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Rudder repair teaches a voyager self-reliance

Jan 1, 2003

The first indication that something was wrong came at about 0430 when The Comfort Zone rolled up on her port side at what I now guess to be at least a 45° angle. Then came the feeling of speed in the wrong direction. Thus begin our crossing of the reef, in an uncontrolled broach, just north of Isla Mujeres, Mexico, in December of 1991. The mistakes that led to this, and how they came about, are another story. This account is about repairing the damage that was caused by the broach, and how in doing so I crossed the line from wanting to be a voyager to thinking and responding to new situations like a voyager.

The Comfort Zone is our Pearson 303 that Jayne, my wife, and I had spent four and a half years paying off and outfitting for full-time living aboard. Isla Mujeres was our first major port of call after seven days crossing the Gulf of Mexico and the beginning of our voyaging life.

When our sideways surfing across the reef ended, I managed to climb out of what had been my very low side berth on the port settee and get to the cockpit. There were four persons on board and we were all asking each other what happened. When the adrenaline returned somewhat to normal, it became apparent that we had crossed the reef in an unconventional manner. Further examination of the boat revealed that the steering was jammed all the way to port and could not be moved. We managed to set out an anchor while we waited for dawn. With first light I broke out the scuba gear and went over the side. A quick inspection revealed the upper rear tip of the rudder was jammed against the port side of the boat. Properly applied force in the cockpit and under the boat freed the rudder. We now had steering, but it did not feel normal, and I realized that further inspection would be required. We then motored carefully into the harbor.

We performed the required check-in procedures and docked at Marina Perdiso in Isla Mujeres. The owner was more than helpful and made our stay a pleasant one.

Further inspection of the rudder revealed a split, vertically along the front of the rudder, running top to bottom and into the rudder shaft. Still thinking as though I was back home, I started looking for a way to haul the boat. It turned out, though I didn't think so at the time, that the up-coming Christmas and New Year holidays were on my side. For three to four weeks around this time of the year, serious work (by U.S. standards) comes to a standstill in Mexico. I was now faced with sitting around pondering my dilemma for three to four weeks or thinking of alternatives.

The thing that I love most about voyaging is that any new place you pull into you immediately start meeting friendly people who care about the two most important things in the world: boats and voyaging. Nearly the first couple we met were Dick and B.J. Skidmore aboard Phase II. After discussing our less-than-spectacular entrance into Isla Mujeres, Dick got his snorkel gear and said, "Let's take a look." After a quick dive he informed me that he had repaired several rudders in the past with exactly the same problem, and if I removed the rudder he would be glad to instruct and assist me in repairing mine. Dick was retired from a company doing mechanical engineering on NASA programstalk about the right place at the right time. The only fly in the ointment was that he and B.J. were waiting for a sail to be returned from the U.S. and would probably move on in two to three weeks.

After removing everything under the deck from the stern of the boat, I started inspecting the steering mechanism. The work inside the boat was quite straight-forward: remove the steering cables from the quadrant, then remove the quadrant from the rudder shaft. Now the shaft was ready to be lowered out of the boat.

Once more in scuba gear, I took a much longer look at the skeg-mounted rudder. The bottom of the skeg that supported the rudder seemed to be molded to the skeg in a seamless manner, and after doing some minor chipping of the covering paint to get a better look at the underlying structure I had no clue as how to remove the rudder. Looking through my address book I found the name of a past engineer for Pearson Yachts, Bill Richards from Rhode Island. I had talked to Bill on a couple of other occasions and he had always been knowledgeable and willing to help. This time turned out to be no different. He told me there had been two methods of attachment. He told me where to chip and what to look for and then to call him back.

I never knew you could burn so much air at three to four feet under water. I was using up three to four tanks a day.

On the second call, with the information I provided, Bill explained that the foot of the skeg would slide down and off if the screws through the skeg were removed. This of course would have to be preceded by much chipping of paint and gel coat off the bottom of the skeg before finding the screws and breaking them loose. This felt like a major turning point in the project.

Now there was only one major question left to answer: How do you put a 1.5-inch hole in the bottom of the boat without sinking it? I then remembered the tapered plugs we all carry for emergency closure of thru-hull fittings. As Dick and I pulled the rudder down, a fellow boater lying in the stern followed the shaft out with a plug that he tapped lightly in place. After the rudder was off and secured I took a similar plug and drove it in from the bottom, displacing the top plug. Now the water was holding my plug in place. I was later told that not one drop of water came on board.

We now had a rudder on dry land and repair could begin as soon as we had the proper materials. B.J. became the center of attention since she spoke the best Spanish. A search of the small island of Isla Mujeres turned up very little, so a ferry and taxi ride found us in the industrial district of Cancun, Mexico. As I had little to no experience with major fiberglass repair, this became a joint adventure: Dick provided the shopping list, B.J. was chief communicator, Jayne provided funds, and I carried supplies. After a full day of shopping we had resin, accelerator, cabosil for fill, and two different weights of fiberglass mat.

Back at the dock under a shady palapa, we were in business. A pattern was made so the front curve of the rudder could be duplicated. This was accomplished by tracing onto a piece of cardboard the curve of the split shell and transferring this shape to a piece of plastic I had on board. Then the fiberglass shell and foam fill that had split and pulled away from the shaft was removed. Nearly the entire front part of the rudder had to be rebuilt layer by layer. Luckily, the stainless steel bars that supported the foam that formed the main body of the rudder were not broken. The repair took several days as each layer of glass had to set up before the next was applied. There was nearly an inch to be built up approximately three quarters of the way around the shaft. The completed rudder was actually much stronger than the original since the fiberglass bonded to the shaft where the foam had not.

After the fiberglass work was finished the rudder was painted and it was ready for installation. Reversing the plug removal process went fairly smoothly and, again, not a drop of water came aboard. Some minor shaping and forming had to be performed under water to allow easy and full travel of the blade under the hull.

From this experience I learned that voyagers are normally more than willing to help. Without Dick and B.J. this project would never have gotten off the ground. But even more important, I realized that boatyards and major facilities are not always available. They are also not always required, when you begin to think like a voyager and realize the job can be done no matter where you are.

Gordon Wyatt is a retired Coast Guard aviation electronics technician chief.