Suddenly without steering in the Caribbean Sea

16 Feb

Jamie at the helm sailing by yacht M5

Losing steerage is stressful at the best of times. Losing it when hand-steering gnarly seas that threaten to broach the inattentive sailor, on day one of a four-day sail between countries where the sea state is likely to be worse before it’s better? Hectic! Here’s what happened when steering failed on our recent passage from Colombia to Panama.

The event

Motoring out of the protection in Santa Marta bay (with a small deviation from course to rubberneck the 185’ yacht, M5, pictured above), we quickly entered more boisterous conditions outside the protection of the bay. Steep waves were better managed with hand steering; Jamie worked the helm.  Just a few hours out of Santa Marta, Colombia, Totem lurched after a loud bang from the guts of the boat. “We have no steerage!” Jamie called out from the cockpit, instantly in motion.

He dove for the autopilot controls at the companionway: guessing, correctly, that the autopilot would still drive the rudder. Sure enough, it worked and Totem was under control again.

Braced in the nav station, I called to Utopia II over the VHF to let them know our situation. They were just a few miles away—we expected to remain in proximity to them for the duration, and knowing they would be nearby to render aid if necessary was comforting.

Niall worked the autopilot while Jamie set up our emergency tiller. Being ready for the next level of events can mean the difference between difficulty and crisis. Our concern was that heavy seas would overwork our old Raymarine and cause the autopilot to fail. It happened before: four years ago this month, we lost the autopilot, then the eye-bolt that secures steering cable to quadrant broke, THEN the engine overheated- trifecta!

The focus: limiting this event to a single problem. Driving Totem with the emergency tiller is hard work in calm conditions. With our bigger rudder, as Jamie says—using the tiller is like steering a loaded dump-truck without a wheel!

February 2014: steering with the emergency tiller in Thailand

The cause

With Totem under autopilot control, Jamie started troubleshooting. He began at the quadrant. Eye bolts and cable looked fine. Then followed the steering cable forward until it turns on a sheave upward to the binnacle. Bingo! One cable did not look like the other.

The cause was the weakest link, literally. The steering system is comprised of a length of chain that meshes with the sprocket fixed to the steering wheel. Each chain end has a link that secures to the swaged eye at the end of the steering cable. This last link is different than the others. It has a sir clip that allows the link to open to lock the swage eye in place. The link broke under that sir clip, due to stainless steel crevice corrosion. Jamie inspected the system just a year ago (with 7x magnifying glass), but as is often the case with stainless steel, you cannot see all of the surfaces where a sign of pending doom may lurk.

broken chain link

The weakest link

The fix

Conditions were tough: square-faced breaking seas of 3 to 5 meters. These were the steepest wave we’ve experienced. Using the autopilot with constant adjustments kept us well in control. We touched 13.2 knots a couple times without any dramas, but always ready to jump to the emergency tiller.

After 60 miles in those waves and wind from 25 to 40 knots, we anchored that evening at Puerto Velero, just west of Barranquilla. Nice relief to be in safe harbor, but the day was not over. With the miles and conditions ahead of us, we wanted steering back on line. Earlier in the day, while calling out “plus ten, now go minus ten” to help Niall work the autopilot for steering the waves, Jamie thought through possible solutions. We have spare steering cables, but no spare chain. The solution was one of his favorite materials – DYNEEMA!

Working on repairs by headlamp-light, he removed chain and cables. Then spliced 6mm single-braid Dyneema to the last chain pin to run in place of the wire cable. By 10 that night, the linkage was reinstalled and adjusted. There is chance the quadrant or sheaves may chafe the Dyneema; or the chain pin with Dyneema around it may distort or break. We’re monitoring it and is all good, three weeks and 326 nautical miles so far.

Splicing by headlamp-light

The evening was interrupted by a visit from Maritime Police, an event I’d sooner put in hindsight (details, this post). Happy to leave the harbor the next morning, we motored out behind the Aussie cat, Aseka, in the mellow light of dawn and continued to Panama.


  1. Jodie Abbott

    James – my constructive comment (This failure seems so preventable with proper maintenance.) was not based out of “ignorance”; but based on information contained in your story – “inspected the system just a year ago”. Sailing gurus, authors, and many manufactures of this type of steering system, advocate more frequent inspections (annually is not sufficient) and accelerated component replacements especially for heavy sailed cruising boats in tropical environments. Bare minimum inspection recommendations is annually; so by your own admission of inspecting it “just a year ago”, leads one to assume it was “due” or “overdue” the bare minimum inspection at the time frame of failure. The picture with the broken chain links also reveals a chain in need of cleaning due the amount of black grim and grunge on it. Crevice corrosion does not happen overnight.

    An honest assessment of the root cause of this failure should result in a change in behavior/practices so as to reduce the likelihood of a repeat – that thought process hopefully should result in a positive change to preventative maintenance practices.

    As to the inclusion of the quote from Don Casey, I feel it reasonably describes what will happen and accurately highlights the root cause.

    Maybe a better way to phrase this conversation: What would you have done differently today, to reduce the chances of this failure occurring?

  2. James Gifford

    Jodie – since you know nothing of our boat maintenance, your comment is really ignorant.

    We’ve done 55,860 miles (as of today) on an old boat with 3 kids and very few problems. We did have engine overheat issues caused by a diesel mechanic’s mistake during “preventative maintenance”. We had watermaker problems just after it was serviced by a Spectra dealer doing “preventative maintenance”. And we did have a prior steering failure cause by a poorly designed part. Like many cruisers, we spend a lot of time inspecting, maintaining, and replacing gear as required. This doesn’t eliminate problems, it reduces the likelihood of them.

  3. Jodie Abbott

    This failure seems so preventable with proper maintenance. As Don Casey summarized, “Unlike a geared steering mechanism, a chain-and-wire system will not tolerate indifferent maintenance, and if it’s not properly maintained, it will fail suddenly and completely. The only thing you won’t know is when that will happen. (

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