Un safran en acier s’il vous plait

By Richard Tanner, Seal 22/58 "Skylark"

"What do you do when your rudder breaks half way across the channel?"

"Steer with the spinnaker pole to Cherbourg where they will make you a new one."

Skylark, Seal 22 number 58 based in Emsworth, had explored Chichester harbour and the Solent over the past three years giving much pleasure to all who sailed her. New sails, keel bolts, standing rigging and my confidence in Skylark’s ability to handle some rough water, which I had gained on Round the Island races, led to my ambition to undertake a longer cruise.

'Skylark' entering Cartaret
'Skylark' entering Cartaret

The Summer Cruise to France and the Channel Islands in company with other (larger) Seals and Parkers presented the ideal opportunity to take our small boat cross-channel to enjoy some challenging sailing and have a sociable fortnight. I arranged for my nephew, Patrick, to crew for the crossing to Cherbourg and on to Dielette, my wife, Anne, to join me in Cartaret, and my friend, Oliver, to crew for the return passage.

Much preparation followed and the morning before we left Patrick fitted a sculling rowlock to the stern. (I had experienced a rudder problem before – see the poem “The day the rudder fell off” in an earlier magazine!) Yachts were to join the cruise at any stage and we were the smallest of the fleet.

Stroller and Shemar planned to catch the morning tide east of the Isle of Wight on Saturday 28th July and I decided to catch the end of the previous tide by departing at midnight on Friday. My aim was to arrive in Cherbourg in the light and avoid some rain and a headwind forecast for Saturday evening. A weather window of good visibility and westerly force 4 – 5 was forecast, which looked ideal for a fast passage.

Patrick and I left Chichester harbour late on Friday afternoon, sailed to Bembridge where we picked up a buoy off the beach at dusk in the rain, ate a quick supper and settled down for three hours ‘sleep’ before setting off. At midnight the rain had stopped, the sky was clearing and, although we were in the lee of the land, a steady westerly was blowing.

I was keen to make ground up to windward, so we stayed close to the Island and were making 8 knots as the tide sluiced us past Dunnose. We took turns steering towards the moon under full genoa and one reef in the mainsail, making good progress on 220º, to windward of the rhumbline.

By 0400 there was a noticeable light in the sky to the north and soon the day dawned on a lumpy sea. We were both seasick but soon had to concentrate on the first shipping lane. At 0700 we were safely across, the sun was shining and Skylark was close reaching at 5 knots. I was steering when suddenly the tiller went light and we rounded up into the wind. The rudder blade had completely sheered off just below the stock and was now hanging in the water, loosely suspended by the haul-up rope.

There had been no warning signs and no particular reason for it to break at that moment. We furled the flapping genoa and hoisted the broken rudder into the cockpit, then lowered the mainsail too and assessed the situation.

The break in the aluminium rudder blade was horizontal and left no remnant in the water to steer with. We were in no immediate danger and there were plenty of ships in sight as we were right between the shipping lanes almost exactly in the middle of the channel. I considered using the VHF radio but suspected that if a large container vessel tried to help the ‘solution’ might be worse than the problem.

Skylark has a 5hp outboard on a lifting bracket on the stern and I had steered her with the outboard before. We decided to carry on and proceeded under engine across the second shipping lane. It was slightly awkward and uncomfortable reaching over the stern to steer using the outboard tiller, but it worked well. We made steady progress and had cleared the lane by 0900.

The next stage was to see what progress we could make under sail. The tide and our chosen course had placed us about 9 miles upwind of the direct route so we could afford to free off the sails. We rigged the spinnaker pole through the sculling rowlock and I made a protective collar of tape and card to hold the pole in position.

We tried different combinations of sail and settled on the fully unfurled genoa and no main. Patrick found he could hold a course of due south with the wind on the beam and we proceeded at a comfortable 3½ knots in the westerly force 4. With the engine off, but still in the water to provide some directional stability and some additional steering from me when a wave knocked us off course, Patrick continued to hold this course for the next six hours.

We were swept eastwards for a full tide and thought of Barfleur or Saint-Vaast as alternative destinations if the wind backed, but it stayed constant and then the strong west going stream began to push us back on course for Cherbourg. We made it to the west of La Pierre Noire cardinal mark and Cap Levi and then motored the last hour into Cherbourg under outboard. At 1630 we moored to pontoon N in Chantereyne Marina.

It had been an eventful first channel crossing for Skylark and Patrick which had taken 16½ hours. Stroller and Shemar arrived a few hours later fighting into some scudding rain at the end of their passage. We had a tale to tell them.


The Cherbourg Chandlery can fix anything for boats, but were closed on Sunday and the engineer was not working on Monday either. At 0900 on Tuesday morning we asked the engineer to make “un safran en acier” (a steel rudder) and left the original in two parts as a pattern.

The replacement rudder
The replacement rudder

Conditions were perfect for rounding Cap de la Hague, so I bought a 3m oar to steer with and we set off ahead of Stroller and Shemar at 1000 with a force 3 NNE wind and force 2 NNW was forecast for the afternoon. I would rather have perfect conditions and a crew than a rudder, and Patrick had to get the ferry back to work on Wednesday.

The leverage on the steering oar was considerable and steering had to be slow and deliberate. When the boat started spinning it was difficult to stop it, so we performed occasional 360ºs and one 720º. It was calm at Cap de la Hague so we motored through the race in large lumpy seas, despite the benign conditions, and then had a gentle run down to Dielette where we moored in the outer harbour at 1630.

Abacus was already there and Kotick and Lady J soon arrived to join the party. We had a great meal in the marquee by the harbour wall. The next day I motored in a flat calm to Cartaret, setting off at first light, and Patrick caught the early bus to Cherbourg and the ferry home.

Anne arrived in Cartaret on the morning ferry from Jersey at exactly the same time as I did and on Thursday we both went to Cherbourg on the bus to collect the new rudder. It is much heavier than the aluminium one but should be stronger. It fitted perfectly and worked well for the rest of the cruise to Jersey, Guernsey, where Oliver joined me for excellent sailing to Alderney, Studland Bay and finally home to Emsworth.