When he lost the rudder of his 48-footer in a storm during the Rolex Middle Sea Race, Ross Applebey was not about to give up. He tells his story to Matthew Sheahan


Losing a rudder is a big issue, but in bad weather it can quickly become the trigger for a chain of even more serious and potentially catastrophic events. When Ross Applebey’s Lightwave 485 Scarlet Oyster suffered rudder failure during last year’s Rolex Middle Sea Race, conditions were bad and they were about to get far worse.

But Applebey and his co-skipper Andy Middleton not only managed to get the damaged boat safely to shore without outside assistance, but built a replacement rudder in just 24 hours in a small village on a remote island to the south of Sicily.

And the story didn’t end there. The boat’s next commitment was the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers where Applebey and his charter crew would attempt to win the ARC’s racing division for the fourth time in a row.

Ross Applebey’s handling of the rudder failure situation makes for a fascinating read – it was an impressive act of seamanship for which he and Middleton were well-deserved winners of the RORC Outstanding Seamanship Award.

Scarlet Oyster in Scalvi after using the emergency rudder lent them by a competitor

Scarlet Oyster in Scalvi after using the emergency rudder lent them by a competitor

Scarlet Oyster has been a very successful racing boat over the years and continues to be popular with charterers, but she is nonetheless no spring chicken and has covered many thousands of miles. Built in 1987, she is also the product of a different era of boatbuilding, her model name, Lightwave 485, says much about where this cruiser-racer was aimed when the model was first launched.

But what makes this story so compelling is that losing a rudder can happen to any boat, old or new, and while the nature of this failure may not be applicable to other boats, the consequences could be just the same.

Middle Sea gales

Having started the famous 608-mile offshore race round Sicily and its outlying islands in benign conditions, the bulk of the fleet had completed a good deal of the course by the time the weather took a turn for the worse. Then, as the breeze built to well over 40 knots and was forecast to deteriorate even further, the sea state worsened.

“We were most of the way round the course and getting close to rounding the island of Pantelleria,” explains Applebey. “We had given ourselves a bit of sea room and had been sailing high of our rhumb line course, which left us quite well upwind of the islands.”

Surfing downwind, Scarlet Oyster had been clocking up some impressive speeds, but with a storm jib set and two reefs in the mainsail in 40-45 knots of wind, she was well under control – until one particular wave.

“The boat got a bit of a surf downwind and picked up,“ says Applebey. “We were doing about 19 knots, then the steering just went light on the face of a wave. I looked over my shoulder and the first thing I saw was the cap that covers the emergency tiller popping up in the air. I then saw one side of the rudder float to the surface.

The failure on the rudder stock happened at a welded joint inside the blade

The failure on the rudder stock happened at a welded joint inside the blade

“At that point I was wondering whether we had just lost the shell of the rudder, but in fact the stock had sheered a metre into the rudder and had levered the shells apart. One popped up onto the surface while the other side sank with the rudder stock.”

The rudder’s gone

“The boat then rounded up and tacked. I shouted down below and Andy Middleton came charging up on deck and wound the new runner on. I think he had misheard the call as: ‘The runner’s gone’, but as it happened this was just what we needed to do anyway because we needed to keep the boat balanced by easing the main. We settled the boat down on port and, by trimming the main we found that we could keep a true wind angle of about 70° and were doing five knots upwind.”

At that point Scarlet Oyster was about five miles from the island of Pantelleria. Having established control over the boat, Applebey and Middleton started to consider their options. Although this island was closest, the main harbour was on the windward side and looked tricky to get into, even with a rudder. Instead they decided to make their way back upwind to Sicily where there were some sheltered harbours with big breakwaters. Despite the conditions, Applebey felt that, at this stage, the boat was under control and therefore decided not to put out a Pan Pan or Mayday.

Ross Applebey, skipper of Scarlet Oyster won the RORC Outstanding Seamanship Award

Ross Applebey, skipper of Scarlet Oyster won the RORC Outstanding Seamanship Award

“Sailing upwind we were able to handle the boat,” he explains. “Our problem was that we had only two reefs in the mainsail with no third reef line rigged as the next stage would have been to lower the mainsail and rig the storm trysail. But with no rudder we couldn’t do this without the boat spinning around when we lowered the mainsail.”

Although the boat was now sailing away from Pantelleria and creating more sea room, conditions were becoming worse, making this option more difficult to pursue.

“As the breeze built to around 50 knots, we were having more issues being beam on to the waves and had no control over which bit of the waves would hit us. Also we were concerned about losing the mainsail and then losing control. Even though it was a new sail it had been flogging a lot.

Running before the gale

“We decided to run before the gale with our drogue out and then take the main down. But getting the mainsail down turned out to be a bit of a mission once the boat had turned downwind. I had to climb up the mast and haul the sliders down by hand!”

The pair put in the third reef just in case they needed to hoist the main again, settled down and prepared to ride out the storm. Although forecasts at the time were indicating that conditions might abate, the reality turned out to be the opposite, leaving Applebey and his crew to face continued bad weather for the next 48 hours.

With seasick crew aboard and conscious of how tired they themselves were, Applebey and Middleton decided to head towards flatter water in the lee of Pantelleria. Hoisting a tiny bit of mainsail made it easier to pick laylines for where they wanted to end up once they got closer to the island.

“This meant putting in a few gybes, which we managed to do by transferring the load of the drogue from one side of the boat to the other, lowering the mainsail and then re-hoisting on the other side,” says Applebey. “We didn’t hoist up to the third reef, but just enough to help our balance.

“We finally got ourselves in towards the lee of the island and then started to harden up to make our approach to where we planned to anchor. Progressively we started to hoist more and more mainsail until we were able to bring the drogue in.”

As they got closer they spotted another competing yacht hanging off the back of a fishing boat so thought it would make sense to get a line to them rather than anchor.

“I thought the boat would steer OK under engine with the drogue as we had tried in the Solent, but that was with the rudder. We couldn’t turn to port and kept turning to starboard. So we ended up using as much speed as we could to go in one direction before shutting off the power or going into astern to alter course the other way.”

Having passed a line across to the other boat, the team felt pretty relieved, but their relief didn’t last long.

They cut the line

“Within an hour or so, for whatever reason, the fishing boat wanted to go and despite us trying to tell the yacht that we needed to stay attached to them because we had no rudder, they cut our line,” says Applebey. “We had left the drogue out to stop us surging into the back of the yacht while we were tied to them, but now we had backed up the drogue had become tangled in what remained of the stock.”

Faced with the prospect of being swept back out to sea, Applebey and Middleton discovered they could steer fairly straight if they went astern under power. In this way they were able to head back in towards shelter. They managed to anchor in 30m of water.

“At first light the next morning I went under the boat to see what we had left. We had already started looking at using the saloon table as a blade that we might be able to bolt onto what was left of the stock, but it was clear to me when I saw what remained that there was not enough stock left to use.”

Later that morning Applebey made radio contact with the skipper of the boat they had tried to hang off, and it became clear that he was unaware they had been cut free. Applebey told the skipper to check for a cut rope tail on the back of their boat and he came back on the radio full of apologies. Nevertheless, he said they were still unable to tow Scarlet Oyster to a marina around the corner of the island as it was too rough, but he did hand them his emergency steering system, which clamped to a spinnaker pole.

“In flat water under engine it just about worked, but in any sea it would not have been possible to use it, especially as our high transom meant the angle of the pole left the inboard end of the tiller very high in the air,” says Applebey.

The emergency rudder did, however, get them close to Scalvi harbour and the sea wall. But under five knots the boat was not manoeuvrable at all. Assistance was going to be required to get into the harbour.

“We managed to attract enough attention ashore to get ten people to haul us around the sea wall and into the harbour. That was another tense moment as it was a pretty small harbour and there was a 4ft swell,” reports Applebey.

Although the boat and crew were now within the safety of the harbour, there was still more to do to secure their position. In addition to a significant swell inside the harbour, the breeze was blowing Scarlet Oyster onto the sea wall so they swam across to the other side of the harbour with lines to hold the boat off, while the remaining crew wedged seat cushions in between the hull and the wall as makeshift fenders – like most raceboats theirs had been left on the dock in Malta at the start – a process that took around four hours to complete.

With no drawings and little common language, Applebey and a local fabricator set about making a new rudder

With no drawings and little common language, Applebey and a local fabricator set about making a new rudder

Making a new rudder

At this point most people would have doubtless started making arrangements for the boat to be collected and towed back to Malta. But not Applebey. While most of the charter crew did indeed start making their way home, Applebey and Middleton set about making a new rudder.

“We started by taking the stock and the quadrant out of the boat and, with the help of some Maltese crew who drove us around, we managed to find a fabricator where we could have a go at building a temporary rudder,” Applebey says. “What we built looked OK, but it was difficult to create an efficient section shape. The blade wasn’t as deep as the original and had a tendency to stall, but structurally it was fine.”

They managed to build and fit the rudder in less than 24 hours. After two nights, the weather had eased sufficiently for the return trip to Malta.

The finished replacement rudder ready to be driven to the boat

The finished replacement rudder ready to be driven to the boat

Even then the dash wasn’t over. With a charter commitment for the ARC, Scarlet Oyster headed from Malta to Las Palmas, a 2,000-mile voyage. Handing over to his co-skipper from the ARC, Mark Burton, who sailed with a delivery crew to the Canaries, Applebey left the boat and flew back to the UK to make arrangements for a replacement rudder to be built and flown to Las Palmas.

After a herculean effort, delays and confusion over the air freighting from Denmark to Las Palmas the new rudder showed up 24 hours before the start of the ARC. With so little time to get ready for the event, many were surprised to see how calm Applebey looked. But to those who had heard of his predicament just a few weeks earlier, it was far easier to understand.

Applebey with the fabricators who saved the day

Applebey with the fabricators who saved the day

Two weeks later Scarlet Oyster had not only completed the ARC, but had won Racing Division overall for the second time and her class for the fourth time in a row.


This is an extract from a feature in Yachting World February 2015