Know how: Fixing a Loose Rudder

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Brandon (left) and Phillip re-install the rudder toward the end of the project

Brandon (left) and Phillip re-install the rudder toward the end of the project

Can you list the things you never want to see on a boat? A fire, perhaps? Windows shattering from lightning, water spewing from…anywhere? I can now add one more to my list: movement in the rudder post. On Day 3 of a five-day passage from Pensacola, Florida, to Cuba on our 1985 Niagara 35, my partner, Phillip, and I discovered our rudder post was moving athwartships—about a half-inch to port and starboard as the boat careened across the Gulf. Why? How? You might be asking. Because our boat was not adequately built up at this high-pressure point. Did we know this before we shoved off? Sort of. It turned out to be a combination of a poor design, some hidden sloppy work (a “Friday afternoon job”) and a little irresponsible boat ownership on our part that forced us to haulout, drop the rudder and install some reinforcement.

Why do we sometimes put off these important jobs? Before heading offshore you check the rigging, the sails, even the keel if you’re hauled out. Still, we sometimes think to ourselves: “I should really rebuild that furling drum” or “Maybe I should check that rudder bearing.” But then you don’t. And then you’re offshore, and it’s too late. One of the main reasons, I think, is because we’re afraid of what other problems we might find when we get in there: a bad design or sloppy repair that may have been causing hidden leaking or some other kind of damage over the years. But then again, isn’t that the very reason to get in there?

Now, having dropped, disassembled and redesigned our rudder post assembly, where I once saw only a magical system that somehow steered the boat, I now know how all of the components work, how to check and adjust them and how to grease the ones I didn’t know needed greasing. We’ve also gained a much better general understanding of our rudder system that will help Phillip and I inspect and maintain its integrity going forward. Did we also uncover some other problems while we were in there? Of course! Cue the B.O.A.T. reel!

The inadequate reinforcing in the cockpit sole around the rudder bearing was plain to see

The inadequate reinforcing in the cockpit sole around the rudder bearing was plain to see

Problem No. 1: A Bad Design for the Rudder Bearing

While most of the systems on the Niagara 35 are overbuilt and well designed, for whatever reason, the rudder post bearing is simply not. Despite the thousands of pounds of force on the rudder being magnified at the fulcrum where the post comes up through a bearing in the cockpit floor, the only thing holding it in place are three ¼in bolts. Now, with an additional two nuts on each (our upside-down-in-the-lazarette fix on the way to Cuba), they were visibly smashing the ½in fiberglass floor, making an already weak joint even weaker. It is simply not a strong design. Did we know this? Kind of. When we were hauled out two years prior, Phillip and I had jacked our rudder up and re-bedded the bearing after we noticed it had been leaking. As we were doing so, Phillip (as the rudder assembly was still a magic mystery to me then) also noticed it seemed like a weak design—three rather small bolts through a mere half-inch of fiberglass to handle the magnitude of the extreme force from the rudder.

The thought—we should really research that—came to mind, but we didn’t do it. Had we, we would have discovered many other owners were similarly disappointed with this rudder bearing design and were taking steps to reinforce it. One Niagara owner, for example, after seeing the same frightening movement in his rudder post during a sail across the Atlantic to the Azores, installed a large, solid plate on top of the cockpit floor to help spread and share the immense load on the rudder post bearing.

With this idea in mind, Phillip, therefore, had a solid 8in-by-8in stainless steel plate machined to support and reinforce it underneath the cockpit floor. While we talked at length about making it in two pieces that would fit around the rudder post, we wanted as much integrity as possible, so we decided on one solid piece that we would have to drop the rudder to install. It proved to be the right decision since it was during our rudder drop we also uncovered several problems that were turned into powerful redesigns with the help of Brandon and his hardworking team at Perdido Sailor in the Pensacola Shipyard.

Problem No. 2: A Won’t-Budge Bolt in the Steering Quadrant

The Perdido Sailor guys whacked. They tugged. They cursed. They applied heat, an impact driver, more heat, more cursing. The thing would not budge. While the other three bolts that had secured our quadrant around the rudder post for 30-plus years had finally let go after the sixth round of hot hate words, the fourth and final bolt would not give up the ghost. Thirty years, aluminum next to stainless steel will do that. Did they have Tef-Gel in the 1980s? I’ll be honest, I don’t know. But that bolt was laughing at us. The Perdido Sailor guys eventually had to cut the head off, hammer the quadrant apart, drill the stubborn bolt out, then drill four new, larger holes to house four larger, sturdier bolts—this time slathered in Tef-Gel!—to re-mount the quadrant to the post. Alas, with the quadrant off, and the rudder out, we also found yet another problem. It was at this moment, Brandon introduced me to the “Friday afternoon job” idea.

Problem No. 3: A Wonky Rudder Hole

In fact, it’s a common saying at the yard. Any sloppy work they find in the manufacturing process, they chalk up to a sloppy shipbuilder doing a piss-poor job on his way to the weekend. Sorry Hinterhoeller, but the hole your Friday afternoon guy cut in our cockpit floor for the rudder post can only be described as wonky. “It’s not even symmetrical,” Brandon noted, so much so that the gap this hole allowed around our rudder post was definitely contributing to the athwartship movement we were seeing. Fortunately, even though this was an already-cut hole that could not be cut again, Brandon had a solution. Bolt the rudder post bearing in upside-down, Six-10 the gap, and then pop it out before the Six-10 was fully cured to create a perfect, flush fit for the rudder post. Now, “all the components work as a system,” as Brandon explained, to hold the rudder post firmly in place.

Again, while it was a pretty extensive project, the knowledge Phillip and I gained from disassembling, redesigning and reassembling our entire rudder and steering system will definitely give us more peace of mind as we sail our boat south to the Caribbean this coming season. As for our fellow sailors, I hope adding the entirety of the rudder and steering system to your “I really should check that” list before heading offshore will help save some of you a costly problem like this. Knowing how the many different systems on your boat operate is half the battle. Inspecting them and beating a failure to the punch is equally important, all the more so since it’s very likely something will still go haywire at some point, and you’ll have to fix it. Probably on a Friday afternoon. 

Annie Dike and her partner, Phillip, cruise Florida, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean on their 1985 Niagara 35 and will complete their first Atlantic Circle this year. Annie is an author, speaker, blogger and filmmaker at havewindwilltravel.com

Photos and videos courtesy of Annie Dike

January 2019

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