How Do You Steer?

I doubt is is possible for a shorthanded crew to hand steer a yacht 24 hours a day, for 2 weeks. Even if possible, it is certainly not my idea of fun. Fortunately, we have three ways to steer our yacht without standing at the wheel constantly.

First, is to let the boat steer herself. With careful sail trim, and reasonably steady winds, the Fetchin’ Ketch will drive herself in a very straight line. This has the the advantage of simplicity, no moving parts, and in the right conditions the boat holds a very good steady course. On the other hand, if the wind strength or direction is shifting, the boat has a hard time settling in a groove. Also, this really only works well when sailing upwind. In these conditions, other options are available.

Our electronic autopilot is affectionately (usually) known as “Otto”. A computer controls an electric motor that turns the steering wheel. Otto in various iterations has been a loyal crew member for about 10 years. He uses an electronic compass and the boat’s electronic wind sensor to decide where to point the boat. He works in most all conditions, is easy to set up and change course. He’s a great friend to a short handed crew. You can tell Otto to “Point the boat that way” and he’ll do it while the human crew runs around setting sails, or doing other tasks. He can steer if the boat is under sail or power.

On the down side, Otto is quite hungry for electricity. While out in the ocean we would struggle with our solar panels to keep him fed 24/7. He is also a complex electro-mechanical device with lots of moving parts. Although he has been reliable, if he has a major breakdown repair is not likely to be possible at sea.

This brings us to our newest crew member, Wendy. Wendy is a Sailomat windvane. She uses the wind to decide which way to turn the boat, and uses the water moving past the boat to generate the force needed to turn the rudder. A very clever system of strictly mechanical parts. We gave her a good workout today after making some modifications to her rigging, and she performed like a champ in 15 to 20 knots of wind she steered the boat to an accurate course both upwind and down. Not to mention, but she is also kind of hypnotically fascinating to watch.

Using no electricity the basic mechanism being pushrods, pulleys and lines, she is simple to repair. These reasons make windvanes pretty standard on long distance cruising boats. Of course, they aren’t perfect. They can be fussy, taking time to learn all of the adjustments needed to get good performance. Windvanes are not usable while under power, and they take a fair amount of time to get rigged and working. Finally, they do steer to a constant angle to the wind. If the wind changes, the boat follows.

Our expectation is that Wendy will be doing almost all the steering as we cross the ocean.

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