In modern cruising and racing sailboats with fin keels and spade rudders, the most vulnerable part of the whole boat is the rudder. Every year during the fall and spring migration seasons when hundreds of boats sail offshore between winter and summer cruising grounds, a few have rudder problems. Collisions with submerged containers or a whale, can do serious damage to a spade rudder. Getting tangled in a drift net or other fishing gear can cause a rudder to fail. Very occasionally rudder posts break off between the rudder and the hull; this can be caused by work-hardening in stainless steel or aluminum posts or a poor laminate in a composite post. Whatever the circumstances, if you find yourself without your rudder with many miles still to sail, you don’t have to call for help because the boat can still be sailed and steered. But, you have to be prepared.
Veteran offshore sailor, skipper and professional Michael Keyworth took it upon himself in 2013 to figure out how to prepare a sailboat to be steered without a rudder. The old ideas of fashioning a rudder with a spinnaker pole and a table leaf really doesn’t work for any length of time. What has worked in the past is towing a drogue of some kind behind the boat. But this concept has never been really effective. Keyworth removed the rudder from his Swann 44 Chasseur and set about doing sea trials with all sorts of different jury-rigged steering systems. What he found was there are several key elements to setting up an effective drogue steering system. First, you need the right type and size drogue. He found that a 30-inch Gale Rider gave the best connection to the water while reducing speed by only a knot. Second, the control lines on port and starboard should not be run directly to winches in the aft cockpit. Instead, the control lines should be run to snatch blocks fixed to the amidships cleats on the side decks and then aft to the cockpit winches. These cleats are generally positioned close to the boat’s center of gravity and to the center of lateral resistance in the keel. In other words, without a rudder aft, the boat’s pivot point is the keel. Third, in winds over 20 knots, a length of chain needs to be added to the Gale Rider’s bridle to keep the drogue well immersed in water.
With this rig, Keyworth found he could control Chasseur on all point of sail and could even tack without turning on the engine by simply trimming the control lines port and starboard. He wrote up his findings with all of his observations and recommendations in a comprehensive report, and you can find it on the Newport to Bermuda Race’s website. If you truly want to be self-sufficient and self-reliant when sailing offshore, knowing how to sail your boat without the rudder is an important, even life saving skill. Read the full report here.