Round Trip to Bermuda – what to do when your rudder falls off 200 miles out


 (published Riverside Burgee Dec. 2004) 


Something in the Bermuda Triangle hates the combination of Fleet Captains’ boats, rudders and your correspondent. Last year it was Larry Dickie’s misfortune to invite me aboard. This year Bill Breck defied the Gods, and lost.

Five of us left Bermuda aboard Alibi on the Sunday after Thanksgiving for what was expected to be a milk run to Tortola. Two hundred miles out, just after concluding a debate as to the appropriate side dish for dinner (I believe twice-baked potatoes won the vote) a soft “boink” sounded from beneath our hull and helmsman and former RYC staffer Joe Curran announced that we’d lost steerage. Dinner was postponed while we examined the cable linkage, and abandoned when we discovered that the cables were fine but the rudder was not. We devoted the rest of the evening to rigging and deploying a sea anchor so that we could sleep in a troubled sea. 

Tuesday morning Alibi’s captain Keefer Erickson donned a mask and jumped overboard to confirm our suspicion: the entire rudder, together with about two feet of the stainless steel, “can’t ever fall off” Swan rudder post were no longer along for the ride. This event was compared to the steering wheel falling off a Rolls Royce but,as Bill Breck pointed out, at least in a Rolls one can pull over to the side and put an end to the adventure. Ours had just begun. 

We pulled two aluminum floor boards from the Avon dingy and spent the rest of the day bolting them to the spinnaker pole and rigging a series of blocks and lines to hold our new rudder in the water and responsive, sort of, to our efforts to steer. We got under way around 4:30 that afternoon headed north, toward Bermuda. We had considered (Bill Breck had considered) continuing six hundred miles to Tortola, as there is a Millennium party scheduled for Foxy’s, and its success depends on Breck’s presence. The forecast predicted smoother sailing to the south, severe storms to the north, so the rest of us at least pretended to listen to Bill before voting for the shorter, if rougher, route.

We made twenty-five miles in the next twelve hours, but a series of squalls and largish(eight to ten feet) waves began striking around midnight and by four a.m. it was impossible to steer. The rudder was pulled, badly mangled, from the water, the sea anchor re-deployed and once again we slept. While we did, the winds blew us back south and when we awoke we were again two hundred miles from Bermuda. This did nothing to lift our spirits. We then attempted, just as books instruct, to balance the headsail (drives the boat down) with the mainsail (drives the boat up), but the glib authors proffering such advice are either sailing geniuses or have never attempted to balance a fin-keeled boat on large seas without a rudder. Either way, we spent most of the day being pushed around in circles by the waves and getting nowhere.

We were not quite alone out there on the water. Our own Coast Guard refused to acknowledge our calls because we wouldn’t admit we were sinking (I suggested to Breck that we report ourselves as carrying an ounce of cocaine, which would have produced an entire flotilla, plus helicopters, from what was once a useful branch of our military, but the suggestion was rejected out of a concern over the effect of bullets on the new gelcoat). Bermuda Harbor Radio politely offered us a tow should we ever manage to come within thirty miles of their island. If we were able to sail one hundred seventy miles, we could damn well finish the remaining thirty, but we didn’t point this out and instead thanked them for their concern. In fairness to the men on Bermuda,they did set up a six hour call schedule with us, and over the ensuing days made every effort to know where we were and how we were.They even attempted to arrange a private tow for us, all without ever asking if any of us on board were drug users. It was obvious that none of the Bermudians had ever trained in New London. 

One useful item on board was the single side-band radio. With it, Bill was able to call Eric Kreuter and alert him to our plight. Kreuter responded magnificently, as always. He alerted families, updated them twice daily on our status, and initiated a stream of calls to his friends around the world, soliciting advice, and ultimately,located a private fishing boat willing to come out to the middle of the ocean and tow us home. 

It’s fair to say that conceding defeat and accepting a tow was not Bill Breck’s decision; he was convinced we could make it to safety without outside assistance and very much wanted to try. The fair weather sailors among us (the author being a vocal component thereof) felt, with no northward progress, a steady drifting east—further into the ocean—storms with seventeen foot waves forecast, some of the crew seasick and all of us exhausted, that a more prudent course of action should be adopted. Bill resisted, perhaps in part because the first quote for a tow (from a 210’ ocean-going tug) was $40,000. The rest of us were perfectly willing to spend every last one of Breck’s dollars if it would get us home but we kept at the task of attempting to steer until Thursday morning, when Eric found more reasonably priced salvation. Fearing for his life at the hands of the crew Breck assented, and we spent the rest of the day working on towing bridles and attempting northward progress.

 Friday at dawn Somethin Hot, an Ocean 48 sportsfisherman found us at our designated position (how did jack Aubrey do that without GPS and radio?). We’d been tossed around for four days, getting by on two hour cat naps, so the sight of a sturdy vessel chugging through the waves to reach us was as beautiful as any sunrise I’ve ever seen. On board Somethin Hot were Craigan Curtis and his mate James, both from St. George. They had set out into the teeth of a gale and against the advice of their friends and family because, as James put it, “if I were out there on the ocean,I’d sure want someone to come get me.”Neither had slept in the past thirty hours and they requested that a member of Alibi join them to assist. Breck might have volunteered this writer for the job—certainly I was the least experienced and therefore the least valuable—but he never had the chance; I leapt off the boat into the ocean and swam desperately for the only bat with a rudder within two hundred miles. The surprised fishermen brought me in through the marlin hatch in the stern and we began our first attempt at a tow. The next fourteen hours were devoted to ascending the learning curve as we figured out how to keep Alibi’s stern in the same ocean as her rescuer (ultimately, 250’ of chain towed aft did the trick—whether this will work on other unruly women is open to question), where to attach the bridle (we tried using the primary and secondary winches as towing points and eventually, in contravention of the majority consensus of Kreuter’s symposium, used the mast. Despite predictions of disaster it worked, on this boat at least).

The biggest problem was chafing. Our original system of chafing gear was hopelessly naive and shredded within minutes. As hours passed, new techniques were tried (while we drifted further to the southeast) all without success until finally, at 11:30 p.m., Captain Keefer declared that he had the solution. We bobbed and drifted on the Atlantic while Keefer ran individual lines through separate lengths of water hose and then ran the hoses through the inner tubes of the Avon (this isn’t recommended if you intend to re-use your raft), and wrapped the entire assembly in the outer skin of the raft (see previous comment). At 2:30 a.m., we were ready and wonders of wonders, everything worked. We proceeded to Bermuda at the stately pace of four knots and finally reached St. George’s harbor early Sunday evening.

Lessons learned? Locate a decent book on sea emergencies and keep it on board—the hours we spent reinventing the rudder were frustrating and unnecessary. Consider building a towing bridle in advance. Bill’s poor dingy lost her life to a noble cause, but less expensive alternatives exist; one suggestion, passed along once we were back in Bermuda, was old fire hose which, we were told, is often discarded by fire departments. It coils flat, so a twenty foot length can be stowed easily on board, awaiting emergencies. Carry plenty of line, and some kind of sea anchor. Hathaway’s Gale Rider has been tested as an emergency tiller but only on Long Island Sound, using a tug whose rudder had been immobilized but not removed. Would it work on a fin-keeled boat missing its entire rudder, pitching in a rough ocean? Breck will donate a Gale Rider to the next Fleet Captain and when that individual is ready, I’ll join him in Bermuda and we can put it to the test.