Seamanship & Navigation, November 2021

Cutty Sark in Sydney Harbour For The New Seasons Wool
Cutty Sark in Sydney Harbour For The New Seasons Wool
Cutty Sark in Sydney Harbor circa 1890.

Stories of repairs at sea always make for fascinating reading. Not the fairly routine substitution of a spare part but rather a failure so horrendous that great ingenuity was called for to get the ship to port. You can learn a lot from these episodes; many yachts have made it safely back to land with jury-rigged masts, usually broken offshore in heavy weather.

Miles and Beryl Smeeton lost their masts twice during an attempt to round Cape Horn from the Pacific in a 46-ft ketch, Tzu Hang. They made it back to Chile both times to effect repairs. The first time, both masts were broken, the aft cabin smashed and the rudder lost as the boat pitch-poled in huge seas. They jury-rigged a mast and rudder and made it to port. After repairs they started out again but lying a-hull in a storm the boat rolled over, the mainmast was lost, and they managed to stagger back to Chile for a rebuild. After the second failure they shipped the boat home on the deck of a freighter.

Yachts have lost their rudders in transoceanic races and made it to the finish line using a steering oar made from a whisker pole and a hatch or piece of a bunk as a blade. In order to stand up to the rigors of the rest of the trip these repairs must be strong and durable and sometimes require parts to be cannibalized from other pieces of equipment which are not quite so important. For the small boat skipper these incidents are extremely interesting and may hold tips that could be useful in the future.

These repairs pale in comparison with the calamities that befell the great square riggers of the nineteenth century. By then the ships were huge; several thousand tons, they were often undermanned and the pressure to turn a small profit usually meant that they carried no insurance so it was up to the skipper to keep the ship moving and make any repairs necessary using the resources on board.

A classic repair at sea is documented by Basil Lubbock in his history of the tea clipper Cutty Sark. She was built in 1869 in Scotland. The clipper was a little more than 212 ft long and displaced 1,970 tons when loaded. She had iron frames and was planked with elm and teak. On the 17th June, 1872, she sailed from Woosung near Shanghai with a cargo of tea under Captain Moodie. The clipper and her old rival Thermopylae left at the same time and a race to London was on. This wasn’t just for sport; the first tea of the season to arrive at London commanded a premium price. They had occasional sightings of each other in the China Sea and the Malay Strait but lost touch in the Indian Ocean.

On August 15th, as the Cutty Sark raced towards the Cape of Good Hope, she was struck astern by a heavy wave in the Agulhas current and the rudder was torn off. Captain Moodie immediately set about the construction of a substitute rudder. A spare yard was cut into thick planks and a forge set up deck. Iron stanchions normally used to hold up the awning were fashioned into eyebolts and fastening bars. Three planks formed the rudder and a single sturdy piece was made into a rudder post. The eyebolts formed a hinge, the rudder post was fitted for plates attached to iron wire rope that led forward and the plates were intended to slip over the keel when the wire ropes were tightened on winches forward of midships. The sea was so rough that the forge was upset and the apprentice who was pumping the bellows, who happened to be Captain Moodie’s son, was burned by red-hot coals. But they pressed on.

Vertical tension was supplied by chains that passed under the keel from side to side; these enabled the faux rudder post to be maneuvered through the hole at the stern which accommodated the original rudder post. Ropes passed through blocks at deck level attached directly to the rudder enabled it to be swung port or starboard. Shipping this contraption was a nightmare, particularly in the heavy seas that were running. In order to keep the assembly vertical during installation, a kedge anchor weighing about 600 pounds was suspended underneath. It was fastened by a slip knot so that it could be retrieved when the ropes and chains were drum-tight.

Eventually on the 20th the jury rudder was in position, the only serious mishap being that the trip line for the kedge chafed through and the anchor plummeted to the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Lubbock mentions that at this point the skipper’s language kept all hands from catching cold!

They could not sail at first as it was blowing a full gale from the west. A day later they were able set sail and resume the race. They rounded Cape Agulhas on the 23rd and headed up the South Atlantic. The jury rudder worked well but the ship’s speed had to be kept below nine knots to avoid putting too much strain on the rig.

On 20th September when heading for St Helena the eyebolts gave way and the contraption was hauled back on board for more repairs. It appeared there had been heavy corrosion caused by the copper sheathing. Captain Moodie was running very short of iron and some of the yards were stripped of bands to make straps that were riveted to the rudder to hold it together. When it came time to re-attach the jury rig, Captain Moodie’s seamanship beggars the imagination; he streamed the jury rig astern, backed the sails, and as the ship gathered sternway, snugged the rudder post into position. Cutty Sark entered the Thames River estuary on the 18th October, 122 days from Shanghai. Thermopylae beat her by a week, but Captain Moodie was lauded by the shipping community for the passage and his incredible repair. Moodie had had enough of clipper ships, however. After that voyage he went into steam.


ON contributing editor Eric Forsyth is a master ocean voyager, multiple circumnavigator and winner of the Cruising Club of America’s Blue Water Medal in 2000. His website is

By Ocean Navigator