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Be Prepared - Steering without a rudder

In the fall of 2103, I conducted a series of tests on a modified MK I Swan 44, Chasseur, off Newport, Rhode Island. The goal was to determine the best method and equipment for safely steering in the event of catastrophic rudder failure. After all, it’s not something you want to have to puzzle through once you’re in emergency mode.

Michael Keyworth

The plan was to utilize the equipment normally taken aboard the vessel during offshore passages or races. Without a rudder, what could we use as an efficient and controllable object to create drag and transmit directional stability? It was my view that a drogue might be used to exert the appropriate drag without significantly impeding the speed of the vessel.

Chasseur has been modified in the following relevant ways: The rudder skeg was removed and replaced with a modern spade rudder, which is carbon fiber with a carbon fiber shaft; the keel has been modified to a modern-shaped fin with a shoe; and the mast is carbon fiber and 6 feet taller than the original. For the purpose of our tests, the rudder was removed and the rudder port was blocked off.

I was familiar with and had aboard Chasseur a Galerider drogue made by Hathaway, Reiser & Raymond of Stamford, Connecticut. I contacted Wes Oliver at Hathaway, and he arranged to make several prototype drogues for the tests. We were equipped with a 12-inch- diameter drogue with a three-part bridle, a 12-inch drogue with a four-part bridle, an 18-inch drogue with a four-part bridle, a 30-inch drogue with a four-part bridle and a 36-inch drogue with a four-part bridle.

The purpose of the test was to establish whether direction could be controlled under the following conditions, using any of the drogues supplied:

• with sail trim alone

• motoring using a drogue

• sailing upwind using a drogue

• sailing downwind using a drogue

• motorsailing using a drogue

• being towed using a drogue

The size of the drogue proved very important. The findings were definitive: The two 12-inch drogues provided no directional stability. The 18-inch drogue provided marginal control in winds under 10 knots. The 30-inch drogue was very effective in all conditions tested and resulted in about a 1-knot reduction in boat speed. In conditions with more than 20 knots of wind speed, a chain pennant was needed to reduce cavitation. The 36-inch drogue worked similarly to the 30-inch, but it affected boat speed by about 1-1/2 knots.


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Two spinnaker sheets were used. Spinnaker sheets are appropriate because they are generally sized based on the length of the boat. The sheets were led as two sides of a bridle (port and starboard) from amidships snatch blocks, through an amidships chock or similar, and clipped into the swivel at the lead for the drogue. The tails were led aft to the primaries in the cockpit.

It is important to rig this to create the least amount of chafe because these lines will become your steering cables. We found that the leads need to be led to the axis of the keel because the boat will rotate on the keel. This point is probably somewhere near amidships. (Note: The afterguy block may be ideal for the bridle lead.)

Some prior guidance suggested that a lead to the quarters of the transom is the best. However, our findings are that this restricts the transom from swinging, preventing the desired change in course.

During rough and/or windy conditions, it may be necessary to add weight to the drogue to keep it from cavitating. Using the concept of being limited to equipment that is on board, we were able to use various lengths of chain attached to the swivel at the lead for the drogue.

At the other end we effectively used a spare swivel shackle and attached one end to the forward end of the chain and the other to the bridle from the boat. It is important to have swivels at both ends because the drogue will tend to rotate as it is pulled along.

The bridle may get twisted up, but this does not seem to affect control. During our tests, the length of “scope” of the bridle/drogue did not seem important. The nominal distance aft from the transom varied from 50 feet to 120 feet. It may be necessary to add scope in extreme conditions.

I found that reference of the drogue’s position was valuable information. I whipped colored marks at 10-foot intervals on both spinnaker sheet/bridle, which gave a quick reference; this could be done with tape or a magic marker.

The findings

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Controlling direction with sail trim alone: This was not possible.

Controlling direction while motoring using a drogue: This is the easiest scenario. A wide range of control is available. This can easily be done with only one person. While testing, we were able to execute multiple 360-degree turns with full control. Doing 5.5 knots, a full 360 can be executed in 4 to 4-1/2 boat lengths. While motoring, adjustments of 2 to 3 inches result in a 5- to 10-degree course change.

Controlling direction while sailing upwind using a drogue: The same principles apply, but there needs to be cooperation between the sail trimmers and the “helmsman” (bridle trimmer). In this scenario, the main must be up, even if reefed, and the jib may be overlapping, but more control can be achieved with a non-overlapping jib. Tacking takes coordination, but once you get the hang of it, no problem — traveler up, back the jib and come on to the new tack. We were able to achieve 30 to 35 degrees apparent sail angle. In large seas, wider angles should be expected.

Controlling direction while sailing downwind using a drogue: When the wind is aft of 90 degrees apparent, it is necessary to take the mainsail down and sail under jib alone. It will be necessary to have an attentive jib trimmer, in addition to a helmsman on the drogue controls. The size of the jib will have to be factored in, based on wind and sea conditions. We also found that the deeper the angle, the harder it was to have fine control of direction. Jibing is pretty straightforward and accomplished by easing the jib and rotating the drogue.

Controlling direction while motorsailing using a drogue: The same principles apply as in the sections on upwind and downwind sailing.

Controlling direction while being towed using a drogue: This test was important because most successful outcomes of rudder loss will include a tow of great or small distance to a safe harbor. In this situation, we were towed by a 27-foot Protector RIB with twin 250-hp outboards. A towing bridle was made up on Chasseur and attached to the tow line from the Protector. At 3 knots, the bow swung from port to starboard to the end of the tether. At 4 knots, it was very difficult to stand on the foredeck. We deployed the 30-inch drogue as rigged for sailing and motoring. The results were immediate. Towing at 7 knots was comfortable and straight, requiring very little input from the helmsman. This is an important finding because it suggests that a drogue should be carried at all times so assistance can be rendered safely, even inshore.

Additional findings

The effectiveness of a drogue will vary with hull type.

• If you lose your rudder, confirm that the rudder port is not leaking. If it is, you must first deal with the flooding issue. Once that problem is stabilized, move on to the next step of getting home or obtaining assistance.

• Communicate with race officials if you are racing and/or with those onshore who will worry about your situation.

• Communicate with vessels nearby if in need of immediate help away from a lee shore or collision avoidance in shipping lanes.

• Choose your safe harbor based on wind direction predictions, ease of access, proximity, repair facilities, etc. Do not think that you need to finish at the original destination port.

• If you lose your rudder, you probably hit a submerged object or conditions were severe. Remember, you have time. Relax. Storms don’t usually last more than a couple of days. Deploy your drogue or sea anchor and get some rest.

• Each time we went testing, we learned something new. Don’t be afraid to try something you think might help — for example, longer scope, moving the lead of the bridle forward or aft, a larger or smaller jib, reef/no reef, etc.

• How will a drogue work with other types and styles of boats and underbodies? My view is that a drogue is an effective tool to have on any type of boat, and its deployment can be adapted as needed.

• Offshore you will have room to maneuver. Take your time and don’t stress about steering an accurate course.

• The engine is your friend. Engine power will provide the greatest degree of control, speed and direction. Use the engine to deploy sails, to get rest or to retrieve the drogue. Retrieval is easiest when the boat is stopped. Be careful not to tangle the bridle in the prop. This wasn’t a problem during our trials, probably because toward the end of the trials we used a 5-foot chain pennant to keep the drogue from cavitating.

• The chain component is important. I chose the use of chain to weight the drogue because ISAF Offshore Prescriptions require that an anchor with appropriate ground tackle be carried, so it need not be carried as additional gear. Others venturing offshore tend to take ample ground tackle. As a practical matter, I think it makes sense to have different lengths of chain aboard, though, of course, a longer chain can be made shorter using the rig cutaway tools, as required by the rule. A shorter chain can be made longer using shackles to join lengths.

• How heavy is the Galerider? A standard 30-inch drogue weighs 9 pounds and is stored in a bag that is 15 inches in diameter and 5 inches thick. The standard 36-inch drogue weighs 13.2 pounds and stores in a bag that is 18 inches in diameter and 4 inches thick.

• One of the difficulties is determining where the helmsman can be stationed with access to a heading reading or a compass. Consider a backup compass that can be remotely mounted as you equip for an offshore passage. Boats with modern electronics suites may have the option of heading displays for both helmsman and trimmer(s).

• It would be prudent for any offshore sailor to practice the deployment of a drogue for slow downwind sailing in large seas and its rigging for use as a means of steering. Familiarizing yourself with the equipment and its best use in an emergency will pay off if that day ever comes.

• The transition from drogue to drogue steering, or vice versa, will be easier than you think.

• A trick we learned is that you can cleat off one of the bridle lines and have control with the other. If you were to cleat off the port bridle line, a turn to port would result from easing the starboard bridle, and a subsequent change to starboard would result from trimming the starboard bridle. This lazy man’s approach gives the helmsman more flexibility and physical relief.

Our tests confirmed that you can achieve a great deal of control using a drogue. I would bet that any boat able to sail more than 100 miles without a rudder to a safe port will want to take a victory lap around the harbor to show off this skill.

One last thought: Having sailed more than 150,000 miles at sea, one of my greatest concerns remains dealing with the possibility of rudder loss. Each time I go to sea, I’m distressed by the amount of floating debris and other objects I see. The possibility of being holed or sunk from collisions with debris is very real. Knowing how to steer without your rudder will provide substantial peace of mind should you ever face that emergency.

Michael Keyworth has completed two circumnavigations and has logged more than 150,000 miles at sea. He is general manager and vice president of Brewer Cove Haven Marina in Barrington, Rhode Island, and has held a 100-ton Coast Guard license since 1976.

September 2014 issue