Maintenance Tip: Rudder "Play"

By Members of fleet 1

In our last issue, Judy English (Kokapeli) wrote us that she has a problem with "play" in her tiller.  We put the question out to the fleet and received many very thorough responses:

From Charlie Brochard (Tacky Lady):  First of all you have to determine the cause. Sometimes all it takes is tightening the bolt that runs through the shaft or tightening the set screw running perpendicular to it. If that isn’t the cause, then the problem is the shaft has worn the fiber bushings within the tube.

I have found two solutions for tiller play, one temporary and the other permanent. The quickest way was to wrap the tiller shaft with a Teflon impregnated fiberglass material which is commonly used to cover conveyor belts in food processing plants. I have a limited supply left. This works for a couple of seasons, but won’t last forever.

The permanent solution is to replace the bushings within the tube. I did this by cutting the tube out of the boat and replacing it with a solid piece of Delrin (~3" OD X ~6" long) machined to just fit the shaft diameter. I left a couple of inches of the old tube at the connection to the hull and had the Delrin tube machined to fit just inside it. I then wrapped this Delrin sleeve from the hull to the hole to the cockpit with several layers of fiberglass.

This Delrin sleeve has eliminated all the tiller play and has not shown any signs of wear (or leaks for that matter) in over 5 years. Happy to show anyone interested in trying it! It wasn’t as bad as it sounds.

From John Skinner (Phoenix): I've had a lot of structural problems with my rudder over the years.  One major
source of play is the connection between the tiller and the rudder shaft.  This play can be annoying, but does not directly affect performance.  In the past, I have wedged shims (I've tried leather, metal, and wood) in the tiller/rudder shaft fitting.  This approach lasts for a while, but when you lift the tiller, the shims often fall out.

I have also had play between the rudder shaft and the tube. On early boats like mine, the rudder shaft simply enclosed by a fiberglass tube.  There are no bearings, as such, in the assembly.  The shaft just bears against the fiberglass
tube.  The tube is thus subject to wear by the shaft.  I used to use a Teflon cloth which I wrapped around the rudder shaft to shim between the shaft and tube (This is easy to do for dry-sailed boats).  This was a partial solution.  The problem is that the tube wears into an oval shape, so the gap cannot be closed by cloth wrapped around the shaft.

Around 1990 my rudder shaft broke where the shaft exits the hull.  I believe that corrosion was a contributing factor to the failure.  I also believe that dry sailing may have accelerated the corrosion process because of the additional exposure to air and the concentration of salts at the top of the rudder which
would be flushed for boats left in water.  At this time I replaced the rudder (I still have both parts of the old rudder if anyone needs them).  Along with the new rudder, I had Kim Desenberg make a bearing of sorts out of that hard white
plastic material.  This has served very well, but I still have excessive play in the tiller to rudder connection, which is even worse in the new rudder fitting....oh well.

From Mark Lowry (Soliton): There have been several instances of rudder failures at the shaft.  Typically
what has happened in these cases is that the stainless tube that is the rudder shaft has corroded enough to weaken the shaft so that it eventually breaks under load.  The thing to look for are corrosion/electrolysis "pock-marks".  Soliton's rudder shaft has some right at the point where the shaft emerges from the rudder.  I look at these every so often and they don't appear to be getting any deeper and the amount of material missing is a very small percentage of the tube cross-section... so, I don't worry... much.

I think the only real solution to this corrosion problem, if it is severe, is to have a new rudder and shaft built... probably pretty pricey...alternatively buy another TUNA and use it for spare parts... jeez, they're cheap enough these days.

The rudder on my Tuna used to have lots of play.  I fixed it by shimming the shaft bearing.  The procedure was actually pretty easy and quite successful (I think I got the idea from one of those West Systems books).  It went like this:

Haul the boat.  Remove the rudder.  Purchase approximately one quart of West system epoxy and catalyst, a couple of application syringes, approximately a quart of cabosil (a thickener that you can get at TAP plastics, you could use
micro-balloons but that will probably abrade quicker.  Cabosil is much tougher.  Make damn sure that you wear at least a particle mask when mixing the cabosil-- this stuff has properties very similar to asbestos, I am told--so don't breath the dust!!!), a few ounces of graphite powder, and mold
release wax.  Drill two opposing holes near the top of the rudder bearing (that's the housing that sticks up out of the cockpit sole); I think I made my holes about 1/4 inch diameter.  Very thoroughly clean the inside of the rudder
bearing surface.  Use soap and water and a stiff brush, follow with several rub-downs with an acetone-soaked rag.

Next, very thoroughly apply the mold release wax to the rudder shaft, the bottom of the cap fixture that the tiller attaches to, and even the top of the rudder.  Make several applications of the mold-release wax  (this is very important if you ever want to be able to change course in the future!!!).
Reassemble the rudder into the boat.  Carefully support the rudder so that it lines up with the keel.  Catalyze about a pint of epoxy, add lots of graphite (I don't remember how much I added... so you might want to experiment a little first), then add cabosil and mix till the consistency of this mixture is about that of yogurt, maybe just a little thicker.  (You might want to experiment with the consistency a little also).  Then fill one of the syringes with this glop.  Inject it into first one hole, then the other.  You need to keep injecting this stuff, till you see it ooze out around the top and bottom of the rudder shaft.  Let the glop "kick-off" and pray that you applied enough mold-release wax!!

If everything goes as planned you will have a brand-new rudder bearing that will be VERY tight.  I had to ream mine out a little with some fine sandpaper.  The graphite does actually seem to lubricate the bearing pretty nicely.  I
did this repair probably over ten years ago now, and Soliton's rudder is still nice and tight... just like I like 'em.

If you have a loose rudder though, and the above sounds like too much work, maybe it really doesn't affect boat speed worth a damn.  I once drove Lindsay's boat on the final day of a regatta (he couldn't sail that day and was probably so far ahead on points that he would have won had I come in dead
last in that final race).  His boat had an incredible amount of rudder play...it didn't seem to make it go slow, though.... so, go figure.