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Giving self-steering a new meaning

Jun 22, 2011

To the editor: In our first incarnation as charter sailors, my husband and I were avid helmsmen. We relished holding the tiller or sitting at the wheel, enjoying the view along the length of the boat and the promising horizon ahead. Sometimes, we even vied for time at the helm!

Eventually, we bought a 35-foot sloop, dubbed her Namani, and exuberantly planned a year-long sailing sabbatical. Our first trip in our new purchase was the 250-mile sail from her (expensive) home waters in Mallorca, Spain, to (affordable) central Sardinia, Italy. On that passage, the allure of gazing at a featureless horizon quickly wore thin, especially once out of sight of land. Soon, Markus and I were experimenting with the 20-year-old self-steering device that Namani was equipped with. To engage the device, we would first lock off the main rudder. Then we set the small sail of the self-steering to a given angle to the wind, which kept us on course by putting pressure on an auxiliary rudder. No power drain, no noise, no effort: its simple elegance was sheer magic.

After a few three-hour watches, we were practically worshipping this masterpiece from our new best friends at Windpilot. We had discovered a new joy: gazing at the endless horizon without being locked to the wheel, able to pop below to fetch a cookie or tea at will. I could read a book while on watch! Duck below to avoid a rain shower! Reef the sails without waking my husband from his precious night’s sleep! Thanks to the trusty Windpilot, we rarely used the electronic autopilot, a gadget that was only of practical use when the engine was running.

A year later, we set off to cross the Atlantic from the Canary Islands to Antigua, this time with our 4-year-old son, Nicky, on board. We were accompanied by friend Peter, a pilot with aspirations of sailing his own yacht around the world. With Peter, we had an extra hand to extend our off-watch time and to deal with problems if any were to arise.

The crossing started off well despite trade winds that refused to heed statistics by blowing from their appointed direction, or even to blow at all. We motored for three days, using most of our fuel in the confidence that the trade winds would soon fill in to carry us the rest of the way.

Nineteen days and 2,000 miles into our slow crossing, Markus looked astern and abruptly froze, having noticed a slight wobble in the self-steering shaft. Before our departure, we had thoroughly inspected everything imaginable on Namani, from through-hulls to water tank connections and, yes, the Windpilot. But now — too late — we realized that our pre-departure check hadn’t extended to the stout bracket securing the heavy auxiliary rudder to the stern. This bracket was now rusted through and threatening to snap entirely.

A quick conference of all hands over the age of five ensued. Clearly the self-steering would have to be disassembled before it broke off and seriously damaged the hull. Nightfall was not far off: should we try to remove the Windpilot immediately or stabilize it until the next morning? We decided on the latter, with Markus and Peter engineering a support system of lines for the night. Meanwhile, I took the wheel, nervously eyeing an approaching squall and the sight of my husband, clipped in and suspended over the Atlantic from the stern swim ladder.

The dark, ugly center of the squall and its long, extending flanks gave the distinct impression of a bird of prey, swooping toward its innocent victim. The photographer in me wanted to snap a shot of the spectacular formation, but the superstitious sailor kept the camera covered lest I awake the monster’s wrath. Namani was tiptoeing away like a mouse under the nose of a sleeping cat, and I didn’t want to provoke it. In the end, we squeaked clear, clipping only the outside edge of the system.

The jury rig seemed to work so we settled into a shortened watch schedule for a miserably wet night — with the helmsman now completely at the mercy of the elements. By dawn, the cold front had passed along with the rain, and we hove-to in order to remove the self-steering. Sliding the sail of the Windpilot off was easy; the challenge was to take up the weight of the heavy auxiliary rudder without losing it — or Markus — into the depths of the ocean. Eventually, we succeeded in hauling the rudder up and securing it on deck. The danger was gone, but so were our carefree days of leaving steering to our mute deck hand, the Windpilot.

All of us were worn out from the concentrated effort and nervous night, but the cycle of watch keeping rolled on. Only then did we truly appreciate our lost freedom. Oh, the agony of gazing at a watery horizon for hours on end! Without the Windpilot, we were reduced to self-steering in the most literal sense. With the helmsman essentially chained to the wheel for the duration of his or her watch, one of the off-watch crew would have to assist, tending to the ship’s log, weather reports, and sail changes. Namani’s electric autopilot was not an option because it sucked amps too greedily for our fuel resources.

Off-watch phases seemed suddenly short, sleep more desperate. I learned to micro-manage every minute before taking over the wheel, preparing a snack, drink, and art materials for my son, as if he were going off to kindergarten. Thank goodness little Nicky rose to the occasion and merrily amused himself with minimal adult intervention for the next seven days (a backup Lego set saved for just such an occasion didn’t hurt, either).

Without Peter, the experience would have been a real trial that could have put us on the dangerous side of exhaustion. With three crew to take turns at the wheel, we could manage, but were thoroughly tired nonetheless. Three hours of tense hand steering in cool temperatures and squally weather wore by slowly, indeed. It was hard to imagine that once upon a time we had even relished taking over the wheel.

The wind strength and wave size increased dramatically, making the final four days particularly testing. Namani’s twizzle rig worked well, but it was difficult to keep both sails filled in the rolling waves. A moment’s inattention and one of the genoas would back, then fill again with a bone-jarring snap. We were more fixated on forecasts and plots than ever before, while our standards of cuisine and hygiene reached record lows.

Ah, the magnificent sight of land on the horizon! After 1,125 hand-steered miles, we were relieved, to say the least, to gain the lee of Antigua. Soon we were tied up to the customs dock in Jolly Harbour and relishing the luxury of a stable platform and fresh water showers. For Peter, the pleasure was short lived: after 26 days at sea, he had less than six hours to enjoy Antigua before catching the first flight back to work! For Markus and me, it took many nights to shake the habit of sleeping in short, restless increments, despite our sheltered, worry-free location.

Three weeks and a custom-made, $500 replacement bracket later, the Windpilot was back in action. With it, we thoroughly enjoyed four months of Caribbean island hopping and successfully completed two-handed passages up the East Coast of North America without any further steering misadventures. In our new incarnation as ocean-crossing sailors, we truly grew to appreciate our silent shipmate faithfully taking the “self” out of self-steering!

Nadine Slavinski is a sailor and teacher. She did a 10,000-mile voyage with her husband and son. See: sites.google.com/site/sailkidsed/home

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