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Limping Back Home With a Broken Rudder
A Hard Lesson on the Importance of Patience
They say that you earn your beautiful weather when sailing; that for every nasty hour you spend reefing sails or negotiating fog, you’ll be rewarded with a time of breathtaking beauty out there that makes it all worthwhile. But is the opposite true as well? Is there a butcher’s bill for the cruise begun under a bright sun and a gentle breeze? Sometimes a sailor’s cautionary instinct should be at its highest when the day is sublime.
Case in point: On a late-season weekend last fall, a day with no equal greeted us as we cast off the lines of our Catalina 34, Ukiyo and cleared the last marker in HerringBay. We set the sails, pointed her east, engaged the autohelm, and shut off the engine—tell me a better way to spend the day (or life). Ah, life is fine out here, so fine in fact that I felt all the piddily problems of the previous week dissolve into the morning mist; right along with my seaman’s cautious eye.
What is a seaman’s eye you ask? For me it’s that healthy sense of skepticism that searches for trouble aboard and on the water the way a gull seeks out dead fish. I am the pre-emptor of Murphy’s Law: always on the lookout for the little gremlins who sneak into our boat and raise cain. I find out where the trouble is and snuff it out before it has a chance to do its damage. Chaffed line, worn impellers, clogged sinks, and corroded anodes: fixed before they know what hits them on Ukiyo.
As a new sailor, before I developed The Eye, I had done a poor job furling the headsail on a passage to Marco Isle. Instead of immediately correcting it, I convinced myself that I could re-furl after the hook was down in the anchorage. Of course a hellacious squall blew through before we made it to our destination, partially unfurled the headsail, and nearly tore it to shreds. That was my intro to Mr. Murphy and his law (that and that flailing sheets really hurt!)
But not today. Today was for relaxing in the cockpit with a book, a beverage and a 15-knot wind on the starboard quarter. Six-knots was our speed and Easton was our destination. Nothing here but us and the bumps on the horizon, and the occasional crab trap in our path. My biggest worry at that point was deciding whether we would anchor out or take a slip at the town marina. You could almost hear the sound of my guard fading away with my troubles. Even when the depth sounder gave out east of Knapps Narrows. No problem! I knew these waters, this was my ‘hood and I had gone through here a dozen times with nary a thought to shoal water. This was shaping up to be the nicest day in the history of my Bay, nay, my entire life’s sailing experience!
When the keel hit the bottom, it made a sound like a base runner sliding gently into home. It was such a mild grounding that I didn’t panic—I merely dropped the sails and prepared to gently back off and continue on this trip to nirvana. But winged keels and neglectful skippers make for a dangerous combination: She would not budge. And despite the rising tide and gentle wind my hubris mandated that I free the boat now and continue on our way. So, after several minutes of high rpms and choice words, Ukiyo began to back off the bar, I spun her around and pointed back towards deep water when I heard a sickening crunch on the spade rudder that absolutely turned my stomach. Finally, I accepted the possibility that dinner reservations would have to be changed.
OOO (Out of Operation)
We were free, but the rudder was bent aft and would not turn right or completely straighten. For one brief absurd moment I actually attempted to carry on via a series of giant horizontal loop-de-loops. But, mercifully, my sanity returned. I have a towing policy with Boat US and the nearest operator was 20-minutes away in Oxford. I must say I seriously eyeballed the VHF; only the thought of Ukiyo ignominiously strapped to the side of the towboat being hauled in to our marina like the day’s catch compelled me to try another angle at completing the trip to Easton. No, there just wasn’t any getting around it: Time to get wet. Down the transom ladder and into the chilled water I went. Waste deep, I was just able to get my left foot on the rudder and via a combination of my wife turning the wheel and I pushing with my foot the rudder…slowly…painfully…moved to the right. We then began a series of right, left, right maneuvers that scraped enough fiberglass from the recalcitrant rudder to allow a full range of motion. Climbing back aboard I had no feeling from the waist down. I fired up the engine and continued on a serpentine course in deeper water.
She steered like a rusted out WWII-era barge, creaking, and groaning every time we changed the heading, which was often. In our wounded state the autohelm was useless and we hand-steered up the Tred Avon and into the small anchorage at Easton. In the last rays of the evening we set the hook and collapsed into the forepeak, thankful to be at our intended destination. Next day we enjoyed the oysters and clam chowder at the annual Waterfowl Festival, but I could scarcely forgive or forget the predicament I had put us into. The return trip the next day involved a lot of tricky (and noisy) helmsmanship and we limped into our slip in Deale at 1600.
At first thaw in the spring I had Ukiyo pulled and blocked, and it was no surprise to learn that the rudder was beyond repair. The mechanics made a firm estimate, then raised it 57% after they ordered the wrong rudder (they claimed the two events were mutually exclusive). In the interim I replaced the transducer and slapped on another coat of bottom paint. The delay kept us out of the water well into April, and the final bill with hauling and storage fees was over $3,000.
But since then the helm feels like butter in my hands, and on a recent cruise to Lake Ogleton she sailed better than ever. It’s oh so easy to relax aboard Ukiyo on the Bay. Easy to let your guard down, but I’m poorer and wiser now: When I’m out there I may let my hair down, but never again my guard….with all due respect to Mr. Murphy.