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Losing your Rudder

Published Thu 17 Aug 2023

There can be multiple types of rudder failures to consider. The blade fails, it either breaks or falls out of the boat, or the quadrant and associated rigging becomes damaged. How will you steer your yacht after this catastrophic event?

The loss of steering will normally result in the yacht violently changing course. This can injure the crew and damage other parts of the yacht. There may be multiple emergencies to attend to, and the inability to steer. Life will be very stressful, at least initially.

Most skippers and owners have thought about the solutions for while the rudder is still in place. On board there are various pieces of kit which are designed to fit into the top of the rudder shaft. The boat can potentially be steered with this tiller arrangement, however, this can be physically difficult. It is best to test the method of steering to iron out any problems. I recently found a yacht I was auditing had a beautifully constructed piece of aluminum which unfortunately could not be inserted into the receptacle on the top of the rudder shaft, it would be better to discover this in the marina. The fitting required a redesign of the tiller which had been carried in the yacht for several years. 

The most devastating failure is the loss or damage of the rudder blade. This can happen if there is a collision, or though poor maintenance and the rudder is lost. If the rudder stock falls out this will leave a very large hole in the bottom of the boat. Plugging a hole of any size is very difficult and the water inflow will threaten the viability of the boat remaining afloat, you should prepare to abandon ship should this become necessary. 

In the event of rudder failure, a drogue can be deployed either trailing astern or from the bow of the yacht. Drogues are designed to control the speed of the yacht through the water. They can provide some steering functionality, though this is limited to relatively slow course changes. The yacht’s direction can be altered by shortening the rode on the side of the boat in the direction to be steered. This combined with the sails and motor will bring the boat around to a new course. A drogue can also be deployed from the bow to keep the yacht’s bow pointing into the oncoming sea to improve the conditions onboard and give time to implement repairs.

If a rescue vessel is required, which is the most likely outcome for rudder loss, consider how will a rescue crew attach a tow line to your boat. In calm conditions and for short distances, they may come along side and raft up and drive the stricken yacht from this position. The rescue vessel will raft up alongside using forward and aft lines plus springers. In most towing situations the rescue craft will tow the yacht from the bow. It is important the strong points on your yacht are accessible and capable of handling the load when being towed. It is worthwhile considering a bridle for the bow where the deck cleats are set on the port and starboard sides. In heavy conditions it will be important to trail warps of rope or a drogue behind the yacht to stabilize its motion in the water.

Some points to remember are:

  • Make sure the crew is trained in the use and location of emergency steering equipment. It is best to do this in calm conditions and later where safe to do so in less benign waters.
  • The chosen emergency steering gear must be fit for purpose, e.g. the correct size for the boat. When selecting a drogue consider how to fit additional weight along the rode to help keep the drogue under the water.
  • Think about other backup methods just in case. This could include a jury rigged transom hung rudder which if can be attached solidly enough may allow the boat to continue on course.
  • Have a maintenance routine which regularly inspects the steering equipment.

There are two reports on the website that sailors should read. These are the Report on rudder loss incidents in the 2022 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, and the Patriot rudder loss 2018 Sydney to Hobart case study. Comments made in each were:

"My belief is Cat 1 should be the same as Cat 0 and you need a stern hung rudder box that can be installed with pintles and gudgeons and then you can slot a blade in it vertically to motor / sail to port; nothing else works."

"Ideally have a dedicated emergency tiller and rudder box setup on the stern"

The gallery of photographs below show the set-up on the yachts SAIL EXCHANGE (Cookson 12) and PATRIOT (J133) after their experience losing their rudder. Both are stern-hung arrangements.

A similar article on Emergency Steering can be found here.
For major incident reports, click here.
A video showing how to steer with a drogue can be viewed here.

Written by Chris Zonca