British sailor Lia Ditton struggles to free lines and weed from rudders 13/11/06

Here’s Ditton’s account of how she’s been struggling to free lines and weed from her rudders:

“Into my HPX Survival suit I climbed; boots on and harness with strops clipped to three places. I dangled a line somewhat over the edge of the hull, so that I might haul myself back up again, in the worst case scenario. I couldn’t believe what I was about to do. I couldn’t believe what I was going to have to do. I fetched my Gerber, the rigging knife, a baby hacksaw and an emergency knife. I laid them out on the deck like a surgeon. Then I stuck my head between the deck and the lowest safety rail and leant over…

“An hour or two after I had lashed the drowned spinnaker to the safety lines on the cockpit floor, I woke up. There was something wrong. I opened my eyes to the instruments at the nav station before me. The breeze was a good 10-15 knots, but with full main and genoa we were only making five knots over the ground. The boat felt heavy and cumbersome and slow. I could hear the autopilot labouring away. The rudders were visibly vibrating. I threw off the instant ice pack on my foot that had long since become ambient in temperature and tried standing on it. It was fine. I had recovered both sheets, the halyard and the tack, but I had a terrible feeling that some remains may still be tangled around the rudders.

“Feeling a sense of urgency- in fear for both rudders and autopilot, I set about investigating. I rolled up the genoa and fed out the main sheet; bore away downwind as much as I dared would not cause an accidental gybe and canted the keel on the same side. The boat began to lean right over. I stuck my head between the safety rails and peered over. Trapped between the bearing and the leading edge; snared between the aft end of the bearing and the tail fin, was sheet. I fetched the boat hook, but that was useless. The strands of sheet were well and truly wedged.
“I couldn’t reach. I leant over some more and hooked my feet hard and fast- one around the solid steel of the push-pit and the other around the upper safety line. ‘Think. Be efficient. Be quick.’ I coached myself. My entire body was draped over the shape of the hull upside down. I began to hack. The first knife was not sharp enough. The third attempt led to progress; with the saw blade of the Gerber I was beginning to tear successfully at the line. I freed the tail fin, but the leading edge was too much, my legs were beginning to cramp. Having nearly completed the task, I persuaded myself to take one last shot. Dangling over the hull yet again, a wave came over my head and took me by surprise. I gasped. There was a whooshing noise and at the same moment that it registered, I was struggling to breathe. I was being strangled by my lifejacket. I looked at the knife in my hand and the thought dawned, but fortunately I wrestled my head and shoulders back through the lower rail and safely onboard. Shock was not the word. I had worn my lifejacket for its function as a harness. I hadn’t even thought about the possibility of it going off by mistake.

“I rang Bill. Bill Biewenga, who started Commanders Weather Centre in the States, is a weather router; my weather router for the Route du Rhum; a lecturer on meteorology and an extremely experienced sailor with hundreds of thousands of ocean miles racing and otherwise. Working with Bill has been absolutely brilliant, not only in the sense that my path across the Atlantic has been mapped with speed and safety at the foremost, but for his encouragement where necessary and sound practical advise, as in this case. We concluded that operation rudder release be aborted and that the upshot in lack of speed be suffered instead.

“Overnight, new ideas arose from the team. Access to the rudder via the stern escape hatch was one; dropping the rudder a few mill on its shaft was the other. The idea of attempting to back the boat down by rounding up into wind was ruled out. Tooled up in my dry suit with purple washing up gloves to protect my bruised and lacerated hands, I laid out my wares and clipped my harness round the tube of the cockpit drain. Cautiously I opened the stern escape hatch and laughed! You had to laugh! I couldn’t get anywhere near the rudder. Option two led to a better result. The rudder dropped down 5mill on its shaft. Then it was back to canting the boat over and dangling over the side. Filled with dread and reluctance, not surprisingly, the whole operation was fortunately over in minutes. I leant down, pushed the line through the gap, gave the other strand a good hard yank and the line was freed! I yelled with jubilation, but the problematic steering and rudder shake had not been solved. There was a good clump of weed on the other rudder…”