Ship Without a Rudder
It'd been a bouncy, wet, exhilarating
13 hours since we'd answered the starting gun off Fort Lauderdale last
February 4 to begin the roughly 800-mile race to Jamaica in the 2005
edition of the biennial Pineapple Cup (formerly known as the
Miami-Montego Bay Race). Aboard Serengeti,
an exquisite 60-foot sloop owned and skippered by veteran sailor Chad
Weiss and designed by naval architect Bill Tripp, things seemed to be
shaping up nicely.
We'd bolted across the Gulf Stream in bumpy but blistering fashion and
had already put the Bahamian waypoints of Great Isaac and the Berry
Islands astern. Now all we had to do was round the north end of
Eleuthera island, hoist one of Serengeti's
big kites, and ride the steady, 20-knot-plus northerly south with all
dispatch. Forecasters predicted the potential record-setting conditions
would hold for several days. Serengeti was sitting pretty.
It took but a split second for it all to unravel.
Regular Serengeti crewmember
Joe Nanartowich was at one of the yacht's twin wheels when he heard "a
little ching." The boat rounded up instantly, and instinctively,
Nanartowich swung the helm down hard to correct his course. But the
spokes spun round and round like TV's Wheel of Fortune, and Serengeti's
ensuing "auto-tack" and wipeout were nothing less than spectacular.
In every sailor's life there's a first time for everything, and I count
myself extremely fortunate that my first lost rudder at sea was
experienced aboard a well-equipped oceangoing sailboat with a highly
skilled team ready for anything. So, despite the fact that our
promising race was finished, not all our luck was bad. Indeed, the
rudder vanished in the deep, unobstructed waters of Northeast
Providence Channel, not along the lee shore of a coral-fringed island
(which would have been the case a couple of hours later). And among the
crew was Bill Tripp himself, ready and willing to tackle the question
any sailor in such a predicament would ask: "Now what in the world
would the designer do?"
But I'm getting ahead of the story.
Fast Break from Florida
Built in New Zealand at Marten Marine of a composite blend of aramid and E-glass over a PVC core, Serengeti
is a high-tech sailboat sporting a lifting keel and carbon rig, items
that have served her well in such offshore races as Newport-Bermuda.
But she's also a true dual-purpose boat, with a handsome, functional
interior laid out for the family cruising and occasional living aboard
that owner Weiss also enjoys.
When we left Florida, however, the boat was in full racing mode, her
saloon stacked end to end with spinnakers and headsails, her crew a
dozen strong. With temperatures in the 60s F, it was no beach day in
Fort Lauderdale, but we weren't headed to the beach. Instead, the Gulf
Stream beckoned, its western edge a good 15 to 18 miles offshore. With
a full main and jib, we made quick work of that and were soon bounding
across the roiling, rollicking Stream.
Scrawling notes in my sodden notebook, I recorded the usual early-race
mayhem: a couple of headsail changes; a brief, regrettable attempt at
flying a spinnaker; back to a small jib and a reefed main. It was my
first trip aboard Serengeti, but the consensus among the regulars was
unanimous--cranking along at anywhere from 12 to 15 knots, we were
hauling the mail. I was perched forward on the weather rail, and it was
a wet ride; we occasionally shipped some solid water. My world was
especially rocked by one hurtful wave that very literally knocked the
wind out of me, another first (and I hope a last).
I went off watch at dusk and was back on at midnight. Overhead, the
thick sky was beginning to break up, and the odd star began to shine
through. The worst of it was behind us. But the sailing was still very
challenging, with the wind shifting steadily through 25 degrees in the
lulls and the puffs, and it was imperative that the mainsheet trimmer
and driver work closely together. I handled the main for a while and
Tripp steered, and we began to sense what the other was about to do
without speaking. In the big gusts, I eased the main way off as Bill
bore away; once or twice I even had to press the "panic button" that
blows the hydraulic boom vang to keep us on our feet. After a bit, it
occurred to me that I was thoroughly enjoying myself.
At 0300, the watches changed again. Twenty minutes later, I was down
below chatting with seasoned navigator Jack Harvey--who'd done the race
at least eight times (that he'll admit to) and could never remember not
beating out through the Bahamas--when suddenly we heard Nanartowich
cry, "No helm!" Serengeti's swift race turned into something altogether different.
Detour to Nassau
Chad Weiss was forward trying to snatch some sleep, and Bill Tripp was
aft discussing strategy when we lost steerage. Since the "ching" we'd
all heard didn't sound catastrophic, they thought--as did I--that
something was remiss with the steering quadrant, possibly a snapped
line or a broken block that could easily be jury-rigged or repaired.
But upon inspection, it was discovered that the carbon rudderstock had
broken free and clear precisely where it exits the hull, carrying the
attached blade with it. Happily, we didn't take on even a spoonful of
Navigator Harvey instantly noted our position and quickly assessed our
immediate options. And there was Nassau, 40 miles south, dead downwind.
All we had to do was get there. There was no shortage of opinions on
how that task might best be executed.
Owing to her New Zealand heritage, Serengeti
carried an unusual drogue called a Sea Claw from Coppins Sea Anchors
(www.paraseaanchor. com), a Kiwi company specializing in emergency
gear. It was immediately deployed and for most of the time did a
reasonable, though not exceptional, job of keeping the stern to the
wind and seas. The main had been dropped immediately after the
incident, but someone came up with the idea of hoisting the storm jib
to give us some speed and also to counteract the cork-screw effect the
drogue had on the stern.
This proved to be a stroke of genius. Not only did this boost our boat
speed to a solid 3 knots; the tiny sail also kept us more or less
directly on course for Nassau. Every time the bow came into the breeze,
the sheeted-home jib would back and send the boat into a controlled
jibe. Once on the new board, the sail would fill, and the boat would
accelerate until the bow again wandered toward the wind, whereupon the
whole process would repeat itself. In this manner, pivoting around its
nearly 14-foot keel and slaloming down a heading that wandered through
about 30 degrees, Serengeti held an average course straight toward Nassau.
It was a good thing, too. In a call to BASRA, the all-volunteer Bahamas
Air and Sea Rescue Association, we learned that even the cruise ships
were weather-bound in Nassau. While the BASRA folks were sympathetic to
our plight, they didn't have the resources to lend assistance but asked
to be kept apprised of our progress. And a commercial-towing outfit
quoted a figure of $10,000 for a lift home. While it was clear we
wouldn't be able to sail right up to a dock, we'd be on our own until
just outside Nassau. As Bill Tripp said in a sat-phone call to the
authorities, "We're getting there OK, but we're going to need someone
to catch us once we're there."
Sailmaker Mark Ploch reckoned, correctly, that with more speed, we'd
have better control, so by midafternoon we'd swapped the storm jib for
the No. 4 headsail. Instantly, we were making 6 knots. But the faster
speeds proved too much for the drogue, which at 3 knots stayed
submerged and provided the necessary drag to maintain course but
skipped and planed atop the following waves at anything quicker. And
once the drogue was clear of the drink, Serengeti
instantly sprang up toward the breeze. (The position of the drogue was
also critical to the overall exercise, particularly because the waves
were so close together. After a lot of trial and error, it became clear
that the device worked best when streaming about 100 feet aft.) We
tried trailing sheets and lines aft to induce more drag, but their
effect was minimal. Reluctantly, down came the No. 4 and back up went
the storm jib.
Late in the afternoon, off Nassau, we rendezvoused with a kind soul in
a Mako-type runabout of about 22 feet powered by a 100-horsepower
outboard. We used a stretchy anchor rode as a tow line, which in
retrospect wasn't ideal. Skipper Weiss was stationed by the throttle
with the engine slowly turning over: "The anchor line was like a big
rubber band," he said later. "Without the jib up, it was very hard to
keep the bow down, so when it swung in its maximum arc, I'd put some
reverse on to compensate. We'd get a little pull, and it'd whip the
boat from one direction to the other. A line with less stretch would've
worked better. And it was probably way too long. We kept making it
shorter and shorter to reduce the bouncing action--the shorter, the
It was slightly hairy negotiating the harbor entrance, but by sundown,
we were alongside a dock and thinking about refreshments. Serengeti,
sans rudder, was ready for the next chapter. The torn, trashed drogue
didn't fare as well, though it would've been a struggle to reach Nassau
When it was all over, I asked Bill Tripp what he'd learned. His answers
were insightful. "I'd never needed a drogue before and now realize how
important they can be," he said.
"The drogue we had wouldn't stay submerged when we were going fast
enough. That was a real problem, a double-edged sword. Because you need
the sails to steer, and the sails make you go fast, we had to put on as
little sail as possible and not have the boat go more than 4 knots. Our
drogue popped out of the water at 3.5 knots. We needed one that worked
at 6 knots. When you have a following sea, speed is better than no
speed. The less speed you have, the more the waves are throwing the
In the aftermath, one of the designers in Tripp's office tested a
number of drogues on The Solent, in England. In the future, Tripp plans
on specifying drogues for his new designs and will also incorporate
fold-down padeyes aft so there's a ready place from which to deploy
them. "We needed a drogue that wasn't so dependent on being full, which
isn't a bagful of water," he said. "The kind you want looks like a huge
net--it has a big circle and huge webbing and looks like a cone. It
doesn't have an open/close aspect to it like the one we had. And we
didn't know that. In smooth water, I think the Sea Claw would work
well. But it had that aspect where, if you changed half a wavelength on
it, suddenly it would surf, and when it surfed, it collapsed. And once
you were going 4 knots with it collapsed, it wouldn't fill again."
All in all, Tripp described the incident as an eye-opening experience.
"In the design process, you can't imitate a boat without a rudder. It
isn't possible," he said. "I've done all the Newport-Bermuda Race tests
where you have to prove you have emergency steering, and you do that by
lashing the wheel and then dragging a spinnaker pole back and forth
[off the transom]. And you can do that in flat water; it works fine.
Out at sea, it doesn't, particularly if you have to go dead downwind.
If you want to set the boat up on a reach or even go upwind, you can do
both by trimming the sails, but downwind is the hard one. Because the
waves just take the stern and pick your course."
Tripp, however, was confident that had we been outside Eleuthera in the
open Atlantic when the rudder vanished, a high-performance boat like Serengeti
would've fared well. "I think with a double-reefed main, we could've
climbed up on the breeze," he said. "We would've sailed the boat by
trimming and dumping the mainsail, the old dinghy thing. The
disadvantage of a boat like this is that when it breaks its rudder,
it's like a dinghy. On the other hand, the advantage is you can sail it
like a dinghy.
"Anyway," he concluded, "it was certainly an adventure. I wish it hadn't happened, but since it did, I was glad I was there."
It turned out that it wasn't a case of whether Serengeti's
rudder would fail or not--it was inevitable--but when it would happen.
When the boat was loaded onto a barge to begin its journey from New
Zealand to the States two years ago, its rudder clipped the deck due to
a problem with uneven hoisting straps. For a variety of reasons, it
wasn't inspected at the time. But the shattered remnants of the carbon
post revealed what Weiss called "a catastrophic failure." There was
evidence that the stock had been wearing away ever since the boat was
Even so, within a few weeks Serengeti
was fitted with a new appendage and sailed on to Antigua, where in late
April she competed in Sailing Week. But in mid-May, the boat suffered
major damage to her hull and rig after being struck by a cruise ship
while anchored in St. George's Harbour, Bermuda.
As for the Pineapple Cup, the strong northerlies held on, and nine of
the 16 competing yachts beat the old race record of 2 days, 23 hours,
with the victorious 75-foot Titan
12 taking over 12 hours off the mark in posting a new record of 2 days,
10 hours, and change. By all accounts, it was a helluva ride.
Then again, so was ours.
Herb McCormick is CW's editor.