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The Official Magazine of the Bluewater Cruising Association

The Tale of Lil' Ollie and the Broken Wheel

Greg Cooper

Lil’ Ollie
C&C 38
June 2nd, 2023

Our new-to-us 1986 C&C 38 Mark III sailboat, Lil’ Ollie, has been, and continues to be, a journey of discovery: discovering and working through the many areas of deferred maintenance that need our attention.

Last summer, after dealing with multiple engine and other issues over the winter and spring, we were anticipating sailing to Port Browning to attend the BCA Leavers’ Rendezvous. It would be our longest outing with her since bringing her back from Sidney where she was purchased. A good friend of ours was among the leavers so we really wanted to attend.

Two days prior to the Rendezvous, we were out in Maple Bay with an experienced friend who was helping us to gain familiarity with maneuvering under engine. We were practicing “back and fill”, where short bursts of power forward and back can be used to turn the boat almost within its own length.

All was well until the wheel slipped out of my partner’s grasp and spun to rudder stop, where upon there was a loud klunk sound followed shortly by a total loss of steering. The trick is: when you throttle up in reverse, you really need to have a firm hold of the wheel as the increasing water flow will pull at the rudder rather suddenly and with great force.

Peering in under the cockpit floor toward the rudder post with a flash light, from the back of the quarter berth, I could see a good sized chunk of metal laying near the rudder post. We managed to fit the emergency tiller and limped back to the dock.

That metal chunk turned out to be a sizable segment broken out of the radial wheel by the impact. The seeds of this destruction were planted by the previous owner years ago. It turns out that when they sailed Lil’ Ollie on their adventures, they had fitted her out with a wind vane steering.  Lots of people do – no problem, right?   Well, problem yes – if you ignore Edson’s very clear instructions not to attach any self steering gear to the radial wheel:


One would think that would be clear!

The years of unexpected point loading had created extensive cracking of the aluminum radial wheel; our incident was simply the last blow our radial wheel could endure.

This left us with a challenge: we had two days to get our boat, with no steering, ready to head to Port Browning. Armed with two fabricated steel plates and some hefty SS bolts, I crawled into the lazarette and made an “ice-cream sandwich” with a LOT of JB Weld to hold the broken segment of the wheel in place. It worked – in fact, it worked fine for the rest of the season while I ordered up a new radial wheel from Edson.

But that is not quite the end of the story. While preparing to install the new wheel over the winter, I decided it would be a good time to replace the steering cables as well. What I could observe of them looked OK, but who knows how old they were?  Now, the two lengths of cable are swaged onto a length of chain that turns over a sprocket inside the steering pedestal. If you have ever looked, or attempted to look, down inside your pedestal you will know clearances are tight and you can’t really visualize where the cables join the chain. Thus, when I extracted the chain and cables up out of the pedestal I found that the steering chain was also about to break – it was holding on by only one badly twisted side plate!

The moral of the story is, I suppose, that you really won’t know your boat and have justified confidence in her until you have personally been through all her systems. The journey continues. Hopefully, soon it will continue on the water.


  1. Isabel says:

    The steering chain on our Southern Cross 39 snapped while entering Apia, Samoa harbour. We threw down the anchor and hoisted the Foxtrot flag (“disabled”). It took a few weeks before a new one came in from NZ. You’re right about the steering column — it’s a tight fit getting anything in and out of there!

    1. Greg says:

      And, at least on the C&C, adjusting the steering cable tension and insuring the wheel was centered its own special challenge. Lots of “boat yoga”!

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