Neglect Your Rudder at Your Own Peril

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(published February 2017)

Few things on a sailboat are as important as a rudder. Don’t check your rudder, post, seals and skeg (if you have one) often enough and you are flirting with disaster when you get offshore and need it all to perform at its best when the weather is at its worst.

Last April when we pulled Yahtzee out of the water prior to the Oregon Offshore Race, we checked all of our gear and the boatyard didn’t see a need to drop the rudder for a full inspection. During the race and then throughout the summer as we circumnavigated Vancouver Island, a slow, weeping leak developed on the leading edge of our skeg. What caused it is hard to say, but we did strike a log in the Strait of Juan de Fuca that seemed to exacerbate the problem.

Doing what any prudent mariner would do, we hauled the boat after rounding the island and found a series of surprising problems. What we thought would be a week or so out of the water then turned into a nearly two month drama, and work-filled excursion into rudder and skeg repair purgatory. With a boat and boatyard, it’s never as easy as you think, is it?

The strike from the log and subsequent torque put on the skeg while sailing in some lively conditions offshore had caused the fiberglass skin around it to start delaminating. Saltwater was then finding its way slowly into the fiberglass and was showing up behind the engine. Not a lot of water, mind you, but enough to be a concern.

Fixing it, of course, was a messy and expensive project. We ripped off many layers of glass around the skeg and rebuilt the whole thing to a standard far better than when it came out of the factory in 1984. But the process of laying up all the glass, resins and epoxy was quite laborious and time consuming. Slowly but surely, though, what began as a frightening project turned into a work of art (thanks to our talented fiberglass guy).

While the skeg was being worked on, we dropped the rudder and surprise surprise, it was full of water. When I drilled a hole in the bottom of it, a stream of black, sludgy water poured out and created an unsettling puddle on the concrete.

It was concluded that the rudder had probably been soaked for years and it had gone undetected at every haul out because the area of intrusion was so subtle. I came to learn that when dealing with an extremely wet rudder, you basically have two options: rebuild what you’ve got or buy a new one. The quotes we received for a rebuild versus a new rudder were, surprisingly, nearly identical, so the choice was obvious. Off went our old rudder to the great folks at Foss Foams (newrudders.com) in Florida and in three weeks we had a brand new fin waiting and ready to be installed back on Yahtzee in Seattle.

Yes, it was frustrating to be out of the water for so long and not out cruising as we normally are. But this is how it goes with boats. In the end, we’re setting off with a new rudder and skeg, and coupled with the emergency backup of our Hydrovane, our confidence level and peace-of-mind couldn’t be any higher. That is priceless.

I hate being a cautionary tale, but as the boatyard manager put it before we dropped Yahtzee back in the water, “More people have bad rudders than they realize, and it can turn into a big problem.” Very true.

Andrew, along with wife Jill and sons Porter and Magnus, are currently cruising the Pacific Northwest aboard their Grand Soleil 39 Yahtzee. Follow their adventures at threesheetsnw.com/yahtzee.