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Know-how: The art of jury-rigging

It’s interesting that my pieces about seamanship, Murphy’s law and jury-rigging came one after another. They all concern the same issues: preparing for eventualities. Jury-rigging is akin to the Boy Scout motto, “Be prepared,” because you cannot prepare a jury rig unless you have some knowledge about how your boat works and what materials may be used in making things right after they’ve broken. Some of this comes from experience, some from creative thinking, some from physical ability, but mostly it’s a combination of all these things.

I believe the strict definition of “jury rig” is replacing a mast or spars for ones that have been damaged. In the days of wooden ships and iron men, vessels often carried spare portions of masts and yards, so the implication is that jury-rigging was improvised. Here, I’ll expand the definition to include the improvised replacement or repair of more than the mast, though I hope you never have to use these solutions.


Every sailboat capable of long-distance cruising should be set up for a jury-rigged rudder. You should fabricate an L-shaped pipe that can be secured to the rudder head and pass through the deck so that it can be used as a tiller should the quadrant or steering cables fail. In order to be practical, this jury-rigged tiller should pass through a watertight, or as close to watertight as possible, gland on deck.

I once covered 80 miles using only the sails to steer after a rudder failure. I was lucky; the wind and sea conditions were benign. On another occasion, in not-so-benign conditions, the steering cable failed, and working in cramped quarters to replace it didn’t seem practical. The pipe worked out, but the long leg of the “L” should have been longer (as close to the wheel as possible) to provide better leverage. We had to rig blocks and tackle to gain the mechanical advantage we needed. This slowed the steering response and made for a hairy few hours. When we could work below, bulldog clamps (wire rope clamps) made short work of the repair.

Every boat with a rudder should have an oar long enough to be lashed to the stern as an emergency rudder. Larger boats can use a drogue secured by a yoke made of rope. The drogue should lead astern on a line long enough so that its position in the wave train is in synch with the stern. By pulling on one leg of the yoke or the other, the boat can be steered. You need the yoke not only for steering but to allow the stern to swing.


Stainless steel wire rope is a wonderful but somewhat treacherous material. Wire rope can appear shiny and good as new, yet if it hasn’t been routinely inspected and maintained it is subject to sudden and potentially catastrophic failure. Stainless steel wire rope needs oxygen, and if water finds its way into the spaces between the strands and remains, it can bring about corrosion and stress fracturing. This is especially true of the swaged ends on deck.

With a spare length of 7-by-7 wire rope you can fabricate an eye using a stainless steel thimble secured by two bulldog clamps and fastened to a jaw-and-jaw turnbuckle connected to a chain plate or padeye on deck. The standing part of this repair attaches to the damaged shroud by securing the shoulders of at least two clamps to the shroud with U-bolts over the 7-by-7 wire rope. Before performing this magic you must place the boat on a tack that relieves stress on the damaged standing rigging and then tension the rig with a rolling hitch or a prusik knot.


Also known as a masthead knot, the jury mast knot is supposed to be used to raise and temporarily hold a mast upright. I tried it once to stabilize a mast that could be raised and lowered using a tabernacle. I didn’t think it was worth the trouble. It’s formed by three overlapping loops.


I once had the strong point securing the transmission linkage tear loose on a boat I was delivering. After getting into a slip, we used epoxy and lag bolts to repair the damage. Until then we had no reverse.