Rudders damage easily. Although they work similar to a keel, they aren’t nearly as tough. If you dry sail, the edges can accumulate nicks and dings in the fiberglass from loading and unloading. The rudders of some sailboats can hit the outboard motor’s propeller if you’re not careful. Add in accidental groundings, storage damage, and stress cracks and it doesn’t take much time in water to make the wooden core swell and damage the rudder even more. Without repairs, a weakened rudder can even break into pieces under stress. It pays to protect your rudder.
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If your rudder is showing any bare wood, has deep nicks in the edges, or has swelled and cracked the fiberglass at the edges, you should repair it while you still can. All of these kinds of damage are easily repairable by the do-it-yourselfer for a small fraction of the cost of a new rudder.
It’s just like doing auto body work
If you’ve ever done any auto body work, you know the goal is to build up and restore a smooth shape to damaged surfaces. It’s the same with your rudder but the finish quality doesn’t have to be as perfect.
Follow these steps to make your rudder smooth and watertight again:
1. Start with a 4″ handheld grinder or similar power tool to remove all of the rough and damaged fiberglass down to solid material. Also remove all damaged wood core material. This might seem overly aggressive but the repair won’t last unless it’s built on a solid foundation and a grinder will get you there fast. By opening up the rudder’s “envelope”, it will dry out faster.
2. Let the wooden core dry out as much as possible. You don’t want to trap moisture in the core where it will dry rot. If you lay up your sailboat for the off-season, that’s a good time to dry out your rudder. Finish the repair before the start of the next sailing season.
3. After the core has dried thoroughly, use a random orbital or similar power sander to feather the ground edges back a couple of inches all around and to remove any paint so that the epoxy patch will stick properly to the original fiberglass.
4. Mix some thickened West System or an equivalent epoxy and build up the ground and sanded areas to their original shape.
5. With a power sander or sanding block, carefully smooth the patched areas to match the surrounding surfaces and edges.
7. Apply a barrier coat of one-part or two-part (preferred) polyurethane paint over the repaired areas.
6. Fill small cracks above the water line with Capt. Tolley’s Creeping Crack Cure.
7. Last, re-apply ablative paint or a polyurethane topcoat to match the rest of the rudder or hull. If you keep your sailboat in the water, ablative paint can minimize the growies. If you dry sail or remove your rudder when you’re not sailing, ablative paint gives no benefit and will just transfer to everywhere you don’t want it. I reapplied ablative paint to this rudder but I sanded it off a year later and applied a gloss white polyurethane when Summer Dance got a different color bottom paint job.
8. Now is a good time to remove, clean, polish, and rebed all of the rudder hardware with butyl tape. If the tiller bushings are worn, read How to Replace Worn Tiller Bushings.
Now that you have a restored and sealed rudder, take good care of it and it will take good care of you!
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