SAIL IN BALANCE, LIVE IN BALANCE
Self-Steering under Sail is both the title of a book (a book crammed full of information about how to make yourself obsolete in your own cockpit) and the subject that has dominated my working life, bringing me pleasure and friendship and showing how a person can make a living – in balance – on the back of a few simple rules.
The very thought of sailing makes me sleepy: my boat comfortably balanced with its Windpilot in control, the skipper dreaming contented dreams in his bunk – over and over again with never the slightest hitch (but sometimes with a Paolo Conte soundtrack). How wonderfully sublime to lie back and feel a well-balanced boat (with windvane self-steering system) sailing itself. But all too soon such thoughts are overtaken by weariness, the mind surreptitiously lulled into sleep because of a mysterious irresistible link between the sounds of the sea and the weight of the seafarer’s eyelids – a trap one can only escape with an ingenious and effective invention, an uncomplaining slave for the helm that leaves the skipper to sleep in peace while keeping the boat in sync with the wind and waves and ticking off the miles at pace.
My continuous development of transom ornaments has been a purely self-serving exercise with the added bonus of paying for my existence. And just as the self-steering business has paid for me, so I have paid for my involvement in the self-steering business. The windvane sector is pretty small even at the global level, so it is very easy to attract attention: expressing an opinion is really all it takes. Repeatedly and vehemently. The endless loop of my life… Here is my report.
Windvane self-steering systems are master teachers: there’s no such thing as “it doesn’t work!” It all ultimately comes down to sailing in balance: if big rudder movements are what it takes to stay on course, there’s likely too much canvas aloft and the race is soon lost. Sailing with the handbrake on makes no sense with a human – rapidly tiring and better employed on more cerebral pursuits – at the controls and no more sense with a mechanical substitute in his or her place.
Message received and understood (a thousand times over) right? Perhaps it depends on what we mean by “understood”. We often see a yawning gap between theory and practice and this gap has a name: ambition. Ambition begins to gnaw away at the soul as soon as the sailor becomes competitive, with himself/herself or others, and loses sight of the importance of balance. Can it be right to abandon common sense (or prudent seamanship, as it might be called in our context) just because the enemy is on your tail? Participants in the GGR faced a dilemma very much like this for months on end.
WINDVANE SELF-STEERING SYSTEMS ROAD-TESTED IN THE GGR
Hardly! Windvane self-steering systems are not a tool for racing, especially not in high latitudes, so their use in the GGR was always going to push them to their limits and leave their skippers riding the razor’s edge. The fate of every GGR participant was inextricably entwined throughout the race with that of his or her windvane self-steering system. Problems could (and did) mean game over because, with electrical autopilots being banned, the only option in the absence of a reliable vanegear was to start steering by hand – immediately and potentially for the rest of the race. There can be little worse for a non-stop solo sailor, especially when the sleep deprivation starts to kick in as well.
Success in the recent race came to those who managed to combine sound seamanship with extensive experience and robust and reliable self-steering. The human side has probably been covered sufficiently already: nothing good happens unless skipper and machine are working in harmony. But what if harmony and balance are lost? Does the blame accrue to the flesh and blood or the nuts and bolts? One, of course, can speak up for itself but the other has no voice to defend its virtue, all of which leaves windvane self-steering system manufacturers dangerously vulnerable. Being the purveyor of vital equipment tees one up perfectly for the role of fall guy, a role in which I was to star in the GGR.
When designing things like aircraft and bridges, engineers and architects include very substantial safety margins to ensure their creations are reliable and durable: no sacrificial links or designed-in points of failure to see here! Different rules apply when it comes to sailing boats, however, with past experience of what works and what does not always spurring designers and their customers on. Stresses are calculated, loads modelled and strengths tested – and the results are no doubt a wonderful and precise resource. The challenges of the real world have never bowed down to theory, however, so failure inevitably comes anyway, probably when reality moves just beyond the maximum predicted load. Some sailors love to push the design envelope and ride the razor’s edge!
Owners at the forefront of fast sailing yacht design today have some remarkable beasts in their stable, a striking testament to what can be achieved with ambition, committed (deep-pocketed) sponsors and cutting-edge boat-building techniques. The French continue to lead the way in this respect. But, amazing as the latest racing craft undoubtedly are, this is not my world at all.
Windvane self-steering systems (WSS) are a different story altogether, with many still based very much on lessons learned in 1968. This is due not so much to a shortage of knowledge or new ideas as to a lack of willingness to innovate and the not-unrelated factor of a market with low expectations. Anyone with a passing interest in the subject can see where improvements might be made: the wonderfully incontrovertible principles of physics ensure every frailty betrays itself sooner or later.
Conceived for extended travel at sea, WSS have ornamented the transom of cruising yachts in their thousands. The physical laws governing the relationship between boat, trim and self-steering are set in stone, as are the limits to what WSS can achieve: with no eyes to spot breaking waves or other hazards, windvane self-steering systems stick resolutely to the task of maintaining the defined wind angle – even if this takes them straight through the wave. Sailors have every right to expect good steering from the WSS but cannot expect it to make good decisions as well. It is down to them, rather than their equipment, to exercise sound judgement and be prepared to steer by hand when conditions become too challenging.
Half a century of empirical evidence in relation to WSS tells us that sailors usually add a windvane as backup for their existing autopilot only to discover, to their astonishment, that it is the autopilot (AP) that ends up playing second fiddle. Sailors who have both systems (WSS and AP) on board and crew as well actually have multiple levels of redundancy: if things really go pear-shaped, someone can be ordered from their bunk. This being the case (and it usually is), the show can generally go on even if the WSS picks up an injury.
The situation for the GGR boats was quite different, because autopilots (and crew!) are banned in the rules. Awe-inspiring as the extensive rulebook for the GGR may be, I think this strict ban is probably a mistake. The rules were modified in a number of ways to allow modern technology onto the boats and will probably be modified further in future. At least I certainly hope they will be.
Comparing the GGR with La Longue Route (LLR), we can see that Susanne Huber-Curphy’s autopilot-equipped Nehaj, for example, emerged with no on-board emergencies despite encountering five severe storms. Significantly, Susanne deployed a Jordan Series Drogue during the worst of the weather. She was able to commit to this time-consuming safety measure in part because she had the option of taking her Aries out of action and letting the autopilot do the work instead for a while (trying to get a series drogue and all of its spaghetti into the water with the servo-pendulum rudder still in position doesn’t bear thinking about). Other LLR boats did the same thing, which probably goes a long way to explaining why that race had no near-disasters at the same time as the GGR was producing one after another.
THE DANGERS IN DETAIL
The challenges of racing hard in the high latitudes have been clearly set out by Robin Knox-Johnston (RKJ). The prevailing conditions down below the great capes allow the development of wave formations that, with no land to interfere, are free to run and grow until a sudden windshift during the passage of a storm interrupts their rhythm. Secondary waves at a different angle now appear, interfering with the regular wave pattern and creating chaotic peaks and troughs that pose a grave threat to sailors ensnared in the middle. Smaller traditional long-keelers are particularly vulnerable because, unlike faster designs with the ability to surf, they lack the speed necessary to escape oncoming weather systems.
KNOCK DOWNS, ROLLOVERS AND PITCHPOLES
These are the hazards awaiting sailing boats in the high latitudes. Of particular interest to me (naturally) are DESIGNATED POINTS OF FAILURE/OVERLOAD PROTECTION FITTINGS on WSS, because once they have failed/tripped, the WSS remains unavailable to steer until it has been repaired (until the failed component has been replaced) or reset. This trap may well have contributed to the downfall of Are Wiig and Susie Goodall, as both found themselves having to steer by hand in emergency situations.
DESIGNATED POINTS OF FAILURE
A designated point of failure is a weakness intentionally designed into the system so that when overloaded (in this case during extreme weather), the system will fail in a predictable way that avoids more serious damage to the system or its mounting on the transom.
Resilient elements (friction systems, latching, shear pins or spring-loaded joints) built into the system can take the sting out of impacts to the rudder blade or shaft (as might be caused by flotsam, for example), but the – lateral – forces involved in a knock down, rollover or pitchpole are far greater because in striving to maintain their dynamic position at the stern, rudder and shaft are likely to come up very hard against the frame that limits their lateral travel.
Thousands of Aries systems over the years have enjoyed excellent protection in this and other scenarios thanks to their designated point of failure – a tubular section that has had its wall thickness ground down from 6 mm to 3 mm. Provided the rudder was tethered to the boat with a safety line and there is a replacement tube available, all the crew has to do to carry on sailing is fit the new designated point of failure.
It is a common – indeed inevitable – feature of all brands and models of WSS that the tripping of the overload protection temporarily puts the system out of action. If the rudder has simply been bumped out of alignment by something in the water, the system can usually be reset easily with no need of tools (realign rudder blade, re-engage and calibrate). Bringing the system back online after an actual breakage due to overloading, on the other hand, will always take a bit of time because tools and spare parts are required and accessing the parts of the system affected while remaining on the boat can be quite a challenge. This, then, is the Achilles’ heel of any WSS for a solo sailor with no backup system.
Hydrovane incorporates overload protection in the form of three “locking pins” (shear pins). These, the manufacturer advises, should be rotated or replaced regularly to prevent failure due to wear/vibration:
ROTATE LOCKING PINS – The Locking pins are interchangeable. The pins – especially Shaft Locking Pin #61 – will suffer from metal fatigue over time. Best to periodically change it with spares or rotate it with the other locking pins.
Jean-Luc van den Heede replaced the shear pin with a solid bolt. The bolt did break during the GGR, but Jean-Luc is not so easily fooled: he had a safety line tied snugly to the WSS rudder to ensure it would stay with the boat in such circumstances. His preparations also included reducing the length of the system’s auxiliary rudder, which has the effect of lightening the load on the shear pins.
Loïc Lepage’s WSS apparently also suffered a broken shear pin. The WSS was not responsible for the damage (leading to abandonment in the latter two cases) suffered by Jean-Luc van den Heede, Loïc Lepage and Gregor McGuckin.
Uku Randmaa recorded three knock downs. His WSS remained intact (he had a Monitor installed for redundancy too).
Rotating or replacing the shear pin located down on the shaft out of arm’s reach from the deck is not at all easy and this was one of the reasons Istvan Kopar decided against the Hydrovane. Re-installing the rudder/installing a replacement rudder after a breakage at sea poses even more of a challenge given the difficulty of working close to the waterline while hanging over the stern. Anticipating just such a situation, Jean-Luc van den Heede actually took an inflatable dinghy along to help him reattach his WSS rudder (the rudder he managed not to lose, as already mentioned, by tethering it to the boat with a snug safety line).
Inventor NICK FRANKLIN supplied his Aries for decades with a designated point of failure called the “break off tube”, multiple replacements for which were part of the standard onboard toolkit for owners. The safety line attached to the rudder to keep it in contact with the boat when the tube broke became part of the classic Aries look.
The “hinge” developed by Nicks’s successor Peter Mathiesen deals well with flotsam but does not protect against more serious lateral overloading (perhaps owing to the Danish proprietor’s interesting theory that the materials used are strong enough to survive bad weather and its consequences unharmed).
Mark Slats´ WSS appears to have been exposed to a quite severe impact judging by the damage done to what would ordinarily be considered a very robust mounting arrangement. Presumably the pendulum rudder hit the lateral end stop with great force during a knock down – it is hard to imagine any other scenario that could produce this result.
Marc Sinclair managed to keep his mast pointing more or less skyward throughout and his WSS remained intact.
I believe the decision to replace the old Aries break off tube with the hinge was made mainly to improve everyday ease of use, as the original model did not allow the rudder to be swung up out of the water. But what about lateral overload protection? Current manufacturer Lean Nelis apparently recommends removing the WSS rudder in heavy weather:
The new lift-up leg is great to take off the pendulum rudder completely! – Either while in port – Or to keep her from damage in case you are becalmed in heavy swells – Or in case you have to survive a storm with your ‘Jordan Series Drogue’
The Monitor has been supplied for years with a hinge and a safety tube for overload protection (and again, most owners probably keep several spare safety tubes on hand).
Are Wiig: experienced multiple broken safety tubes (he was down to his last replacement by the time he abandoned) and it seems quite likely that this contributed to his knock down and dismasting given the problems that come with having to steer by hand whenever the WSS is out of action.
Multiple broken safety tubes were part and parcel of the race for Susie Goodall too. She also had the two gear segments that link the vane to the rudder shaft jump out of alignment. Normally the teeth of the two gears mesh together so that the vane and the rudder are both on centreline at the same time, but in Susie’s case something – presumably the rudder shaft hitting one of its lateral end stops very hard – caused the teeth to jump over each other. Obviously the WSS cannot work properly if windvane and rudder are not aligned. Susie repaired the system in calm water off Hobart but it seems the same thing may have happened again later on, with a fateful interaction between the JSD and WSS suspected of being a key link in the chain of events that ended with the pitchpole and subsequent loss of the boat.
The mechanism designed so that the pendulum rudder can lift up when not in use acts as a spring-loaded joint that, once tripped (either by flotsam or intentionally using the lifting line), allows the rudder to pivot up aftward.
Lateral overload protection is apparently provided by using thin-walled stainless steel tube (although note that the organizer announced in April that the manufacturer had apparently increased the wall thickness of the rudder shaft tube).
The design of the Windpilot systems renders any separate lateral overload protection in the form a designated point of failure unnecessary. This is because the lines that transmit the steering force to the tiller or wheel are attached at the top (rather than towards the bottom) of the pendulum arm, which is consequently free to move through an arc of 270 degrees (traditional systems are limited to about 60 degrees).
Sudden, erratic movements of the boat of the type to be expected in a capsize might still push the pendulum arm forcefully to the side, but there is nothing in the way for it to hit and damage (or be damaged by): it can travel through a whole 170 degrees to port and 100 degrees to starboard before reaching the end stops, but in reality the drag of the tiller or wheel to which it is harnessed will take the venom out of the rotational movement progressively before it reaches this point. As it happens, the transmission lines linking the vanegear to the steering themselves provide another level of overload protection (block lashings specced to fail first), as does the friction plate mechanism used in the wheel adaptor for wheel steering systems.
Abhilash Tomy was knocked down several times and lost both masts. His WSS survived intact
Istvan Kopar sailed through twelve storms with winds in excess of 50 kn and was knocked down three times. His WSS survived intact.
Tapio Lehtinen WSS intact
Antoine Cousot WSS intact
Igor Zaretskiy WSS intact
All five Windpilot sailors were provided with a complete spare system. None were needed.
Many thousands of examples of my Pacific model have gone forth from our factory in Hamburg since we introduced it 34 years ago, so it came as a relief as well as a pleasure to see the evidence of the GGR confirm the decisions I made when I was designing it. I have no idea how many of our pendulum rudder shafts have been all the way around the world, but I have never heard of a single one failing.
5 SKIPPERS RETIRED DUE TO PROBLEMS WITH WSS
Nabil Amra, broken BEAUFORT
Francesco Cappelletti, broken BEAUFORT
Philippe Péché,broken BEAUFORT
Are Wiig, MONITOR, multiple broken safety tubes (overload protection), knock down
Susie Goodall, MONITOR, multiple broken safety tubes (overload protection), interference between JSD and WSS and overload protection tripped, pitchpole.
The organizer decided to remove Monitor’s approved equipment status for the next GGR following the experiences of Susie and Are, but then changed his mind in April 2019 after the manufacturer apparently beefed up the design of certain parts. Given the issues raised above, however, it seems reasonable to ask whether stronger components alone are really the answer. The same excessive loads will still be encountered, it’s just that now they will have to be absorbed by different components – or the mounting system. The inherently limited arc of travel for the pendulum arm on the Aries and Monitor systems (no more than about 60 degrees in total) inevitably makes them susceptible to damage whenever there is a sudden exceptional increase in the angle of heel (as in a knock down, for example). If the pendulum arm hits the end stops hard, which is not improbable, the likely result is that the protective mechanism will be tripped or (and/or) something will break. Hydrovane systems have no servo-pendulum rudder, of course, but their reliance on shear pins makes them similarly vulnerable: if the pin does its job and shears, the system is then out of action pending a difficult repair even if, like Jean-Luc, the skipper has been smart enough to ensure the rudder stays with the boat.
All WSS, irrespective of manufacturer or design, can suffer damage that necessitates repair and recommissioning (for example due to flotsam, seagrass, whales, broken lines or failed blocks). Access to some kind of self-steering is of fundamental importance for the personal safety of competitors in the GGR. The ban on the use of electronic autopilots as a backup self-steering option reduces competitor safety and I consider it to be unjustified and unjustifiable. Originally conceived to protect the mechanical workings of WSS, designated points of failure can pose a significant threat to safety in an event like the GGR. If design no longer matches use, a rethink is required.
AND ANOTHER THING…
WSS are inevitably of critical importance for the GGR. When the original race took place 50 years ago, the technology was still in its infancy and Robin Knox-Johnston and Bernard Moitessier will probably not have been surprised at the need for alternatives to fall back on (either making the most of their boats’ natural propensity to sail straight or even – whisper it – steering by hand). Little development work had been done at that time in key areas like damping and leverage, so the systems available to them were pretty rudimentary.
If we applied the “if it was not on Suhaili, you cannot use it” principle strictly, none of the WSS featured in the recent edition would have been allowed. And yet the event is unimaginable without them. Notwithstanding the perfectly valid pursuit of historical authenticity, the GGR rules have been adapted in many ways to comply with/give way to modern expectations of event safety. Every boat was required to have multiple options for emergency communication, for instance, and while it’s possible these measures were essential in order for the race to be allowed to proceed (from the point of view of liability), they obviously make good sense from a safety perspective too.
The absolute ban on electronic backup for windvane self-steering systems turned their performance and limitations into an even more decisive factor in the race, with weaknesses in design and/or construction dooming a number of campaigns. Vanegear manufacturers find themselves stuck between a rock and hard place: GGR competitors need self-steering and if there are going to be WSS in the race, manufacturers will naturally want their products to be there on the start line, but there is a huge element of risk involved in exposing equipment that was never intended for racing at high latitudes to the trials of an event like the GGR.
The issues raised in this report are not new, not by any means, and should be very familiar to anyone thinking of organising a solo round-the-world race – especially if they have first-hand experience of their own. The race organiser’s decision to take on a manufacturer of WSS as a principal sponsor put his own neutrality in question throughout the event. The quite unnecessary conflict of interests created cast a long shadow over all of the event’s media output.
A comparison of the GGR and LLR lays bare the safety consequences of arbitrary rules like the ban on autopilots for redundancy, especially as everyone must now surely realise that WSS have been deployed in a role for which they are neither intended nor suited.
Trying to use the GGR as a marketing opportunity for WSS is like a game of Russian roulette for all concerned. Manufacturers don’t design and build their systems for this type of use, so the outcome – be it priceless publicity, total disaster or something in between the two – is to a considerable extent in the lap of the gods. The sailors – and the organiser who depends on them for his event (and all the more so if his own fortunes are tied up with those of a specific manufacturer) – are likewise left to labour under the sword of Damocles.
Some days you are the dog, some days the lamppost. The GGR cast me in the role of lamppost far, far too often for my liking, but now that the daily reports have finished and hard facts are starting to find their way into the public domain, a different, more nuanced and potentially more troubling picture – for all involved – is beginning to emerge.