Damaged Rudder Shaft with broken tines

An Utter Rudder Disaster

We thoroughly enjoed our solitude at Minerva Reef but it was time to make a move for Tonga.  Our weather forecaster told us that a rather large weather system was coming and that we should leave for a more sheltered anchorage.  Why do you ask?  Well we were currently anchored at Minerva Reef which is not sheltered at all, there is no protection from the receeding reef that disappears twice a day at high tide.  We had a somewhat “decent” weather window to make the 2-2.5 day passage.  It is during this passage that we had an utter rudder disaster.

Weather Window

When we look at weather to make a passage we take into account several factors using 4 different weather models and a professional weather router.  We look at wind speed, wind direction, cape, rain, swell size, and swell direction.

During this particular weather window we had good winds, no cape, and no rain.  However, we did have big 3m seas coming from the rear quarter panel.  This sucks as seas can make your trip very uncomfortable.  But, we needed to leave for a protected anchorage so we took this window.

I should note here that the passage from New Zealand to Minerva had pretty rough seas as well.  During that 6 day passage we had 2.5-3.5m seas the entire time.  That is a lot of bashing on the boat for a long period.  But we made it to Minerva and all was ‘”fine.”

Passage: Minerva to Tonga

You probably read about this passage while we were actually underway as Matt was writing “live blogs.”  But to summarize, we had decent weather for the first 1.5 days.  The seas were big, 3m, but they came in long increments and were not too choppy.

However, after that we encountered messy, choppy seas that made it feel like we were inside a washer machine.  The boat was banging all over the place and it was very uncomfortable.

Auto is Failing

Around 9:30pm, Matt woke me to help him steer the boat.  What?  We have auto for that.  Auto Pilot is our automatic steering system which we rely on a lot during passages.  Consider it like “cruise control” in your car.

In big seas auto has a hard time steering the boat because the boat comes out of the water. With the big seas and strong winds the boat was wanting to head into the wind so Auto was having to constantly overcorrect by turning to port.  But at this time, Auto was going every which was and not holding course at all.  In fact, at one point, we were going backwards. This is when I took over hand steering as Matt adjusted the sails.

Matt and I worked on sail congifuration for 1.5 hours trying to figure out what was wrong with Auto.  We finally settled on no main, a small double reefed jib and the engine.  This was the only way to control steering and we still had 88nm (12hrs) to get to the channel in Tonga.

Keep in mind that it was pitch black outside, no moon, big seas, and the boat is moving  6-7kts.  Matt checked the engine rooms to see if everything was ok with the rudders, but you can only see the top portion, and that looked good.  You can’t see under the boat in these conditions.

We are missing what?

At dawn, we approached the Tonga channel.  The winds had calmed down to a respectable 17-18kts and the seas were down to 1.5m.  Matt went to the starboard sugar scoop and looked across to the port side and realized we were missing a rudder!  Are you freakin kidding me?

Nothing we can do until we drop the hook so we continued on to the anchorage where we needed to clear into the country.  Lucky for us, the officials allowed us to anchor outside the basin because we could not manuever around the small basin with only one rudder and limited steerage.  We picked the officials up in our dinghy, did the paperwork on the boat, and then returned them to shore.

While in Raitea, French Polynesia we removed both rudders.  This is what the rudder should look like:

Assessing the Damage

Once we cleared into the country we were allowed to jump in the water to evaluate the damage.  There are multiple parts to a rudder….

  • The shaft is about 6′ in length and goes up into the engine compartment and down below the boat.
  • Tines or Fingers:  There are 3 tines or fingers on the shaft below the boat.  They are supposed to be long where they are perpindicular to the shaft jetting out in front and behind the shaft.  They help support and enforce the blade.
  • Rudder blade made of fiberglass

This is what was left of our rudder:

As you can see from the above photo, we are missing the rudder blade completely and each of the 3 tines are damaged.  But the good news is that shaft is intact!

Humanity Restored

As we are motoring into the anchorage I am emailing people for help.  We met the owner of the one and only yard in Tonga (Vava’u The Boatyard) and we met the yard manager for Vuda Marina in Fiji during a conference in Auckland.  It pays to network.

We also posted our problem on our blog and the emails, texts, and calls came flooding in.  I cannot tell you how much love we felt during this difficult time.  We had cruisers from NZ, Fiji, Tonga, French Polynesia, and Cook Islands, asking us how they can help.  It was inspiring and amazing – thank you everyone.

Repair Options

We have a few options…

  1. Tonga: Vava’u The Boatyard is a 1-2 day sail from our current location.  We met the owner/manager at the conference and he has been of great assistance.  They can rebuild our rudder using our good working rudder as a mold.  The problem is that the yard is stretched thin and could not start work for 3 weeks and the entire project could take 6-8 weeks for a total of up to 11 weeks on the hard.  We only have a 4 week tourist visa.
  2. Fiji: Vuda Marina and South Pacific Fiberglass.  We met the manager of Vuda Marina at the same conference and he had some great advice.  He recommended two contractors to rebuild the rudder: South Pacific Fiberglass and Prasaads Marine.  Both companies provided feedback, but South Pacific Fiberglass was more specific about cost and turn around.  They can build the rudder in 10-14 days.  But they are in Fiji and we are a 4-5 day sail from there. (1-2 days to North Tonga, then 2-3 days from N. Tonga to Fiji).

6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon

3. New Zealand:  Try to follow along with this networking connection.  A fellow cruiser, Jef in NZ heard about our rudder loss and reached out to us.  Jef informed us that he replaced both of his rudders using Peter Palmer at Norsand and RH Precision in Whangarei.  

We met Peter, who is another cruiser, last season in Fiji.  Peter works part-time at Norsand in NZ which is the yard that will be hauling us out in Nov.2023.  He used to manage the yard before he decided he wanted to cruise with his family 6-months of the year.  We reached out to Peter and he said that there might be a spare rudder from Sel Citron, a Catana 52 in the yard.  So, Peter told us to contat Norsand and ask them to track down this rudder.

We met Sel Citron last season in Whangarei.  We reached out to him to ask about this rudder as well.  The rudder was replaced on Sel Citron before the new owner, Dan took over Sel Citron, but he gave us permission to take and use the old rudder.

And to our great joy, the yard found it.  Unfortunately it is not in great condition, but it is better than what we have which is nothing.  They sent the measurements of the shaft, tines, and rudder and we compared it to our rudder.

Unfortunately it is not an exact match and it is a different shape but it is completely workable.

The Plan

We measured our one good rudder and compared it to the measurements of Sel Citron’s rudder and it can work.  We asked Norsand Yard in NZ to look into shipping costs to get the rudder from NZ to Fiji.  Shipping items to Tonga is rumored to be extremely difficult, expensive, and time consuming.  We decided to have it shipped to Fiji where the resources are more plentiful.

We will use Sel Citron’s rudder to get us back to NZ and then we will either have two new rudders made in NZ or we will ship in two new rudders from Europe.

The yard miraculously found a cruiser (Andreas on Seven Seas) who was leaving Norsand bound for Fiji within a few days.  They loaded up our temporary rudder and delivered it to Fiji for us.  Andreas was headed to Musket Cove (and we were still in Vanua Balavu).  So we asked Andreas to give the rudder to our friend Chris on Sea Glub.

This is a huge favor, but know that curisers do this all the time for other cruisers.  In fact we are caring a generator, outboard, and spare parts for 4 other boats right now. So, it’s nice to know that we all pay it foward.

The Spare Rudder

We arrive to Musket Cove and pick up our “spare rudder” from our friend Chris.  As luck would have it, Peter (from Norsand) is here on his boat Camara.  Peter is a master fiberglass professional.  He came over and both he and Matt determined the shaft on the rudder is not long enough.  What we had hoped would be a plug and play situation now became surgery.

The top shaft (big aluminium post) is our current rudder shaft and it is about 4″ longer than the spare rudder post (making it so the holes don’t align).

We have to put the spare rudder in place to determine how much of the blade has to be removed in order to get the shaft in place.  Peter jumps in the water while Matt goes in the engine room.  Once the rudder is in place, Peter scores the blade to mark where he has to cut.  This will help in two ways. One it will allow us to push the shaft higher into the engine room (allowing us to use 3 of the 4 holes) and we can cut the top of the shaft to fit the curve of our boat.

Another blessing is that the rudder blade is shorter than our current blade, but it is wider.  So even when we cut the blade (making it smaller) it will still have the same surface space as our existing rudder.

Fun Fact:

Our rudder floats.  In order for us to get the rudder into place we have to put 40lbs wieghts onto it to sink it.

Altering The Spare to Fit

Another blessing: we are at Musket Cove where Peter knows the owner (we know Will, the owner, too, but not nearly as well as Peter does).  We are able to utilize his workshop to alter our spare rudder.

Peter marks the rudder indicating where he is going to cut the blade.  The top part of the blade (near the shaft) was nearly touching the bottom of our hull (which is not good).  So, he is cutting more off that end than the back end.

After the blade is cut he has to sand down the fiberglass on the sides so he can apply new fiberglass across the cut top.

The next day, the fiberglass has dried and he applies a fairing and barrier coat.  Then we have to hunt for anitfoul paint to seal it all up.  The cruising community is so generous to us as we are able to find it for free.  It doesn’t match anything but it works.  The right photo shows the newly completed and fitted rudder.

Peter brings the rudder back to Sugar Shack.  Matt adds the weights to sink it, added shims/spacers, and easily installed the rudder in less than 30 minutes.

We are officially a two rudder boat again.

How Does Sugar Shack Sail with one Rudder?

Because we are a catamaran, we have almost two of everything.  On the one hand it is good as it acts as a spare, but on the other hand it is bad as we have to buy and maintain two of everything.

But in the case of our missing rudder, the one working rudder got a true work out.  We sailed over 1,000nm on one rudder – how did we do it?  We had to learn.  A catamaran has to be evenly balanced and having one rudder caused the boat to constantly head up wind. 

Our auto pilot had to work very hard to keep the boat heading in the right direction.  We had to constantly depower the sails and deploy the dagger boards to help the boat hold a course.  And even then there was a 20-40 degree margin.  If our course was 220, we could head anywhere from 180-260 depending on the seas and the wind.  So, it took us awhile to figure out how to sail with one rudder and we hope we never have to use this newly learned skill again.

What’s Our Plan?

Thanks to Peter’s help we will be able to safely navigate from Fiji back to New Zealand.  This is already a challenging passage and one we did not want to make with one rudder.  So, now we can head back to NZ with confidence.

Once we are there, we had already planned to haul out at Norsand (where Peter works).  We have engaged RH Precision to remake our shafts and Peter will build us new blades.  We will replace both rudders.

It is sad that it takes a disaster to remind you just how amazing humans can be.  We are truly blessed and grateful for all of the help in the cruising community.  Especially Peter!

Our blog posts run 10-12 weeks behind actual live events.  This blog post occured mid-July on the passage from Minerva to Tonga.  Did you read about our adventures in Minerva Reef – click here.

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One thought on “An Utter Rudder Disaster

  1. Lorraine Gentleman

    What a story! You have helped a lot of people , Christine. Nice to hear you got so much help in this challenging situation.

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