THAT wasn’t supposed to happen…

July 15

Today was a beautiful Saturday, and I was able to get my friend, HHYC club member and J-22 sailor Josh to come out with me.  Expecting our typical western LI Sound afternoon southwesterly breeze, which doesn’t usually really get going until 4 or 5 pm, we launched off the dock at around 3:30.  I’m still fine-tuning my rigging routine for Grey Fox.  I don’t hoist sail at the dock but rather row out of the cove and then hoist while drifting through the mooring field.  If the wind is lively this puts a premium on rigging and hoisting quickly, as the boat can drift pretty fast and there are plenty of boats on moorings to drift into.

The tasks are, more or less in order:

–          Ship the oars in their sailing position, which is cradled in oarlocks up near the bow and with the handle-ends sticking out over the stem, looking a bit like a bowsprit (this gets those big 9’9” oars out of the way)

–          Drop in the daggerboard

–          Push the kick-up rudder blade down

–          Unfurl the mizzen.  You don’t hoist it, as it’s permanently laced to the mizzenmast.  You just unroll it and loop the “snotter” through the sprit boom.  Then sheet it tight, and it will then keep the boat lying bow-to-wind

–          Hoist the mainsail

–          Ease off the mizzen, sheet in the main, and you’re sailing

Not particularly complicated, but you still need to do it quickly if you’re drifting towards another boat or the rocks!  Well-choreographed, I can do it by myself in maybe 3 minutes.

Today’s choreography was not Broadway quality.  The wind was already blowing ~8 knots, and somewhere in there one of the oars went swimming.   No big deal, except by the time we got sailing, we had lost sight of the oar in the sun glare and the chop.  Josh and I spent the next 5 or 10 minutes sailing around the mooring field looking for the oar.  We finally found it – it had drifted way faster than we thought it would, and was well into Larchmont Harbor.  It was also amazing how close we had to get to a floating 10-foot long bright red-painted oar before we could see it.

Note to self:  when anything falls overboard, and especially when that anything is a person, it should be priority #1 (out of a list of only 1) of the person not steering the boat to keep their eyes pinned to the object overboard.  Which neither one of us did.   Of course, if, as is quite common on Grey Fox, there is only one person on board, then this rule doesn’t apply to the man-overboard situation.  And if it’s just a ball cap overboard, Mr. solo helmsman should be careful not to focus his gaze so intently  on the errant ball cap that he doesn’t notice that mega-power-yacht bearing down.

Oar recovery complete, we head across the Sound.  A close reach in the Southwesterly will get us over to the North Shore in a little over an hour.   I pick out the Webb Institute on the Glen Cove shore as a landmark to steer for.   The Webb Institute is a small private college of naval architecture and marine engineering.  The school was endowed (presumably by one Mr. Webb) so if you get accepted, it’s tuition free.  Its main building is a huge former Gold Coast mansion that is so big you can pick it out from Larchmont, almost 5 miles away.  Fun fact: the site was used as a setting for the Wayne Manor in two of the Batman movies and the TV series “Gotham”.  But we didn’t spot Robin from the water.

As we approach the Long Island shore the wind kicks up to 12-15 knots and even with both of us on the windward rail, it’s still hard to hold the boat flat.  When we get to about 300 yards from the beach, we come about to head back to Larchmont.  It’s a broad reach on the way home.  On the reach, and with lots of wind, boat has a whole lot of weather helm and I have to keep a really strong pull on the tiller to stay on course. Then — CRACK!   “What was that?” And the next thing I know the weather helm is gone and the boat rounds up into the wind.   The tiller isn’t doing anything.  I climb up on the stern sheets and look over the transom to see the rudder dangling by the uphaul line that cleats off to the tiller.  The rudder head broke right in half! “Shit!  THAT wasn’t supposed to happen!”.  I retrieve the rudder blade and the bottom half of the rudder head and stow it on the floorboards.

“What do we do now?” asks Josh.  It’s 5 miles back to Larchmont and we have no rudder.  “Reach into that bucket under the thwart and grab me a short piece of line.”  I tie a loop around the cleat on the inwale on the port quarter.  I had installed a cleat there to have something to tie a dock line to.  I hadn’t really thought of it as a jury-rugged rudder pivot, but it’s time to be creative.   “Now grab me one of those oars.  We’re going to use it as a steering oar, Viking ship style.”  With the oar stuck through the loop on the cleat, I can lever it against the gunwale to steer.

Well, it works, and pretty soon we’re sailing again.  But the strain on the oar required to counter the weather helm is so great that I’m worried it could break.   We heave to and tie a reef into the main, which relieves some of the helm.   Still, it’s seriously hard work using both arms to steer.  I am really glad to have Josh there to work the main sheet!  Excitement moderated, I get the hang of steering, and the strong but gradually moderating breeze gives us a quick push back to our home port without further drama.

After the wind calmed down a bit, I was able to steer-Viking style with only one hand… the regular tiller is tied down but it’s not connected to anything!

When we get back on the dock and get everything stowed away, I get a chance to take a close look at the damage.  It was a pretty catastrophic failure of the rudder head:
Broken rudder (2)

I’ll need to contact Clint and discuss with him whether the scantling for the rudder head is beefy enough – I can’t afford to have it do this again.  This time it only caused minor excitement but in tougher conditions such a failure could be a real problem.

Author: Larchmont Jim

A 50-something investment banker from Larchmont, New York (about 15 miles from midtown Manhattan). Amateur small boat sailer, boatbuilder, kayaker, musician. I grew up spending summers sailing the New England coast on my grandfather’s beautiful 47’ 1952 Sparkman & Stevens wooden yawl. I’ve lived in Larchmont, a major and historic sailing center on Long Island Sound, for 25 years, but career and family obligations kept me off the water for all of my 30s and 40s, and only about 7 years ago did I get back on the water, first in sea kayaks, and then in small boats.

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