Avatar, a 37-foot Swiss-flagged boat with owners Beat and Lola on board, had set sail from Tahaa, an island a few miles southeast of Bora Bora in French Polynesia. Just a day later, while sailing westward on a comfortable reach, the boat’s helm suddenly became unresponsive. On investigating, Beat and Lola were shocked to see their broken rudder floating in the waves behind them.
Bora Bora was barely visible on the horizon astern, and Manuae was 20 miles northeast, but there was no way to turn the boat toward either island. Raiatea, with all its repair facilities, just south of Tahaa, was also slipping out of reach. For these two long-time cruisers, the slowest passage of their careers had just begun.
Avatar, a fiberglass production boat built in Spain 25 years ago, has a fin keel and spade rudder. The rudder’s hollow stainless steel stock had broken off cleanly at the hull, as though it were sawed off. There was no thump or bump, no warning at all, before the helm went light.
Beat first tried steering the boat by dragging buckets, fenders and other items from the port and starboard side, but this had little effect. He concluded that steering with drogues wasn’t feasible for a fin-keeled boat. He next tried to steer by balancing the sails. Setting a full jib put the boat head to wind, but with a partial jib and double-reefed main, Beat finally found he could sail between west and north at a rate of 25 to 35 miles per day.
The nearest practical destination was Pago Pago, American Samoa, which was 913 miles downwind. That first evening, Beat used his SSB radio to contact the Sea Farers Net, which in turn contacted rescue coordinating centers to see who could render assistance. The only ship in a position to divert could take Lola and Beat off Avatar, but could do nothing to save the boat itself.
Our Valiant 40, Brick House, was anchored at that time in the small atoll of Mopelia, 127 miles west of Bora Bora. One morning I heard Beat on the SSB Coconut Net saying he needed six long pieces of 2x4in lumber to build an emergency rudder. By now Avatar had passed north of Mopelia and was 233 miles to the west. Brick House was the only boat on the net in a position to provide assistance.
Going ashore, my wife, Rebecca, and I told Taputu Kalami, a generous man who is one of only six people living on Mopelia atoll, about Avatar’s predicament. He immediately told us to look around his compound and take whatever lumber looked best, which proved to be some 16-foot-long two-by-fours supporting the roof of an old copra shed. Much to our surprise, Taputu, with the strength of a machine, at once ripped out the lumber and stacked it on the ground. Using a crowbar, he then pulled and straightened all the nails and put them in a handmade bag for us, just in case. Soon we were sawing the lumber in half to fit on the side deck of Brick House.
As we set out on our rescue mission, I could not help but think how GPS receivers and SSB radios have made a mid-ocean rendezvous so easy. Three days later we spotted Avatar’s masthead light on the horizon at around 0300. With first light at 0700, a fortuitous calm settled over the sea, and this made it easy to transfer the lumber between the yachts by means of a messenger line.
Days before our arrival, Beat had fastened a 3ft x 2ft table top to a 2 1/2in-diameter whisker pole with hose clamps and a bolt. He had tried lashing this creation to the stern pulpit as a steering sweep, but the tabletop twisted sideways and skipped across the surface of the water while the pole bent the pulpit rail it was fastened to. Beat couldn’t come up with all the bits and pieces of hardware he needed to make a sweep work properly.
By the afternoon of our arrival, Beat’s newest jury rudder was lashed to Avatar’s starboard quarter. This time, using the lumber to brace the whisker pole in place, Beat rigged the jury rudder vertically with a pair of lines to support the whisker pole fore and aft. There was also a third line running under the boat to port to help brace the pole against side loads. With great joy, Beat successfully tested the rudder steering Avatar under power. Then, with smiling faces, Avatar’s crew set sail and steered west at 2.5 knots over a placid ocean. There was nothing more Brick House could do to assist, so we headed for our next destination, Beverage Reef, 600 miles to the southwest.
As night fell, the wind increased to 15 knots, the waves grew bigger, and we worried for Avatar. Whisker and spinnaker poles on the whole do not make good emergency rudders, as they are designed to resist compression loads, not horizontal loads. Though Beat had supported his jury rudder against such loads fore and aft and to port with lines, no support could be fashioned outwards to starboard. As a result, the whisker pole folded up under the hull after just 8 hours of use.
Beat was able to save the pieces, and with some spare wood he made full-length dowels to repair the pole. But the force of the water was too great and the pole repeatedly collapsed. It is possible that if the tabletop were much smaller, the pole might have fared better.
As Avatar slowly approached Pago Pago, cruiser Wayne Wilson on his boat Day Dream went to great lengths to arrange a tow for the crippled craft. He made it well understood in advance that this would not be a salvage operation. Finally, after 35 days of slow sailing, Avatar met an American Samoan Marine Fisheries boat 15 miles from shore and picked up a towline.
In fact, towing a rudderless fin-keeled boat into a harbor is as difficult as dragging an unwilling horse to a corral. Avatar’s wild lurching and lack of directional control stretched the polypropylene towline dangerously taut. Once again, trailing drogues from Avatar’s stern had no positive effect. Finally, though, after nine tiresome hours, Avatar was safely tied to a dock in Pago Pago.
Beat and Lola still had obstacles to overcome. It actually proved easier to cross the ocean on a rudderless boat than it was to prod the local fabricator in Pago Pago, who took a large deposit, to complete the new rudder he had agreed to create. In the end, Beat reckoned it would have been faster and cheaper to have a new rudder built and shipped from Florida.
Meanwhile, as the local fabricator assembled the new stainless steel rudder, a tsunami struck American Samoa. Fortunately, the floating dock Avatar was tied to broke free and was sucked away from shore into deep water where both the dock and Avatar safely rode out the worst of the disaster. Finally, two and a half months after losing their rudder, and several weeks after the tsunami, Beat and Lola happily sailed out of American Samoa bound for New Zealand.