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In the first of a two-part series on planning for bluewater cruising, Vicky Ellis looks at how to be prepared for almost anything
Well-prepared boats have dealt with half the battle when it comes to emergencies and challenges at sea. But beyond the boat and equipment, the mindset, experience and knowledge of skipper and crew play a huge part in making a successful outcome from a potential disaster.
So what makes a good bar story out of a bad situation? What problems and challenges are we likely to face on the picture-perfect voyage and what does it take to cope and succeed?
The trick with both planning for and dealing with problems at sea is to prioritise. Incidents such as fire, flooding and man overboard are fortunately rare if they have been considered. It is the problems more likely to occur that also need careful consideration.
An Oyster 575 sailing wing and wing. Note the port headsail sheet led back through a turning block at the boom end. Photo: TimBisMedia
Below are some of the problems well-prepared boats on a bluewater ocean crossing may encounter, based on incidents reported on the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) between 2017 and 2019. Rig, steering and equipment issues are among the most noteworthy.
Steering and rudder problems
These can be some of the most challenging issues and often happen without much warning. Downwind sailing in tradewinds can put huge strains on steering systems, especially during squalls or in acceleration zones, and particularly if a heavily laden yacht rounds up and broaches. The good news is that most of the potential problems can be prevented with checks, regular maintenance and a decent set of spares.
Choose wisely a system that will stand up to the miles, be easy to maintain, replace and check. I have appreciated yachts on which there was good access to steering systems and space to carry out repairs without dangling through a cockpit locker like a lemur.
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My ideal bluewater yacht would feature a system of solid rods linked through a gearbox although I have done most of my bluewater miles with the traditional cable and quadrant type systems. Sometimes it’s better the devil you know, so long as the system is robust.
A cable steering system spares list would include a big bag of bulldog clamps, spare cables and/or Spectra back-up, head torch and prop-up lamp, steering lubricants, double sets of spanners/sockets, and old toothbrushes for cleaning.
Consider whether your overall steering system has sufficient redundancy and how it interacts with your autopilots, which can operate off various parts of the system. A more costly but good arrangement for long-distance or round-the-world voyaging is to have two separate and switchable linear drive systems to the quadrant so that one can take over immediately if the other fails.
Typically, a handful of boats each year report steering problems during the ARC. This can be quite dramatic. Depending on your autopilot set-up and the failure, the autopilot may be able to keep control of the steering. If not, then you need to use an emergency tiller. While it can be used to steer the boat they’re only intended for short-term use to hold the rudder steady as you carry out repairs, sparing your fingers or worse.
On one occasion while using an emergency tiller to steer mid-ocean, the roll of the boat sent me flying, tiller in hand, across the back of the cockpit. I quickly secured a lanyard to the tiller and would encourage a crew to attach a lanyard in advance.
Emergency tiller hacks
This photo shows the manufacturer’s emergency tiller fitted on board a Hallberg-Rassy 64. It attaches to the stock under the bed in the aft cabin and is steered with the help of the rope purchase system. The purpose is to keep the rudder in a steady position while cables are replaced
Typical problems with emergency tillers: in the top photo the owner fitted davits, so the tiller cannot be turned to port. It also connects through a plate on deck, which allows excessive movement at the stock below
The solution: to shorten the tiller, add welded tangs for a purchase system, and a stainless steel plate with plastic bushing to fill the aperture where the tiller goes through on deck
A simple alternative using wood to fill the gap where the tiller meets the deck plate
A solution to stabilise an emergency tiller where the rudder stock is at cockpit level. A special tang is attached to an athwartships-secured spinnaker pole with Jubilee clips
The pole is then lashed to eyes welded on to the emergency tiller
Collisions with underwater objects can cause serious rudder problems and are more common than being holed. Hitting sizeable flotsam and jetsam is the kind of thing that keeps sailors awake at night but it is actually a relatively rare occurrence — though on my last transatlantic, I encountered a floating fridge freezer.
Hitting marine mammals or sharks is more likely and there have been a couple of such incidents resulting in rudder damage this Atlantic season already. If ever there were a case for investing in a GoPro to take a look rather than donning the snorkel and mask, this is it! If a rudder does get damaged or lost, what are your options out on the ocean? A windvane self-steering system can double up as a spare rudder if you have one.
The easiest options are the drag methods of steering. These are going to get you back in control of the boat relatively quickly although with the penalty of reducing your speed. Streaming a drogue is ideal but even a coiled bunch of mooring warps can be effective.
A whale strike can cause significant damage
Set a drogue up with a bridle on to your cockpit winches to move the line from side to side. For narrower beam boats you can extend the bridle outboard using a spinnaker pole laid athwartships across the cockpit.
The enemy here is chafe so move the wear points and inspect the drag device regularly, putting in extra turns or chafe protection where needed. The drag methods may buy you time to have a go at attempting to jury-rig a rudder blade by affixing a board to a spinnaker pole or similar. In 2014 Ross Applebey did this on his Oyster Lightwave 48, Scarlet Oyster, during the Rolex Middle Sea race but only managed to get control of the yacht in relatively calm conditions.
A jammed rudder is often talked about as the most psychologically challenging problem. Add in the oceanic swell and a constantly circling boat and it’s no wonder it is sometimes the cause of crews abandoning an otherwise sound boat.
Balanced fin rudders rather than skeg-mounted rudders are more susceptible to impact damage, which can bend the stock or damage the bearings. Rudders can also jam up against the hull after a hard broach or impact and the steering stops or their mounting structure fails due to the high forces.
First, you must stop the boat circling; that will give everyone a huge boost. If you can get your boat to heave to, you should be able to balance the boat into submission. It may be necessary to use a drogue or the engine to help. With the boat stabilised you should be able to think more creatively to find a solution.
I have been towed a short distance with a jammed rudder and it was tricky but not impossible. One step to avoid this anguishing turn of events is to look carefully at both the stops and how they are mounted to the hull of the boat.
You may be able to use the emergency tiller or a lever attached to the rudder to winch the rudder free, if the stock is not badly bent. There have been occasions when crews have had to drop the rudder completely. This can be difficult but safely possible if rudder tube extends above the waterline.
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