Problem-solving: a Rudder Recovery

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When dealing with problems afloat, be sure the boat, or boats, are in a safe location, so things won’t get worse 

When dealing with problems afloat, be sure the boat, or boats, are in a safe location, so things won’t get worse 

Sailors are notorious for being some of the best storytellers. Movies depict old salts at bars doling out wisdom learned through their many trials and tribulations. Books are written about the tales of mariners. It’s no wonder that when cruisers get together for sundowners, after the talk of weather and anchor scope used for the night subsides, they turn to storytelling.

It’s been my experience that the best stories rarely involve beautiful sails in 15 knots of wind ending in a gorgeous sunset. No, the best stories are the ones about problems that arise even as seemingly everything else is also being stacked against you: storms rolling in, the anchor dragging and—topping them all—the motor not starting. These are the tales that bind sailors together, give them a sense of camaraderie and allow them to learn from one another’s mistakes, as opposed to making them over and over again.

At their core, these stories are about problem-solving. They’re interesting because they take place in situations where resources are finite and thinking your way through whatever it is you may be facing is vital to its ultimate solution. They are stories about the systems sailors use to solve the many problems they face, a system in which there seems to be a definitive order of operations.

Case in point: my husband and I were recently cruising the remote atolls of Belize with a couple of buddy boats. The three of us made quite the eclectic flotilla: our Rumba 41ft aluminum monohull Tarka traveling with the 30ft homebuilt Wharram catamaran Whipper Snapper and a 44ft Dean catamaran. Together, we spent our days snorkeling, spearfishing sailing and, of course, helping each other fix our broken boats.

The old adage is true, it doesn’t matter if you’re aboard an expensive catamaran or a home-built wooden monohull, all boats break down—like the day we were out snorkeling, and our friend from the Dean dinghied over to tell us that he had just dropped his rudder, and it was currently sitting on the seabed, 15ft beneath the surface. We were in the middle of nowhere: time to begin problem-solving!

The first step is to assess the true nature of the problem. This may sound elementary, but some problems are easier to define than others. In this case, the rudder was detached from the boat, which sounds pretty straightforward. However, there were a number of other factors that also needed to be taken into consideration.

First and foremost, the boat was at anchor, which meant it would briefly float directly over the rudder and then drift 30ft away. We would, therefore, have to take this into consideration when coming up with of a solution. The rudder was also extremely heavy and 11ft below the bottom of the boat’s two hulls, so that simply swimming down and picking it up again was out of the question. Finally, there was the problem of the boat having two hulls. Aboard a monohull, if the rudder falls off, it is simple enough using the boom as a crane to lift it back up and into position directly aft of the boat’s stern. Aboard a catamaran, however, the two rudders are positioned well away from the boat’s centerline. Using the boom was not an option and presented us with the challenge of how to lift something heavy toward the center of one of the two hulls, as opposed to the actual center of the boat.

With the exact nature of the problem, or problems, defined, the next step was to ensure there was no other imminent danger ready to exacerbate the current situation. This is a step that is often overlooked, and while the resulting complications may make for some great stories later on (“So, there we were at the height of the storm, sails torn and working to get the motor started when our batteries died and the chartplotter and radar stopped working…”) they are still best avoided.

Let’s say, for example, your motor is suddenly disabled and you’re at anchor. Now is the time to dinghy out a second anchor, not after dark or when some nasty squall line is already upon you. No need to add dragging to the list of issues you already face. You’ve got your work cut out for you as it is. In the case of our now semi-rudderless Dean friend, we were lucky that nothing else threatened to add to an already tenuous situation.

Finally, it’s time for step three: “Plans,” and yes, that’s “plans,” plural, as Plan A alone rarely solves the problem. In fact, you will sometimes make it all the way into the Q, R, S end of the alphabet before something clicks. The good news is this third step in the process is also the fun one. This is where the magic happens. In our case, everyone got involved in the brainstorming. There were no bad ideas. Everyone pooled lessons learned, mechanical knowledge and tidbits read in books in search of solutions. Eventually, we came up with Plans A, B and C.

Plan A called for letting the mainsheet out and swinging the boom as far over as possible toward the rudder. That done, we’d tie a line around the rudder and attach it to the boom. Then, using the topping lift, we’d raise the boom and subsequently, the rudder. Because the rudder would be offset from the starboard hull, two or three people would also work to try and swing the stock closer to the entry point, hoping it wouldn’t swing to the centerline of the boat, but rather the centerline of the starboard hull. This option was the easiest, but also least likely to work.

Plan B called for taking a bosun’s chair and cupping it around the bottom of the rudder after standing the rudder on end. We would also attach a block and tackle on either side of the chair that would then be run to somewhere on either side of the hull. As two crew topside brought the rudder up using the blocks, another couple of people in the water would guide it into place.

Finally, there was Plan C, in which we would take a couple of jerry cans full of water down to the rudder and attach one to each side with some line. With the jerry cans secured, we would then slowly displace the water in them using a hookah-style dive compressor aboard Whipper Snapper to lift the rudder to the surface. Once there, a couple of divers would guide the stock into position while a third person working on the inside secured it in place.

Plans crafted, the next step was gathering up the necessary assets. Tools, hardware, spares and friendly helping hands all fall into this category. Having the necessary tools close at hand can mean the difference between a part ending up where it belongs or becoming an artifact in the bilge—something we’ve learned from experience. (Our bilge is full of artifacts to prove it.) Aboard the Dean, dinghies dispersed like flying fish as we returned to our respective vessels to gather tools and parts and don bathing suits.

After reconvening, the team put Plan A into action. No sooner had the rudder lifted a quarter-inch off the ground, though, than it became clear we would never get the boom positioned close enough to the hull to guide the rudder post where it belongs. In fact, it ended up swinging farther from where it needed to be than it had been before. Plan A was clearly a no-go. On to Plan B.

Fortunately, we carry some pretty heavy block and tackle aboard Tarka, which we had brought over. The issue then became finding “pick” points aboard the Dean that would allow us to both lift the rudder and then position it where needed. In the end we decided to attach an “outside” block to the end of the boom. A second block was then attached to a cleat installed at the end of the transom sugar scoop for secure dinghy lines. Two crew on deck hauled up the rudder, while the crew in the water issued commands like, “Bring it up more on the starboard side, OK now pull in both.” They also helped guide the stock into place as it drew near the bottom. A few more pulls and the captain of the Dean was able to secure it in place with a retaining bolt.

After that came the most important step of all—sundowners! Cocktails or “mocktails,” it doesn’t matter. The main thing is you celebrate your success. In some instances, you may also find yourself having to lament a failure, or failures, stopping work to devise a new set of plans. Either way, this final step of the day is crucial.

In the case of our rudder recovery, after everyone had cleaned up and put away their tools, it was time for drinks and a dinner of fresh fish. Rehashing our victory, laughing at the setbacks we’d encountered, adding in details to a story that will be told over and over again in cockpits all around the world in the years to come is all part of the fun.

Nothing makes a cruiser a true sailor-like being able to solve a problem, no matter what limited resources or isolation you may encounter. By employing these kinds of problem-solving skills, it’s easy to resolve a potentially disastrous situation and even end up in a better place than you started out—with a good yarn to boot! 

Photos courtesy of Breena Litzenberger

May 2021

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