30 August 2013

Boat Buying Tips Without Too Much Salt (Pt 4) - Rudders

Be warned - I am an unseasoned and not very salty sailor. Any tips I share about boat buying are of the low sodium variety.

This is the fourth in a series of posts about what to look for the next time you happen to be out sailboat shopping. Be warned, I know very little about sailing and even less about boats so take everything I say with a pinch of salt. I’ve had a look already at hulls and keels and now it is time to move on to rudders. Or, as I like to think of them, the boat’s tail. Cats swish their tails back and forth when they’re on the prowl and boats swish their rudders around from side to side when they’re out on the water. And although I find cats far more fascinating then sailboats, let’s be honest, there isn’t a cat out there that I would trust to buy a sailboat for me. They would be less interested in making sure that it was seaworthy and far more interested in making sure it has lots of great nooks and crannies to take a nap in and a great galley set-up to ensure they get fed regularly. Hmm…that sounds a bit like me too. I’m not sure I trust myself to buy a boat either. But I'm pretty sure I trust these guys less. See how they've turned their backs on you? They could care less about you and your boat and they certainly don't plan on coiling up the ropes neatly on deck.

Cats hanging out in Tunisia and pretending to be indifferent to us.
Oh well, enough looking at cute and indifferent cats. Let's get back to business. So what are these rudders all about? Basically, the rudder is attached to your boat by a post and is moved side to side by either a tiller or a steering wheel. Somewhat like how a steering wheel in your car turns your tires side to side. The force of the water pushes against the rudder and turns your boat in the opposite direction. You really don't need know too much about how it works. The key thing is move the tiller or wheel one way and the boat turns as if by magic. Well, that's usually how it works. It helps to know your left from your right. More on that another day.

As with all things sailboat related, it is of course more complicated then that and all rudders and rudder set-ups don't look like what you see in the picture above. There are a number of different types of rudders generally related to what type of keel you have. If you have a full keel on your sailboat, then your rudder is usually attached along the back end of your keel creating a more or less continuous surface. The engine propeller is usually positioned in a hole between the keel and the rudder. These types of rudders can be stronger then other types as they're hinged on top and bottom and there is more area to distribute the force of the water. But it can be harder to turn the rudder given the force of the water pushing against it.

If you have a fin keel on your boat, then you usually will have a spade rudder. A spade rudder is only attached from the top which means it can swivel around easily from side to side. While it is easier and faster to turn a boat with a spade rudder, they are far more vulnerable to the pressure of the water. And if you stuff up your rudder badly enough (either through water slamming against it or grounding your boat), then you can lose your steering. Never a good thing. Debris in the water can get more easily tangled up around this kind of rudder.

Given the risks around losing steering completely if your rudder breaks, some boat designers have moved away from having them built out of sold fiberglass to injecting rudders with structural foam and a system of reinforced webbing about two-thirds the way down the rudder. The idea is that if you ground your boat, the bottom third of the rudder will break off leaving the upper portion intact giving you some steerage to limp your way back to port. Some people love them, some people argue that they are prone to absorbing water and are structurally weak. The cats could care less one way or another.

As an alternative to spade rudders, you may want to consider a skeg hung rudder on your fin keel boat. Although the term "skeg" sounds like the noise cats make when they're coughing up a hairball, it actually comes from the Icelandic word "skaga" which means promontory or headland, something which juts out. And that is what a skeg does - it juts out from the boat hull and you attach the rudder to it. Like a rudder on a full keel boat, it offers more protection if you accidently run your boat aground. It holds a steadier course as it tends to move back to center when left alone as opposed to a spade rudder which is more likely to bounce from side to side. But of course, like a full keel rudder, they have some of the same drawbacks including being harder and slower to turn.

Oh well, yet another thing to add to my "too hard" boat buying basket. Too many choices and too many pros/cons when it comes to rudders. Next up is tillers vs. wheels - hopefully this one will be easier!

If you're interested in other slightly eccentric posts on how to buy a sailboat when you know nothing about sailing or boats, check out this page.

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