Tech Tip - Emergency Steering

Friday, 08 March 2019 12:41 | Written by 
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Emergency Steering setup for a Fenn Swordfish S surfski Emergency Steering setup for a Fenn Swordfish S surfski

My speed surged as I launched down the run, spray flying, the howl and crash of the wind and waves in my ears… and then, crack! “Faaaaaark!” (or words to that effect). The footplate assembly had completely separated from the boat and in an instant, I had no steering, nothing to press my feet against at all. The boat veered off, out of control…

Highly Unusual

On that occasion I got off lightly. My buddy Dale was behind me and I managed to attract his attention. We rafted together and I held his boat while he tied knots in my rudder lines at the pedals so that even though I had no footplate, I still had steering; a little awkward, but no big deal.

The cause of that problem we diagnosed later as faulty SA manufactured plastic rails. Replaced with original parts, the problem was highly unlikely to happen again.

Broken footplate

That day when my footplate snapped right off the boat

But it got us thinking; a snapped rudder cable is less common than it used to be, say ten years ago, but it happens. I know of several incidents in the last year here in Cape Town alone.

Broken Rudder Cable – not so very unusual.

Rudder cables break. That’s just the way it is. You can mitigate this by replacing them regularly – every year is a good habit – but even then, you’re not immune: the last time I broke a rudder cable, it was only a week old. It turned out that the crimping had damaged the new cable at the rudder.

My buddy Dale broke a rudder cable on a big Miller’s Run; he could turn left but not right which turned out to be fortunate. The shore was to the left; open sea to the right! But he had a very uncomfortable half hour of paddling side on to the wind and waves, barely in control.


The first time I saw a credible, practical emergency steering system was on a Honcho surfski years ago. In 2010 the Allwave CX also had one. Like Honcho, Allwave had attached a bungee to the tail of the boat, with a hook that could be attached to the tiller bar. If your rudder cable snapped, you simply hooked the bungee to tiller bar on the side with the intact cable. Thereafter you could steer with one rudder pedal. Magic! (Unfortunately, Allwave have since stopped providing the system unless it’s specifically requested; they found that too many people failed to maintain the bungee, which, left in the sun, loses elasticity over time.)

I copied the system on my Think Evo II and the solution was relatively simple, thanks to the handle on the tail of the boat.

Evo II steering

Emergency Steering on the Think Evo II - bungee plus stainless steel hook.

IMG 9982

Stainless Steel S-hook

Having found a stainless-steel S-hook at one of my favorite shops (Rope World!) I attached it to some bungee cord the other end of which I attached to the handle.


The modified S-hook - a few minutes with hacksaw and pliers.

The only slightly complicated process was to drill a hole in in the tiller bar. I broke a drill bit before discovering that you have to drill through stainless steel slowly, without over-heating the bit.

No Handle

But what if your ski doesn’t have a handle on the tail? How do you anchor the bungee?

It’s not a good thing to drill holes through the deck; the material is generally extremely thin, and screws will just pull straight out.

I considered glassing an anchor point onto the deck, but my fiberglass skills are legendary (and not in a good way). And I didn’t trust epoxy or other glues to bond properly to the gelcoat

I tried some GoPro anchors, designed as safety devices to avoid losing cameras, but a combination of the slightly curved deck – not optimal for adhesion – and the constant tension from the bungee meant that they’d stick for a while but inevitably pop off after a few days.

Keep it simple, stupid

My current solution is to use a piece of carry-strap.

I cut a short length off a strap and sewed it in a loop, attached the bungee and hook and I’m good to go. I keep it all in my PFD pocket and while I’d prefer it to be permanently installed on the back of the boat, at least the bungee is protected from the sun.

emergency steering

Using it is simple: slip the loop over the tail of the ski, hook the other end onto the tiller bar, and away you go.

Of course there's always a catch:  if you're on your own, you're going to have to undo your leash to get to the back of the boat!  I always use a paddle leash, so I can at least let the paddle go and use both hands for the job.  Ideally of course, your buddy will see that you're in trouble and will attach the system for you.


Other approaches

Jam the Rudder Straight

Whatever happens, you don’t want the rudder to be left turned one-way if a cable breaks – so some paddlers carry some rolled-up duct tape or a piece of rubber to jam the rudder straight.


On one occasion, three of us were paddling together on choppy water (but not roaring downwind conditions) when one of the group suffered a snapped rudder cable. He tried paddling on his own but was unable to control the ski. The third paddler and I came alongside, one on each side of the casualty. The middle paddler held onto the skis on either side and the two of us rafted him to the beach. Whether this would work on a big day on the open ocean is up for debate – but it might be worth trying.

Whatever approach you use, if you’re going at all far offshore, you need to have thought about what you’d do if you had a rudder cable break. In less than extreme conditions, the situation can simply be awkward. If you’re far offshore, in cold water, your life could be threatened.  Make a plan!

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