Crew safety is paramount for any skipper, and lessons can be learned from mishaps on other yachts, says Roger Brydges as he looks into steering loss at sea

Retiring from the MAIB (Marine Accident Investigation Branch) has allowed me to reflect on developments in marine safety over the past few decades, particularly in the sailing sector, which is where I have the most experience.

It began when I was plonked into my father’s leaky National 12, aged two, wearing a contrivance of a lifejacket that would never qualify for a CE marking today. When I joined the MAIB back in 1995, the organisation was half the size it is now. Paper charts were still the norm and AIS (Automatic Identification System) was still some way off. People often ask me whether

I worry about going out sailing when I’ve been working for so long in an environment that highlights the dangers of what can happen when afloat. The key, of course, is to manage the risks in the same way as you do when you’re driving a car or crossing the road. It’s always healthy, for example, to have an underlying sense of vigilance about the risk of falling over the side, because, however much safety equipment you have, if you fall in you’ll be at risk. I always reiterate this point to my crews during safety briefings before our voyages, as well as ensuring they all have a decent lifejacket, CE-marked of course!

The crew of Slughunter watched as an orca appeared to play with their dinghy before targeting the boat's rudders. Credit: Jon and Yara Wright

Orca have been one of a well publicised source of steering damage in recent years. Credit: Jon and Yara Wright

Steering loss case study – Detached rudder

Three experienced sailors were enjoying a winter’s morning outing on a 40ft sailing yacht, heading to a nearby port for lunch. The weather was blustery, with winds at Force 5 to 6, gusting Force 7. The sailing had been exciting and fast, with several tacks needed to reach their lunch spot. As the helmsman prepared to tack once again close to a port-hand channel marker buoy, the yacht was hit by a strong gust, causing it to heel over and lose directional control.

The mainsail was eased out in an attempt to recover control of the steering, however this was ineffective and the yacht’s starboard bow struck the red buoy with force. The collision caused the yacht to ricochet off the buoy and swing around. The rudder then hit the buoy and was torn off. The helmsman realised the rudder had detached when he saw it floating away from the yacht. The skipper immediately sent the crew to check if the yacht was taking on water, and broadcast a Mayday call on VHF.

The crew reported that water was flooding the vessel through the detached rudder post at a significant rate, so the skipper started the yacht’s bilge pumps and the crew began to bail out the water using buckets. A lifeboat quickly arrived on the scene and a portable pump was deployed. The yacht, however, continued to sink. The skipper and crew quickly gathered what belongings they could, abandoned the yacht, and made their way onto the lifeboat. The yacht sank shortly afterwards.

MAIB advice

  • There is always a risk of heeling heavily and ‘rounding up’ when sailing as close upwind as possible and broaching when sailing downwind. When sailing upwind in strong winds, the boat’s angle of heel can increase to such an extent that the rudder comes out of the water, causing a loss of directional control. Putting a reef in the sails can help maintain steering control by keeping the yacht more upright.
  • Being prepared for dangers ahead and having a plan for your next manoeuvre are important when sailing. The skipper must always be assessing the situation, which will change almost constantly. If you don’t need to be close to navigational marks, then stay clear of them. Sufficient space must be left when tacking in case something does not go to plan.
  • Plan for emergencies and familiarise yourself with the emergency equipment on board, ensuring you know how to use it. If the worst happens, a vessel can sink surprisingly quickly. Always keep essentials in a grab bag and have easy, quick access to the liferaft. Make a distress call on VHF early to alert others to your situation.

Rudder stock showing pitting and evidence of corrosion. Photo: MAIB

Case study – Sudden steering loss

A 43ft training yacht was on passage, at night, with a skipper and six students onboard. The boat was sailing steadily on a broad reach downwind when all steering was lost. The skipper tried to rig the emergency tiller without success, so a sea anchor was deployed to control the yacht’s drift while a ‘Pan Pan’ distress call was made. A lifeboat arrived quickly and the yacht was towed to safety.

When the boat was lifted out of the water it was discovered the stainless steel rudder stock had sheared through. Being a commercial vessel, the yacht had been inspected twice in the last five months, with no defects reported. A technical investigation into the shearing found it was caused by a weakening due to crevice corrosion. The corrosion affected more than half of the overall diameter, but had not been identified during the inspections because it was concealed from view by the rudder bush. The sailing school inspected the boat’s sister yacht, where evidence of pitting on the rudder stock showed similar corrosion. Both yachts were taken out of service until new rudders and stocks were fitted and the manufacturer notified.

MAIB advice

  • Total loss of steering is rare. Here, the skipper was able to alert the coastguard and deploy an anchor. Had the yacht been on a lee shore or in a shipping lane, the consequences could have been worse.
  • Plan for all eventualities, conduct regular emergency drills, and always ask yourself ‘What if…’ ?

Enjoyed reading this?

A subscription to Yachting Monthly magazine costs around 40% less than the cover price.

Print and digital editions are available through Magazines Direct – where you can also find the latest deals.

YM is packed with information to help you get the most from your time on the water.

      • Take your seamanship to the next level with tips, advice and skills from our experts
      • Impartial in-depth reviews of the latest yachts and equipment
      • Cruising guides to help you reach those dream destinations

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.