“There’s kelp on the rudder”

During our recent passage to Santa Barbara, the sail from Half Moon Bay to Morro Bay was quiet. We saw one ship, steaming north in the offshore shipping lane, and very little wildlife.

As we closed with Morro Bay, that changed. We talked to the harbormaster and a sailboat on the VHF radio. We saw whales, dolphins, fishing boats, and kelp. Lots of kelp. I switched off the autopilot and stood on the cockpit seat, scanning for kelp while steering.

(Kelp looks like wimpy seaweed, but it’s nasty stuff. Last summer we hooked a strand of kelp on our propeller shaft, and it formed a ball that reduced our propeller’s efficiency by more than half. Instead of 6.5 knots, we could only reach 2.5 knots at normal throttle. Pretty scary when you’re navigating a crowded harbor.)

Later that day, we entered Morro Bay and tied to the yacht club dock. A wicked current runs north and south inside of the narrow harbor. From the dock, we watched clumps of kelp float past the boat in one direction, and then the other.

On Wednesday morning, before departing, I noticed a long strand of kelp had caught our propeller and was streaming out behind the boat, held in place by the current.

Later, we completed our final pre-departure tasks and cast off. As soon as we left the dock, I noticed a lot of unusual friction in the steering.

I immediately told Nick we would return to the dock. I didn’t want to navigate the harbor and channel with problematic steering.

“There’s kelp on the rudder,” I said. The kelp I pulled off earlier was streaming behind the boat, but I knew that in the opposite current, a strand stuck between the rudder and the hull would stream forward, under the boat where we couldn’t see it.

I turned the wheel hard over to starboard, then back to port, twice. I felt for any reduced friction — any sign that the kelp was grinding down or dislodging.

“I guess I’ll have to go in the water.” Every sailor has to dive under their boat from time to time, to clear something off the keel, rudder, or propeller. No big deal. In five minutes I had my swim trunks and dive mask ready.

I sat on the edge of the dock, and lowered myself into the water. After the initial shock of 65°F water, I pushed myself under the boat’s hull and brought my face close to the rudder.

No kelp.

I came up for air, then dove on the other side of the boat to look for kelp there.

Nothing. I swam to the ladder and climbed onto the dock.

Nick and I began to discuss other sources of the friction. Earlier in the day we had pumped some grease into the space between the rudder post and tube (a normal maintenance item). Maybe the grease fitting ran dry? We re-packed it with grease and lubricated the post. No change. We visually inspected the steering gear below decks. Everything looked normal.

“How weird,” I said, thinking aloud. “What could be causing this? Nothing’s sticking or catching… there’s just a lot of extra friction…”

Saying it out loud sparked an idea.

I reached for the wheel brake — a device that clamps down on the steering wheel shaft so you can lock the wheel in position.

The wheel brake was on.

We burst out laughing. I was amused, but I was frustrated. What was I thinking? I should have checked the simplest possible causes first.

“Dammit, I should have known,” I said. “When troubleshooting something on a boat, you always start at one end of the system and work through it component by component.”

“Well, you did start at the end of the system,” said Nick. “It was just the wrong end.”

— JZ

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