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Steering The Boat

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For want of a nut, the steering was lost.

Cape Mudge is at the northwest end of the Straits of Georgia, between Vancouver Island and the mainland of Canada. There is plenty of fetch to the southeast that will set up lumpy sea conditions when a moderate wind blows from that direction. I know. I was there in those conditions just last summer.
Two friends, Larry and Mark, were helping me move my Krogen 42 from Seattle to Campbell River, British Columbia. We had done three 10-hour days so far. I wanted to treat my crew to one night in a truly pristine setting, so rather than going directly to Campbell River, we detoured east. We spent the night anchored at Prideaux Haven in Desolation Sound Marine Park.

We were in no hurry to leave one of the best cruising grounds in North America so we made a late start the next day and stopped at Refuge Cove to look around. It is a marina and store in a co-op community of 18 residents. They operate a restaurant, the gas dock, and art gallery—very quaint. By the time we left for Campbell River, the wind had kicked up a notch.
When the boat pulled around the last islands and into the open Straits of Georgia, the chop rolled us around a bit. A displacement hull with no stabilizers still gave us an acceptable ride. All was going as planned until the autopilot alarm went off. There are all sorts of electronic beeps on my boat: microwave is done cooking, the diesel heater faulted and shut down, we have arrived at a waypoint on our route, there is a message on my phone I have not seen yet. But the autopilot alarm is distinctive and hardly ever sounds, and so I perked right up on hearing it.

The autopilot was saying, “Hey, boat, if you don’t do what I ask you to, I quit and I am telling the skipper because he needs to know.” Larry was at the helm and reported that the wheel would not turn. Mark and I went back to the lazarette and looked down to see that the hydraulic steering ram was not connected to the tiller. The bolt that should have been connecting those two parts was jammed between the parts, preventing any movement.
I put the emergency tiller on the rudder post and yelled up to the pilothouse asking which way I should turn. I followed helmsman Larry’s instructions while Mark found the nut that had dropped into the bottom of the lazarette. Once we were on a good heading I had Larry turn the wheel to line up the piston’s ram with the boat’s tiller arm and then Mark put the bolt back in place. I was watching outside while steering from the aft end of the boat and wondered why we were headed back from whence we came (not as important as regaining heading control, which we had done).
I stowed the emergency tiller, went back up to the pilothouse, and breathed a sigh of relief. Larry had seen that we were heading for Willoughby Shoal off Cape Mudge and had been steering the boat back into deeper water. I was glad he was paying attention.
The rest of the day was anticlimactic. The tide was flooding southeast down Discovery Passage and producing a 5-knot current against us, but we found a back eddy on the east side that allowed the boat to move along to Discovery Marina where Larry brought the ship safely into our assigned slip.

What went wrong? Much of the “after action” discussion had to do with that very subject. The nut used to secure the bolt that attaches the hydraulic piston ram to the rudder’s tiller arm was loose; it fell off, and the bolt fell out. It should have been a nylock nut on top of a primary nut. It is now.
When thinking about what is important about a boat it is easy to see that she has to float, has to move forward, and has to go where you want it to go. Steering is as important as hull integrity and engine reliability. Hydraulic steering systems need periodic attention. To move the rudder, you turn the wheel (which is just a hydraulic pump). It pressurizes one side of a steering ram that forces the rudder to turn the boat. If the fluid is low (or if air enters the system), the pump won’t work and the rudder will not move. It is important to keep fluid at the proper level. The hydraulic lines are easy to trace and check for leaks. This can be done during routine checks of the rest of the mechanical systems. Remember to check the mechanical linkages and connections, like that bolt and nut that hold the hydraulic cylinder ram to the tiller arm and the rudder.
Finally, do you have an emergency tiller? Where is it? I hope it is close at hand and I hope you never have to use it. If you’ve never tested it, do so at your earliest opportunity.