We slowly lowered the broken stock out of its tube, and Guillaume retrieved it from the water. Once we had the stock on deck, we lashed the plywood locker doors around the steel bar as securely as we could to make the new rudder.
Then came the hard part: reinserting the rudderstock back into its tube from the water. We attached a line to pull and guide the stock into place from the cockpit. The buoyant rudder floated, so we attached weights to sink it just enough for Guillaume, in the water, to line it up with the entrance of the rudder tube.
It was incredibly nerve-racking to watch Guillaume diving under the stern of boat, but he did the job unscathed. With our newly fabricated rudder in place, three reefs in the main, and a small amount of headsail out, we were able to turn downwind with enough steerage to allow us to set a course again for the Marquesas.
Unfortunately, it wasn't long before our new rudder broke away. And because we hadn't tied a safety line to it, we lost it, too. The good news was that we'd managed to sail 60 miles in the right direction. The bad news was that we still had a long way to go and were, once again, adrift.
Now we needed another rudder and a replacement stock. Unfortunately, we were all out of locker doors, so we were left scanning the boat for another usable wooden surface. How about the teak and holly floorboards? As for the new stock, we used the second spinnaker pole. Luckily, it was almost the right diameter to fit into the rudder tube; it was just a hair too small. The plastic tubes that held our paper charts turned out to be exactly the right size to fit over the spinnaker pole and fill the gap perfectly. We strengthened the thin aluminum pole by filling it with strips of wood and steel and packed out the remaining air spaces with anything we had-even rice from the galley-in hopes of making our new stock as solid as possible.
We waited until the sea was at its calmest the next day for Guillaume to go into the water and slide the new rudder and stock back in place. Then we attached the original tiller and were ready to go. The big question: Would it hold?
The first few minutes at the helm felt like hours. We felt the force of each wave on our dangerously fragile structure, and we knew that if this attempt failed, we could be in real trouble. With the waves far too big to set the self-steering, we hand steered in shifts. We still had hundreds of miles to go, but we were finally moving in the right direction. Steering required intense concentration to minimize the force on the rudder as we surfed down the waves, but nervous adrenaline-and knowing that one mistake would leave us adrift-kept us going. Over the next six days, we encountered up to 35 knots of wind. We trailed a light anchor and some thick ropes to help control the boat and to take some pressure off the rudder. Still, we did 8 knots at times. We were definitely making progress toward Nuku Hiva, in the Marquesas. Fatigue set in, and while we experienced huge emotional ups and downs, we continued to work together. Knowing that we weren't totally alone-we had radio and email contact with the local authorities on land and with other boats-lifted our spirits, but we felt that we had to solve the problem ourselves. And that's what makes offshore sailing so satisfying. We faced a serious challenge and overcame multiple setbacks, but thanks to our rice-packed rudderstock and our cockpit-sole rudder, we sailed ourselves safely to Nuku Hiva in six days.
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The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons(r), or your state boating agency's Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to "Boat Responsibly!" For more tips on boating safety, visit www.uscgboating.org.