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.

Existential Crisis

sailing the ICW , sailing pearson ariel 26

I’ve been tied to the mooring ball for days. Ten, maybe. Maybe seven. Chipping away at the boat. I’d look at my log but I haven’t been keeping it. The passage of time makes no sense. The days have blurred into one. Drill holes, go to the hardware store, fix a new problem I didn’t know existed. Tear the boat apart. Put it back together.

living on a small boat, refitting a small sailboat for cruising

It seems like a life time ago I was cruising in Tandem with Sixth Girl, a Melody 32, and her captain Dale. She won the Chicago Mackinac, once. In the sixties. She fell off a semi-truck once, too. Dale has been restoring her to do a trip much like my own–except he’s sailing on the outside of the Atlantic Coast. What I intend to do has snippets of it, but is mostly part of the Inter Coastal Waterway. There’s blue water though, on my trip. And even more blue water to chose from once I get further south.

melody 32, charlie morgan,

People ask me why I’m doing this. For food, I suppose. I never know what to eat in the American world of meat and dairy. I’m searching for coconuts and pineapples (although I’m slightly allergic to pineapples. On a crowded bus to a tiny peninsula in Costa Rica my lips started to tingle and I pondered the possibility of a tracheotomy and who on said bus might know how to perform one. I’ve got plenty of benadryl on my boat though…don’t worry, mom).

“I’m trying to find the conch dock,” I’ll often say. “You know, a place you can tie up your dinghy and there’s like, fried conch for cheap.” (But the Carribean and Bahamas are expensive I’ve heard. So the odds are greater I’ll have to learn to forage for my own sea food). I just like saying ‘the conch dock.’

Bluewater, I suppose, is a reason too. While it scares me more than anything it’s something I’ve always yearned to return to since a yacht delivery from NZ to Tonga in 2011. I suppose it’s there that my obsession with sailing boats truly began, but I’m only just beginning to know what I’m actually doing.

pearson ariel 26

Wherein lies my problem is that my boat is ready for this trip (almost, a few more screws and pieces of string), but the whole point is to keep going and she’ll need more work for that. I know that without constant maintenance and upkeep she will turn for the worst. Even though I’ve done nothing but make her better and stronger, I’m afraid that once I leave here and all my resources I’m not going to be able to continuing making progress to her and I’ll be forced to leave. I’m afraid I won’t be able to accept that and I’ll fall into the category of ‘live aboard’ not ‘sailor,’ stuck somewhere in Florida.

What if I never make it beyond to distant shores?

But aren’t they all distant shores? I have the Champlain Canal, Hudson River, New Jersey coast, Chesepeake Bay and more in front of me before I have to worry about that. Shit, there’s even the possibility that this all works out. That I maintain my focus. That I continue to learn.

Still, I can’t stop thinking about making her totally blue water capable. Like strong enough to cross an ocean. Nothing for miles except blue onboard my own boat. New standing rigging, strengthening her transom, ripping out and rebuilding everything that’s decaying, stripping her to bare bones, etc., etc…

Can I do it all along the way? Will other parts of the country, or other countries entirely be as friendly and helpful as this sailing community has been? Will I sail into the perfect port some thousands of miles from her to begin another stage of my little boat’s refit?

I guess I’ll find out.