THE CURIOUS (Tall) TALE OF THE “BAD WEATHER PROBLEM”
An unmistakeable and respected symbol of the bluewater tradition, the Aries vane gear has come to occupy a special place in the history of windvane steering systems. The 1960s were drawing to a close when the three pioneers of windvane steering technology – Nick Franklin of Aries, Derek Daniels of Hydrovane and John Adam of Windpilot – first felt the finger of destiny upon them and tumbled into designing and building windvane steering systems as a job.
No one was shrewder or more successful in those days than Nick Franklin, thanks in part, no doubt, to Britain’s long history as a breeding ground for nautical heroes. Nick Franklin was already manufacturing his Aries Vane Gear on a large scale in the early 1970s, at which point Windpilot was still laminating in GRP moulds under the marital bed and manually sawing, machining and welding its stainless (and then polishing it until the polisher could clearly see his own grimy face reflected back at him).
Was it the rather special location “on top of the hill” in Cowes, Isle of Wight, where work always seemed such a simple and pleasant proposition and the view from the house over the most beautiful stretch of The Solent could so easily tempt the mind away into reverie? Was it perhaps the friendly workforce, virtually every member of which lived close by? Or was it perhaps the proximity of work and home? The way in which enticing smells from the kitchen drifted easily across the fence separating house from workshop so that nobody needed telling when the food was on the table? I was always deeply impressed by the way Nick managed to combine work, home and life as a whole in the same cheerful space and I ended up aiming for much the same in my own life.
It was the little things that really fascinated me:
– the cut-out workshop roof raised especially to accommodate the large milling machine
– the ruthless humour of the women in the workshop
– Nick’s decrepit Peugeot, of which only two of the four gears still worked (perfectly adequate for island life, as Nick would have it)
– the innumerable small coins scattered all over the floor in less heavily trodden areas of the kitchen (I took this to be an oversight at first, but as I bent down to start recovering them I was instructed, with a smile, that coins belonged on the floor – an unconventional contingency fund perhaps)
– a united family living in peace and harmony that always had time to offer visitors and sailors a cup of tea and a seat on the sofa and that seemed to regard business almost as a sideline
– Nick’s own summary of the thing: No complaints, no records kept whatsoever, no computers, rather crazy customers. Good fun. The exact opposite to how we are told we should run our businesses today.
I was proud to be Nick’s man in Germany for a number of years and we both felt it entirely right and proper to exhibit the Aries and Windpilot systems side by side on the Windpilot stand at boat shows. I still have my case of Aries spare parts and if word reaches me of an Aries in difficulty on my patch I am always very happy to assist. This is my ideal of how competitors should interact – an ideal I sadly found in later years to be far removed from reality.
Nick shut up shop in 1990 due to illness, a decision that triggered the dawning of a golden era in the US for the Monitor system, which sprang from the hands of Hans Bernwall in Sausalito, California, as a faithful copy of the Aries. Hans speaks in reverent tones of “Saint Aries”, the key to his bright start in the New World.
It is perhaps worth mentioning that back when they were still friends, Hans Bernwall and Stellan Knöös (of SAILOMAT), both of whom relocated to the USA from Sweden, used to sell windvane steering systems of other brands as well. The two subsequently fell out, however, and, as Hans explained to me by the barbecue on his deck in Sausalito in 1998, have not been in touch at all for many years.
The archetypal Aries went on to spawn a whole series of copies around the world and has now become a classic, being manufactured in virtually the same form for decades.
Time marched on apace, as it does, until some 20 years later a friendly young woman appeared at my stand at the Hamburg boat show wondering whether I might perhaps remember her. My visitor was Helen Franklin, whom I had known as a little girl way back when and who had now come to see me to introduce Dane Peter Matthiesen, the new man/successor/friend of the Franklin family who was henceforth to guide the company’s fortunes in Denmark. What could be more self-explanatory than immediately to invite them both to my house for my boat show party? I didn’t hesitate and nor did they, as a result of which we met again that evening on my sofa. Should I have been a little more circumspect? Oh yes, yes indeed, but at the time I knew no better because I only learned of the instincts of greed and envy once I had had some successes of my own (for more about my own back-story see here,and here, and here ).
Peter Matthiesen, apparently reading rather too much into my friendly gesture, seized on the invitation as an opportunity to take his camera – and the pair of eyes behind it – on a long walk through my workshop. I only noticed because I was interested in talking to the man and learning a bit more about him but I couldn’t find him anywhere in my apartment despite keeping an eye out for him for quite some time. What difference did his research call make? Not much really – I had nothing to hide – but young Mr Matthiesen was obviously very surprised by what he witnessed. I can only surmise that he was hoping to see something altogether different.
The visit turned out to be just the opening act in quite a substantial saga. Peter Matthiesen set to work as an inventor, his only invention of note as far as I am aware being the “Bad Weather Problem”
TIME TO CALL IN THE LAWYERS?
The arguments, claims and counterclaims could of course have underpinned a lucrative job-creation scheme for the legal profession, a wearing, time-consuming and toe-curlingly expensive process that would have begun with hour upon hour of paying lawyers through the nose to listen to me trying to impart to them the knowledge they would need to understand the affair.
I decided instead to jump in my car and drive to Nordborg to discuss the matter in person – and go some way to satisfying my own curiosity at the same time. Bad decision: all that I ended up learning was that not everyone shares my preference for resolving things face-to-face, at least not in Denmark…
Any manufacturer in the sailing industry that ever finds itself tempted to promote its own products by undermining confidence in the competition would do well to bear in mind that sailors are not fools: foolishness tends to be incompatible with happy times under sail. Content to trust in the wisdom of the seafaring public, I decided to add to my book SELFSTEERING UNDER SAIL a chapter entitled The Big Misconception.
The relevant section reads as follows:
Servo-pendulum systems operate on the basis of servo-dynamic force. Essentially, the mounting at the stern only has to withstand the force transmitted through the steering lines to the main rudder and support the gear itself. High loads, such as pounding waves, do not as a rule reach the gear, and breaking waves are more likely to knock the whole boat to leeward than force the pendulum rudder out of its position in the wake. A swell which catches the boat side-on acts on not only the pendulum rudder but also the main rudder, causing both to rotate slightly and absorb some of the force of the wave. The connecting lines from the gear to the main rudder thus act as a kind of sliding clutch, allowing the steering system as a whole to damp every movement.
Experience, of course, is the real test.
If wave action really could bring damagingly large forces to bear on a trailing pendulum rudder blade and its mounting, we would expect to find at least a few instances amongst the thousands of Aries and Monitor systems in use of the pendulum arm being bent against the steering line guide tubes which extend at the bottom of both these systems. This type of damage turns out to be all but unheard of. The configuration of the bevel gear linkage in both systems ensures that the pendulum arm is always brought back into parallel with the keel, i.e. is damped, before it can travel so far sideways. This remains true regardless of wave action or even capsizes.
At the time I simply could not – or would not – imagine that such a poorly-founded marketing campaign had any chance of convincing real sailors that there was only one “safe” vane gear to be had. If the Aries Denmark website is any guide, however, somebody not only did, but still does hope that sailors can be so easily gulled: presented on the page entitled Copies of Aries is a line-up of competitor systems identified as using the “old Aries” design that Aries itself “abandoned years ago due to the Bad weather problem”. The company names of certain of the competitors mentioned on this page have been conspicuously mis-spelled, presumably not by accident, once again raising the question: just how ignorant – or plain stupid – does the author of such ruses believe his target market – practical people all – to be?
A marketing effort of this nature is bound to have some impact, especially among less knowledgeable sailors, but I can honestly say I have fielded very few enquiries on the subject from the sailing public at large.
THE TRUTH WILL OUT
A few days ago I received a letter from Helen Franklin, now based in Penryn in Cornwall, informing me that the Dane had apparently handed his business on to someone in Holland.
Firstly I need to say that I repeatedly, repeatedly asked for the bad weather problem to be taken down. Aries – Marine Vane Gears Franklin’s – never stooped or needed to stoop to such low depths, I know that I need not state such an obvious fact to you.
It causes me problems with my customers all the time, all worried about their vane gears whether it was a Standard, a Lift Up or ‘the bad weather model’ – shudder – then I have to reassure. It was I think the beginning of my distancing myself from Denmark. I was and always have been ignored…
The Bad Weather Problem: snappy title, no basis in fact
Bluewater sailing cannot have seen many more blatant attempts to damage the reputation and business of competitors, an attempt made all the more unsavoury by the fact that it specifically seeks to exploit the safety concerns of inexperienced mariners for marketing purposes. And its perfidiousness has endured too: Helen Franklin asked for the unfounded “Bad Weather Problem” to be removed from the website almost as soon as it appeared, but some 20 years on it’s still there, having been retained and leveraged for all that time by a man who put himself forward as a brand ambassador for the Aries vane gear and requested – and received – the trust of the whole Franklin family. The legendary Aries deserves better.
We live and learn. As I so often seem to find myself writing. Usually in relation to the imponderables of human nature in general and, more specifically, the all-too-familiar scenario of balance and mutual respect in interpersonal relationships being thrown over intentionally in pursuit of other rewards (typically hard cash) and a swift exit over the horizon with all sails drawing.
All in all it is a sorry tale and one I am content to recount unplugged, as it were, and certainly with no sense of Schadenfreude on my part. My instinct is that base ruses of this sort generally betray themselves in the end and I have therefore considered it sufficient – for two long decades as it transpires – to limit my response to a few clarifying remarks in my books and to trust the sailing public to put reason before hocus-pocus.
A Danish website reports that Peter Matthiesen and family recently set sail – with no great public fanfare – for Brazil, where he apparently intends to settle. What next, I wonder? It would be very surprising if this turns out to be the end of the story and I am most curious to discover how things will develop. I will be keeping my ear to the ground,
PS: In memoriam Nick Franklin 1943 – 2010please read