We set off before lunch to cross Chesapeake Bay from our home base in Heathsville, Virginia, where the Potomac River merges with the bay. Point Lookout, Maryland, is north of us, and Smith Point is around the corner to the southeast. Our plan was to head east and then turn east-northeast across the bay, through Kedges Straits, skirting the north shore of Smith Island, then swing south through Tangier Sound to Crisfield on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Crisfield is a historic working port, famous for its blue crabs and oysters. Neither my sailing buddy, Bob, nor I had ever been to Crisfield. We planned to overnight there and return to Virginia the following day. Bob has considerable experience sailing and racing on the Severn River near Annapolis. The ladies had decided to stay home on this trip, as we expected to be doing some serious sailing in good northerly winds across the open Bay.
It was a perfect June day with steady northerlies ranging from 12- to 18-knots, clear skies and a moderate swell of 3- to 5-feet. Our Seaward 32, Cool Drafts, is perfect for sailing in this area with its retractable keel. The boat draws around 2ft with the keel up and 6ft 6in with it down. We fly a self-tacking furling jib and an in-mast furling main. We made good progress, touching 7 knots reaching east and northeast. The sailing was near perfect, the starboard toerail kissing the water a little, spray coming over the bow whenever we happened to catch a wave. We stayed on port tack, passing the rusting U.S. Navy target ship American Mariner before rounding the north shore of Smith Island and heading south down the sound.
Suddenly, without any warning, we completely lost steering. The wheel turned freely with no response from the rudder. The main was partially furled, but was eased out quite far for our run south. The wind immediately spun us around 90 degrees, putting the boat broadside to the 5-foot swell. We were almost blown flat a couple of times, slipping down wave troughs propelled by the wind. Fortunately, releasing the sheets fully and furling both sails settled things down, and we started the engine.
It then occurred to me that I had a 4-foot length of 2-by-4 below that might serve as a temporary tiller, if it could be secured to the top of the rudder, which is fully accessible and can be raised and lowered to vary its draft. Five minutes and one Boy Scout square lashing later, we were back in business, although steering now required that one of us stay down on the stern swim platform to operate the rudder per directions hailed from the cockpit. Bob drew the short end of the stick (or 2-by-4!) and I called directions from the deck. Thus, we motored down Tangier Sound toward Crisfield. Although things seemed to be manageable, I radioed the Coast Guard to report we had a problem that so far seemed under control. They noted our position and said they would monitor our progress. Fortunately, there is a Coast Guard station very close to Somers Cove Marina, our destination. We flew our orange and black distress flag off a shroud, but to our astonishment, none of the half dozen or so boats that passed us seemed to notice it! Bob commented that this was because they were all powerboats.
Two hours later, we rounded the southern tip of Janes Island and limped north into the more sheltered, but still windy Little Annemessex River and marina inlet. The wind had now strengthened to 20 knots in the main channel, and even though it subsided near shore, it still took three attempts to dock the boat, even with the help of a couple of marina staff. Needless to say, Bob was exhausted from battling the following swell with our crude tiller.
Somers Cove is a terrific full-service marina with great facilities, excellent staff and two good restaurants. Once tied up, we headed out for a relaxing dinner at the Watermen’s Inn and discussed the possible causes and potential solutions for our steering problem. We narrowed it down to either a snapped internal tiller cable (or fittings) or a loose drive wheel/gear in the pedestal. We returned to the boat, had a healthy nightcap and turned in.
Next morning we were up early after a good night’s rest and set to work. Fortunately, we had terrific access to the steering cable and linkages. The cable was tight, all the fittings looked fine and the internal below-decks tiller operated perfectly. The next step was to remove the Raymarine navigation display from the pedestal below the compass. Right away we could see the steering chain had jumped off the wheel drive sprocket and was running freely over the wheel shaft. Interestingly, with the rudder in the straight-on position, the chain was not evenly distributed down each side of the sprocket: when set in the hard-to-port position, the cable eye linked to the chain on the starboard side touched the sprocket. It seemed likely that during the heeling and pitching at speed, throwing the wheel hard to port might have caused the cable eye to ride up onto the sprocket and flip the chain off its teeth. I was able to reposition the chain more centrally by releasing some cable on the port side and taking up slack on the starboard side. We should not have this problem again.
We filled up with diesel (the gauge was now firmly on empty as I had expected good sailing the previous day and we’d set off with minimal fuel!) and headed back to Virginia. The trip back was, thankfully, much less eventful.
What I did right:
I have a great tool kit dedicated just to the boat, and I hold on to odd bits and pieces (such as the 2-by-4) because you never know what you might need.
I notified the Coast Guard of our situation.
I had an emergency flag readily available.
I had an emergency 2-gallon container of diesel if needed.
What I did wrong:
I should have had a sea anchor in case we had trouble bringing the boat head to wind after losing steering.
I did not adequately secure all the “stuff” belowdecks: things came loose and were crashing around at the height of our chaos.
Heading out with a near-empty fuel
tank is ill-advised. Even with an emergency supply, losing power in our situation would have been dangerous, and filling the tank from on deck would have been risky.
It might have been safer to call for a tow—we have towing insurance—but I am still uncomfortable calling for help unless it’s really necessary.
I had never taken time to consider what would happen if we suddenly lost steering. It takes quite a few seconds to grasp the situation, consider options, and then take action. It’s probably a good idea to think through such scenarios in advance and decide on possible responses ahead of time.
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Photos courtesy of David Irwin, Illustration by Tadami Takahashi