Boat Bits

Sometimes collapse starts to feel like too tiresome a subject (more and more so as time goes on), and sometimes I wish to instead channel RLM of BoatBits and write about boaty stuff instead. We just got back from a week-long sailing vacation, of sorts, aboard our new boat. It was supposed to be a lot longer; the original “plan” (the word makes me laugh) was to sail to South Carolina and spend the cold months there, then sail back to Boston in the spring. But the new boat did not inspire confidence with its mechanics, or please me with its sailing ability, so we headed back.

Last year I traded my Hogfish, a very capable seagoing flat-bottom boat of original design, for a production boat with more living space (but less storage space). Our family got bigger, and we needed more room and some additional creature comforts, such as a shower. After looking around, I ended up with a Pearson 365, which is what\’s known as a “classic plastic” sailboat, from the time when commercial boat builders, who generally never leave a corner uncut, didn\’t know how thin they could make the fiberglass and made it stupidly thick and heavy. Classic plastic boats tend to float around a lot longer than their newer cousins, which are made of a foam sandwich and break out in blisters after a while, but that\’s about all they are good at.

Compared to Hogfish, which skitters across waves, sometimes crashing into them with a resounding thud that sends up jets of spray, but never bogging down in them, this Pearson 365 is a miserable sailer, slow and ponderous, burying its bow in the crest of each passing wave, then wallowing in the troughs with a weird corkscrewing motion, its wide, round bilges and relatively tall masts making it efficient as a sort of upside-down floating pendulum. But boats like Hogfish are few and far between, while boats like this Pearson are a dime a dozen. And this is very unfortunate. Perhaps some day I will build a boat of the sort I like: a lot like Hogfish, except much beamier (wider) with a scow hull instead of a sharpie hull. It will have all of the pleasant characteristics I look for in a boat: lots of living space, lots of storage space and tankage, fast and stable even on rough water, shoal draft, cheap to build and maintain, and relatively indestructible.

Well, that boat is in the future (and may stay there forever), but I did manage to make a nice little steampunk improvement to the Pearson, which is what I actually want to write about now. This boat did not come with an autopilot, meaning it could not hold a course left to its own devices, and required continuous hand-steering. Now, steering a boat, under most conditions, is one of the most boring activities imaginable. It\’s not too bad if there are points of land or visible stars to steer by, but if no land is visible or if it\’s dark and overcast then one has to steer by the compass. Do you like staring at a dimly illuminated compass for hours on end while yanking the wheel back and forth until your eyes cross and the muscles between your shoulder blades are convulsed with pain? I sure don\’t! And so I set out to equip this boat with an autopilot, considering it an absolute must-have before the boat can move.

Sailboats have one of two types of steering systems: tiller and wheel. A tiller is a stick that connects with the rudder (meaning that there is little to go wrong). A wheel uses a chain to drive a pulley which drives a cable which drives a quadrant which is connected to the rudder post (meaning that there\’s lots to go wrong). But wheels generate more leverage, allowing boat designers to design horribly unbalanced rudders and get away with it. The idea, I suppose, is to have the wheel provide feedback, to make steering the boat more exciting. (I don\’t find hand-steering a boat exciting in any case.) Hogfish has a tiller that drives a balanced rudder blade; Pearson has a wheel that drives a heavy, unbalanced rudder blade, generating excitement in the process.

For boats with tiller steering there is a wonderfully simple and inexpensive autopilot solution: Simrad makes a line of ingenious, self-contained devices called tillerpilots. These are sticks that clip onto a socket set in the boat with one end and onto a pin set in the tiller with the other. A tillerpilot incorporates a fluxgate compass that senses course changes. Hook it up to 12 volts, push the “auto” button, and the boat goes in a straight line. With wheel steering, there are two options. One is a so-called “wheel pilot” which uses an electric motor to turn the wheel. Wheel pilots have to work very hard to turn the wheel, and have a tendency to explode, littering the cockpit floor with lots of bits of twisted plastic, at the worst possible times. They are not recommended for anything other than toys used to putter about the harbor on fine summer days. The other option is to install a “below-decks” system that includes a hydraulic pump, hydraulic rams, a compass unit, a controller box, and a control head to manage the whole thing. I didn\’t like the idea of installing a wheel pilot, and I wasn\’t willing to blow many thousands of dollars on the below-decks version.

And so I adapted a tillerpilot to work on a wheel-steered boat. I took a windvane (an old Hydrovane that someone gave me)—a mechanical contraption that steers by the wind by controlling an auxiliary rudder that hangs off the transom—and salvaged the rudder and the mounting brackets from it. A friend who does boat metalwork machined a couple of additional pieces for it out of aluminum: an extension piece and a short tiller that connects with the tillerpilot. I sculpted a block out of teak to hold the heel of the tillerpilot and bolted it to the transom. I hooked up the tillerpilot to 12 volts, and networked it to the wind instrument that sits atop the mast, so that it could also steer courses based on the wind direction (very useful when sailing long distances offshore, where the exact course doesn\’t much matter, because this avoids having to trim sails whenever the wind shifts to get optimum speed). And I sailed off into the ocean with it.

On a long stretch of flat water, motoring through a dead calm between Boston and Cape Cod Canal, all of it under autopilot, the course deviated less than a hundred feet. But the ultimate test came when we emerged from the south side of the canal, into Buzzard\’s bay, which is notorious for its nasty chop that builds up whenever the ever-present local sea breeze opposes the tidal current that flushes boats through the canal. That day, the chop was as nasty as ever, causing the Pearson to slew around wildly. Nevertheless, the autopilot again worked just fine, steering us on a zigzagging but overall true course to our destination, and the wheel remained locked at dead center throughout. In short, this design works really, really well, and has several major advantages over all the solutions being offered for sale. These are:

1. Low power consumption. The auxiliary rudder blade is perfectly balanced, trailing in the water but requiring minimal force for steering. The autohelm doesn\’t have to work hard at all.

2. This also gives it long service life: it is designed to generate 100 lbs of force, but here it only needs to generate five or so. I know the sound it makes when it has to work hard, and here it works hardly at all.

3. Auxiliary rudder. Wheel steering is failure-prone (and usually fails at the worst possible time). This is why many boats have an “emergency tiller” that plugs directly into the rudder post (but is almost impossibly heavy to steer with for any length of time). With my arrangement, the autopilot continues to work even when the wheel steering fails, and can be used for hand-steering as well, when the time comes to dock the boat.

4. Improved turning radius. With both the wheel and the auxiliary rudder hard over, the Pearson spins around within its own length, making it much easier to get in and out of marinas.

5. No maintenance nightmares. The only thing that might conceivably fail is the tillerpilot itself, and an extra $600 or so buys you a spare that takes up minimal space on board and can be installed in under a minute. Autohelm busted? No problem, just pop in another one! Unscrew the connector, yank out the old tillerpilot, clip on the new one, screw in the connector, wheel the boat back on course, press “auto.”

Those who are looking at fitting an autopilot to a wheel-steered sailboat should consider this solution. It will steer a boat of any size with minimal power consumption and excellent reliability in all conditions. All that\’s needed is a balanced rudder blade (which is easy to fabricate out of fiberglass), two transom brackets, a stainless steel pipe and a couple of pieces of aluminum rod.

15 Responses to “Boat Bits”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Dmitry, awesome and timely post. I recently purchased a wheel steered 1969 islander 34 with a modified full keel (cutaway forefoot). Autopilot and auxilliary rudder are two upgrades I need to add. This solution looks perfect.Sorry to hear about the disappointment. I'm surprised. The Pearson 365 has a lot of devoted fans and favorable reviews. Thanks again for another sailboat post!

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Dmitry, yes this is a good solution, and it seems strange to me that, at least here DownUnder, so few people do it this way. Not much status I guess compared to the expensive hydraulic units !As an aside, (and you may already be aware of this) \”balanced\” rudders are also a work around for boats that have too much weather helm (or less often, Lee helm), and with some designs this is a difficult thing to correct. However, many boats can respond well to minor re-configurations of the sail plan or rake of the mast(s) to alter the \”position of the centre of effort\” relative to the centre of resistance. As you probably know, these are dynamic… Anyway, I have a similar autopilot setup to yours, but have also experimented with the sail plan to \”balance\” the boat to the extent that she will now sail wonderfully with the old fashioned sheet-to-tiller method used by e.g. Joshua Slocum , so we don't even need to rely on a wind instrument or electricity. You could try this with your auxiliary rudder.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Glad to have you back Dmitry! Great post!

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Hi Dimitri, great post. I recently acquired a Mariner 40 with an ancient Balmar autopilot that I'm sure no longer works. Your solution gives me food for thought sbout a replacement. Having the autopilot rudder perform double duty as an emergency rudder is an elegant benefit. Also, you should check out the scow and sharpie designs of Reuel Parker. I'm contemplating a modified version of his 33 foot scow design as a liveaboard for my son.Cheers, keep living the dream.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    You are absolutely right about becoming exhausted/exasperated with news of the declining world around us. Most of the time I would vastly prefer to work on boat projects and get more things accomplished. And I can nearly see the light at the end of the tunnel. Fair winds Dmitry.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Boat bittin…. good to have a nautical post from you again. We went from a Pearson 32 to a Bolger sharpie 32 and loved it. That boat got sold this summer, due to not enough space, and we miss it already. Running aground in the Pearson was usually stressful but, as you know from Hogfish, nothing but a thing (and reason to brew some good coffee) in a flat bottomed, armored plated craft. It is amazing how many sailors seem to love scows, me included. Bolger drew a great 28 scow design that looks like it would handle like a sports car. As you posited in your classic piece on the return of commercial sail sharpies and scows have so much going for them. The icing on the cake is imagining smuggling cargo in the civil war days and whatnot. Incredibly romantic. BTW: designer- builder Tom Colvins three masted junks, with a long straight keel and deep forefoot, were magnificently balanced self steerers on almost all points of sail. It's all a trade-off…. and all good. Thanks for a fun post and fair winds to spicy ports.

  7. Anonymous Says:

    Dmitry, my solution is to sell the pearson and buy a nonsuch. she will carry everything and everyone. she is very livable. she is very strong. under sail she will blow away all who dare to challange. the other sollution if one has a bit more money is a dual hull catamaran. with an incredible galley and living space, not to mention 4 separate cabins plus double diget speeds…cheers!

  8. Anonymous Says:

    HI Dimitri. On boats everything is a compromise. It is simply not possible to have a stable roomy fast dry safe boat that does everything well. (Disclaimer:I have built and rebuilt many boats and have tens of thousands of sea miles on sailboats and N Pacific fishing vessels.) Using a second rudder and a tiller pilot certainly has been done but while it works in calm conditions in the ICW it will disappoint in a big sea, especially a following sea as you will discover. It is an excellent auxillary backup rudder of course. Most boats have lousy rudders. I'll skip all the configurations and just say the best steering rudders are balanced spades located at the stern.A balanced rudder has the rudder shaft mounted significantly aft of the leading edge. This is how many aircraft rudders are built. For a boat to steer well under all heel angles it needs to maintain a balanced symmetrical underwater profile. This is not possible with tubby beamy sailboats. IMO the best sailing boat will be a long canoe shaped hull. It is important to have a balanced sail plan in effect on all headings and wind angles. On lousy designed sailboats, that will be impossible but it is what you must try to achieve. The Pearsons can be made to steer decently, especially the yawl versions. New relative flat sails will help a lot as will early reduction of headsails. Sailboats that can't be steered in bluewater should be consigned to port and just used as floating RVs. I am a fan of Bill Lapworth and I favor the bigger Cals like the old 40's and up. My boat is a Cal 48 yawl which is dry and wicked fast and steers like an arrow at a significant sacrifice of interior room and amenities.

  9. Anonymous Says:

    Sv koho-It is true that most boat design is a compromise. On the other hand, most boat designs are not compromises but acts of surrender. For instance, they fail to go aground safely and comfortably. Beaching them is called a shipwreck. Most modern designs sacrifice just about everything for just one nice-to-have, speed to windward.My solution works in all sea states, just as a Hyrovane.

  10. Anonymous Says:

    This was exceptionally timely and was a bit surprised by going the route of the Pearson. Recently I've committed to a year round liveaboard in Portland, ME, once my lease is up come spring. Well on the road to assembling stuff to be downsized and some stuff that will be at friends houses, I was re-reading most of the ClubOrlov discourse on boats and sailing. Caught myself wondering what FG sailboats you would consider, but knowing the preference for flat bottomed, wooden boats, I assumed that would be unlikely.1975->1985 Pearsons (30, with luck a 33-2,)are near the top of my list being locally available and very affordable for my pretty modest budget for a 30ft boat. Catalina's and Tartan's are also in that running. It also helps that it seems the present boat market has continued to tank with less disposable income available for a sizable toy, and a absolute glut of boats on the market. I'm hoping during the depth of winter I'll find something.

  11. Anonymous Says:

    I have a solid grp hull in the tropics, and am wondering how long it can be left in the saltwater without damage to grp. It is 25 ft 30yo. When I had it out 22months ago I had it looked over by a boatbuilder and the hull looked really good, no blisters. Thanks.

  12. Anonymous Says:

    \”…its wide, round bilges and relatively tall masts making it efficient as a sort of upside-down floating pendulum.\”Never understood the penchant for building sailboats with soft chines. I had a Lightening class, which has a fairly tall mast for the beam, and with her nice hard chine she would heel over to the angle she liked and sit there comfortably pretty much regardless of gust or wave.

  13. Anonymous Says:

    Hi Demitri, its good to talk about something other than disaster, although I hope you don't feel completely put off by the Pearson. Must be a bit change from Hogfish. I was talking to the guy that built our boat, he's in his 70's now and he mentioned that when he was in his 20's he worked on coastal scows here in New Zealand. They were 60-80 feet had sails and an engine and traded around the top of the south island and the bottom of the north. There are still 2 or 3 left still sailing, he added that it was the best time of his life!!!

  14. Anonymous Says:

    This topic of boating generally is of great interest to me. I've recently begun to relearn sailing, after a *very* long hiatus, thanks to you and Ray Jason. I'm also hoping to learn to build boats. I'll keep your tiller pilot fix in mind for future ref.

  15. Anonymous Says:

    Truly most vessel configuration is a bargain. Then again, most pontoon outlines are not bargains however demonstrations of surrender. For example, they neglect to go ashore securely and I suppose we might as well contract a Boat guide Any ways your post is psyche blowing good fortunes.

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