It can take a bit of effort to strike up a working relationship with a self-steering wind vane but, as this skipper found, it can be well worth it
Like me, you may have followed with interest the stories about failed self-steering wind vanes that emerged from the last Golden Globe Race. My own experience of a Windpilot Pacific on my 20-ton gaff cutter Westernman showed that, set up with sympathy for the boat and the conditions, this equipment is hard to fault.
Decades ago, I sailed the North and South Atlantic with a Gunning pendulum-servo gear on another gaff cutter. The Gunning looked agricultural, yet it performed without demur for years. I almost never hand-steered either boat under sail.
This Great Seamanship extract is from a hitherto unpublished article by Tom Fisher about Angus, his ‘Hebridean’ wind vane on Arctic Smoke, a 1974 Elizabethan 33. The subtitle to his original copy read: ‘A tale of repeated user errors with a happy ending’. That, I think, says it all.
The Hebridean is a light, inexpensive gear, produced in kit form in Scotland. Tom shows how an intelligent, experienced sailor capable of basic DIY maintenance can work his way through the teething issues and end up with a noble system that changes his life. Vane gears are not ‘plug and play’. They need understanding, like people, which is probably why so many of them end up with names. Mine were called Percy and Wolfgang.
Read on, meet Angus, and find enlightenment.
From Tom Fisher’s Arctic Smoke blog
Arctic Smoke left the UK in April 2015 bound for the Azores via Lisbon. She subsequently completed a full Atlantic circuit. The previous year I had bought and fitted an Aries wind vane system. It worked fine but was heavy enough to bring the stern down a couple of extra inches.
I was also concerned about whether the stern would prove strong enough to support the weight through the challenging conditions we expected to encounter. Therefore, at the end of 2014 on the recommendation of a friend, I bought a Hebridean kit.
Angus was finished only a couple of weeks before we set off, the ‘we’ being me and my pal Tony. I foolishly didn’t undertake any sea trials before leaving and that was to prove a significant omission. Casting the lead-shot weight that counter-balances the vane was one of the last jobs. We got the epoxy mixture wrong and the whole thing fell apart and scattered all over the saloon floor.
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Time was pressing, so we swept the mess up and tried again. This time it all stuck together but we didn’t realise that we had lost a significant amount of lead shot into the bilges. The weight was therefore rather lighter than it should have been. This was to cause us a great deal of grief.
A week or so later in March 2015 we left Chatham on a brisk day with three crew. For reasons that escape me other than bone idleness on my part, Angus didn’t get a look-in on the legs down to Plymouth. Perhaps I was secretly worried about whether he would work properly, but whatever the reason we simply relied on the tiller pilot when we got bored with hand steering.
It was only after our departure from Plymouth that we attempted to press Angus into service. He didn’t work at all, even after we figured out that the counter weight should be pointing into the wind and not away from it. The weather was fresh – we were beating into a lively south-west wind to escape the western approaches and it was bloody cold.
Conditions were not ideal for setting up a wind vane and so, after a few hours of fiddling about and reading the instructions, we reverted to the tiller pilot. It lasted for 24 hours before it burned out, so we ended up hand-steering all the way to La Coruña.
In Coruña we went through the instructions yet again, adjusted the angles of the tiller lines and moved the connecting point on the tiller further back to get more power. We then day-hopped round to Vigo with no noticeable improvements in performance, and Sharon (my wife) flew out with a new tiller pilot.
We fiddled around with Angus some more in Vigo, including adjusting the length of the counterweight rod and to our great relief Angus was at last able to steer the boat – sort of. But he could not be left on his own for very long. By the time we got to Lisbon, we had made numerous further adjustments to just about every one of Angus’ moving parts, as well as his various pulleys and lines, and were confident enough to carry on with the trip.
We were not, however, 100% satisfied. There was one more thing we needed to check – the counterbalance. I had previously emailed the designer John Fleming to ask his advice and, having relayed the latest symptoms to him, he recommended we check the counterbalance weight. This required accurate electronic scales – but we could not find a set anywhere.
Then, quite by chance, we bumped into a young couple who not only had a set of scales on board but also some lead sheet! The weight was light by a few ounces. The solution was to cut a strip of lead sheet of the required weight and wrap it around the counterbalance weight.
As a temporary measure, we tapped the weight and screwed the lead strip onto it. Like many of my temporary fixes, that one is still in place. Finally, therefore, we were hopeful that the combination of trial and error, John’s excellent after-sales service and the final ingredients of the scales and the lead sheet had resolved all the issues. However, we would have to wait for some more challenging conditions to be sure.
More tweaks required
Our next leg was to Madeira on a close reach in fresh winds and some pretty big seas. During this passage one further problem presented itself. Angus’s servo paddle can swivel upwards if it hits an obstruction, preventing major damage. The force of the large waves now beat the system, repeatedly swivelling the paddle clear of the water so that he lost control. Friction bolts are fitted to prevent this, but even after tightening these to the maximum the problem remained.
The instructions suggest using a shear pin, strong enough to prevent this but weak enough to break if necessary. However, with Arctic Smoke’s keel-hung rudder protecting Angus, the paddle is pretty safe, so I inserted a stainless steel bolt through the mounting beams just behind the pivot assembly to prevent Angus from rising up. Angus now performed entirely to our satisfaction and we had no cause to reprimand him for the rest of the 2015 cruise. Indeed, he became quite taken for granted.
Arctic Smoke arrived in the Canaries in August 2015 and remained in Pasito Blanco for the next 12 months. I returned in September 2016 to prepare her for the Atlantic crossing. My friend Mick joined me and, before our November departure, he gave Angus a thorough service including tightening various nuts and bolts that had worked loose.
The first big test came on our crossing to Martinique. We soon picked up fresh tradewinds and ran under twin headsails – the genoa boomed out with the main boom and a jib hanked on to the emergency forestay poled out with the spinnaker pole.
Within a few days the wind was blowing Force 6-7 and we were running under a deeply furled genoa and a small jib. The seas were far and away the biggest I had experienced and were usually coming from both quarters as well as from astern. With her classic long and narrow underwater profile, Arctic Smoke rolled horribly as her stern was lifted and shoved to one side and then the other.
This also pushed her off course but providing the wind strength was reasonably constant Angus recovered her heading unaided. This was the case for most of the first two thirds of the crossing.
In the later stages, however, we were pummelled by frequent squalls and sometimes, despite Angus’s best efforts, Arctic Smoke was slewed round so far that one or other of the headsails would back. With enough time, this was self-correcting as the backed sail pushed the boat’s head back on track. However, the forces on the rig were enormous and the whole boat would shake as the backed sail first went slack and then filled with a mighty snap. In these conditions, it was necessary to help
Angus counter the effect of the stern being pushed round by applying some extra force on the tiller, but for the vast majority of the time he coped unaided. It may be that moving the tiller attachment a little further back towards the rudder shaft will improve Angus’s response time still further, but that’s an experiment yet to be undertaken.
During that last week of the Atlantic crossing (we travelled the 2,200 miles in 16 days with an average speed of just under 5.5 knots) Arctic Smoke dealt with the biggest and most confused seas of the entire circuit, together with frequent squalls of near gale force.
However, it was not until the passage from Bermuda to the Azores in May 2017 that we experienced our first full and sustained gale. Between times, I sailed on my own from Jamaica around the south and north-west coasts of Cuba, through the Florida Straits and the Bahamas to Bermuda.
I encountered the full range of weather conditions short of a gale. I rarely if ever had to help Angus. Indeed, even in the most unfavourable conditions – very light airs from astern – Angus was able to steer a course.
It was only now I fully comprehended how the various forces interacted, and how they affected Angus, so I could work out the best approach to setting him up. After hours of observation and numerous mistakes, this is therefore my take on setting up a pendulum-servo wind vane:
Acquiring the knack
Compensating for weather helm is key and is best done before making final course adjustments. More sail equals more weather helm and there’s a limit to how much any type of wind vane system can cope with. So, it’s essential to manage weather helm by setting the optimum sail plan for the wind strength.
Once the vane is clearly responding to changes in the apparent wind direction by moving from side to side and the whole assembly is at right angles to the boat, you’ve got it. Then you make final changes to the angle of the vane to achieve the desired course.
As the passage continues, changes in wind strength will of course alter the amount of weather helm. Significant gusts and lulls produce greater and lesser degrees of weather helm and can be compensated for by moving the chain links that connect wind vane to tiller.
When you run out of adjustment it’s time to reduce sail. With some systems, including Angus, there’s also the question of which vane to use. His largest and lightest is needed in light airs to generate sufficient power. In stronger winds, this one bends and is replaced by a smaller plywood vane about two thirds of the size. I have never used my ‘storm vane’ which is about half the size again.
On the passage between Bermuda and the Bahamas I opted for the standard rig of main and boomed-out genoa in preference to a twin headsail rig. This therefore, is how we were set up when the gale arrived. I’d chosen this sail plan partly because it’s more flexible and partly in an attempt to minimise rolling, which I think it did. The main disadvantage was increased weather helm and so Angus had to work harder.
Fortunately, whilst fitting out in Pasito Blanco, I had a fourth reef inserted into the mainsail. When I first tested it, I was worried that I had overdone it, but when the gale arrived I realised it was just what was required. With the wind from astern or off the quarter, a scrap of genoa boomed out to windward and the four reefs in the mainsail, we left Angus at the helm, put the washboards in and went below.
Very occasionally in the strongest gusts and biggest waves, the mainsail would back (a full gybe was avoided by use of a preventer on the main boom and the sail area was small enough to avoid over-pressing the boat). When that happened I had to get out into the cockpit and steer the boat back round. Occasionally I had to complete the gybe by easing the preventer and re-setting it on the other side.
To sum up: once he was set up properly, Angus was wonderful and I’ll never again go sailing on Arctic Smoke without him!
First published in the November 2018 issue of Yachting World. For more Hebridean information see: windvaneselfsteering.co.uk