When the rudder of his 39-footer broke in mid-Atlantic Patrick Marshall set up a jury rig, with the support and advice of a radio net, and sailed 1,500 miles to the Caribbean

Back on course

The wind was seldom dead astern, but we found that with a staysail poled-out to leeward and the genoa to windward we could sail comfortably with the wind about 20° on the quarter. We switched between the storm jib and regular staysail depending on wind and sea conditions.

With the drogue adjusted to balance the rig, the autopilot kept us more or less on course once we had adjusted its gain to maximum. The constant whirring of motor and gears as the wheel was spun from lock to lock would impose a great deal of wear and use a lot of juice, and we could only hope that it kept working.

Every now and then the pilot lost control with a fit of beeps, which sometimes we could recover with a sharp tug on one of the steering lines, but often the boat would round up broadside onto the wind and we’d have to back one of the headsails to turn her round again.

We could maintain control better by hand steering as well as increase the speed by half a knot, but we didn’t have the energy to keep at it for long.

Receiving drums of diesel

Receiving drums of diesel

Our request for extra diesel hadn’t been forgotten, with the result that Father Christmas arrived a week early, wakeboarding in an inflatable dinghy on the end of a long line behind the Kiwi yacht Tuatara. On the first reasonably calm day since the incident, Santa – alias Alan – with considerable skill and lots of energetic rowing, manoeuvred himself alongside Egret and heaved over two drums of diesel and a sack of goodies, including a freshly baked loaf of bread, some chocolate cake and a Christmas card.

Over halfway

Declining to stay for a cup of tea, he nevertheless managed to get a glimpse of what remained of our rudder before being hauled back on board his mothership by Jean and Juan. We were overwhelmed by their generosity. The next day we celebrated 1,000 miles to go: over halfway.

Soon after losing the rudder we had begun to make contact with family members, Falmouth Coastguard and our insurance company to set about working out options for the repair of the rudder. Andy of Spruce, at anchor in Grenada, initiated research via the Coconut Telegraph into recommended repair locations.

Our destination had originally been Barbados, but after weighing up such factors as ease of approach from seaward, the suitability of shoreside facilities and the availability of skilled tradesmen, we plumped instead for Saint Lucia.

Clive, the owner of the Sweden Yachts 38 Cosmic Dancer, was already there having just finished the ARC, and he did a great deal of leg-work talking to the boatyard manager and lining up a surveyor. Mark of Macushla, moored at Las Palmas, managed to get a structural drawing of the rudder from Sweden Yachts, and started discussions with them.

The news of our plight seemed to be spreading wider and wider, and it was often hard to know how to deal with offers of help from unknown, but well intentioned people. For a while I was spending most of my night watches at the computer receiving, reading and sending emails, somewhat to the detriment of sailing the boat, keeping a good look-out or simply resting.

Fortunately the flow of information eventually subsided, and we thank everyone who gave us the benefit of their time and experience, and also Sailmail for allowing us so much free extra airtime.

Constant tweaking

Egret was perpetually straining at the leash of the long drogue astern, which was slowing her by about two knots. The arrangement seemed to work well and was self-compensating; in light winds the fenders bobbed along above the water providing little resistance, but as the wind rose they sank lower, providing more drag. With continual tweaking of the myriad of ropes controlling the sails, we were regularly able to clock daily runs of over 90 miles.

Under staysail and backed genoa

Under staysail and backed genoa

The weather was quite unsettled with a succession of depressions to the north upsetting the regular pattern of the tradewinds. We tended to change down to the storm staysail before dusk, but on one particularly squally night we had to take down the poles and revert to our old arrangement of storm staysail with backed genoa.

The early hours of Christmas morning were magical: the first time during the whole crossing when it was completely cloud-free and I felt inclined to study the night sky. The sea was its calmest ever, the breeze a steady Force 3. The moon had set just seven minutes after the sun and wouldn’t rise again until 40 minutes after sunrise, so it was very dark, providing a brilliant stellar display.

As I sat back sipping a mug of freshly brewed coffee and munching a slice of the gorgeous Christmas cake made for us by Amanda’s mother, a shooting star illuminated the eastern sky for a few moments with its glittering trail.

Sunrise heralded a perfect day with just a few white clouds in the brilliant blue sky. The morning radio net brought Christmas greetings from boats at sea and at anchor. The gentle breeze allowed us to hoist our big downwind staysail and to unroll the genoa completely – the first time since breaking the rudder.

We opened our presents and added the labels and cards to the decorations we’d bought in the Canaries. In the evening we pulled our crackers then dined well, starting with confit du canard served with croquette potatoes, ceps and haricots verts, followed by Christmas pudding, cooked in the pressure cooker, with brandy butter and cream.

Succession of squalls

A rain shower at 2330 forewarned the end of Christmas day, and by 0300 we were on deck wrestling down the staysail and hoisting the storm jib. A succession of squalls passed over, and the seas started to build.

On Boxing Day, with less than 400 miles to go, we began to dare to make predictions about our arrival. New Year’s Eve seemed achievable, but the forecast predicted an increase in wind to 20-25 knots that day, which would probably mean gusts over 30 knots and big seas. To help plan our approach we experimented to see in what directions we could sail Egret and how she handled under power.

The gap between Saint Lucia and Martinique is about 17 miles, which is plenty wide enough in normal circumstances, but after many days so far from land it seemed to us rather narrow, particularly with steering being so iffy. We certainly didn’t want to end our voyage on a lee shore.

For several days we had been taking every opportunity to climb to the north of the rhumbline so that we would be directly upwind of the mid-point during our final approach. We were trying to time our arrival at this waypoint to a couple of hours after sunrise, when, as well as daylight, there would be a west-going tide and current to sweep us through.

Once downwind of the islands, we were fairly confident that we could broad reach across to Rodney Bay. The boatyard had promised to have a suitable boat on standby to tow us into the marina, and Jo and Arny from Just Jane said they would come out in their dinghy to assist.

  1. 1. Magellan Net
  2. 2. Back on course
  3. 3. Approaching land
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