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Coast Guard, The Navy & Dolphins to the Rescue

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Rescued by a Navy Warship

Continued from Panpan, Panpan, Panpan... Read it first!

Rudder Advice - How to steer when your tiller arm is split

The first vessel to answer the Coast Guard panpan at 07:45 was tug ‘J George Best’.  He was not able to lend assistance but had lots of advice.  If Bradd could get a line around either side of the rudder and up to the winches, perhaps he could steer – or better still clamp 2 x 4’s on either side of the rudder, fasten lines to the wood and that might allow us to control the rudder.  There were no 2 x 4’s on board and with the ship pitching and rolling in 6 – 8 foot seas, there was no way my Captain was going to attempt to fasten anything to the rudder.  J George Best then suggested we put out our anchor, even if we didn’t have any scope.  Bradd felt that dropping the anchor in 130 feet with the wind & wave conditions was only inviting damage to the bow with no hope of holding.

A Warship Welder

A short time later we were hailed by Navy Warship 79.  They were about 16 miles away and asked if they could be of any assistance.  Bradd said short of towing us to shore, if they had a welder on board perhaps they could fashion a new tiller for us.  They radioed back that they would come and stand off until the Coast Guard arrived (ETA noon), and if possible, manufacture a tiller.  They were beside us in no time.  Trying to describe what we needed over the VHF radio was no easy feat.  Bradd took measurements of the block that fit in the rudder post and described it to them.  I stood on deck and held up the tiller-arm at their request and they took a photo of me!  The War Ship explained that their davit was broken and so they couldn’t launch a boat to get to us but they would work on the tiller and the Coast Guard could deliver it to us when they arrived.


The Coast Guard cutter ‘Kingfisher’ arrived shortly after noon – we were of course easy to spot with the War Ship beside us!  The wind and waves had been gradually subsiding.  They launched their jet boat and sent over a boarding party.  The War Ship had completed the tiller and the CG retrieved it.  The block was perfect but the arm was mounted on the wrong side.  We sent it back, along with the original one so that they could see the proper orientation.  They modified it, unfortunately using some parts of the original aluminum tiller and it was quickly apparent that wouldn’t work.  We sent the tiller back to the War Ship.

 When all else is lost, dolphins can cheer you up!

While we waited, we were wallowing in the aftermath of the big winds and seas with the rudder squeaking from side into side.  A small pod of dolphins approached the boat. The normally playful dolphins were obviously curious about the inert sailboat and the noises we were making. Four of them approached and in unison popped their heads above the surface and while completely stationary, looked at us directly in the eye!! What was wrong? They seemed to ask. Bradd and I looked at them. The Coast Guard looked at them and as quickly as they had appeared, they disappeared. I guess they were satisfied that we were OK.

Third Time a Charm!

Three times lucky!  The Coast Guard engineer, Benjie, made a slight modification to the manufactured tiller (screwing the old aluminum arm over the Navy’s fabricated steel arm to make it more comfortable to hold) and by 14:00 we were all underway – the Kingfisher leading, us following, and the Navy War Ship 79 bringing up the rear.  The CG insisted on accompanying us all the way to Jacksonville (thank goodness) and the war ship soon left the parade.

The CG had offered to stay aboard to help with the steering but Bradd assured them that he would be OK.  However, the short tiller-arm was very difficult to control and required quite a bit of strength.  I was only able to relieve Bradd for short periods and after a couple of hours it was clear that Bradd would not be able to continue to steer for the hours it would take to reach shore. We had drifted south east over the morning and we were about 54 miles from the Jacksonville harbor entrance when we got underway.  We were looking at a minimum 9 hour trip if all went well.  The CG had been checking on us by VHF every half hour.  When they called again, we accepted their offer of assistance steering the boat.

Not everyone a natural sailor - even if they are in the Navy

The first two volunteer ‘drivers’ were delivered.  The steerage was so difficult and demanding that three hours was all that they could manage.  A second troop of volunteer drivers took over.  Some people have a natural ability to steer a boat and others can learn.  Some people just never get the feel for it.  Our first ‘helmsman’ was a natural and he taught his partner.  The second two volunteers on the other hand were of the last category and consequently were very hard on our make-shift tiller.  We actually did several 360’s when they lost control.  The tiller was repaired three times by the CG underway.  The final repair lasted till we were about 11 miles from the approach buoy off Jacksonville and the tiller was now mangled beyond repair.  The CG were willing to tow us  but we had already made arrangements for Tow Boat US to meet us at the approach buoy – Bradd didn’t want to maneuver through the jetties and into a marina with so little control – so we suggested that TBUS come out to get us rather than switching tows at the approach buoy.  While we waited for them, the engineer fashioned yet another tiller for us to hold the rudder straight while under tow.  Without it, the boat would be out of control and the stress on the rudder may have broken it off! 

The new tiller was made of two 4 foot long 4 x 4’s held together with huge C clamps and nailed & screwed to the block that fit in the rudder post.  It was actually the easiest of all the make-shift tillers to control which was a good thing – Maeve got to steer most of the way in as Bradd’s arms had turned to jello (and he is incredibly strong – my Popeye!).  The final leg under tow was about 15 miles.  We had drifted while waiting for the tow and the boat yard is about 4 miles from the approach buoy.  We were finally docked at 03:00 Thursday morning – what a long day!

No rest for the wicked

We slept for 3 1/2 hours and then started the process of effecting repairs as quickly as possible.  Bradd removed the broken parts and they were sent to a machine shop to have new parts fabricated.  He also delivered plans for a new emergency tiller.  We scrubbed the decks to remove the salt and the multitude of CG footprints from her decks.  The staff at the yard was fabulous – bending over backwards and calling in favours to get the parts done as soon as possible.  The parts were finally delivered by courier at 16:30 Friday and Bradd set to work installing them.  Unfortunately, one screw hole was drilled too small and of course late Friday – there was no one left in the yard.


Shrimper ‘Madam Butterfly’ came to the rescue and Bradd was able to borrow a ½” drill from him and a 5/8” bit from Extraviganza, a sport fisherman to get the hole enlarged.  The installation was completed, tested and we motored out the St John’s River at dusk.  It was an uneventful motor boat ride to Norfolk but that is OK - We had had enough excitement for one trip.

Lessons to be learned:

-In hindsight, the tug operator’s advice of an anchor wouldn’t have worked to hold us, BUT it probably would have held the bow into the wind and seas and slowed our drift.

- Know where your emergency tiller is stowed and what it is made of – is it substantial enough to control steering?

- Check the fitting to make sure that you can remove the deck plate and install the emergency tiller safely in difficult conditions.  Does the emergency tiller fit in the rudder post?

- Try actually steering with the emergency tiller in heavy conditions and determine whether you can manage it for any length of time or are modifications required?

 Invest in "Unlimited" Tow coverage

Like most cruisers, we pride ourselves on our self-sufficiency. In a pinch, another friendly cruiser is usually all it takes to keep us going. This time it was different and we are thankful that the Coast Guard, and US Navy was there for us. The tug and fishing boat answered our call gave assurance that we weren’t alone out there and “unlimited” Towboat US coverage proved to be one of our best-ever investments. TowBoat Captain Randi Olsen was most helpful, offering us the loan of his car and returning the 4 x 4’s and C-clamps to the CG.  In Jacksonville; St John’s Boat Company, Jim Hendrick of MCS Marine and Liddy’s Machine shop all worked together in the design and manufacture of 2 new steering arms. The steering system today is better than the day it was built and she is none the worse for the experience. It was not one person but the collective efforts of many who made a happy ending to this saga.


When I was packing for the trip, I looked at my camera and thought “all I’m going to see is wide-open ocean”, so I left it behind.  I would love to have a photo of War Ship 79 standing by, Coast Guard Cutter Kingfisher and her awesome jet boat, all the folks who lent their assistance but most of all – photos of the evolution of the Emergency Tiller.  I’m sorry the Navy’s tiller didn’t last.  If it had, I would have painted it gold & written US Navy War Ship 79’ on the handle for the boat’s owners.  After all, it isn’t every day you get a custom-built part from a United States war ship!

 photo courtesy of the US NAVY Warship 79 facebook page

Over the years as live-aboards on our sailboat we’ve collected countless stories in our logbook. You may have read some of them in sailing magazines over the years. We are working hard to bring them to you on our blog “Pearls from our Ships Log.” More than stories, you can find hard earned tips and advice. We are happy to answer any questions you might have about cruising along the Eastern seaboard. Leave us a comment or email us from our contact link!

Fair winds, Maeve & Bradd (or Mad & Brave!) Wilson.

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