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1,300 miles with a cabin door for a rudder

Rounding Antarctica when they lost their rudder, the Russians sailed on a beam reach to New Zealand

Rounding Antarctica when they lost their rudder, the Russians sailed on a beam reach to New Zealand

Nikolay Litau and his five crewmembers knew exactly what to do when their steel yacht, Apostol Andrey, lost its rudder at 3 a.m. off Antarctica. The Russian adventurers had learned well the three other times they had lost rudders in southern waters.

Balancing the mainsail and mizzen of Apostol Andrey’s ketch rig, they sailed on until daybreak. They then removed a wooden door from a cabin below, secured it to a spare boom with screws, bolts and two stainless steel plates, and began steering northeast toward the nearest country, New Zealand, 1,300 miles away.

In a telephone interview from Chaffers Marina in Wellington, New Zealand, Litau notes that he had made two circumnavigations with the same rudder before it broke March 3. “Maybe it was tired,” he says, laughing.

At the time the post of the spade rudder failed, Litau says, his 53-foot yacht was in following seas. “It was very unusual. Wind was about 25, 30 knots only,” he says.

There also was the normal Antarctic summer fog that made seeing nearby icebergs impossible, says Litau, who has been awarded both the Cruising Club of America Blue Water Medal and the Royal Cruising Club of Great Britain Seamanship Medal. “I saw this [ice] by radar,” he says. “Visibility was about 1/10 of a mile.

“Oh, yes, at times we were afraid because wind was most from the west. New Zealand was the nearest country. We must go to New Zealand,” says Litau who, at 49, was the second-oldest in a crew whose ages ranged from 26 to 57.

Apostol Andrey, with its deep blue hull and gleaming white cabin, had left Russia Sept. 14 with the goal of circumnavigating Antarctica by always staying south of the 60th parallel and at times venturing below 70 degrees south, the farthest of any yacht in history. It was the third circumnavigation effort by the yacht, built near Moscow on the river Volga in 1996. Litau and many from this same crew had been the first to cross the Bering Sea through the Northwest Passage — in Apostol Andrey — resulting in Litau’s selection for the two prestigious medals.

In a dispatch posted Feb. 9 on the Web site of the Moscow Adventure Club, a Russian sponsor of the circumnavigation, Litau notes that the yacht had been below the 60th parallel for a month. A little more than three weeks later, in the March 3 dispatch, the crew reports the lost rudder and its temporary replacement. “In all other respects, everything is OK on board,” they report.

Litau says the ketch was able to sail only on a beam reach, so the crew maintained a course of about north-northeast until they reached the 50th parallel. “After crossed 50 degrees, wind changed to another direction and we can turn … northwest toward New Zealand,” the skipper recalls. “One time exactly near 50th latitude was serious storm. Wind was more than 70, 75 knots. It was a terrible night and sailed only with a trysail. And in midnight, we had broken again our temporary rudder, the part that connected the boom with the door. After that, we go without problem to New Zealand.”

Litau says he was in constant contact with the New Zealand Rescue Coordination Center, using a satellite phone and the Inmarsat system, which connects mariners with search-and-rescue stations around the world. “Each day, I send message to New Zealand search and rescue, my position, my course and speed.”

It was March 31 when Apostol Andrey, steered by its cabin-door rudder, arrived off Wellington’s, harbor. Litau says it was during his first circumnavigation sailing from Russia to Alaska via the African cape that he first lost a rudder.

“That time, we was not so experienced,” he says. “I called by radio, and some small ship came to us and tugged us into port. Scientists made a temporary rudder for us in metal. We sailed with it for about 700 miles and lost it again. That time, a fish trawler from Australia were passing and made a second temporary rudder, and we sailed with it two days and lost it again. Then we made own temporary rudder, not from the door, from the wood desk from the galley in a similar way as now. With that rudder, we sailed 1,500 miles.”

In March the crew jury-rigged an equally successful rudder, but when they reached New Zealand, the seas were too rough to enter Wellington Harbor. So for another 24 hours, the cabin door rudder did its job, and Apostol Andrey sailed back and forth until the seas subsided. On April 1, Litau gave the order to enter the harbor.

The crew was still living aboard the yacht a few days later, and preparations were under way to replace the rudder. Litau says he expected they would return to Antarctica. “But it is possible only next January,” he says. That’s when the Antarctic summer returns.