Self Steering for Sailing Craft

sheet to tiller steering

While sailing on the Chesapeake Bay I was gifted a book that I’d been keeping an eye out for over a year. Self Steering for Sailing Craft by John Letcher is a timeless gem that deserves a space on the shelf of any yacht’s library (unless of course you’re on a boat like mine which doesn’t really have shelves). In the book Letcher uses anecdotal tales to impart sheet to tiller steering methods he used on his voyages through the Pacific Ocean aboard his homebuilt 20-foot cutter Island Girl. 

Over the course of reading the book I learned a lot, but while I was reading it I started to wonder–is this guy one of those engineering types? I’ve met a lot of engineers on boats. I envy them. Their minds just work differently than mine and they can pretty much figure out anything. When in doubt, ask an engineer, but I am not in touch with that side of my brain.

Turns out Letcher was an engineer with a Ph. D. in Aeronautics. So I wondered, does one have to be of that mindset to use his methods?

While my auto pilot, Jane, has been a most lovely companion she simply cannot keep up in some conditions and requires a constant supply of sunshine to run off my ship’s battery. Plus, she’s electronic and subject to corrosion and she’s not exactly water proof. I’m not getting rid of Jane, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable with her as my only form of self-steering if going to sea.

I wanted to see if anyone had tried sheet-to-tiller on an Ariel and found this guy. Again, another engineering type. His methods seemed a little complicated with all types of custom made equipment. I thought this was supposed to be simple? I found myself slightly disenchanted with the idea. Then I met an engineer on the dock who has circumnavigated and just finished the NW Passage. He said, “don’t bother with sheet-to-tiller, get a windvane.”  And so I moved on to that idea for a while.

I know of one vane unofficially for sale for very cheap in New Jersey but it’s owner basically said, “you’re going to have to engineer the shit out of it to get it work and I’ll be very surprised if you do because I didn’t.” Then I wrote a very flattering letter to Yves Gilenas of Cape Horn Wind Vanes in hopes of scoring one at, ahem, “cost.” If I can’t find a wind vane either for cheap or free I may find myself in a bit of pickle because they cost more than my hull.

Picking up Letcher’s book again now I am thinking sheet-to-tiller may be the best method on Vanupied. It certainly would be cheaper and at second glance doesn’t look too complicated. A friend recently sent me this link which shows the method in very simple terms.

I’m getting ready to begin the second stage of the refit to this little boat and I wonder what method self steering method I will wind up adopting.

10 thoughts on “Self Steering for Sailing Craft

  1. I too have the book and my friend has a signed copy! He’s a nuclear engineer But had never tried it even though he has the signed copy of the book. So two years ago I was determined to learn on my Pearson commander how to get it working and I did. I watched about 30 different YouTube videos on different arrangements and it took a while to get my head around the principal but I seem to understand it now. Upwind and downwind configurations are different. There is too much for me to type in this comment section so if you’d like to learn more shoot me a note and I’ll send you an email with the different methods I tried and what I found worked with the balanced Alberg design

  2. Emily, Look up Webb Chiles.

    He uses a series of shock cords and surgical tubing to get the tension right. You might have to dig thru his passage logs to find the details. He has had a hell of a time with autopilots too..He answers email very quickly if you had a specific question, especially when he is landbound as he is in Chicago for several more days, before heading back to his boat in Marathon, soon.

    1. I know of Webb! I worked restoring a Morgan Heritage One Tonne two summers ago! One of only seven built, I reckon, one of which Webb sailed around the world 1.5 times!

  3. Not sure what your budget is but i have a windvane id gladly sell you for 1000, along with all the doo dads to install it, but im in Elizabeth City and im pretty sure youre quite far south of me by now.

    1. Ahoy. I’ll keep that in mind. I’m in no place to spend that kind of change right now but if/when my situation changes I will surely consider it. Thanks!

  4. HI…nice blog. If you can get your paws on a Cape Horn Wind Vane …you’ll be set. They;re amazing!

  5. I’ve recently been watching some Youtube installation videos of different manufacturers of wind vanes. The Ariel has a rather pinched stern and I’m wondering if this will make installation difficult. Since Yves has a similar boat, he’d be the guy to help you figure it out. You’ve already discovered that these things are pretty expensive. Surgical tubing and bungees are cheap! 🙂

  6. your boat when properly trimed will sail itself, surgical tubing is all you need really… I have use it on many sailboats and it works fine… no need for wind pilots tiller pilots or sheat to tiller.

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