passed by two blocks one on the starboard tack and one on the port tack, and returned to two winches in the cockpit.
By adjusting the spinnaker sheets, letting or hauling the right or left one, we were able to control the boat’s course and tack or gybe as needed. With that done, it remained to resolve the trim of the sails to sail on course. The best compromise we were able to find was to sail to the beam with only a small headsail with the possibility of leaning up to slack by rigging downwind a staysail and tangoning upwind a small area of genoa with the possibility of unfurling more if conditions permsed it. The wind was blowing between 24 and 30 knots with four-meter waves; therefore, we maintained very high concentration at all times, especially during the night hours.
In the meantime, several boats above offered their help by radio. We required some diesel as the wind was beginning to drop as we continued our sail to the Caribbean with a double headsail, alternating the staysail with the staysail and the tangoned genoa, so that the sail plan was balanced and we had to adjust our course only slightly through the drag system we had improvised. We took advantage of the drop in wind to try different sail combinations and thus be ready to maneuver if conditions worsened. As soon as the wind dropped sufficiently, we were able to get a tender pulled over by the crew of a New Zealand yacht to retrieve two cans of diesel fuel that enabled us, after twenty-six days of sailing and 1,500 rudderless miles, to arrive in St. Lucia.