Suselle sailing to the bahamas
rudderless and engineless  


Sailing in strange places every day for two years with all the variables that entails will inevitably combine at some points to stretch one's best laid plans.

None of my tricky 'situations' proved detrimental in any way to myself, or the boat, so I am thankful for that.

Alligator River Chart

Alligator River Chart

Loss of Engine and Rudder

I had left Elizabeth City, North Carolina, having had a very nice visit. Hospitality for cruising sailors there has to be experienced to be believed. My trip for that day was to cross the Albemarle Sound and head up the Alligator River to Pamlico Sound and anchor up there for the night.

There was little wind but as it was completely open and excellent for sailing, I just let the boat breeze along at 2-3 knots with the self-steering gear engaged. I figured I had plenty of time.

I was approaching the mouth of the river on the other side of the sound and it was starting to get close to sunset - I realized I should have been watching my progress more carefully. I figured it would be too dark to find my way up the river so I noticed an island off to my left (Durant Island) that looked ideal to anchor off, though it was just off my detail chart. I carefully motored over to the island and had over 10' depth the whole way.

I checked the forecast. It said the wind would increase that night coming from the northwest so I was OK with that as I would be on a weather shore off the island.

About 2:00 am in the morning I was woken by the movement of the boat and surprised by how much it was bouncing around. The wind was more westerly than forecast and the waves were sneaking around the west end of the island.

As soon as there was daylight I set off under jib alone and watched my depth sounder as I headed back, doing my best to retrace my path coming in, as I was off the chart at this stage. I was somewhat concerned that the depth was only 5-6 feet. I realized the tide must be much lower than when I came in. I was making good progress when all of a sudden I had this feeling the boat was just not moving the way it should be with this wind. I decided to start the engine as I did not want to deviate from my retrace path by making leeway off it. Even with the engine the boat did not seem to be moving well, and the depth was now consistently five feet. I was getting quite concerned due to how rough it was and the barely adequate depth.

Just then there was a 'bang' and my engine stopped instantly. The boat did not appear to hit anything and was still moving so I had no idea what happened. I checked for any ropes hanging over the side but everything was in its place. I tried to restart the engine but the starter motor stalled as soon as I tried. I tried to tack then but the boat would not go around. The depth was getting closer to four feet. Rather than risk going aground, I dropped the jib, ran to the bow and dropped my biggest anchor. The boat stood into the wind, taught on the anchor chain. Suddenly there was a light bang as the keel had hit the bottom in a trough. I realized, to my horror, that with the boat now vertical, the keel was hitting the bottom. I knew there would be the occasional large wave and I was very concerned at any moment the boat would hit the bottom harder. It was then I noticed I could only move the rudder one way. This was hard to understand as the keel mounted rudder is so strong.

I realized I was in a very bad predicament. It was still dawn with very little light, gale force winds, no motor, effectively no rudder, my boat in four feet of water miles from any shore in an area I had no chart, with the keel hitting occasionally. The tide was almost certainly still ebbing, and the winds were forecast to get stronger!

I suddenly had an awful feeling of total despair - my two year trip was just beginning. I then began to feel really angry at the situation that had developed and determined to get out of it quickly and not have my beloved boat damaged.

I figured if I put up both sails I could sail, and steer, the boat without the rudder, I had been trained to do this in dinghy sailing years ago. I would just retrace my path back to the island where I knew it was deeper and have enough protection from the waves to go over the side and fix whatever I had to. The big concern was that the rudder had a permanent offset to one side. I quickly realized that the tiller was slightly offset was to the weather side which would actually help sailing back to the island.

I quickly raised the main and ran to the bow and went to haul up the anchor. I quickly hauled up the jib and 'swung' onto the appropriate tack.

I ran back to the cockpit and played the jib sheet and main sheet to keep the boat on course back to the island. I had both sails hard in and steered using the mainsheet (I kept the rudder as close to centre as it would allow with my knees.)

The maneuver seemed to work well, the boat was on its ear and the keel never touched bottom. I was incredibly relieved to see that is was working. I noticed, in the increasing light, that there was a light rope dragging behind the boat. I instantly recognised it as a lobster pot line and then it occurred to me what must have happened, at least why the boat was slow at the start and why the engine stopped suddenly. The depth crept back to 6 feet. I managed to steer the boat right up to the island and dropped my second anchor as close to the island as I dared.

I put on my heavy foul weather gear, snorkel, and weight belt and went down my swim ladder. I held myself firmly to the self-steering gear as I moved myself below the surface to see what was with my prop and rudder. I found that the lobster pot line had wrapped tightly around the prop-shaft between the propeller and the cutlass bearing and wound so tightly that the propeller shaft was actually forced out about 1/2" and the propeller nut on the end of the propeller shaft was now interfering with the rudder only allowing it to move one way. I got a serrated kitchen knife and put my cold wet foul weather gear on again and went over the side. It was very difficult to cut the rope wound around the prop shaft making sure I didn't scratch the shaft.

To finally cut the rope off the shaft required six trips under the boat and back into my sleeping bag to warm up. It took about three hours.

The rudder appeared to be undamaged other than a bit of a scratch where the shaft nut rubbed against its side. I reconnected the prop shaft to the transmission, the alignment still seemed to be perfect. I started the engine and engaged forward and reverse and it seemed to be working just fine. My rudder was free again.

I set off carefully again and sailed straight over to the channel having 6' plus the whole way as the tide had risen. What a relief to be back in the channel again!

The whole incident was quite an experience and where a whole set of unfavourable events occurred at the wrong time - not making sure I got to my planned destination, the island being just off the chart, the gale force winds from an unfavourable direction, the tide being at its lowest point, the lone lobster pot right on my path compounded by my decision to leave before I had good light, all combined to create a very difficult situation.