Rock And Roll

Or More Antigua Passage Notes.


Decades ago, during one of my very first offshore passages, slogging down the east coast of New England, a familiar Old Salt in a nearby sailing vessel often used the term rock and roll to describe our condition over the radio. He’d say with a twangy drawl, We loooove rock and roll- it’s here to stay, sandwiched by the crackle of the VHF microphone switching on and off.

We indulged in some serious Rock and Roll during our recent passage from Bermuda to Antigua. And it wasn’t because the radio was turned up, nor were the waves of Perfect Storm epic proportions. The seas were heavy, but not really that bad. More so they were following on our stern quarter (quartering), and continued for several days, making some critically important tasks, such as making coffee, a very difficult (and possibly dangerous) process.

Each time a large quartering wave hits Fayaway, it causes the stern to kick out, creating a challenge for whoever or whatever is steering. Increased steering energy is required to keep the ship’s wheel moving to counteract the wave motion. While Fayaway has a fairly robust steering system, and is easily balanced under sail, she still needs someone (or something) to help maintain a straight course under challenging conditions. And he/she/it needs to steer 24/7.

We experienced similar quartering conditions while crossing the gulf stream (on way to Bermuda in November), when our “robust” Garmin autopilot blew a fuse. Even though we shipped in spare parts in advance of departure (presumably the ones most likely to fail), we still had a failure (ugh). Even though the autopilot drive unit is grossly oversized (for increased durability), it still failed! How can we make this better? Gotta have that coffee! Our experience drove increased urgency to install an auxiliary steering device – a wind driven (or wind vane, no power) steering unit. Unlike other systems that sense wind and transfer the course to the ship’s wheel, we went all-out, and chose Hydrovane because it operates independently from our existing rudder and steering system. Gotta have that coffee folks.

Diagram of Hydrovane; independent rudder is below (out of picture).

Hydrovane’s operating instructions recommend first trying the unit on a light-wind day, preferably also when going upwind. However, we needed to go to Antigua; Antigua is South, and to get there, a 25 to 30 knot wind was mostly behind (downwind), and accompanied by massive following and quartering waves. We didn’t put up the mainsail for two days and flew only the genoa. (Sailors out there know what this means, in terms of the conditions). We didn’t have an opportunity to work out the finer Hydrovane details; our weather window was now!

So we put our Hydrovane into gear shortly after leaving St. George’s Harbour, under some boisterous downwind conditions.

We became very fond of our Hydrovane during this passage – so much so, that we personified him and named him Vinny (the Vane). Results from initial experience: Pure steering bliss. Vinny is officially our third crew. He is awesome. He doesn’t complain, sleep, eat, need to take a pee, or take any breaks. (Never mind that he’s bolted to the transom.)

What about when wind is non-existent? Consider that the wind changes often under passage, and is often light, as much as when it blows hard. Vinny requires wind by which to steer. When wind is very light, even he can have trouble. This is usually a good time to use the Garmin electronic autopilot. On such an occasion sometime in the middle of our passage, the unit failed again – this time signalling an alarm condition. This time it couldn’t be fixed so easily, only determined after burning an hour of costly satellite phone time with Garmin Tech Support. But with some persistence in adjusting settings, along with gentle prodding, we did get the unit to grudgingly perform again, and steer us adequately into benign (flat seas) conditions for the last two days.

Calm seas at sunset; Vinny doesn’t perform well here.

In any case, an essential takeaway here is that robust self-steering is required for long sea passages. If (when) we lose (lost) our ability to self steer, it’s like losing a crew member. A person must make up for the loss. Since we have two crew (Kelly and I) on Fayaway, we lose 50 percent when our self-steering fails. (Who will make the coffee!?) We also become grumpy and sleepless. (lack of coffee?) Let’s not have that – we want to enjoy our travels! (And yes, I’ll be rebuilding or replacing the Garmin unit before our next passage). Sorry Garmin.

First Mate admires Vinny while at anchor in English Harbour.

More about the passage to Antigua, and Jolly / English Harbours coming soon…

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