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Trouble in spades

Sep 3, 2008

To the editor: I have a friend who exhibits paranoia when he talks about an uncharted rock that pops up ahead in one ocean after another. I am beginning to feel the same about spade rudders. Two years ago my wife Ulla and I towed a disabled yacht in from the open Atlantic after she had lost her rudder. Since then I have read of three boats being abandoned in last years ARC trade wind crossing after losing their rudders, and heard of other similar problems and mishaps over the oceans of the world.

Sailing between the Canary and Cape Verde Islands we formed an informal radio net with our boat Balæna, our friends Rod and Lu Heikel’s Skylax and Sunrise, a 43-footer from New Hampshire skippered by Bill Stephan. Bill came up on the radio one evening sounding worried as he announced water spurting in from the gland around his rudder shaft. The automatic bilge pump was clearing about 30 gallons per hour. We tightened the radio schedule in case things worsened. Sunrise arrived safely at anchor at Mindelo a few hours after us.

Bill found that it was not the rubber lip seal around the top of the through-hull bearing that was leaking. A considerable gap had appeared between the rudder shaft and the stainless steel collar that was intended to rotate inside the bearing. In port there was no water coming in as the top of the bearing was just above water, but even in the gentle swell there was an ominous clunk each time the rudder swung side to side.

We had sailed to Cape Verde to meet Rod and Lu Heikel. Rod is author of many sailing guides and co-authored Ocean Passages and Landfalls with me. This was the first time that we had crossed track on our ocean wanderings. Rod is a New Zealander — a Kiwi.

Rod and I sat down with the dispirited skipper of Sunrise to mull over our options. It was possible to haul the boat, though this would be on a marine railway and necessitate digging a deep hole to drop the rudder. The yard did not look too encouraging on this idea and there was no epoxy available on the island. Clearly the professional solution could take a while to organize and be of doubtful quality. Bill was not used to the idea of taking on major work without help from a yard. But Rod and I were able to convince him that to a Kiwi the “difficult can be done; the impossible just takes a little longer.” We were a little overawed as Bill accepted our proposal to drop the rudder in the water, build up the shaft with layers of glass and epoxy before refitting the collar and then neatly pop the shaft back into place. Could we really do this?

The rudder was foam-filled and buoyant and we had to find a way to sink it. While Bill dismantled the steering gear, Rod and I made a rope harness around the rudder blade and shackled lengths of chain to it. When we thought that it was no longer buoyant, Bill removed the heavy nylon collar at the top of the shaft and — nothing happened. The buoyancy of that blade was amazing, I had to dive under to add more weight and wedge myself between the rudder and the hull and push down. Suddenly it came free and immediately turned bottom up as I frantically pushed it away from the hull. We had it free and clear but to get it back in would require delicate adjustment of the center of buoyancy to ensure that it could be maneuvered vertically into position.

By this time Bill, a physician, had thrown off the doom and gloom and was beginning to smile and joke as we towed the rudder out to Balæna’s waiting foredeck repair shop. “This is not so different from physician’s work,” he mused. “You make a diagnosis, decide on a treatment and then get on with the job.”

We lifted the rudder aboard with a halyard and laid it on deck. Now the team swung into action using the materials that both Skylax and Balæna carry as a matter of course. The cloth was cut, the shaft roughened, the epoxy mixed. We wound epoxy-saturated layers of heavy double-bias cloth to build up the shaft to the required diameter. When we were nearly there we added a couple of turns of a lighter woven cloth, a layer of epoxy microfiber mix for bonding and gap-filling and slid the newly sanded and degreased stainless collar back into place.

The epoxy kicked off quickly in the tropical heat and after 20 hours we were able to swing the blade back into the water and tow it back to Sunrise. Now we had to fix weights that would hold the bottom down and preferably give the shaft the same angle as the hull bearing. Working on the surface this time it was easier to make a snug rope harness around the blade and tie bundles of 0.5-inch chain onto the bottom, forward side of the blade. Eventually we had enough that it floated upright with minimal buoyancy so that I could press it down and under the hull. For safety’s sake we called upon help from a local scuba diver to steady the blade as it went in. With no fuss the shaft popped back into place and only 24 hours after removing it, Bill was refitting the hardware.

Now came the difficult part. Sunrise had to wait as long as possible for the epoxy to cure. Seven days is the cure time at 68º. But we reckoned that six days should do it in the tropics. With a friendly restaurant in which to celebrate and good local music, the time did not hang too heavy on our shoulders. Sunrise set off down the trade wind passage to the Caribbean and reported not a drop of water in her bilge.

In our opinion, unsupported spade rudders are not seaworthy, especially on a yacht that is going to make long downwind passages, which can put enormous loads on the steering gear. Bill Stephan knew this too; he had tried hard to find a suitable boat with a skeg-supported rudder but failed to find one that pleased him.

We have seen that rudder failure is all too common and have now had first-hand experience of how a bearing failure, due to the stresses placed at just one point, can lead to serious leaking and potentially to structural damage that could imperil the boat. Along with Rod Heikel, I feel strongly that it’s time for designers, builders, insurers and buyers to reject this type of rudder for voyaging boats.

As if to reinforce this conclusion, two days later, at the very same dock, we saw a 47-footer that had her rudder sitting on deck. The owners had encountered exactly the same problem and used Rod’s left over epoxy to make the same repair.

We demonstrated that anybody competent to sail the seas should also be able to undertake most repairs the boat may need, even in the most out-of-the-way places. And lastly, voyagers should never depart without a good supply of epoxy and glass fiber cloth on board.

––Andy O’Grady and Ulla Norlander voyage aboard their 42-foot gaff cutter Balaena and are currently in the South Atlantic.

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