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Emergency steering

Mar 31, 2017

Engineer and test an emergency approach before departure

This rudder blade has been bent on its shaft.

This rudder blade has been bent on its shaft.

For a vessel traveling any distance offshore, it should be understood that sometimes a simple failure can begin a chain of events leading to the total loss of the vessel. Most boats require a bare minimum of three things for a safe and successful passage: They need to stay afloat, they need to be able to move forward to reach their destination and they need to be able to steer a course to that destination. The rest just makes these three things easier and safer. When preparing for an offshore passage, most skippers pay a lot of attention to the first two requirements but often pay little or no attention to the last one.

Steering tends to be one of those things taken for granted until it no longer works — then things get serious. The truth is many boats are abandoned each season due to failed steering systems. Often these boats are in otherwise good and stable condition, but the skippers cannot make them head in the direction they need to go. Many are found still afloat weeks, months and, in a few cases, years after they were left by their crews. Often these boats are abandoned for something that could have been avoided if only the skipper had planned a bit ahead or had been prepared to deal with the problems.

Planning for steering problems involves two main pursuits. The first is inspecting and maintaining the steering system, and the second is planning for what to do should that system fail while underway. In an earlier article (see Ocean Voyager 2015), I talked about the importance of doing proper maintenance and inspections of a steering system before heading out to sea. Inspecting a steering system is relatively easy and can help you avoid serious problems while away from help.

Any steering system takes a beating when underway and this is increased as soon as the vessel is even a short distance offshore. The loads from waves, along with constantly correcting course due to those waves, will stress any system. This is why it is important to know ahead of time that your system is in top condition. Most inspections are fairly easy and do not require a lot of time but can save a small problem from becoming a very big one.

A jury-rigged emergency steering setup for getting the boat to port.

Steering inspection before each passage
It is not possible to fully cover the maintenance of every type of steering system in this article, but there are a few key things to look at and more information can be found about your particular system online or from the manufacturer. There are, however, a few simple things that can and should be done prior to any offshore passage. Most prudent skippers will do a quick rigging inspection before heading out. Steering systems deserve the same attention. Taking the time for this should be done for both power and sailing vessels.

Look the system over from the helm to the rudder. Check for play of loose fittings by moving them by hand. Check for cracks or play in any of the fittings as well as for loose nuts and bolts. Look for signs of wear such as metal filings below the fittings. Lubricate fittings per the manufacturer’s instructions. For hydraulic systems, look for oil or other signs of leaking at the fittings. Check for corrosion on any metal fitting or copper tubing, as this may be a sign of bigger problems. If the hydraulic system is pressurized, check that the reservoir is properly pressurized and that the fluid level is where it should be. All systems should be checked for play in the wheel or anything that does not “feel” right, as this could be an indication of possible problems. Make sure the quadrant or tiller arms are tightly secured to the rudder shaft and inspect the supporting structures at the rudder bearings, looking for cracks in fiberglass or anything that does not look right. Remember, it is always easier to fix things at the dock than once underway.

Even the best inspections may not reveal all problems, and failures can and do happen. The trick is to be prepared for them. Make sure you carry spares for your system as well. Having a few simple spare parts can make a big difference should a failure occur. For mechanical systems, make sure you have spares for items likely to wear and break such as the chain and cable. A few spare pulleys and clamps could be helpful as well. For hydraulic systems, make sure there is a good supply of fluid of the right type and a few spare hydraulic fittings. A simple clamp or quart of oil can make a big difference when a system fails far from help.

In order to be properly prepared, it is important to understand the types of failures and how best to react to them. Failures come in three basic types. The first is loss of control of the rudder. This may be due to a breakage in the steering linkage or the rudder breaking loose from the shaft and just spinning on the shaft. Next is loss of the rudder itself, usually the result of the rudder shaft breaking and the rudder simply falling away. Lastly and probably the most difficult to deal with is the rudder becoming jammed and stuck in one position.

An autopilot ram attached to the rudder post with its own tiller arm might allow the use of the autopilot for emergency steering.

Autopilot first backup
For many boats, an autopilot becomes the first backup when steering has been lost. This will only really help, however, if the autopilot drive is independent from the boat’s main steering system and the rudder is still intact — keep this in mind when installing an autopilot system. For boats with mechanical systems, the autopilot drive should be connected to a tiller arm separately from the rest of the system. For hydraulic systems, rather than simply tying into the existing hydraulic system as most do, it might be worth the extra expense to have a separate drive connected to its own tiller arm. Should the main system fail with either of these setups, the autopilot can be used to steer until repairs are made.

Most boats should also have an emergency tiller for failures involving the steering linkage or loss of pressure in a hydraulic system. You know that rusting piece of pipe in the bottom of the locker that the previous owner told you would work when needed? This is the time to drag it out and find if it indeed does work. Make sure it fits on the rudder shaft securely, and verify that you can open the inspection plate over the rudder head if there is one as well. I always suggest trying this while actually sailing if at all possible. Being able to turn the rudder at dock does not necessarily mean you will be able to do it while underway. Make sure it has freedom to move back and forth and that it can be operated by a single person. You do not want to be out at sea only to find out the emergency tiller is unusable because it does not fit the rudder shaft, it hits on a deck fitting or, worse yet, that the access plate is frozen closed.

If you lose a rudder or the rudder slips on the shaft, things get a bit more complicated. With no rudder at all, the emergency tiller will not be much good by itself. A method of jury-rigging a rudder or other way of steering will need to be devised. Once again, it is best to give this some thought while at the dock. There are two primary ways to steer a boat without a rudder: The first is to use an emergency rudder, and the second is by towing a drogue to pull on one side of the boat or the other in order to steer. Both of these methods have advantages and disadvantages. There is a third method of trimming the sails to balance the boat, but this has limitations and is generally not a viable option for most modern sailboats. That said, it has been used successfully, but it all depends on the balance of the vessel. The problem with sail trim alone is it does not work on all boats, may not work at all if the rudder is missing and usually only works on a limited range of headings dependent on wind direction. For these reasons, it can only really be considered for temporary use.

The next best option for rudder loss is an emergency rudder. The problem with an emergency rudder is that most boats do not carry such a piece of gear aboard; this means something will have to be fabricated and deployed while at sea. This may not be easy if weather conditions are poor, but it is not impossible and has been used successfully by many sailors.

Stern-facing emergency steering tiller connects to top of rudder post.

Available materials 
Think about materials that may already be aboard that can be used to put together an emergency rudder. This emergency rudder does not have to be as big as the boat’s main rudder, and in fact it should be about half the size to make it easier to deploy and use. Remember: You are trying to steer a course to safety, not run a race course, so keep it as small as possible while still effective. Take the time to go through your boat to see what parts could be used to fabricate an emergency rudder.

Any boat carrying a spinnaker or whisker pole will have a ready rudder shaft. If there is no useable pole aboard, a rudder head could be fashioned out of longer narrow plywood panels. Flat plywood panels like bunk tops, small cabinet doors or similar flat panels could be used for the rudder blade. I always carry some small pieces of plywood under bunks for all types of emergency repairs, and these would be perfect for this use. I suggest using two pieces of plywood through-bolted on either side of the pole to form a tampered blade. This “rudder” could then be used as a regular rudder with a tiller rigged, or as a sweep-type rudder moving the whole shaft back and forth.

It may be worth the time and effort to put together a kit of parts to build an emergency rudder. This kit could consist of all the nuts and bolts along with pieces of plywood needed to assemble an emergency rudder — an Ikea rudder, so to speak. This would be easier to store than a full emergency rudder but still be easier to set up than starting from scratch. It also forces the skipper to think about how they would do this and how they would deploy it. It would be even better if the emergency rudder could be assembled and tested before it is actually needed. Securing the emergency rudder to the boat also poses another challenge. This may well be one of the more difficult tasks to do while at sea. Look for fittings already on the boat that could be utilized, such as boarding ladders and steps bolted to the transom. For boats with swim platforms or other equipment in the way of deploying an emergency rudder off the transom, it could be moved to one side of the transom or hull aft and still be effective. Again, the point is to think about how you would do this before you have to do it.

Another successful method of emergency steering is with the use of a drogue (see the video on this technique by Fiorentino Para-Anchor at Although this method is a bit simpler to deploy, its major drawback is that it greatly reduces boat speed. This may just seem like an inconvenience, but in an emergency, getting to safety as fast as possible is always important. For a powerboat that has lost steering, the loss of speed may be less of an issue and the system’s simplicity might make it worth the loss of speed. A drogue system is considered the easiest to deploy and has been said to work fairly well in varied sea conditions. This method works by deploying a drogue from a Y-harness or two lines run to each side of the boat a few feet aft of amidships. The lines are usually led back to the sheet winches for adjustment. To steer the boat, the lines are adjusted to place more load on one side than the other.

A forward-facing emergency tiller setup.

For sailboats, another drawback is that the main winches need to be used for steering and may not be available for sail-handling. With power boats, which have no winches, there may not be any easy way to control the lines when loaded. There are ways around this by tying the lines together and moving the loop back and forth athwartships to steer. Once again, figuring this out in safe waters is always the best practice.

Lastly is the problem of a jammed or stuck rudder. If the rudder is fully stuck in a turn, this can become a worst-case scenario. Of course, the first thing to do is to verify that the problem is not in the linkage or drive system — this includes checking that the autopilot is not holding the rudder over. Check in all the lockers near the steering gear; I often find stowed gear in with moving parts of the steering. All it takes is a fender or dock line to jam a steering system. If it is clear that nothing inside the boat is blocking the travel, it will be that the rudder itself is stuck. This sometimes happens when the steering system jumps the stops and the rudder jams against the hull, but it could also be the result of something like a crab pot stuck in the rudder. I do not recommend diving into open water to clear the rudder, but it may be possible to break the rudder loose by using the emergency tiller.

Never just take steering for granted when heading offshore. Take the time to fully inspect and maintain all parts of the steering system. Think about how a major steering failure would be handled, and the tools and supplies that would be needed if forced to rig an emergency rudder and, if possible, practice some of these emergency systems while safely at dock or close to home. Remember, being able to steer your boat is as important as keeping the water out.

Contributing editor Wayne Canning is a marine writer and photographer and a marine surveyor.

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