Voice of Experience: Rudderless in the Slot
One of the best things about being retired is that it allows me to spend some quality time doing what I really like. One such escape—wife willing—is a month-long stay on my sailboat on San Francisco Bay. During my so-called “sailing camp,” I invite friends and family to sail with me on Sonrisa, my Buccaneer 270. Each guest spends a couple of days on Sonrisa, and I select routes to sail befitting their experience.
On this particular day I had my friend Rob, a seasoned lake sailor and boat owner, crewing for me. Our planned route started from our base at Marina Bay Yacht Harbor, on the Bay’s north coast in Richmond, crossed over the shipping lanes, and continued southwest through Raccoon Strait, which separates Angel Island from the rest of Marin County. We would then proceed south through the “slot,” as this tumultuous patch of water is known, head to Alcatraz and swing back to Richmond to complete the circle. We started at about 1000 hours in order to take advantage of the ebbing tide.
When sailing with my friends, I am normally the one who goes forward to raise and lower the sails. On this day I raised the mainsail as usual along Potrero Reach, a narrow, well-dredged channel leading into the Bay, and was about to attend to the jib when the boat came to an abrupt halt. We had hit a sand bar at the edge of the channel.
How could this happen, I wondered. The reach is clearly marked, and I have a perfectly good depthsounder. All were in full view of my guest helmsman. I wasn’t too impressed when he told me he hadn’t noticed any of these things.
My keel and rudder were now firmly ensconced in muck, and I was seriously entertaining the thought of inviting Rob to go over the side and push us back into deeper water. After all, my boat has a shoal keel and draws only 27 inches, so he wouldn’t even be up to his waist. When I stuck a boathook in the water, though, the muck grabbed it firmly, causing it to telescope to its full length of 15 feet when I tried to withdraw it. If Rob went in, I was worried we might need a helicopter to yank him back out.
I tried freeing us by reversing the motor, on the assumption we could get out of this fix the same way we got into it, but the boat didn’t budge. Fortunately, a breeze soon came up from a direction that would push us toward deep water, and Rob and I both placed our weight on the lee side of the boat as I sheeted in the jib. Just as I was going to ask Rob to climb out on the boom, the combination of motor, wind and heel swung us around and off the bar. I saluted the crew of a Cal Trans barge that had stopped to watch, and we continued on our way.
Out on the Bay we continued motoring, as the wind was light. In Raccoon Strait the tide was just starting to turn, and I had to throttle up to overcome the current. Once we were out of the tidal current, the wind and water remained uncharacteristically calm, so we continued motoring. Those who have sailed San Francisco Bay know that to cross the slot in a small boat from Sausalito to San Francisco in calm conditions is an unusual event. And I recall mentioning to Rob that we’d see 20-knot winds by the time we were halfway to Alcatraz.
Sure enough, as we approached the old prison, conditions did return to normal, just as expected. My anemometer soon showed a wind speed of 25 knots, and as we came about I began looking for a sheltered spot where I could reef the mainsail. Then moments later, it happened. The tiller went limp in my hand.
Looking over the side, I saw that the lower pintle of the rudder had ripped loose from its gudgeon on the transom and was bent to the point where it couldn’t be reinstalled. As a result, the rudder was now useless and hanging by its upper pintle, swinging back and forth, beating itself against the outboard motor.
We were still in rough water in high winds and a mile away from calmer conditions. To make matters worse, we faced a serious lee shore, with the wind and current threatening to beach us on Angel Island.
With no time to lose, we tried controlling the boat with sails alone, and by trimming Sonrisa to a beam reach or closer to the wind managed to maintain a westerly course, away from the danger. Our escape route did take us fairly close to Point Knox, and for a few anxious moments I wondered if we would clear the rocks. But as conditions grew calmer, I was able to start the outboard motor and regain full control of the boat, so that we passed the rocks with around 100 yards to spare.
It happens that the outboard motor on Sonrisa is a considerable distance from her cockpit, due to the boat’s ample freeboard. Controlling the boat while motoring without a rudder was awkward, as the helmsman must be mostly outside of the boat to reach the motor’s tiller. Motoring against the current and waves required constant course corrections, and to an outside observer it must have seemed we were drunk.
Hoping we could make a temporary fix, we pulled the rudder into the cockpit. Upon closer inspection, it was obvious that the lower pintle had been bent and pulled partially out of the gudgeon on the transom when the boat grounded. Once free from the sandbar, the rudder never fully reseated itself, and when we later experienced high-load conditions crossing the slot, the bent pin finally came out of the gudgeon.
Digging out the hammer from my tool kit I pounded the lower pin back into alignment. We then reinstalled the rudder, and the pin fit partially into its gudgeon—enough that we could use the rudder to steer. Not wishing to strain it, we motored back to Marina Bay, some eight miles away. We made it in about two hours.
Once we had the boat tied up and secure, I checked the amount of remaining fuel with a dipstick. It came back showing the tank was absolutely dry. We savored the moment with a prayer of thanksgiving and a beer.
What We Did Right
We checked the tides and weather conditions when planning the day’s excursion.
We were wearing life jackets during the entire experience.
We had enough fuel to return to the marina regardless of conditions.
When the rudder came loose, we did not panic and instead methodically sought a solution to our problem.
What We Did Wrong
Even though my crew was experienced, his knowledge of the channel and my boat’s instruments was insufficient to avoid grounding. I should have briefed him more thoroughly and made sure we were well away from the shoal before leaving the cockpit to raise the sail.
Following the grounding we should have inspected the rudder before continuing on our way. This would have avoided a real problem later.
Though we took the tide into account when making our plans, we didn’t allow for any delays, such as that caused by the grounding. We ended up burning extra fuel in Raccoon Strait after the tide turned and were fortunate to have enough to make it back. I now carry extra fuel just in case.
We did not file a float plan with anyone on shore. We knew we were sailing in an area of the Bay where conditions might be challenging and should have told someone what we were doing.
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Illustration by Steve Sanford; photo by Austin Morris