What’s wrong with spade rudders?

By Dick Durham

With around 1,900 exhibitors from over 70 nations the Düsseldorf International Boat Show is considered to set the benchmark for the yachting industry and is billed as the biggest show of its kind in the world. And yet as the 2020 edition came to a close and organizers claimed visitor numbers of 250,000, it was impossible not to ask: ‘Have they all been well served?’

Checking over the list of cruising boats, which included Amel, Contest, Hallberg Rassy, Oyster, Najad, Jeanneau, Beneteau, Bavaria, Hanse and all others, it came as a surprise to realize not one of them now builds a model with a fully supported, skeg-hung rudder. Every single hull is now fitted with either twin or single spade rudders.

And yet any random scrutiny of cruising forums throws up no end of examples of ocean voyages that have come to grief through steering failure and of those the majority are from the loss of spade rudders. Don Casey, a technical journalist with the leading US yachting magazine SAIL, says: ‘Before you shrug off rudder failure as a remote concern consider that the incidence of mid-ocean failures is close to one per cent.’

With 250 plus boats entering the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) each year, to name just one of scores of such global events, any percentage is too close for comfort.

‘A rudder stock should not be so strong that it prizes open the bottom of a boat rather than bending in a collision or grounding. This makes spade rudders on lightly built boats unavoidably more vulnerable to a bent stock,’ said Don.

‘A bent metal stock can result in a rudder being jammed off-centre which will thwart any efforts to steer a boat with sails, drogues, a jury rudder or towing lines.’

The spade rudder is vulnerable to failing through corrosion, grounding or impact with dense ocean objects including whales, containers, and lumber.


One case highlighted in detail is that of Megawat, a Hanse 371, a Category A, ocean-going yacht, on passage from Dublin to Scotland in 25 knots of wind and a 1.5m swell. Her rudder snapped off while surfing down a wave. Helmsman Brian McDowell said: ‘There was a loud bang like a pistol shot, the wheel went limp and the boat rounded up sharply.’

She sank within 40 minutes and the crew were taken off by another yacht.

The Marine Casualty Investigation Board (MCIB), the Irish maritime investigation bureau found that: ‘Due to the catastrophic failure of the rudder stock and deluge of water the electric bilge pump and manual bilge pumps had insufficient capacity to control the flooding of the craft.’

One of the MCIB’s conclusions was that the rudder stock of the four-year-old boat was suffering from corrosion.


Leading UK boat-builder and classic yacht restorer, John Buckley of Southwold-based Harbour Marine Services told Kraken News that spade rudder failure was a growing problem.

John, who has made five crossings of Biscay and a trans-Atlantic in a Victoria 34, a boat with an encapsulated keel and skeg-hung rudder and who has worked in the marine industry for 33 years, said: ‘ It was never a problem when I first started because yachts didn’t suffer damage to their rudders, they were too strong.’

Last season alone John repaired damaged spade rudders to a Bavaria 34, a Southerly 135 and two Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 34s. ‘In all cases the damage was caused by grounding,’ he said. 

Ocean Hazards

Whale threat

Delivering White Dragon, his Kraken 66 from China to her new home in Turkey, Kraken Yachts’ chairman, Dick Beaumont, hit a suspected whale in the South Atlantic. The 45 ton yacht was sailing at nine knots when she stopped dead throwing the crew to the cockpit sole. Despite this major collision the boat gathered way again and continued to sail on autopilot, as if nothing had happened. At St Helena Dick had the boat lifted out. Apart from some smudges on the bilge where the suspected whale had brushed down the keel, it was the skeg-rudder that had taken the brunt of the collision. And yet the only damage was to the toe of the skeg…it was bent one inch out of line!

‘Had the boat been fitted with a spade rudder I am certain it would have been ripped right off, and we would have found ourselves in the life -raft like so many other casualties of mid – ocean collisions,’ said Dick.

There have been many more cases of whale collision, most notoriously in 1972 when the 43ft schooner Lucette was holed and sunk off the Galapagos Islands leaving her crew, Dougal Robertson, his wife and four children to spend 38 days in a dinghy and liferaft.

However here we are concerned with recent whale collisions that affected steering: 2001 Peningo, 49ft hit a whale 700 miles off The Azores, rudder damaged, crew rescued.

2008 Delta Lloyd and Ericsson 3, two Volvo Ocean yachts suffered minor damage from whale strikes. This led to records of the race being re-examined: four yachts in previous races showed ‘rudders were particularly vulnerable.’

2009 J/World a 40ft J/120 on passage from California to Mexico. Whale struck vessel with its tail jamming the rudder post up and aft, holing the transom. The boat sank in 45 minutes.

Rogue containers 

Actor Robert Redford’s film All is Lost depicted every ocean yachtsman’s nightmare: colliding with an unmarked shipping container. But how much of a threat is it?

More than 120 million containers are moved around the world each year, yet, in 2007 [the last figures available] the industry claimed just 0.001% (1,200) were lost overboard. More accurate figures of lost containers are kept by insurers and shipping companies, but they won’t divulge statistics. Yet there are many well-documented cases of yachts sailing into containers. (see side-bar two: Yacht collisions with containers)

Yacht collisions with containers

2006: Harlequin, Dehler 41, damaged rudder stock, yacht abandoned 42ft yacht Moquini was found floating upside down 500 miles off the SW coast of South Africa. Yacht designer Alex Simonis blamed a container for the mystery sinking. She’d lost her keel and six crew were missing presumed drowned.

2003: Offshore 33 pilot-house ketch, Lycaena, sank after hitting an object – possibly a container – 20 miles south of St Catherine’s Point, Isle of Wight. Crewman Martin Taylor, 50, told YM she was under power making 6 knots when she ‘stopped dead, slewed over and lay on top of this thing, whatever it was’.

2001: 130ft superyacht Silver Cloud damaged her stern gear on what was believed to be a container floating in the English Channel. She limped in to Southampton for repair.

2000: During the Vendée Globe, Ellen MacArthur’s Kingfisher was thought to have hit a container north of the equator sailing at 10 knots. ‘All of a sudden we ground to a halt with a gut-wrenching noise of ripping carbon,’ Ellen told YM. ‘As I leapt on deck, I saw half a daggerboard and the tip of the rudder drifting away. There were signs of rust in the water. I cannot say for sure that it was a container, but it was the most likely thing to be submerged and give that kind of unforgiving impact.’

2000: Two UK Yachtmaster candidates died when their Farr 38, Rising Farrster, capsized on passage to Sydney, Australia. Nathan Lawrence of Cowes-based Leisure Management International, which ran the course, told YM: ‘That the yacht hit a container is a possibility. It is a well-travelled route and there is a lot of debris there.’

1999: Sir Robin Knox-Johnston saw several containers awash while competing in the Clipper Race. ‘These things are a bloody menace,’ Sir Robin told YM. He reportedly hit a container and was holed while sailing Enza, the giant catamaran in the 1993 Jules Verne Challenge.

1994: During the BOC Challenge Round the World Race, yachtsman Josh Hall’s Open 60 Gartmore sank off Brazil after striking what he thought was the corner of a container. ‘It was the most horrendous landing you could imagine. The boat reared up and then there was the most incredible rending sound as the bow came down. It was almost as if we’d run aground.’ He was rescued by a fellow competitor.

1988: OSTAR singlehanded transatlantic race from Plymouth to Newport, USA. Dutch competitor Roel Engels’ 34ft yacht Doortje hit a container in mid-Atlantic and sank. The Dutch sailor was rescued by a fishing boat.

Some rudder failures in the ARC

Atlantic Rally for Cruisers:

1998 Harlequin, Dehler 41, damaged rudder stock, yacht abandoned 

2001 Heya, EC 37, lost rudder

2002 F2, Hunter Legend 450, broke rudder stock

2006 Arnolf, Bavaria 350, broke rudder stock

2006 YNot, Contest 48 lost rudder

2009 Auliana II, JV53, lost rudder, yacht abandoned

2012 Modus Vivendi, Motiva 49 lost rudder

2016 Endorphine II, Bavaria 47, rudder shaft split

2016 Lady Nor, More 55, rudder broke off

ARC weather expert Chris Tibbs said: ‘Most years during the ARC there are reports of rudder failures. They include rudders breaking away, the shaft bending or breaking, bearings that seize or break away after hitting an object in the water. The shaft can be bent so that the helm is locked in a fixed position.’

From the forums a random selection of failures include:

2007 Zouk, Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 43, lost rudder, boat abandoned

2010 Elethea, Beneteau First 38, rudder blade came off, boat abandoned

2011 Beneteau Oceanis 45 rudder failure, boat sank

2014 Be Good Too, brand new Alpha 42 catamaran suffered double rudder failure 300 miles off US East Coast. Crew airlifted off. Upturned hull washed up on Scottish island in 2017.

2015 Egret, Sweden Yachts 390, rudder blade snapped off mid-Atlantic

2015 Scarlet Oyster, Oyster 48, rudder stock snapped off in Mediterranean

2017 Dove II, Hanse 52, rudder disintegrated 400 miles east of Barbados. Family of four and one crew member rescued by another yacht.

2018 Hilma, Jeanneau 45, lost rudder

2019 Beneteau First 40 hit a buoy off Cowes, broke off rudder and sank in the Solent. Three crew rescued by lifeboat.

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