Steering issues fall firmly into the ‘things you never want to happen’ list, but they are not unknown, writes Susan Glenny
Around 5% of the ARC fleet reported steering issues over the 2017-2019 rallies, that’s about ten incidents per year. They also tend to occur with little warning, and can be tricky to fix – as I discovered when we had to make emergency repairs to the steering system mid-Atlantic.
In December 2018 I was taking a 43ft monohull across on the ARC. In Gran Canaria I’d made visual checks on the steering system and spares as part of my safety inspection. The vessel’s owners advised me that the cable and bearings had been serviced the previous week. The steering system was a double pedestal system servicing a single rudder.
Nine days out of Las Palmas we were roughly 900 miles from land, it was dark in the early hours of the morning with approximately 18 knots of following wind and a large mid-Atlantic swell. I was helming and I was tired, it being close to the end of the dogwatch of the night.
In the midst of the ‘sway’ motion I develop when helming for long periods downwind in response to push back in the wheel, I suddenly felt a flick and heard a loud ‘ping!’ This was immediately followed by a total loss of pressure in the wheel and the boat steering fiercely into a crash gybe.
“No steerage! Heads, heads, crash gybing!” I shouted, “No steerage!” The boat settled on its new gybe with the preventer taught and then twisted in the next wave to gybe back. As luck would have it we happened to be bare headed at the time: having to deal with a spinnaker or headsail in this scenario would have significantly added to the complication.
“Get the emergency steering gear!” I shouted, then realised I was still clinging to the wheel, which was clearly futile, so I stepped away from the pedestal and collected the emergency tiller myself.
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We quickly installed the emergency tiller. To say that it was useless at steering the boat would be an understatement. I quickly realised that our limited capability to steer in the large seaway did not allow us to go the way we wanted to go.
The emergency gear gave us the ability to steer the boat in a stable straight line, as dictated by the seaway, to prevent a further crash gybe, but nothing more. In the particular conditions we were sailing in, that meant our COG was due south, pretty alarming when 900 miles offshore mid-Atlantic!
So if you are heading more than a couple of miles offshore it is absolutely critical that you have the tools and capability on board a boat to fully fix any steering issue should it arise. An emergency tiller is a truly temporary solution to bring the boat under control, not to bring it back to port.
I’m thankful that it began to get light shortly after our incident happened, which allowed a quick diagnosis of what was broken and for us to be able to complete the fix in daylight. As we were expecting, we discovered that the steering cable connecting the drive between the two steering pedestals had broken, detaching the twin wheel cable from the quadrant.
The crew quickly gathered the replacement steering cables and the tool box. The chains and cables were awkward to get to, inside the pedestals through a hole about the size of a credit card, but after a bit of fiddling I was able to get to the end of the cables attached to the chains.
At this point I realised we had a problem. After extracting them from the pedestal, I found that the original cables were attached to the chains via eyes on the cables that had clearly been made with a machine-pressed clamp. These clamps were neither removable nor reusable, and the new cables had no eyes in them. It was clear the new cables would be impossible to use.
At that point I recalled an old sailor friend had told me it was possible to fashion a steering cable with a length of Dyneema and spice this on to the chain to connect it. I set about making this repair, which took a long time to get to the correct length and tension to be effective. But it worked: after around nine hours we were under way again, much to the relief of everyone on board.
What causes steering failure?
Several things can influence a loss of steerage. They include:
- Failure of cables or the cabling system, bearings, chains, etc.
- Quadrant failure.
- Damage or breakage to the wheel, pedestal or primary tiller.
- Partial loss of rudder through impact.
- Rudder stock failure, rudder bearing failure and rudder loss.
The first three can all be handled in the first instance by installing a pre-existing emergency tiller directly onto the rudder stock. Bear in mind our experience of actually trying to use the emergency tiller to steer to a course in a seaway. But this should buy you time to fix the problem.
Points 4 and 5 create a more urgent situation that is more difficult to rapidly resolve. In these circumstances it’s really important to have the correct inventory of steering safety equipment on board the boat and be familiar with how to manoeuvre the boat under sail alone.
- Annual/regular checking of steering cables, chains and cable bearings goes some way to avoiding steering failure. It’s suggested bearings are replaced every 20,000 miles. Make additional visual checks before any major passage.
- Remove rudder and stock during annual haul out, grease the outer rudder bearing case (with Lanocote grease for the Jefa bearing).
- Annual check of stock/steering quadrant for cracks and progressive failure. Remove and weld repairs if cracks are found.
- Regularly (monthly and prior to any passage) check the cable tensions and tighten if necessary.
- Take your whole steering system apart some time you are in port and not constrained for time. Go through every part of it and be sure you know how it goes back together.
Emergency steering spares
- Full inventory of replacement cables, bearings, chain, clips, and clamps.
- Drogue of suitable size for the size of the boat.
- Two reinforced rubber-handled buckets, with 2m Dyneema or webbing lanyards, to influence the yacht’s change of direction by drag.
- Emergency tiller.
- A plan and all items to make and install a temporary rudder. My basic plan is to lash the spinnaker pole across the transom of the boat and use an internal door. I carry emergency 10mm x 300mm through-bolts (no heads, double nuts) and a 10mm drill bit, and would use these to secure a spar from the vessel, such as the aluminium bowsprit, to the door. I’d then lash this temporary stock and rudder to the spinnaker pole with Dyneema. I’d use the emergency tiller, through-bolted through the aluminium sprit.
- A skirted rubber sleeve fitted around the opening in the hull for the rudder stock (or stocks if you have twin rudders), to quickly prevent water entry if the rudder and stock were lost.
- Dyneema line twice the length of your cabling system and similar diameter to the cables in case you have to splice a temporary cable.
- All the tools you’ll require to take apart the steering system. A special tool is sometimes required for chain-to-cable connections. Other tools may include Allen keys, spanners, and circlip pliers. Always check you’re equipped with the correct sizes, and carry two sets where possible. Also lubricants and old toothbrushes for cleaning.
- Splicing kit.
- Headtorch and moveable light – repairs will inevitably be in hard-to-see areas, even if not at night.
Vessels with a twin rudder system have a ‘spare’ if steering failure occurs to one. Offshore safety regulations recognise this as both an emergency system and a replacement rudder.
About the author
Commercial Ocean Yachtmaster Susan Glenny is Director of Tigress Racing and is campaigning for the 2024 Olympic offshore sailing class.
First published in the December 2020 issue of Yachting World.