A first solo ocean crossing became an extraordinary test for James Frederick when his rudder failed 1,000 miles from shore leaving him adrift in the Pacific
Staring down from the cockpit into the cabin of my vintage sloop I tried to imagine watching her fill with water. What would float freely first? How long would it take before her decks were awash?
I was alone and adrift 1,000 nautical miles away from the Hawaiian Islands with a broken rudder and only two choices before me. I could either figure out how to steer Triteia, my 1965 Alberg 30, or I could call for rescue and scuttle her once a cargo ship arrived.
Less than an hour before I’d been hand steering, desperately trying to get Triteia to find her course. It was our first day in the Pacific tradewinds after departing from Marina del Rey, California, bound for Hilo, Hawaii. Even allowing for the usual challenges of running with the seas and the wind, something was off, Triteia refused to hold true. I’d disengaged my old Sailomat auxiliary rudder windvane and taken the helm to try and find her groove. The winds were Force 4-5 with 2m seas.
Suddenly the tiller went completely slack in my hand, quietly falling to starboard as the boat came hard up into the wind to port. There was no sound, no dramatic event, but within seconds, as I swung the tiller back and forth with no resistance, the gravity of my situation rang loud inside my head.
I quickly furled in the headsail to slow the boat. My first thought, and hope, was that maybe the securing bolt in the tiller head had sheared off. This would have been an easy fix that I could do in an hour. Triteia is a full keel boat with a cutaway forefoot, she has a large rudder made of mahogany that runs the aft length of her keel and is attached with a bronze plate at the foot and a bent bronze tiller shaft that runs up a tube into the cockpit.
I knew the first thing I needed to do was see what was happening below the water, so I zip-tied my GoPro camera onto a seahook, hung it off the stern and pointed it the best I could at the rudder. Reviewing the footage, I could see the rudder had separated from the tiller shaft and was swinging free. The rudder is a sandwich construction with each of the hardwood planks married to one another and bound together with long bronze rods. Three of these rods had failed.
It was clear I needed to get in the water and try and lash the rudder to prevent it from suffering any more damage. If possible, I’d run the lines up either side, giving me a means of steering the boat. I contacted one of my shore team via my Iridium Go, explained briefly what had happened and that I was about to get in the water. I did this so that if I didn’t make it back on the boat, at least one person would know what had happened to me.
I put on a wetsuit, my safety harness with two tethers attached, goggles and a snorkel and deployed my swim ladder. I also threw out a 30m long line with knots tied in it every few metres and a float at the end as a last resort in case I became disconnected from the boat. With all sails down, the boat pitched and rolled, and even with no canvas up still sailed at 1.5 knots, causing me to be pulled taut on the tethers as I dragged through the water.
I held onto the starboard quarter and stared at the rudder for a while. I could see a large chunk on the trailing edge had been dislodged, light visible through the cracks. The rudder swung freely, held on only by the bronze foot and a pintle and gudgeon. The boat’s rolling motion was my greatest concern, I worried about being knocked out and drowning. I tried diving under the hull to feed a line through the cut-out hole in the rudder which houses the propeller, but I was pulled taught on my tether behind the boat with each dive attempt, never getting close enough to touch the rudder, let alone wrap a line around it.
After what felt like an eternity but had only been 10 minutes in the water, I climbed back aboard exhausted. Sitting in the cockpit, dejected and soaking wet, I tried to gather my thoughts. This is when I had the terrible vision of watching my boat – my home, my dreams, and all of my worldly belongings – sink into the Pacific Ocean. I decided that there was only one option; I would figure out how to steer Triteia one way or another.
Rolling in the deep
I dug out the bright orange rigid plastic drogue known as a Sea Squid from my aft cockpit locker, tied it to a long line and tossed it into the sea to slow my progress, which, without steering, was due south. I raised the main to the second reef to try and stabilise the boat while also limiting the distance we’d cover overnight. Then I went down below to think about my next steps.
I realised that I needed to slow myself down and stay calm: getting frantic could lead to accident, injury or even death. I was also aware that I needed to conserve my strength and not get seasick; a very real possibility with the yacht’s new motion.
I took a Dramamine and ate a simple dinner. After dinner I turned in early, but the sounds of Triteia taking seas on the beam and constantly trying to run into the wind were unnerving. I plugged in my headphones and listened to Duke Ellington to try and drown out the chaos.
By now other members of my shore team had started to make contact, concerned as to what was happening because of the dramatic turn on my satellite tracker page. My shore team consisted of two of my brothers, David and Colby, my long-time friend Sarah, and Captain Noah Peffer and Captain David Stovall. I let them all know the situation and updated my tracker blog.
After a restless night, by morning the winds were blowing 22 knots and the seas had increased. I pulled all of my scuba gear out of the lockers, hoping that if I didn’t have to hold my breath, I would be able to pull myself under the boat slowly and get the line attached.
After dropping all sail again, I tied a line to my scuba vest and tank, inflated it and tossed it into the water. I then tied a longer tether to my harness, that would hopefully allow me to reach under the boat, and climbed back into the sea. The ship’s motion was even more violent now with the higher winds and bigger seas. I fought my way into the scuba BCD and was instantly being tugged behind the boat.
The drag of the scuba gear was not something I’d considered, and it was hard work to pull myself back to the boat hand over hand on the tethers. I held onto the starboard quarters toerail with all of my strength, and soon felt my arm muscles strain. This was my only moment of genuine fear: thinking what if I can’t pull myself back onto the boat? I quickly shed my scuba vest and struggled to the ladder and back on the boat. Using the last of my strength I pulled the gear, including the 65lb steel tank, back on board before collapsing in the cockpit.
My second night adrift and running with the wind and waves was similar to the first, but the new day brought more of the same conditions and I didn’t even consider trying to dive again. Instead I decided to try Captain Peffer and Captain Stovall’s suggestion of trying to steer the boat by drogue. I’d never even heard of the technique before, but it appeared to be my only hope.
I’d found my drogue in the dumpster of a marina in Los Angeles and had very nearly got rid of it when trying to declutter Triteia before we set off. I kept it because I intended to sail to Alaska from Hawaii and, having crewed on yacht deliveries in the Pacific Northwest, knew how big the seas could get in those latitudes.
Stovall and Peffer started sending me instructions on ways I could approach the set up. I took my spinnaker pole and lashed it sideways on the aft deck braced against the stern pulpit, then took snatch blocks and attached them amidships. The longest lines I had on the boat were my spinnaker sheets, so I ran them forward through the blocks then aft through the ends of the spinnaker pole and onto the aft deck.
I tied each of the lines from both sides to the eyelet on the end of the drogue and added several zip ties to the tail of each bowline to make sure they would stay tight. After triple checking the set up I finally deployed the drogue: it trailed behind the boat and seemed to do nothing. I paid out most of the line to get it well aft… and still no effect.
After an hour of experimenting, Stovall texted to suggest I add a piece of chain or weight to the end of the drogue to try and submerge it more. I hauled the drogue back in and lashed a 4lb scuba weight to the eyelet before tossing it back into the sea.
This made a huge difference, and I could actually start to see the boat respond as I pulled the drogue from one side to the other. But after another couple of hours of trying, I still could not get the boat to sail on the course we needed to hit the Hawaiian Islands.
Peffer messaged me: “Do you have your main up? If so, drop it and only sail with your headsail.” I was hesitant to drop the mainsail because I knew the yacht’s motion would be horrible, but was desperate to find a way to gain steerage. I dropped the main and, with about 90% of my headsail unfurled and drawing, was easily able to get Triteia on course. I couldn’t actually believe it was working, but soon started receiving texts from my team congratulating me, “YOU DID IT!” as they could see my course alter on the satellite tracker.
It took me a few days to slowly figure out how to carry more sail and tune the drogue and windvane together to be able to make between 3-4 knots of boatspeed. As I paid out more headsail or as the winds increased, I’d need to bring the drogue closer into the weather side of the ship. The drogue steering works in a similar way to paddling a canoe: if you place your paddle in the water and hold it still the bow of your canoe will turn in whichever direction the paddle is on, this is exactly how the drogue works.
I could probably have carried even more sail if I’d eliminated the spinnaker pole from the setup and been able to bring the drogue closer to amidships. But the spinnaker pole was necessary to keep the control lines out from under my windvane paddle; I’d learned this the hard way during the initial setup experiments when I tried deploying the drogue without the pole.
One of the lines hooked under the windvane and when the drogue loaded up, threatened to damage and disable the windvane. I also could have sailed wing-on-wing with a reefed main, but since I was solo, in a vulnerable situation 1,000 miles from land, I didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks and didn’t mind making slow and safe progress.
My biggest fear in the first few days was rounding up and pointing in the opposite direction, how would I turn back onto the correct course?
When it inevitably did happen I solved it by attaching my roll stabiliser, the ‘Rocker Stopper’, overboard amidships. The boat instantly came about and got back onto her correct heading.
Triteia and I sailed on at this slow but steady pace for 18 days. With each passing day, as well as each passing squall, I gained confidence in the system and was able to relax and get back into my regular routines of ocean sailing. Solo sailing can leave you with almost too much time alone with your own thoughts, so I tend to spend my days on passage reading, writing and editing video.
As the days turned into nights followed by beautiful sunrises, life at sea often feels as if time has stood still but then suddenly, as we approach landfall, the passages seem to have flown by.
On September 12, after 31 days at sea, I spotted the island of Molokai and howled with delight until my throat was sore. The silhouette of the island was obscured until I was just 41 miles away. I was overwhelmed with joy and relief and for the first time since the rudder had failed knew it was all going to be OK.
However, our perilous situation wasn’t yet over. The channels between the Hawaiian Islands are notoriously dangerous because they create bottlenecks of winds and currents that can create deadly conditions. I had the good fortune of arriving in daylight, with very mellow tradewinds blowing and relatively calm – for Hawaii – seas running at 3m with a long period between the swells, but with no steerage I was nervous to safely make landfall.
Approaching the Kaiwi Channel that separates the islands of Oahu and Molokai, I called in to request a tow, only to discover there was no towboat available. However, when I started my engine I discovered my drogue steering setup also worked well under power, so was able to make my own way around Oahu’s famous Diamondhead volcanic crater. Once in phone range, I messaged a contact on the island, Captain Mike LaRose, who sent me coordinates for a suitable anchorage off of Waikiki to await assistance, and later his team came to tow me in by powerboat after dropping their last snorkel clients of the day.
By sunset I was stepping off Triteia for the first time in a month, after 2,300 miles. My shaky legs and pounding heart left me laying flat on my back on the dock. With both relief and disbelief I stared up at the skies above Honolulu. Neptune had really made me earn my first solo ocean passage.
Watch the video
James Frederick is solo circumnavigating west about and is currently in New Zealand. He shares his adventures through weekly videos on his YouTube channel Sailing Triteia, including footage of him demonstrating the drogue steering technique, and on his Instagram page @james.the.sailor.man
If you enjoyed this….
Yachting World is the world’s leading magazine for bluewater cruisers and offshore sailors. Every month we have inspirational adventures and practical features to help you realise your sailing dreams.Build your knowledge with a subscription delivered to your door. See our latest offers and save at least 30% off the cover price.