When we were preparing our 45-foot sloop for the passage south from New England to the Caribbean, we went over all of her systems, rigging, sails, electronics and machinery with a fine-tooth comb and assembled spares for each category that would enable us to make all kinds of repairs at sea. As Capt. Ron famously said, “If it’s gonna happen, Kitty, it’s gonna happen out there.” Our boat, like most modern production boats, had a large spade rudder and we were of the opinion that this was her most vulnerable spot, and knew there was little we could do to protect it from the forces of huge waves, a whale or a large, half-submerged object. We carried spare cables, doubled up the lashings on the sheaves and reinforced the autopilot’s ram brackets. But the rudder itself was exposed, unlike rudders on boat with full keels or those with skeg-hung rudders. If the rudder post got seriously bent in a collision, we were probably screwed and would have to call for help. But, if we lost the rudder entirely or even broke most of it off, then we planned to make the boat watertight and then rig an auxiliary steering system. One reason to have a windvane with an auxiliary rudder is that you then have a built-in spare for just such an emergency. But we didn’t have one. So, plan B was to rig a bridle from docking lines that would tow a bunch of coiled line about 30 feet behind it. The bridle could steer the boat by trimming one side or the other with the cockpit winches. Luckily, we never have had to put this rig to a test and have never had an incident with the rudder. But, we think we were more or less ready if we had to go to plan B. Professional sailor Mike Keyworth has explored this issue in depth and has developed a spare steering system that really works. He published the video of his sea trials on YouTube several years ago and has now partnered with the Storm Trysail Club to create an excellent tutorial on how to steer your boat without an operating rudder. The club has generously made the video available to the public. If you are planning to sail offshore, whether you have a spade rudder, twin rudders or a skeg-hung or keel-hung rudder, take a few minutes to watch the video. You will learn a lot.
Watch the Storm Trysail Club Emergency Steering video here.