We lost both rudders

It was in the middle of the night. We were on our way from Bitung to Tifure Island, crossing the Moluccan Sea, around 70 nautical miles. Darkness pressed in around us, with thunderclouds in the horizon, but above us we could see the stars clearly. So far we had great conditions for our crossing. A big weather system had come through a couple of days earlier and we were riding on the tail end of it. Around 12-15 knots of wind on a beam to close reach, making 5-6 knots. There were big waves though, and our decks were completely wet. The only dry place on our boat was the cockpit and the top of the kitchen box.

Paul was on the helm and I was on watch, trying to stay awake as it was 2 AM. Conditions had been stable and there was not much to do. I was sitting on top of the kitchen box as a violent wave hit us on the side. It sounded like a bucket had fallen over, so I turned around but couldn’t see anything. Paul asked me if I heard that, but I didn’t think much of it. Probably just a bucket…

At the helm however, Paul was feeling the steering was different. It was much harder to keep course. He takes out his flashlight and is dreading what he might see. He shines over on the rudder and the whole blade is gone! Only the shaft is left. «Oh no… Eivind, we I think we have a problem. The rudder is gone!»

I look over, and sure enough, the rudder is missing. We were going off course, but we still had one rudder, the one Paul was using. I take off the crossbar to the starboard rudder, as it is not doing anything anymore, and I release the mizzen sheet to help with steering. Soon enough we were back on course and I resume my position on top of the kitchen box.

I wasn’t scared of having lost one rudder, as we were in full control of the boat, but I was confused as to why it had broken. I didn’t feel anything out of the ordinary. Only that one wave that shook the boat. Maybe our sails were not trimmed properly and we had too much force on the rudder blades? Or did we hit something? I console myself with the fact that the boat is now balanced and we only have 30 miles to go. We will deal with the missing rudder once we get to land. I go to bed a little after 3 AM as it is Sammy’s shift. Paul says jokingly, «I’ll wake you up if the second rudder breaks». I didn’t hear him.

I get woken up abruptly at 05:30. Naomi is shouting something down my cockpit hatch and Sammy is standing over me on the main hatch. «The rudder has broken! The rudder has broken!» I can’t wrap my mind around it. I know the rudder is broken, but then I see that the second shaft is on the deck. We have no more rudders! Our course is way off, but we can see the island in the distance. Dawn is slowly breaking and we are fully adrift in the Molucca Sea.

I get right into action. I find one of our paddles that we are currently using for our tender. I think it was designed to be used to paddle the Tama Moana when there is no wind. I take one tiller and lash it onto the paddle with some paracord. We lash the paddle down same way as we would the rudder. I go to the engine and turn it one inch to the left, as far as the engine box will allow, to help us push away from the wind. With the engine and the paddle, we are able to get back on course. But it is awkward, we have to adjust the sails a lot and balance the throttle. This paddle was not ment to be a rudder and it only wants to be pointing to one side or the other. I am happy we are headed towards land, only 12 nautical miles to go, but I am dreading how we will be able to get through the reef with this current configuration.

In the middle of setting up the emergency rudder I realize that I have not put on my lifejacket. I quickly go to put it on. We also take in the fishing lines. A man over board in this situation would be less than ideal. The only way to get the person would be to use the tender which is still sitting on deck. We would have to launch it, put in the engine and then manouver through 2 meter seas, and by this point we have probably drifted far away from the person. As this realization hit me I order everyone to stay far away from the edge of the boat and be clipped in if necessary. I take over the helm and manouver our awkward vessel towards the island.

At 6:50 I hear another crack and I look down at our paddle. Sure enough, it has also broken! At this point we are still 7 miles from our destination and I am starting to be a bit nervous. I pray a quick prayer «Jesus, help us».. I hope there may be a boat at the island listening to the radio and I call a pan pan on the vhf, letting people know we are in distress. No answer. I thought so… Okay, time to come up with a new solution.

I get out our rowing oar. This used to be for our tender, but we lost the other one some time last year. Since then I have been carrying it with us, just in case. Now was the case, and even though the blade was small I was hoping to get enough leverage to move the boat. First I try to use it Venezian style, angling it out more. It doesn’t work. Then I rig it up as a rudder, same way I did the paddle. I turn on the engine and try to turn us around. No response. Now what?

As I sit and contemplate my options Naomi sits down beside me. She asks me gently «sure you don’t want to try again? You didn’t really try that hard.» I don’t really want to, but it’s worth a try. I turn on the engine again and try to turn us away from the wind and back on course. It takes a while, but slowly we are getting back on course! And this oar actually works as a rudder. A tiny rudder, but as long as we keep our speed up I can steer the boat! Only 7 miles to go and with 5 knots boatspeed we’ll be there in an hour and a half.

Paul wakes up and gets up on deck. At this point we are in control and me and Naomi are waiting for him to realize that we have lost the other rudder. We try to hint it to him and point to the other rudder shaft lying on the deck. He doesn’t see it, instead he sees the squid we caught with the squid lure. The first thing we have caught after trawling for weeks.. We have to spell it out to him, and even then he was more fascinated by the squid then the second rudder breaking. He didn’t have much sleep, to his defence. Now that Paul was up, Naomi takes the opportunity to go to bed. We continue towards the island.

As the reef is coming closer we see some pretty big breaking waves. Don’t want to be there… I realize that we have to take down the sails and would benefit from another crew on deck. We wake up Sammy and start to take down the sails. The reef passage is upon us before I knew it and we have to take down the main sail. Now that we have no pressure from the sails, the engine that I turned slightly earlier is propelling us straight towards the reef. In my head I knew what to do, but I didn’t have time to brief the crew before we suddenly took down the mainsail. So I start shouting, «turn the engine, release the lever!» Sammy is on it and Paul is filming the whole thing. We are still heading towards the breaking waves on the reef, and they don’t seem to have found the lever. I climb quickly out of the cockpit and have Paul to take the helm. As I look over Sammy’s shoulder I see that he has found the lever and we are now back on course. Phew! We go through the shallow reef and we make it into the lagoon.

We make it to the anchorage I had planned from the beginning and we drop the anchor in a beautiful bay. Exposed to the wind but not to the waves. As we start to set up «camp», Naomi pops her head out of the hatch. «Are we at anchor?» She looks around, slightly confused. She slept through the whole chaotic reef episode. At this point I feel the adrenaline leaving my body. We make breakfast and praise God for bringing us to safe harbor. What an amazing feeling to be safe and sound after that experience.

We are without a rudder, but I am already starting to think how we may build some emergency rudders with the supplies we have onboard. Plywood, treated wood stock, epoxy and fibreglass should do the trick, I am thinking. We would have to build some proper rudders at some later stage. But I wasn’t about to get started right away. I am completely exhausted and need some sleep. Paul and Naomi go to explore the village on the island while me and Sammy stay back to rest.

I got some sleep, got up to read my Bible and suddenly our tender appears with Paul and Naomi and some other guy. They had found the one person on the island who could speak English and had communicated with a local carpenter to build us new rudders! It didn’t take long before we heard a chainsaw in the jungle and the carpenter started working. I could hardly believe it. I guess we’ll build new rudders on this island then. God works in mysterious ways and us getting stranded on this island was a blessing in disguise. How that all went is a story by itself, and I hope I can tell it all in a later time.

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