How we got new rudders

Both our rudders broke on our crossing from Sulawesi to Halamahera and we had to navigate in through a reef on a remote island in the middle of the Moluccan Sea. If you haven’t read that crazy story, you should. Check it out here: We lost both rudders. My plan was to build some emergency rudders out of the old shafts, some plywood and treated 1,5×1 wood, then cover it with several layers of fiberglass. New rudders would have to be build later, or somewhere else along our route, somehow. But God had a different plan than me, and we ended up getting new rudders built on the island we were stranded on by a local carpenter. Here’s the story of how that happened.

After we had successfully navigated our boat through the reef, using an oar as an emergency rudder, and anchored safely in the bay, I was exhausted and went to bed. The adrenalin that had kept me going since the second rudder broke was now slowly leaving my body. I needed sleep. However, Naomi and Paul wanted to go explore the village on the island, and shortly after I had woken up they returned with another man on the tender. They had found the only person on the island who could communicate effectively in English and they had visited a carpenter who said he could build us new rudders.

Hary was a school teacher on the local school, and as it was a Saturday he could take some time to help us. On the boat we discussed how the rudders needed to look like and we made a drawing of the design. It was hard to put dimensions on, as we didn’t have the drawings available and we had no internet, but we did our best to guess and deduce how big they were based on pictures we had. Soon Hary had a drawing and I told him that I will pay the carpenter however much he wanted. Paul took him back to the village where Hary communicated with the carpenter, and it didn’t take long before we heard a chainsaw in the woods.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure this was a good idea. We didn’t know what kind of wood they would have, the skills of the carpenter, and most importantly how much time it would take. But it seemed to be too much of a coincidence to be chance and I chose to trust that God was in charge of this and that things would work out all right. Later that same evening all of us went into the village to see the carpenter and his progress. To our surprise he had already made two crude shapes of rudders out of the tree they had felled. We tried to communicate with him through sign language, but quickly went to find Hary to interpret. They would continue to work on the rudders that same night as they had power in the village between 6 pm to 6 am.

Next morning was Sunday, and to our surprise the whole village was Christian! Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, but we had come to a place with little Muslim influence. To make friends and out of curiosity we all went to church that morning. We hadn’t realized that the time zone had changed and we arrived one hour late, but no one seemed to mind. The Pastor started cracking jokes on our behalf and we became the spectacle of the service. Afterwards everyone wanted photos with us. First the youth with their phones, then the whole church choir and the clergy wanted photos with us up front in the church. We were invited to the pastors house for lunch and on our way back to the boat we saw that the whole village had gathered around in private homes for house church fellowships. Amazing!

That same night the carpenter continued to work on our rudders and as we visited the next day we saw two crude rudders coming in to shape. We lifted the rudders and they were heavy! I took a piece of the wood down to the sea to see if it would float and it did not. It sank like a stone. Now that it was a school day we waited for lunch and Hary came again to help us translate. We needed to decide on the shape of the rudders and drew a couple of lines of how we wanted them to look like. This would help shed some weight and they wouldn’t hit the hull of the boat. We asked what kind of tree it was and to our surprise it was teak! Our new rudders are teak. That should be good enough.

That same night, we returned to the village to give some final instructions to the carpenter who said he would be finished tomorrow. Our real reason for coming was to get some wifi that the village has when the power is on. We haven’t had internet for days and it was good to communicate with people who were worried for us. I found it hard to believe that the rudders were almost finished. When we arrived I thought we would stay here longer. And sure enough, the following morning we returned to the finished rudders. We were escorted back to the boat by a bunch of kids who had skipped school, I guess.

On the boat I started to sand the rudders and do some finishing touches. I had been contemplating if we should add a layer of fiberglass for strength. Especially one rudder had a joint in the middle of the blade and I could see how this would be a weak point. So I decided we should delay our departure by one day and do some fibreglassing to make sure our rudders don’t break again.

We set up shop on a beach nearby. Fiberglass and epoxy we had brought with us from Alorro after rebuilding the bulkhead. We made some crude stands and started working. None of us has been working much with fiberglass before, but we have a general idea based of what we have seen on youtube. Soon we started coating the wood in epoxy and adding the cut cloth. One layer around the blade and one around the shaft. We kept on mixing small batches of epoxy and did both rudders, one after the other. We ended up hanging the rudders in the trees where we left them overnight for the epoxy to dry. Great success! We had a celebratory swim and went back to the boat for the night.

The next morning we hung our rudders back on the boat. Being so heavy, we needed to modify a bit how they were attached, but I was actually very pleased with our solution. This seems to be more sturdy that the old rudders, for sure. Then we set sail, day five on Tifure Island, and we sail away with rudders stronger than before. Another night sail, but everything went well. Steering was smooth and we were all happy. After that first sail with the new rudders, I was confident. These rudders will make it to the Solomon Islands.

From going to being rudderless to setting off again with stronger rudders than before, locally made on a remote island, is a small miracle in itself. Few boats in the same situation would be able to continue from such a big damage. But this experience has been like a proof of concept for us. The whole reason we bought the Wharram Tama Moana for the Solomon Islands was because it could be easily maintained and repaired in the islands. Here we are, showing what is possible in a remote island. New rudders? No problem!

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