Posted by: Helena Smalman-Smith | January 9, 2012

Day 36: New rudder, new week, new term

Good morning to all of our wonderful families and other supporters

We are posting this blog this morning – an unusual time – because we have realised that details of our rudder problem have been released to the media without our (and possibly without the race organisers’) consent, and as we don’t know the detail of what has been released (we believe in the Sunday Telegraph), we are anxious that our nearest and dearest know the exact situation, and not a part of it.

As it happens, we would have blogged all of this today anyway, as the problem has now been fixed (as reported in brief by Land Team Lisa in a blog last night which we phoned through to her as we didn’t have an opportunity to get all the laptop and wiring out to do a blog ourselves (it is not simple setting it all up).

OK, here’s the summary – Our rudder sheared off at the water line on the night of 29 December, and has now been replaced by another one with the help of the wonderful people on the event support yacht Aurora. As we have received outside assistance, we are therefore disqualified from the race, but we don’t mind this at all as we were only ever interested in “crossing” rather than racing, and were pretty much bound to be last anyway (only mixed double etc). However, if we can get to the other side we will still be in the official records as having rowed an ocean.

And here is the detailed version:
Our rudder was extremely sturdy – 1″ thick, multi-layered marine ply, with massive brass (we think) fittings that attached it to other massive brass fittings on the boat. We were aware that it probably wasn’t of the most efficient or aquadynamic design, but it sure was strong, and that was a quality that was more important to us for the type of crossing we were planning (i.e. not going for any records).

So how come it broke, then? After due contemplation, this is what we think caused it. We haven’t been rowing at night – it’s been v.rough, and there hasn’t often been a moon, to show where the waves come from. And frankly we wanted to choose how we did our own shifts rather than stick to the “2 on, 2 off” classic pattern which is generally accepted, perhaps with variations, to be the fastest way to cross (but remember that we didn’t really care about speed).

But in the rough weather, to keep the boat pointing in the right direction at night, we have been using a drogue. This is a long rope that goes out the back of the boat, which has a small cone on the end that grips the water. These have traditionally been used by yachts when the conditions are very fast from behind, and even running under bare poles or a storm job, they feel they are going so fast that they were at risk of pitchpoling which is when the bows dig down in a trough and the stern comes up over the bow. The conditions we were having were nothing like that bad, but the idea of a drogue for us would be to keep the boat pointing the right way instead of broaching/lying a hull/lying parallel with the waves coming from the East.

As an aside, there aren’t many case studies around the use of drogues by ocean rowing boats. This is possibly because the conditions this year are unusually strong (even the race organiser says so) and consistently from the East. Usually the race finishes up with adverse winds from the West leading to people using parachute anchors, but they’re quite a different beast.

So what we discovered to our disappointment is that the drogue didn’t really work like the theory said it should – possibly we weren’t using a large enough drogue (larger cone). What happened is that even with the drogue out, the boat still wanted to lie a hull, though she did it at a slightly better angle than if she had had no drogue – without one at all, and with wind/waves coming directly from the east, she would finish up pointing south (180 degrees). But with a drogue, she would sit at about 210 degrees. But she should have been at 270.

The reason this was happening was that the pressure of the wind on the stern cabin (which is much larger than the bow storage cabin) was greater than the restraining pull of the drogue on the stern – the 2 forces met an equilibrium at about 210 degrees.

However, with her sitting like that, the drogue rope (attached to a bridle from the transom) was sticking out the back at an angle of about 120 degrees, instead of lying straight astern. And with the big swells, the boat would bounce up and down, and despite the fact that our rudder extended below the boat for at least 2 feet, it would sometimes manage to bounce up and over the drogue rope. Once this had happened, the pull of the drogue rope was on the rudder itself, at the exact point of the bottom fixing to the boat, instead of being spread over the 2 bridle attachments (which have massive backing plates) higher up the transom.

The bottom fixing on the boat was a gudgeon pin, at least the size of H’s little finger, and it was this that actually sheared, we think from repeated tugging at that point by the drogue wrapped round the rudder there. Once this had sheared, there was just too much of our particularly long rudder that was unsupported by any fixings, and the rudder itself then sheared immediately below the next lowest fixing which was actually at the water line.

So, in summary, and bearing in mind that rudder had already done 1 crossing perfectly, we feel that it was our usage of an insufficiently large drogue given the particular design of our rudder and fixings which caused it to break. And given we’d had several nights of drogue wraps, we could have thought of this but didn’t. But who would ever have thought that an overly small drogue could cause such problems – hopefully this experience will be a useful addition to the corpus of knowledge on managing an ocean rowing boat.

What Aurora did to fix this was to take a rudder off another boat which had been abandoned because of totally different technical problems (Go Commando – Land Ed), and bring it to us. Graham Walters, who has rowed the Atlantic 3 times, once in the historic boat Puffin, and is also a professional carpenter, was on Aurora and did a fabulous job (helped by crew member Chris) of re-jigging attachments on that new rudder and our boat to get them to work together. It’s a much smaller rudder, but is working fine in the conditions we now have which are virtually the nicest of the trip so far!

However, with the wind now having dropped a lot, you may not see that our progress is much faster than it was when we were rowing with a small drogue out the back last week to keep the boat at 210 degrees (R could sometimes pull it round to 230, but H couldn’t) when we still had quite strong winds. But the plus side is that we can now go in a direction of our choice, which means we can make use of what wind there is – last week, we were almost side on, and obviously the boat doesn’t go as fast sideways as she does if pushed in the direction she’s designed to! And the wind is forecast to pick up in about 4 days’ time.

I believe that some footage of Graham working on our boat will appear on the Talisker site in a couple of days. (Hannah from Talisker – please go ahead).

This blog is now becoming rather long, but we need to add a couple more points:

First, apologies to any of our parents, family and friends, who feel that we should have been telling you all every detail of this as we went along. We decided not to do this, as you would inevitably not really be in possession of all the facts – conditions, how our fittings work, what tools we have, etc etc. Also, we were at no time in any danger whatsoever.

We wanted to do a clean release of info once all was fixed (or not – if Aurora hadn’t been able to get us that spare rudder, there would have been a serious chance that the voyage would have been over because although at the moment it was fine ambling in a slightly wavering direction that was roughly south west, there would come a time when we’d need to do more detailed navigating than that and we wouldn’t have been able to). And we didn’t want the whole thing sensationalised. Because we’re doing the crossing as part of an event with a support yacht, it just wasn’t a big drama.

Second, a point re the timing of blog posting: At least one of our lovely supporters was concerned on Sunday that a blog had not yet appeared that day from us. Please don’t infer anything from lack of a blog at a particular time! We generally try to blog in the evenings, but depending on the conditions and what shifts we’re therefore rowing the time can vary. It makes our lives easier if we can have flexibility on this without fearing that you will all start worrying frantically if nothing has been posted by 7.30pm. And incidentally, if we don’t post the blog ourselves (and it’s quite a lot of hassle to get all the laptop, phone, wires etc set up, also having ensured the laptop is charged enough) what we do is ring some info for blogging through to Land Team Lisa, however, quite reasonably she may not always be right in front of a computer at that time so it can take a couple of hours for her to get the info up. Thanks.

And finally, for the avoidance of worry, having spent so long on the computer now, there will not be a blog this evening – next one will be Tuesday evening.

Had better go and row now – Patience are catching up fast now they have blades again!


  1. So pleased to see Didi is back in full working order! Just watched the video of the repair on the main website. Full steam ahead now! First day back at KGS tomorrow for me. You’re both just brilliant. Keep at it and you’ll soon be in Barbados! As Helena said you can still realise your dream!GO DIDI!!!!!

  2. Brilliant description, tho’ some of the technical points eluded me. Keep right on rowing AND steering, & may the weather cooperate! Sheilax

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