He loses rudder in ocean, saves his skin by sailing like Vikings

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A few days ago we told you the incredible story of Egret, a Sweden Yacht 390 who lost his rudder blade in the Atlantic Ocean and sailed 1,500 miles with a makeshift “rudder.” One of our readers, Mirko van Roomen, was struck by this account because he, too, had a similar experience during the 2001 Atlantic Rally for Cruisers.

On his EC37 (Epaminonda Ceccarelli) Heya ran out of rudder blade with 325 miles to go in Saint Lucia, Lesser Antilles, and had to invent a system to steer the boat using the spinnaker’s tangon. Here is the story of how Heya and his crew managed, after being at the mercy of 5-meter-high waves and 35-knot wind gusts for 3 days, to reach land without assistance or communications, intermittently turning on the EPIRB to signal their location to rescuers.

Heya with tangon at stern to give direction to boat © Tim Wright/Photoaction.com
Heya with tangon at stern to give direction to boat © Tim Wright/Photoaction.com

Mirko’s adventure aboard Heya at the 2001 ARC.

In 2001 I took part in the AtlanticRally for Cruisers, the Atlantic crossing for cruising boats. This adventure began at the end of September, when our boat, a restored EC37 (Epaminonda Ceccarelli) – unfortunately not totally – was transferred from Lake Maggiore to Andora, Liguria, by truck. Once in the water, four friends took it to Benalmádena, south of Málaga in Spain, where I boarded it with my other a friend, a recent Swiss army officer with no sailing experience, to reach the Canary Islands.

Small in the Ocean

All was quiet until Gibraltar, where driven by the wind and current we set course for Las Palmas. The first night in the ocean we found ourselves in the middle of a storm. Amidst 8-meter high waves and a black wall of darkness on the horizon, illuminated only by the lightning flashes of the storm, aboard our boat, an eleven-meter one-tonner with a low freeboard, we felt very small and unable to cope with this situation. After 36 hours in a gale and soaked with water, we decided to set course for Casablanca, looking for a safe harbor where we could get some rest.

In search of a safe haven

When we arrived in Casablanca we were unfortunately informed that there was no room, the port of Casablanca is reserved for oil tankers and indeed there was a great stench of oil. But where to go then? We were pointed to another marina three hours further north, and so we set course for Mohammedia. Arriving at the site, we found such a welcoming committee. This time, however, a group of men armed with machine guns politely escorted us out of the harbor. Only then did I learn that the five yachts of Muhammad VI, King of Morocco, were moored in that dock. With no other alternatives and tried by the gale, we decided to drop anchor in the bay in front of the harbor, where we rested for a few hours. Two days later, after fixing the boat, we set off again with destination the Canary Islands.

Early problems at the helm

In Las Palmas, we caught up with the other three crew members with whom we left for the Atlantic crossing on November 26. The euphoria of departure was short-lived because, as we arrived in front of the large dune of Maspalomas, on the opposite side of the island, our rudder gave no more signs of life. The transmission cable had broken. With the tiller plugged in, we headed for the small port of Pasito Blanco, also on Gran Canaria. We repaired the cable with bands and set off again, after only 30 minutes we found that the repair was not holding and we were forced to return to port. We had to plumb the cable but there was no way to do it there. The next day we rented a car and drove back to Las Palmas to repair the rudder cable.

Satellite without credit

Leaving Gran Canaria, we sailed quietly for a few days until our satellite phone, necessary to communicate location with home and the organizing committee, stopped working. The person in charge of communications had forgotten to top up the credit on the prepaid phone before we left, and so we no longer had the ability to communicate our location except via VHF whenever we saw someone on the horizon.

Breaks rudder

We had finally gotten into our rhythm when one night a big bang woke us up. The rudder gave no more signs of life. I jumped into the water with the stack and saw the sheared rudder shaft (a 10 cm diameter stainless steel rod sheared in two). The rudder was dancing attached to the three hinges on the hull but with no possibility of steering. As per tradition, these things always happen at night with 5-meter high waves and a 25-knot wind.

Heya crew raise the (broken) rudder wheel at the finish line © Tim Wright/Photoaction.com
Heya crew raise the (broken) rudder wheel at the finish line © Tim Wright/Photoaction.com

Hit-and-run?

The next day we operated the EPIRB, and 4 hours later a cargo ship came to our rescue. Before the freighter arrives, another surreal moment: a 12-meter sailboat with a person on board approaches us and asks if we need help. We tell them yes, that we are waiting for someone who can tow us. He replies that he is heading for Martinique and wishes us good luck. Such a conversation you have on the road if you have a flat tire, but definitely not in the middle of the Atlantic!

Ultimatum

The cargo ship hung around us all day until a catamaran, which was part of the regatta, caught up with us and relieved it. Three more days pass but no one from the organizing committee is able to send us help; we are still waiting for a tow. At this point the catamaran tells us his ultimatum: either we board his boat or he departs and leaves us there. I decide, being the captain, to give my crew the opportunity to board the catamaran. Having disembarked three crew members, two of us remain aboard Heya, adrift and with an unsteady boat.

Like the Vikings

A few hours after the catamaran departed, the rudder became completely detached from the boat, sinking. What to do now? At that moment I remembered how the Vikings sailed, since a makeshift rudder with dunnage planks would have lasted very little in those conditions. After disassembling the spinnaker tang from the mast, I tied it to the dolphin boat, creating a 4-meter boom aft of the boat, and with two lines on the starboard and port winches I was able to give the boat direction.

Mirko van Roomen with the lines tied to the tangon in his hand to give direction to the boat © Tim Wright/Photoaction.com
Mirko van Roomen with the lines tied to the tangon in his hand to give direction to the boat © Tim Wright/Photoaction.com

Safe and sound

Since I no longer had the satellite to communicate, which had also broken down in the meantime, I asked the catamaran to call the MRCC company (an international maritime security company based in Martinique) and inform them that I would turn the EPIRB on and off every 12 hours to communicate my position. This ploy worked until the last day, when the EPIRB’s battery also ran out. The last twelve hours of our crossing were extremely anxious for those at home following us. We were no longer showing any signs of life, and by the time the MRCC was about to kick off the rescue mission, with U.S. Coast Guard aircraft from Puerto Rico, we were able to get close enough to Martinique to hook onto a telephone cell and alert home that we were safe and on the home stretch. Upon our arrival we were escorted by the Coast Guard to the harbor, where our fellow adventurers were waiting to play and applaud our feat.

rudder
Mirko van Roomen (author of the story) and Stefano Trabastioni celebrate upon their arrival in Saint Lucia © Tim Wright/Photoaction.com

Mirko van Roomen

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