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
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....
"Without A Rudder
by this author)
Excerpt appearing in Cruising
World--July 5, 2005
"The torn, trashed
drogue didn't fare as
well, though it would've
been a struggle to reach Nassau
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 water.
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
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 without it.
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 boat
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."
to learn more
Cruising World Magazine.