Can You Sail Without A Rudder?

Before you embark on any sailing trip, be it a short or longer one, you always triple-check that all parts of the vessel are secure. You would hate to be without any of the components, after all, yet sometimes, that’s just what happens. If your sailboat loses its rudder, what do you do? Can you still sail?

Yes, it’s possible to sail without a rudder, a part of your boat that helps you steer. To manage turns, you need to rely more on the heel and sail trim of your sailboat as well as the boat’s weight. You also want to work with the wind, as it can keep you moving in the right direction. 

It’s not uncommon to lose your rudder on a sailboat, and many sailors have safely navigated to their destination without one. In this article, we’ll explain more about what the rudder does, why yours may disappear, and how to sail sans rudder. You won’t want to miss it. 

What Is a Rudder?

Just to ensure we’re on the same page, let’s start by defining your sailboat’s rudder. This is a steering control surface found on sailboats as well as submarines, other boats, and ships. Aircraft and hovercraft have rudders as well. 

Rudders feature a blade-like edge, and they’re taller than they are wider. You can find a rudder on your sailboat off to one side, typically by the skeg. This rudder can be inboard or outboard. A rudder that’s inboard hangs from the boat’s skeg or keel. Inboard rudders go fully under the hull. In this position, they can attach to the boat’s steering mechanism via a rudder post. This post goes from the hull up to the deck and through the cockpit.

If you do a lot of off-shore sailing, an inbound rudder is your best bet, as it may be able to withstand these conditions better.

An outbound rudder has a much simpler setup, as it hangs as well, but this time from either the transom or the stern. 

Generally, if a rudder has fin keels that are small, it handles more quickly and efficiently than a bigger one would. 

How Do Rudders Work?

Now that you understand the basics of sailboat rudders, let’s dive a little deeper into the topic by describing how rudders themselves work. 

As we mentioned in the intro, when a sailboat wants to steer, it relies in part on the rudder. As water flows towards the boat per the direction you’re going, the rudder pushes the water away. You can turn a rudder as well, causing one side of it to strike water at a weaker force and the other side at a stronger force. The rudder follows whichever side has less pressure.

Your sailboat’s rudder moves in conjunction with the stern, thus effectively turning your boat. If your boat is 30 feet or shorter in length, then a tiller may be included with the rudder. This will move the rudder as you turn or steer. 

These tillers are aluminum or wood and sit atop the rudder. The reason a tiller is added to your setup is to provide leverage to the rudder. Now, this smaller rudder (to accommodate for the smaller boat) can still move if water pressure gets high, allowing you to turn. 

Why Do Rudders Fall Off?

While rudders are a key component to regular sailing, they don’t necessarily stick with your boat forever. They can fall off while sailing and you often won’t even notice. It’s only when you get back to shore that you realize you’re rudder-less, and there’s no way to go back and recover it. You don’t even know where the rudder fell off.

What causes the rudder to vanish? There are all sorts of reasons this happens. In some instances, saltwater can degrade the quality of the rudder until it’s so brittle it can’t stay on your boat. The high water pressure can also sometimes knock the rudder right off. 

If your rudder isn’t secure for any reason, then you can lose it quite easily. The same is true if it’s broken or damaged. Sometimes the stocks of the rudder corrode, weakening the entire structure. If you race your sailboat, you’re at risk of coming back without a rudder as well. Also, hitting something submerged in the water can smack your rudder off your sailboat. 

What to Do If You Lose a Rudder

Okay, so your rudder is gone. You’re not sure how and when it happened, but you have no rudder, and that’s what’s most important. 

There’s no need to call off your next sailing expedition or even head to shore if you’re already on the water. It is possible to sail without a rudder, which we’ll describe in much more detail in the next section. 

You can also rely on your drogue in such a situation. A drogue is a type of boat device on a line that connects to the stern. If stormy conditions are in your future, then a drogue is very useful to have, since it can control your speed so you don’t go racing into inclement conditions. In strong waves, a drogue is also your best friend, as it protects your hull against the waves. We’ll talk later about how to use a drogue, so keep reading.

It’s important not to panic without a rudder, even if you do find yourself in stormy weather. Instead, closely study the information presented in these next two sections. Keep it in mind each time you set sail. After all, acting deftly and confidently can get you out of a dangerous situation faster than freaking out. 

How to Sail Without a Rudder

Turning your sailboat without your rudder may seem impossible, but it’s anything but. Instead of being more reliant on the rudder, you want to use the heel of your sailboat, its trim, and the weight of your boat to help you navigate. 

It’s ideal if two of your sails are in functioning shape (such as after a storm) so you can get upwind. By putting downward pressure on the stern, you will move upwards, and by putting downward pressure on the bow, the jib allows you to sail downwards, also known as falling off. Pulling in the mainsail and releasing pressure on the jib can control this falling off if need be.

Depending on the weight of your boat, its aft and fore angles or trim and side angle or heel changes. Since your sailboat has a natural curvature, based on the curved direction of the hull, you can guide your heel and thus your turn. 

For example, if you wanted to head downwind, many sailors will heel the sailboat so it’s windward. This creates balance in the sail without the need to round up or head upward. 

Watch the aft and fore trim as well, especially without a rudder. Adding too much stern weight can off-center the sail’s effort, making it go forward and causing you to round up. The bow shouldn’t have so much weight that your stern rises out of the water, as this will make your sailboat fall off.

If all this sounds complicated, that’s okay. Like with any sailing technique, it takes time, practice, and close knowledge of your boat to get a feel for sailing without a rudder. Luckily, this isn’t one of these scenarios that have to remain an emergency only. You can always pop your rudder off on a sunny, pristine day and practice sailing without it. This way, you know that should you ever lose your rudder for real, you’d be ready. 

How to Use a Drogue

We said we’d get back to how to use a drogue, so let’s wrap up with that now. As discussed before, a drogue can act sort of like an anchor when it’s deployed. You’d want both sides of the drogue’s line attached to the stern, and then you could release it. 

When the drogue is in the water, it allows the stern side of the sailboat to have more drag. This means a breach cannot occur, or the transom cannot exceed the bow. With your drogue, you can also maintain stability and direction, going straight or doing other steering. 

To trim your boat with a drogue, connect a bridle to either side of the starboard and cleats port. Then, take one of the bridles and shorten it. This will turn your sailboat. 

Not only does having a drogue help if your rudder falls off, but there are other scenarios where it comes in handy. For instance, if your boat runs out of gas in the middle of the water, the drogue becomes a makeshift steering system for emergencies. 

Again, rather than wait until you’re in a truly dicey situation to test your knowledge of how to use your drogue, why not do a practice run in clear, open waters? With your rudder off and your steering skills down pat, deploy your drogue and see how well you can use it. Did you have a hard time steering with the drogue? If so, keep practicing. Should you ever need to use the drogue, you’ll know just what you’re doing. 


The rudder is a part of your sailboat that allows for easier steering. Rudders come off the boat all the time, either because of age, poor condition, turbulent waters, or collisions with undersea debris. 

If your rudder is gone, don’t panic. You can still steer without one, although it requires you to know about boat angles and using the wind to your advantage. You should also rely on your drogue, a type of anchor-like appendage that controls speed when deployed.

Now, no matter what life throws at you on your sailboat, you’ll be prepared. Happy sailing! 


I am the owner of sailoradvice. I live in Birmingham, UK and love to sail with my wife and three boys throughout the year.

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