Oyster Bay, New York: At approximately 3:30am Saturday June 16th, my phone rang and I was instantly awake, heart pounding noting that the call was coming from a satellite phone. Jeff MacFarlane who was racing the Oakcliff Ker 11.3 double handed with co-skipper Mike Tolsma was on the other end telling me that they thought the rudder had broken. My reaction was instant and not printable and then we started discussing the situation. In this day and age of cell and satellite phones and 911 I think their initial reaction was ‘HELP’ can someone come and get us!?. Unfortunately I have had too much experience sailing without a rudder but at this moment it helped. We talked through the options and acknowledged that having a fishing boat or the coast guard come out and tow them over 100 miles in 20 plus knots and heavy seas was a last resort and would most likely result in major damage to the boat.
The system of steering with a spinnaker pole and a floorboard, in my opinion is a myth that we have been telling race inspectors for 20 years and it doesn’t work. Jeff and Mike who were in the situation agreed fully. The challenges of attaching a floor board to the pole, then securing the middle of the pole to a pivot point at the back of the boat and then devising a system of actually turning the ‘rudder’ is hard enough – but how the heck do you keep the ‘business end’ of the pole in the water when you are wallowing in 3 meter seas? It just doesn’t happen.
This left our pre-race emergency systems plan of sailing with the sails and a drogue. Just after the rudder failed they took the A5 and mainsail down. This was not an easy task when the wind was pushing them sideways at 3-4 knots and it took them nearly an hour to do so. Now it was a matter of figuring out what the right combinations were. They relayed their position, the wind speed and direction as well as sea state and drift. After that, I think my exact words were: “Jeff I NEED you to try to do your best to sail towards land“ and it was over to them to experiment with this boat.
Seconds after I hung up with them the coast guard called. Jeff later explained that he really didn’t want to call in the middle of the night but that he knew once the coast guard and race office had been given a report of the boat with a broken rudder that they were going to call anyway. He was right. For some reason the Coast Guard was having a tough time connecting to the satellite phone so we set up a system of them calling me when they couldn’t get through, I’d call and get the critical information and call them back with a report such as: Oakcliff Sailing, their position is 40 52.469’N and 071 16.054 W they are currently making 3-4 knots at 340 heading just north of Block Island to allow for sea room, all is well on board.”
Meanwhile onboard the sun had come up and Jeff and Mike were able to look under the hull and confirmed that indeed the rudder was gone and there was absolutely nothing left below the hull. The disappointment of having to drop out of the race that they were clearly winning wouldn’t sink in until much later as they had to focus and tweak and experiment with the sails and the drogue as well as the engine to find the best combinations. In the end the system that worked for this boat in these conditions was to fly the storm sails, which are quite balanced in size and then use a drogue fixed to a point on a bridle. The bridle would then be ‘trimmed’ more to one side of the boat or the other using the mainsheet winches. This worked much like a paddle in a canoe, turning the boat towards the side with the resistance. As is often the case it is easier to steer with speed so using the engine gave more steerage.
They were also buoyed by the many many supportive communications they received from other boats in the race checking in to make sure they were OK and ask if there was anything that they could do. Again, with all of the technology available often your fellow competitor is your nearest assist, in this case it was for morale support.
As Jeff and Mike made progress and became more comfortable with the situation, the communication sked with the Coast Guard was increased from 30 minutes to one hour to two hour intervals. And as my relays started giving better and better news, such as, they are making 5-6 knots towards Montauk and we have a rescue boat on stand by the duty officers at the Coast Guard Group Woods Hole started asking questions, like “how are they doing this without a rudder”. They continued to maintain their very formal decorum calling me Ms. Riley and Ma’am but Oakcliff Sailing and the seamanship being exhibited by Mike and Jeff was certainly becoming ‘the’ topic of the day at the station.
Onboard Jeff and Mike’s communications became both more lively and more garbled. On one hand they were talking about getting T-shirts made proclaiming themselves “Master Bucket Trimmers” referring to their prowess of steering with a drogue, aka ‘the bucket’. They also were getting tired and with very little sleep their communications were at times nonsensical and I’d have to have them repeat the lat long a few times to get the correct numbers and then would ask a few questions and make sure that they were still both OK and were getting some cat naps in as it would be critical as they got closer to the hard things known as islands.
Almost every time I spoke to them they were in good spirits and rising to the challenge. As the sun set the ‘rescue team’ of Donn and Bruce Constanzo of Wooden Boat Works, Oakcliff’s Classic expert Mike Smith and Greenport legend Pat Mundas went into stand-by mode. The support continued as people followed their progress on Facebook. The crew of Encore who were anchored in Montauk made contact via VHF and reported back through Facebook that all was good on board.
Just after midnight the Greenport team headed out to meet up with the Ker. By this time they had managed to sail themselves into calmer waters. The tow lines were hooked up and at 4:20am I received a text to let me know that the boat was safely at the dock. Relief!
In the end of the day Jeff and Mike were very disappointing to have to pull out of a race that they were clearly winning but they also have both commented that this was an incredible experience, one that not too many people have and that they now consider themselves some of the fastest ‘bucket steering’ sailors on the high-seas. We are very proud of their efforts, seamanship and maturity.