Loss of steering along a rocky shore

Crowded anchorage at Clare Island

Saved by luck and a bit of ingenuity

What do you do when you've just raised anchor, you engage the engine to head out, and the wheel just spins freely in your hands without turning the boat?  PANIC! No. Do not panic. Think, and fast.

We've lost steering twice before, both times in the middle of an ocean where there is nothing to run into and where Aleria steers herself very nicely with sail trim alone.  Out there, there is plenty of room to think things through and work on the problem to resolve it. Not this time. No, this time, the wind grabbed the bow and swung us around toward shore. Not just a sandy shore but a rocky promontory.  We reversed the engine but that caused us to head out to sea. What we needed to do was get back into the harbour where we could re-anchor. The dinghy was on deck and there was no time to launch it.  We had to find a way to steer.

Alex ran below to see if the rudder was still in place.  We had been in a boisterous anchorage overnight and we thought it might have sheered off.  Thankfully that was not the problem.

Vessel departing Clare Island as we pulled up anchor
I got on the radio to call for assistance just in case. No one in the harbour was listening.  Of course not. Everyone out here knows that no one listens to the radio. Two boats had just left and were within visual distance but did not respond. The harbour was full of boats, including one that had its AIS on, but no one responded. Fortunately, the Coast Guard could hear us. Usually, Clew Bay is a black hole for VHF transmission. I calmly informed the Coast Guard of our situation, that it was not the rudder and we were not taking on water but were being pushed onto a dangerous shore. Our plan was to attempt to re-anchor, and we would let them know as soon as we knew we were successful. The Coast Guard made the decision to call a pan-pan and scrambled lifeboats from Achill and Clifden. That would not have done us much good as it would take them at least 30 minutes to get to us, and this would be over within a few minutes. We'd be on the rocks with danger to life and property.

The work we had done on the shaft last year had eliminated prop walk, or so we thought.  But Alex now noticed that if he revved the engine hard in reverse, Aleria exhibited some prop walk to port. If he motored gently, it would go straight or even slightly to starboard.  We managed to get ourselves into position almost in the same place we had anchored before. Alex went forward to drop anchor. It caught right away and our bow swung around into the wind; our trusty Ultra anchor was saving our boat and our lives that day! I returned to inform the CG that we had anchored, it appeared well set, and we were assessing the situation.  I cancelled the pan-pan. Panic averted, it was June bank holiday and I really didn't want to disturb someone's BBQ dinner.

Alex meanwhile started to disassemble the bulkheads to get at the rod steering.  It is a very complex system with rods and gears and connectors of all kinds.  The first thing he noted was that the autopilot was engaging so we could steer with that if we had to. Of course, in the moment when things were happening we had not thought of that. The emergency tiller was of course stowed below with no time to assemble it.

Aleria anchored outside the mooring field
The second thing he noted was that a sleeve had worked its way off a coupling and a pin had worked its way out. It was just below the steering column.  Phew.  No broken gears - a totally different problem from the two times before. This we could fix. An hour later, with me on deck turning the wheel a bit this way and a mite that way, Alex got the pin to align with the groove and slipped it back together again.  The wheel caught and turned the rudder. We were back in business.

I called the Coast Guard and informed them we had fixed the problem, no further assistance was required, and we were staying for the night. We'd continue back to Clew Bay in the morning.  The Coastie could not have been nicer and more relieved. I thanked him for standing by and assisting us, and he thanked me for keeping him informed. He said he'd be happy to assist with any request in the future...but I was thinking I hoped we wouldn't need it.  Three times is enough.

Perhaps this incident was meant to delay us because the following morning was lovely and we had a beautiful sail in to Clew Bay with a single reach all the way. About half way, Alex spotted dolphins. A few had come into Clare Island with the ferry the night before. They were way off to port near Mulranny when they spotted us and made a beeline toward us.  There were so many we couldn't even count them.  Our best guess is about 40 bottlenose dolphins, many as large as 3 meters, and some smaller juveniles. What a joyous way to end a trying weekend.  A reward for a job well done.

Video of dolphins in Clew Bay: http://youtu.be/CAhT_x8mklQ

Dolphin with Croagh Patrick as a backdrop

Bottlenose dolphins in Clew Bay

Dolphin show to port, while I look to starboard (where there was another show going on).

Some things we learned about loss of steering from this experience:
  • Try different methods of steering right away - autopilot, etc 
  • Never give up, try try try and think laterally
  • Always keep your radio on; you may be the one needing assistance some day


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