It’s the things you don’t check that’ll get you, as Annie Dike found when her boat’s rudder post came loose
The rigmarole of stretching a cover over a dinghy in choppy water prior to hoisting it on davits can become a very wet business if you’re not careful. Leaning right over either end, trying to stretch a cover over the bow and stern pods can quite easily result in a head-first dip in the drink. Believe me, I know from experience.
My schooner’s dinghy is a 10ft RIB, so at least it has a solid floor to scramble about in. Soft bottoms are not as stable, so the chance of slipping overboard is greater.
To fit the dinghy cover I first had to lean perilously over the stern to fit it over each rear pod. This was a comparatively easy operation compared to the bow, because the cover was loose. Even then, just one rogue wake from a passing motorboat—it’s always a passing motorboat, isn’t it—and I had to hold on for dear life to prevent myself slipping headfirst over the stern.
I would then maneuver the cover to the bow, keeping tension on it to prevent it washing off the stern pods and I would have to start all over again. The cover then had to be stretched over the bow by leaning right over to hook it as far underneath as possible. The problem all the time was that I was getting in the way of the cover myself. With the cover finally hooked over both ends I then had to grab the hoisting lines hanging from the davits and pass them through the front and rear grommet holes in the cover and hook them to the wire strops on the dinghy.
I then had to scramble out from under the cover to climb up the stern boarding ladder. If the water was choppy this operation was exhausting, and every time I performed this balancing act, and especially after falling in—twice—I swore there had to be a better way. At least it was then an effortless job to hoist the dinghy to the top of the davits using my home-made electric winch, which pulled it up in about 20 seconds.
I considered cutting the cover in half to make separate bow and stern sections, then zipping them together when both ends were in position. But trying to attach two halves of a zip is difficult enough on land for my old hands, never mind in a lurching dinghy with wet fingers. Still, thinking about zips set me on the right path.
I had our local canvas man sew two zips 4ft 6in inches apart from one side of the cover to
the middle, which gave me a sizable “flap” in the middle of the cover.
With the flap open the cover easily stretches on both ends of the dinghy because I’m no longer in the way, and I can sit comfortably on the seat to effortlessly connect the davit hoists. I can then easily climb up the stern ladder and hoist the dinghy. It is then a simple matter of simply zipping up the flap—job done!
As an additional thought, I had small loops fitted on the ends of the zips and on the other side of the cover. I also tied lengths of thin blue cord to the outboard loops, so when the dinghy is on the davits I can hook the dangling cords with a boat-hook and thread the ends thought the loops in the zip. Pulling the cords tight holds both sides down and stops the middle of the cover from blowing about in a wind.
When we need to stow fenders or mooring lines in the dinghy, it is also now an easy matter to just unzip the flap, stuff all the fenders in, then zip it up again.
This is a marvelous modification, well worth the $75 I paid to have two zips fitted to the cover.
Finally, looking at the pictures accompanying this article, you may think, “Why has he got a flap on both sides of the cover?” This is a fair observation, and the answer is: because the canvas man stitched the first set of zips on the wrong side of the cover, so I took it back and him do it again. I therefore got two flaps for the price of one!
That said, I have never used the outboard flap, although I suppose when the plastic zips eventually perish in the hot Florida sun, as they surely will, I can just turn the dinghy round and use the other flap. After all, on boats it’s always good to have a backup, isn’t it? s
Can you list the things you never want to see on a boat? A fire, perhaps? Windows shattering from lightning, water spewing from…anywhere? I can now add one more to my list: movement in the rudder post. On Day 3 of a five-day passage from Pensacola, Florida, to Cuba on our 1985 Niagara 35, my partner, Phillip, and I discovered our rudder post was moving athwartships— about a half-inch to port and starboard as the boat careened across the Gulf. Why? How? You might be asking. Because our boat was not adequately built up at this high-pressure point. Did we know this before we shoved off ? Sort of. It turned out to be a combination of a poor design, some hidden sloppy work (a “Friday afternoon job”) and a little irresponsible boat ownership on our part that forced us to haulout, drop the rudder and install some reinforcement.
Why do we sometimes put off these im- portant jobs? Before heading offshore you check the rigging, the sails, even the keel if you’re hauled out. Still, we sometimes think to ourselves: “I should really rebuild that furling drum” or “Maybe I should check that rudder bearing.” But then you don’t. And then you’re offshore, and it’s too late. One of the main reasons, I think, is because we’re afraid of what other problems we might find when we get in there: a bad design or sloppy repair that may have been causing hidden leaking or some other kind of damage over the years. But then again, isn’t that the very reason to get in there?
Now, having dropped, disassembled and redesigned our rudder post assembly, where I once saw only a magical system that somehow steered the boat, I now know how all of the components work, how to check and adjust them and how to grease the ones I didn’t know needed greasing. We’ve also gained a much better general understanding of our rudder system that will help Phillip and I inspect and maintain its integrity going forward. Did we also uncover some other problems while we were in there? Of course! Cue the B.O.A.T. reel!
PROBLEM NO. 1: A Bad Design for the Rudder Bearing
While most of the systems on the Niagara 35 are overbuilt and well designed, for whatever reason, the rudder post bearing is simply not. Despite the thousands of pounds of force on the rudder being magnified at the fulcrum where the post comes up through a bearing in the cockpit floor, the only thing holding it in place are three ¼in bolts. Now, with an additional two nuts on each (our upside-down-in-thelazarette fix on the way to Cuba), they were visibly smashing the ½in fiberglass floor, making an already weak joint even weaker. It is simply not a strong design. Did we know this? Kind of. When we were hauled out two years prior, Phillip and I had jacked our rudder up and rebedded the bearing after we noticed it had been leaking. As we were doing so, Phillip (as the rudder assembly was still a magic mystery to me then) also noticed it seemed like a weak design—three rather small bolts through a mere half-inch of fiberglass to handle the magnitude of the extreme force from the rudder.
The thought—we should really research that—came to mind, but we didn’t do it. Had we, we would have discovered many other owners were similarly disappointed with this rudder bearing design and were taking steps to reinforce it. One Niagara owner, for example, after seeing the same frightening movement in his rudder post during a sail across the Atlantic to the Azores, installed a large, solid plate on top of the cockpit floor to help spread and share the immense load on the rudder post bearing.
With this idea in mind, Phillip therefore had a solid 8in-by-8in stainless steel plate machined to support and reinforce it underneath the cockpit floor. While we talked at length about making it in two pieces that would fit around the rudder post, we wanted as much integrity as possible, so we decided on one solid piece that we would have to drop the rudder to install. It proved to be the right decision, since it was during our rudder drop we also uncovered several problems that were turned into powerful redesigns with the help of Brandon and his hardworking team at Perdido Sailor in the Pensacola Shipyard.
PROBLEM NO. 2: A Won’t-Budge Bolt in the Steering Quadrant
The Perdido Sailor guys whacked. They tugged. They cursed. They applied heat, an impact driver, more heat, more cursing. The thing would not budge. While the other three bolts that had secured our quadrant around the rudder post for 30-plus years had finally let go after the sixth round of hot hate words, the fourth and final bolt would not give up the ghost. Thirty years, aluminum next to stainless steel will do that. Did they have Tef-Gel in the 1980s? I’ll be honest, I don’t know. But that bolt was laughing at us. The Perdido Sailor guys eventually had to cut the head off, hammer the quadrant apart, drill the stubborn bolt out, then drill four new, larger holes to house four larger, sturdier bolts— this time slathered in Tef-Gel!—to re-mount the quadrant to the post. Alas, with the quadrant off, and the rudder out, we also found yet another problem. It was at this moment, Brandon introduced me to the “Friday afternoon job” idea.
PROBLEM NO. 3: A Wonky Rudder Hole
In fact, it’s a common saying at the yard. Any sloppy work they find in the manufacture process, they chalk up to a sloppy shipbuilder doing a piss-poor job on his way to the weekend.
Sorry Hinterhoeller, but the hole your Friday afternoon guy cut in our cockpit floor for the rudder post can only be described as wonky. “It’s not even symmetrical,” Brandon noted, so much so that the gap this hole allowed around our rudder post was definitely contributing to the athwartship movement we were seeing. Fortunately, even though this was an alreadycut hole that could not be cut again, Brandon had a solution. Bolt the rudder post bearing in upside-down, Six-10 the gap, and then pop it out before the Six-10 was fully cured to create a perfect, flush fit for the rudder post. Now, “all the components work as a system,” as Brandon explained, to hold the rudder post firmly in place.
Again, while it was a pretty extensive project, the knowledge Phillip and I gained from disassembling, redesigning and reassembling our entire rudder and steering system will definitely give us more peace of mind as we sail our boat south to the Caribbean this coming season. As for our fellow sailors, I hope adding the entirety of the rudder and steering system to your “I really should check that” list before heading offshore will help save some of you a costly problem like this. Knowing how the many different systems on your boat operate is half the battle. Inspecting them and beating a failure to the punch is equally important, all the more so since it’s very likely something will still go haywire at some point, and you’ll have to fix it. Probably on a Friday afternoon. s Annie Dike and her partner, Phillip, cruise Florida, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean on their 1985 Niagara 35 and will complete their first Atlantic Circle this year. Annie is an author, speaker, blogger and filmmaker at havewindwilltravel.com
The covered dinghy now has two zippered “windows” that allow easy access
Getting the cover on was inevitably a balancing act
The bow of the dinghy was especially hard to reach; attaching the bridle to the davits was also a challenge
With the zipper flap it’s possible to stand in the boat while putting the cover on
Brandon (left) and Phillip re-install the rudder toward the end of the project
The inadequate reinforcing in the cockpit sole around the rudder bearing was plain to see
The problem came to light at sea, of course, forcing the author and Phillip to search for a solution
The hole for the rudder bearing was oversized, so the bearing was bolted in upside down and the gap around it filled with Six-10 epoxy resin
One bolt securing the quadrant had to be ground off
A stainless plate was machined to strengthen the area around the rudder stick and prevent further movement
(From left) The bearing was removed before the epoxy cured: note how big the gap was; the completed repair, with the stainless steel plate bolted in place—there will be no more movement from that rudderpost!