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17, 2003-front page
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Technical Report 1: Equipment and Routines
Aboard the yacht Otter
Opua, New Zealand
Dear Friends and E-mail Family,
In New Zealand I received a letter from my cousin Charles, who asked me a
number of questions concerning how the boat sails itself while I am doing
He said that when reading the answers to my son Scott’s friends about how I
spend my days, he wondered about my nights. How could I sleep seven or eight
hours, how do I steer during bad weather and protect against big waves at night,
and do I always sleep at night?
Just for the record, I hate steering. It is boring unless you’re on a
racing yacht or a small boat. If I have to hand-steer more than 10 hours from
here back to Block Island it will be too much!
I include my answers to him here in order to more fully describe the gear and
techniques that allow me to rest, thereby helping me maintain an essential
element of safety, an alert mind.
We’re all on the journey,
There are two methods for self-steering on board Otter. One is an
Autohelm 4000 and the second is a Monitor windvane.
The Autohelm 4000 is an electronic autopilot, a device with a small
gyrocompass that can be set for a particular compass heading, such as 180
degrees (due south), and hold Otter on that compass course without
regard to wind or currents.
When engaged, it senses when the boat is veering off the compass heading
and sends power to a small motor that, through a series of gears and a ring
attached to the steering wheel, will steer left or right to compensate for any
course change. It steers the boat in a very straight line.
I use it primarily in light air or when motoring for long stretches. I also
use it sometimes while coming into harbors when I need to work on the foredeck
preparing the anchor or furling sails.
The Autohelm has two drawbacks. First, it consumes electricity, which
drains the batteries if the engine is not running. So, I normally do not use
it under sail alone. Second, if it is used under sail and the
wind shifts direction, holding to a compass course means Otter could
gybe or tack. Having the boom slam from one side to the other unexpectedly is
never a good idea, especially while I’m asleep.
Although I do not use it much offshore, it is very useful near shore and
Unfortunately, the Autohelm unit burned out in the Gulf of Panama during a
26-hour calm when I motored all one day. I’m having it repaired in New
The Monitor windvane, the second method for self-steering, keeps the
boat on course relative to the wind direction versus the compass heading of
The windvane is a contraption rigged up on a frame of stainless-steel
tubing bolted to the transom.
Below the frame is a small stainless-steel rudder, which is hinged to lift
out of the water when not in use. Above the frame is a wind-blade shaped like
a paddle and about the size of a cricket bat.
This wind-blade can be turned at its base so the leading edge faces the
When I have Otter sailing on her proper course and have all the
sails trimmed and the boat balanced, I turn the wind-blade into the wind and
The wind-blade is hinged at its base such that as the boat heads left or
right, away from the wind, the wind pushes the blade to one side or the other.
Through a connecting mechanism, the stainless-steel rudder is turned –
similarly to the ship’s rudder – to port or starboard. The force of the
passing water against the rudder pushes it, using a second hinge, to the left
or right of center behind the transom.
Very taut connecting lines between the small rudderpost and the ship’s
steering wheel pull on the wheel, which then turns the big rudder, which
steers the boat back to its proper heading relative to the wind.
Got that? At any rate – it works!
The windvane, though, has its drawbacks. First, when Otter is going
under a knot-and-a-half in light wind, there isn’t enough pressure on the
small rudder to move it, which means we will go very slowly in circles.
Second, and more commonly, when the wind changes directions, so does the boat.
I have gotten up at night to find we’ve spent hours sailing a reverse
course because the wind had shifted a full 180 degrees. Usually we won’t
sail for long like this as the boat’s motion changes because of the boat’s
new angle to the prevailing wave pattern. This change usually wakes me to
check what’s going on.
The Monitor windvane is pretty amazing: it goes for weeks, hour after hour,
adjusting, moving, and steering the boat with wind- and water-power alone. In
the trade wind areas, where the wind can be from the same direction for days,
it needs very little adjustment.
Radar and Electronic Watch Devices
I have two electronic systems that "see" for me, primarily
detecting large ships, while I’m asleep or just below off-watch.
The first is a Collision Avoidance Radar Detector (CARD) system. It
is a passive radar detector that merely senses other ships using radar. It is
similar to the "fuzz-buster" radar detectors used in cars, but
modified for marine use.
It is also directional. When a large ship running its radar comes close
enough, an audible alarm goes off and the screen displays lights around a
diagram of the boat showing me the direction from which the signal is being
CARD has its drawbacks. It is haphazard: sometimes it doesn’t pick up a
radar signal until a ship is very close; occasionally, not at all. So, it’s
not foolproof. But it draws very little power, which is a plus. (This unit
also went a little buggy in Panama and is presently in for repair.)
The second is a Furuno Radar system. It has a sending/receiving unit
two-thirds of the way up the mast and a monitor screen in the navigation area
("nav station") in the cabin.
It has both ‘guard zone’ and ‘watchman’ features. The former is a
search-area specification, the latter is a search-frequency setting.
I set a guard-zone search area between two concentric circles with Otter
at the center. I set the inner circle about two miles out and the outer circle
another six or seven miles past that, giving me an entrance-horizon of between
eight and nine miles away and a sweeping-search area about seven miles wide.
When I activate the radar, anything it detects inside this zone will set
off an audible alarm; any ship coming toward me will set it off upon entering
(I set the inner edge of the guard zone at two miles out because the radar
picks up wave tops within two miles of Otter as blips on the screen,
and a blip in the same spot twice will set off the alarm.)
I then set the watchman timer for 10-minute intervals. The watchman cycles
the radar through a ‘sleep/off’ period of eight minutes followed by a
1-1/2 minute warm-up and then 30 seconds of sweeping. If it detects nothing,
it cycles off again for another eight minutes, a real power-saver.
Unfortunately, passing rain showers will reflect the signal and set off the
alarm. This means that on nights with lots of squalls, I’m up a lot.
Also, it isn’t sensitive enough to pick up smaller yachts, so if there is
another single-hander out there sleeping without a better radar than mine, we
could collide. But I consider the chances of this very slim.
Of course, it does not pick up low-visibility and submerged hazards, like
logs, whales, or containers, the big steel trailer-sized boxes, that get blown
or washed off of ships. (There are over 1,000 containers lost at sea every
year, and not all of them sink.)
But the radar is indispensable. I never go to sleep without it on.
For safety’s sake, before I go to sleep I make the following general call
on my VHF radio to any vessel in the area: "Any vessel, any vessel, this
is the sailing vessel Otter. If you hear me, please come back." I
repeat this three times.
If there is a ship within VHF range, about 16 miles, I give them my
position and course, and inform them I’m going to sleep and please keep an
eye out for me. On at least two occasions I have gotten responses from yachts
I hadn’t seen or picked up with my instruments.
‘Feelings’ and Intuition
The sleep at sea is different from that ashore, but no less restful.
Offshore, almost all long-distance sailors develop a feeling for normal boat
noises and normal motion or levels of heeling. Even in a deep sleep, a
slightly different noise or motion will wake me. It is like a mother with a
newborn: a small cry or noise will wake her. After checking on the sound, or
doing what is required, returning to sleep is usually quick.
The hardest thing I have had to deal with is lowering my anxiety enough to
rest despite a sense of constant potential danger. Calming that anxiety
involves visualizing myself in a safe environment, in bed at home, for
Prayer also helps give me the feeling that I am protected in sleep by
forces I will never understand but that are benevolent. The calming effect of
prayer becomes more of a challenge as weather gets bad.
I have had a ‘feeling’ I should get up and look around, only to see a
ship nearby that my instruments hadn’t warned me about. I’ve had the ‘feeling’
I should reef in light air on a gray day and immediately afterwards got hit
with 40-knot gusts that would have done damage had I been caught with the
I don’t mean to sound casual about these feelings, and I certainly don’t
rely on them to keep me safe. But they have happened often enough to feel like
a sixth sense, which helps me feel more at ease.
Whenever the rail starts touching the water, I’ll furl the sails to
reduce the heeling. When storm conditions make things too rough, I adjust the
sails, furl and haul them in, until it is comfortable below.
Concerning big seas, once the wind has been blowing for a while from one
direction, a regular wave pattern forms. In very heavy weather, as seas get
steeper, the biggest danger is cresting waves. So far in those conditions
(except off Block Island) I’ve been running downwind.
In high seas I will close all the hatches tight and put two ¾" clear
Lexan dropboards in the companionway opening, then close the overhead
companionway sliding hatch. The dropboards and hatch have barrel-bolts that
hold them in place.
On the way to Panama from Aruba in 18’ cresting seas, one washed right
over us. It was a terrific thump but only a small amount of water came below.
And now in similar conditions I put tape over the cracks where it can get in.
All this reefing and sealing is done to the end of feeling prepared to sail
comfortably, or at least safely, in any conditions, including a hurricane. I
say this knowing and remembering the storm I went through south of Block
Island on my way to Bermuda. I hope I’ll never be tested like that again,
but I am gaining more confidence in my ability to understand what Otter
needs in those circumstances.
"Battening down the hatches" makes it stuffy in Otter’s
cabin, but I feel safe. I said I wanted a boat that could go over Niagara
Falls and survive. I think Otter could do it.
However, if I have to face seas over 20’ and winds over 55 knots again, I
am prepared to try procedures I haven’t used but have read about, and gear I
have yet to deploy, like the storm drogue my father sent and that I assembled
Sleep Patterns at Sea
I usually start to sleep at 10:00 p.m. and wake at midnight or 1:00 a.m.,
check everything, then sleep till 4:00 a.m., wake again, then sleep till 6:00
a.m., when I get up.
Nights with squalls or rain or heavy wind I may be up more, even all night.
When this happens I nap as much as possible the following day.
My sleep procedure when approaching land after days at sea is to sleep as
much as I can the day before, starting with naps for as long as possible at
noon. Sometimes I lie in the bunk with my eyes closed, not asleep, just
resting, relaxing. This is so I can be up checking our position every hour or
less as we get closer and closer.
I start to pay constant attention when we come within 40-50 miles of land.
So, if we are moving at five knots, a 10:00 a.m. ETA means that I maintain a
close watch beginning at midnight the night before. A 6:00 a.m. ETA at the
same five knots means being up all night, perhaps slipping in a few catnaps.
This technique of building a sleep surplus has worked well and I can
usually be awake a full 24 or 28 hours and be alert if I rest a lot the day
Ship’s Log, Passage Notes, and Daily Journal
While at sea, my days are usually spent doing sea chores, writing in my
various trip records and journals, doing watercolors, and reading.
Some legs, though, I spend very little time writing or watercoloring; in
reviewing my journal after one leg, the pages were blank except for two days.
The descriptions that get transcribed into these e-mail reports are pieced
together from my three primary records -- the official log book, my passage
notes, and my daily journal -- and memory.
The ship’s log is a record of the vital information necessary to run and
navigate the boat. The left-hand page has boxes I’ve created marking off
three days’ worth of space for entries on water use and amount remaining,
fuel use and amount remaining, engine and fuel filter run-times, notes of when
filters are changed, and battery readings--consumption and input. On the
right-hand page are pre-printed columns for time, compass heading, boat speed,
sea height, vessels sighted, sky, wind speed and direction, barometric
pressure, position (GPS) and remarks. There are the "Just the facts, ma’am"
I keep a spiral notebook labeled "Passage Notes" in which I
record the day’s trivia, such as the "coconut-net" boats’
positions as well as positions from my GPS and the math to determine speed and
distance figures before entering them in the log. Also, it contains the
weather forecasts I hear on my SSB receiver and scribbles I make while talking
on the VHF to nearby boats. I write, for example, the name of the boat, the
name of the person I’m speaking to, and highlights of the conversation as we
talk. Passage notes are simply cryptic memory joggers along with quick
thoughts or observations intended to be transferred later into the journal.
The daily journal is a separate book that has more description of the feel
– the colors – the thoughts -- the non-navigational events of the days.
Without journal or passage notes, many of these days are lost. I have no
memory of them. I can only reconstruct from my log where I was and if it was
sunny or gray.
End of Technical Report One