The Rudder Bearing Story

Pull up a bollard and listen closely to this long tale of The Nautilus Rudder Bearing Steel…

In 2013, The E/V Nautilus (“probably the most famous exploration vessel nowadays” –Capt. P. Chubar) left the Old World and crossed the Atlantic on a several-week transit, arriving in Galveston, Texas to mobilize for her first ever field season in the Americas. This was a big move for a vintage vessel, originally built in East Germany in 1967 as the survey ship Alexander Von Humbolt. She was re-christened Nautilus in 2008 when acquired by OET to be renovated as a science and exploration (E/V) vessel.

I joined OET/Nautilus in the spring of 2013, shortly before this transit, and flew to meet the ship in Galveston to pick up mobilization activities where we left off in Toulon, France before the Atlantic transit.

Upon arrival at a US port for the first time, Nautilus underwent her first US Coast Guard inspection, at which point it was discovered that somewhere along the transit the original rudder bearing had finally breathed its last gasp.

The old bearing was well and truly wrecked. It was composed of two races and an upper and lower assembly of roller bearings, each retained by their own brass cage. It was a cross between a sealed bearing and a vintage bicycle bottom bracket arrangement. Several of the rollers in one of the assemblies had sheared to pieces, mangling a section of the brass retaining cage and the races as they went.

With the beginning of the field season in jeopardy, the shipyard and crew managed to re-ballast the ship to allow replacement of this awkwardly-placed bearing without going into drydock! Amazingly, a new exact match bearing was found in Dallas, and the repair was rapidly completed, leading to only a modest delay.

The shipyard workers were going to throw all the remains into a dumpster, but I had a different idea… Two shipping containers that had delivered the ROVs from URI to Galveston were being trucked back to Rhode Island, so I packed the ‘trash’ for transport back north. Upon confirmation at home that nobody else had any desire for this junk, I scavenged one of the brass cages (the other one was lost in a ship cleanup) and all of the roller bearings to be used…. for knives!!

Coincidentally, there was some badly damaged “wood” as part of some sort of collar/bushing that came out of the rudder assembly repair as well – turns out it was canvas micarta! Well now…

In August during my only break from the field season, we (+Shin Ae and Hans) took a trip out to Wolcott, CT to see Matt Parkinson at Dragons Breath Forge, whom we knew from the local knife show circuit. Matt Forged several of the bearings into flat billets so I could use them to make knives using stock removal methods. Matt has a big hammer. Now that he’s a full-time bladesmith he has an even bigger hammer…

However, using freshly forged steel is rather trickier than nice flat commercially sold material directly from the steel mill. It has taken several years to chew through my backlog and accumulate the understanding and shop equipment necessary to help these old bearings reach their destiny. Thank you for your patience, my shipmates!

At long last, almost exactly 6 years later in August of 2019, the first test blade (a mini-birudashi) from the Nautilus Rudder Bearings was complete! Hopefully with many more to come, adorned with other recycled ship and oceanographic science components. The first few will be from the original 4 that Matt flattened for me, and I plan to forge subsequent bearings myself. All blades will be marked with the Nautilus’s IMO number in the spot where I normally mark the steel type. Keep an eye out for these blades in the Rudder Bearing category on this site. Birudashi and rigging knives will likely be common styles from this material.

Image copyright and courtesy of OET/Nautilus Live

Thanks for reading!

Mini-birudashi test in Nautilus Bearing Steel

A quiet posting about the first blade made from parts of the E/V Nautilus’s rudder bearing (replaced in 2013). Pictures below include thermocycling and break-tests for grain refinement. Marked with the Nautilus’s IMO registration number. 😀 A longer history of the saga to be posted later…