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tonga ~ lost a rudder!

Posted by on June 10, 2014

September 27 – October 20, 2013

I was in the galley. Wil motioned for me to follow him into the cockpit and down the port transom. He grabbed me by the shoulders and turned me toward the starboard transom. I saw it instantly. Beneath the starboard transom there was nothing but clear blue water and one lonely propeller. The starboard rudder was GONE!

My mouth dropped open, and I kept shaking my head in disbelief. I repeatedly looked at Wil, and back at the empty space, and asked, “Really?” Was this for real? When did it fall off? We suspected that we’d lost a rudder during our passage from Suwarrow, but both rudders were there when we looked. Now, we had been on a mooring in Neiafu, Tonga for five days, and we were just noticing that the rudder was missing.

Our minds were racing. What do we do? Was the rudder 100 feet below us? Or was it with King Neptune at the bottom of the ocean? Maybe it was back at our first anchorage in Port Maurelle. Should we try looking for it? How were we going to get a new rudder?

Colin had taken jellyfish video just before we discovered the missing rudder



There was one VHF call that I was going to make first. We needed to speak to s/v Pacific Highway who was sitting in the same anchorage waiting on a new rudder. We had followed their rudder loss saga, and maybe they could point us in the right direction.

We started talking to everyone we knew who could offer advice. Our friends on s/v Pacific Flyer were going to be passing Port Maurelle. They offered to stop and search dive for the rudder. Unfortunately, they didn’t find it, but we were amazed by their generosity.

Next, we needed to investigate the remaining rudder post. Wil swam underneath the boat to inspect the bottom of the rudder shaft. He found that the rudder post had broken off about 4 inches inside the shaft.

We made the assumption that while we had been underway, the water pressure against the rudder from the speed of the boat had held the broken rudder post in the shaft. It had appeared that we had two rudders, but only one responded when we turned the helm. When we slowed down during our approach to Tonga, the rudder probably dropped out of the shaft and is forever lost at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Over the next few weeks, we researched our options. Do we contact Privilege in France? Do we come up with a make-shift rudder to get us to New Zealand? Where would we get parts? Tonga had some resources, but they were minimal. By this point, our budget was minimal, as well. Fortunately, being a catamaran, we were able to move around from island to island, talk to people about our problem, and have fun while we sorted out our situation. We actually met people who had welders and pieces of steel onboard, and all kinds of creative ideas were being brought to our attention.

The coolest idea was to approach the super steam yacht, Nahlin, for assistance. Big ships such as these tend to have their own machine shops onboard, and maybe Nahlin would be able to help us. Wil and Gavin (s/v Pacific Flyer) dinghied around the huge yacht and respectfully looked for attention from any of the crew on deck. Eventually, a crew member noticed them, and signaled for them to quietly make their way around to a spot where they could speak in low voices.

super yacht, Nalin, the last of three steam ships ~ notice the landing craft alongside

Shortly after Wil and Gavin returned to our boat, a large landing craft was deployed from Nahlin and delivered two of the ship’s engineers. The engineers were dressed in crisp, white and spotless coveralls, and they were going to climb down into our greasy, dingy engine room to have a look at our rudder situation. We cringed at what they must have thought about being on our boat, but eventually we learned that the engineers were quite excited about the prospect of actually having “a real job” to do! The kids had been playing around the other side of the island, and when they returned to the boat, they didn’t know what to think when they saw these people in fancy uniform onboard our boat.

broken rudder post due to crevice corrosion


With the Nahlin engineers standing by, we disconnected the steering quadrant and removed the lone post. That’s when we discovered that the break in the post was due to crevice corrosion. Unfortunately, after the engineers spent two hours onboard and looked at what they had available on Nahlin, they were unable to help us. However, we were very grateful for their time, and it makes for a great story!

Eventually, the best solution landed in our laps. Pacific Flyer had a friend from Nelson, New Zealand who works for a prop and shaft company. This friend was going to be flying to Tonga to crew on Pacific Flyer for the passage to New Zealand. If we sent him our specifications, he would be able to construct and bring a rudder to us. The design was that of a stainless steel skeleton created from a 3/8-inch 2205 steel sheet welded to a 38 mm diameter post. The support gussets would be made separately and the final welding would occur in Neiafu, Tonga. The rudder would be fully functional, allowing us to get to New Zealand where we would complete the fiber glassing ourselves.

rudder measurements & schematics


The plan went into motion. Wil and Gavin drew out the specs, and we emailed them to friend Warrick. Warrick quickly gave us a price estimate. Then, the ball began rolling. On a Tuesday, we gave the okay to go ahead with the rudder fabrication. The 2205 stainless steel that was chosen for the job wasn’t available in Nelson, so Warrick farmed out the job to someone inAuckland. The rudder construction was completed on the Thursday. On Friday, Warrick collected the rudder and carried it as excess baggage on his flight from Auckland, New Zealand to Nukualofa, Tonga. On Saturday, before boarding a small plane to Neiafu, he delivered it to a mutual contact person in Nukualofa. On Wednesday, our contact person put it on the interisland ferry from Nukualofa to Neiafu. As soon as the ferry arrived in Neiafu on Friday morning, Wil picked up the rudder and delivered it to a local welder for the gusset attachments. By Saturday afternoon, the welding was complete and the rudder was ready for pickup. On Sunday, we performed an in-water installation of the new rudder. The entire process took just short of two weeks.

new steel skeleton of new rudder

In order to install the rudder, first we moved the boat to Port Maurelle where we could anchor in shallow water. Then, thanks to a boat-builder friend with some great advice, as well as some extra muscle from Adam on s/v Gallivanter, the rudder installation technique was a breeze. Using an old rectangular piece of dredging fish net, we created a basket with lines to support and guide the rudder. Wil used a dive tank and guided the rudder post into position from below the boat. Colin was in the water with snorkel gear, acting as an information relay between Wil and the team on the transom. Adam and I were on either side of the transom handling the guide lines to move the rudder as instructed. Justine had hold of a line that was attached to the top of the rudder post and running up through the rudder shaft. As the rudder post came up the shaft, Justine pulled the line. Once the rudder was in its final position, I climbed into the engine room to secure the rudder with a bolt through the top of the rudder post.

Due to great team work, the rudder post immediately went into the shaft and up into position. However, we couldn’t get the rudder to come up high enough for insertion of the bolt. We had to remove and re-install the rudder three times before we had successfully completed the job!

First, the slope of the top rudder edge didn’t match the slope of the hull. We removed the rudder, and Wil used an angle grinder to cut away the leading top edge of the rudder. Once we had a matching slope, we re-inserted the rudder only to discover that it still wouldn’t go up the shaft as far as it needed.

The next issue was the weld joint at the base of the post. The rudder and rudder post should have had close to a 90-degree angle to each other. The weld joint created a “slant” within the angle, not allowing the top edge of the rudder to come up into position next to the hull. We removed the rudder and ground down the weld joint and then put the rudder in for the third time.

Three times was almost a charm. Everything about the rudder looked good, except that the bolt hole was out of line just enough for the bolt to not go through. We needed another 1-2 mm! Without totally removing the rudder, we lowered the post to allow removal of a spacer under the attachment point, and then the bolt finally went through. We all breathed huge sighs of relief!

We played for a couple of days in Port Maurelle before we took the boat for a test spin. After having had only one rudder for about a month, we were amazed at how well the helm responded with two rudders again. We’d not realized just how much we were missing our rudder!

Note: The rudder functioned beautifully all the way to New Zealand. Eventually, we hauled out in New Zealand and completed the fiberglass portion of the rudder.

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