The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Tips, Tricks & Thoughts:


  • Are Auxiliary Rudder Self-Steering Gears Strong Enough?

    I was really saddened to hear that Golden Globe Race leader Simon Curwen is probably out of the race due to a catastrophic failure of his auxiliary rudder self-steering gear in a broach.

    I have long wondered if these gears that actually steer the boat with a separate rudder, rather than control the main rudder as servo pendulum gears like the Windpilot and Cape Horn do, are a good idea.

    After all, the rudder and its attachment are one of the most strongly engineered parts of a good offshore boat. So does it really make sense to try and steer the boat with a comparatively flimsy rudder bolted onto the transom?

    The other worry is that, even if the gear is up to the job, huge loads are being transferred to the transom, which was probably not engineered by the original naval architect, or builder, to take them.

    There is even a suggestion, albeit by a source with an axe to grind, that it was exactly this problem that caused a sudden break up and sinking of another boat in the same race.

    And, finally, auxiliary steering gears can’t pivot out of the water and thereby unload in a knock down the way some servo pendulum gears can.

    Nothing definitive in all of the above, but definitely something to think about when selecting a vane gear.

    Thanks to AAC European Correspondent Colin Speedie for the head’s up and some of the above thoughts.

    Much more on self-steering, both vane gear and autopilots.

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  • When Did Your Steering Last Feel The Love?

    I’m just about finished rebuilding the steering gear, less the rudder since we did that last year, on our new to-us J/109.

    When I pulled it apart half the bearings fell out and there was not a drop of grease or oil on any of it…except the brake pad, where we don’t want it!

    I’m guessing Tillotson Pearson assembled it dry 18 years ago when they built the boat and it has not been looked at since.

    A steering failure looking for a place to happen.

    1. So even if your boat is brand new, it’s worth checking that the steering gear was greased by the builder.
    2. And, in my view, the steering gear should be fully disassembled and checked over every five years or 10,000 miles, whichever comes first.

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  • Installing a Propane Detector

    i just finished installing a propane gas detector with two sensors, one near the stove and the other just aft of the engine where gas would pool prior to kaboom, on our new-to-us J/109.

    I settled on the above-pictured unit from BEP Marine. So far it seems like a well-thought-out piece of safety gear.

    One of the things I like most about it is that it has no off-on switch, unlike many other detectors, including both of the ones I have owned in the past. Just way too easy to forget to turn it back on.

    This is a sensor that should be on at all times when anyone is aboard, so, despite there being a breaker for a gas detector on the panel, I wired it through a fuse and directly to the main positive buss so it comes on the instant the boat is powered up with the battery master switch.

    I guess one could argue that it should be on even when the master switch is off, but that would be a significant parasitic drain on the batteries and you gotta stop somewhere.

    Also, as soon as the sniffer is off, the gas is off in the locker, too, since this model includes the solenoid control switch.

    Further Reading

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  • Q & A: Iridium Go! or Go Exec


    The new Predict Wind Iridium Go Exec device does indeed have a subscription plan that limits data according to how much one pays, i.e: $159.95/month buys you only 50MB of data. That includes all data transfer including tracking data.

    Do you happen to have a clue how much data you found that you used, on the average, per month with the original Iridium Go device?

    I am just trying to figure out what size plan would be needed in order to not have to worry about constantly hitting the ceiling towards the end of the month. I believe you & I would have similar usage (that is forecasts & basic emails).


    The exact amount of data we used varied a lot, so I don’t think that’s the way to make the decision.

    Rather, what I can say is that we never had a problem getting all the weather information I needed, and I download a lot more than most people, as well as being able to handle all of our email, which, again, is a heavier load than most people, because of running AAC.

    Sure, sometimes the GO! took as much as an hour to deal with all that, but so what? With good software you don’t need to sit around and watch it, and if there’s a drop-out it reconnects automatically and continues on until done.

    So if it were me, I would stick with GO! to get the unlimited plan, given that I just don’t want the stress and aggravation of worrying about a hard data limit and the huge charges if that gets inadvertently breached.

    I also would not want to have to figure out how to buy more data if I ran out while at sea.

    So given that GO Exec is not fast enough to surf the internet, and does not have an unlimited data plan, I just don’t see the point of it against the original GO! with an unlimited plan.

    That said, as I have said before, being able to make calls without the kluge of a connected smart phone is a nice upgrade, but not enough to push me into Exec. Rather I would recommend buying a secondhand Iridium handset for the emergency call function.

    More on exactly how to use G0! For both strategic and tactical weather forecasting.

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  • Good Wire Cutters

    Normally I’m reasonably good at keeping track of my tools, but there is an exception: Every few years I lose my wire (diagonal) cutters—I’m not talking misplaced, but rather gone forever.

    How this happens, particularly on a small boat like our new-to-us J/109, is beyond me, but nonetheless it’s true.

    In the past I have tended to replace them with a cheap tool. But these days I’m enjoying my high-quality tools so much that I decided, when the wire cutter demon spirited away my last pair, to go up in quality and spring for a Knipex Vanadin-Super.

    Highly recommended. Super-sharp high-quality steel blades, plenty of leverage for most jobs around a boat, other than battery cables, and a comfortable contoured handle. And maybe the bright red colour will help me keep track of them!

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  • Updated: Our Tips On Using Tablets For Navigation


    We just updated our 11 tips to make navigating with a tablet easier and safer chapter based on our experience of doing just that on our new-to-us J/109.

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  • The Rolls Royce of iPad Waterproof Covers

    While I’m not a fan of relying on tablets exclusively for navigation, on smaller boats like our new-to-us J/109 they can be a good option, at least in conjunction with a plotter.

    However, the big problem can be how to charge a tablet and still keep it waterproof. The product pictured above solves that problem.

    I’m planning to order one for next season.

    On the same subject, here are:

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  • Dive Weights Are Useful In The Workshop

    It’s amazing how often I use the stack of dive weights I needed to get neutral when wearing my Arctic-level dry suit, (bought when we were cruising the high latitudes) to hold stuff down or together while glue is kicking off.

    In the photo above the weights were invaluable while I was splatting¹ new TreadMaster on our companionway top step.

    The heft and curved surface of dive weights works great for this function.

    Worth having a few around in the workshop even if we aren’t divers.

    ¹A technical term Phyllis and I developed while spending three months covering the deck of our McCurdy and Rhodes 56 with TreadMaster.

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  • Winch-Cleaning Solvent

    I have always cleaned winches with kerosene, but I hate the smell and I’m guessing that breathing the vapours for hours is not good for us.

    So last winter I tried this water-based degreaser from WD-40, even though I don’t like or use their spray lubricant.

    The stuff really works. After a good soak the old grease came right off. No smell, and probably better for the environment, although we did take the used stuff to a hazardous waste drop-off.

    Is it the best water-based degreaser? Who knows…or cares. It was available at the local hardware store and solved (ouch) my problem.

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  • Check For Correct Winch Pawl Springs

    We have to check everything on a new-to-us boat.

    The top spring is for Lewmar, the bottom for Harken. All of our Harken winches had a mix of both. Trust no one, least of all boatyards who will often use whatever is to hand.

    Would the wrong spring cause the winch to slip? Probably not, but this is important stuff and should be done right.

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  • Credit Where It’s Due: McMaster-Carr

    Phyllis and I have been buying tools, fastenings, and half a hundred other things from McMaster Carr for decades, and are such fans that I often say that if the company goes out of business I’m selling our boat and taking up golf…and I hate golf.

    Over all those years, and hundreds of orders, I can only remember McMaster-Carr making a mistake twice.

    The second time was two weeks ago when I ordered a 5mm tap and got a 1/2″ drill bit.

    I emailed them with the photo above and in less than half an hour they replied:

    I apologize we delivered the incorrect item. We will issue a replacement for the material you didn’t receive. We will deliver a replacement on Thursday between 2- 4pm.

    There is no need to return the drill bit to us. Feel free to keep or discard as you see fit.

    And two days after that, I had the tap in hand. No fuss, no excuses, no requirement to return, no RMA bureaucracy, no customs clearance hassles (they always deal with all that), and zero cost to us.

    All companies make mistakes, what differentiates good companies from bad ones is how they handle their mistakes. It don’t get no better than McMaster-Carr.

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  • Navigation Where It Belongs

    I don’t care how much butchery it takes, we are having a plotter/radar at the forward end of the cockpit where it belongs, to supplement and backup the iPad we use for navigation.

    The plotter below-decks is useless when shorthanded and we don’t like plotters on the binnacle, either.

    The new on-deck plotter will act as an autopilot control head as well as show strategic information like laylines, should I have a rush of blood to the head and go racing.

    The new plotter is much smaller than I would like, but compromises are required on any boat, and the smaller the boat gets, the bigger the compromises.

    More on making the most of these small-boat navigation compromises.

    Mock-up of the fascia that I just made to assist the composite technician who is going to fix my butchery and make it look nice.

    Yes, I could do the glasswork, but it would take me three times as long and look half as nice—know your limitations.

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  • Gel Batteries a Winner?

    While researching for an upcoming article I noticed something interesting:

    Victron rate their Long Life Gel batteries at 2500 50% cycles, as against their AGM Super Cycle Battery at 1000 cycles, and not a lot less than their much more expensive lithium batteries at 3000 cycles.

    Could it be that the pivot away from gel cells toward AGM that occurred in the sailing community some 20 years ago was a giant mistake?

    I do know that both members Dick and Ginger Stevenson, and Phyllis and I, had very good service from Prevailer Gel batteries back in the day.

    Now before we get too excited it’s important to note that gels have one Achilles’ heel: they can’t be conditioned to get rid of sulphation from being left in a partial state of charge, as is common on cruising boats.

    Hit ’em with any more than 14.2 volts and they are toast in very short order.

    Whereas AGMs from both Victron (14.9V) and LifeLine (15.5V) can be charged at higher voltages to blow off that nasty battery wrecking stuff.

    Still, these days, with cost effective and efficient solar, fully charging a lead-acid battery regularly without shore power is a lot less of a problem than it once was.

    Should those who want to avoid the expense and complications of lithium be thinking of poor old neglected gels?

    Don’t know, but it’s worth thinking about.

    Anyone out there using gels?

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  • Sealing a Paint Can

    In this case there is $250 worth of my paint in this can that will likely be ruined by next season.

    I have brought this to the attention of the yard in question. All yards make mistakes, but if we want things to get better we need to bring it up when they do, but in a non-confrontational way—more yard management tips here.

    As I’m sure most of you know, the right way to seal a paint can is to first press the lid down firmly with our hands and then gently and progressively, while working around the can, tap the rim into place with a wood or rubber mallet.

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  • Good Rivet Gun

    If you need to pull 1/4” stainless steel rivets you need a good gun. This one has worked well for me.

    Available from the good people at McMaster-Carr.

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  • Dripless Shaft Seal Bellows Adjustor

    Ever tried to get the bellows perfectly compressed to specification on a PYI dripless shaft seal, or similar, while at full-arm stretch in the bilge, and then get the little set-screws tight before the stainless steel rotor slips back?

    Sucks, right? But if we don’t get this adjustment right think sunk boat.

    Our friend Phil, he of the amazing salvage, made this gadget up for our friend Hans, he of the great in-boom furling tutorial.

    Very simple, very clever, and easy for a machine shop to make.

    And, after getting the bellows adjusted right, we could even take the jacking screws out and leave the tool clamped down against the rotor for added security against slippage.

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  • Self-Tailing Winch Stripper Positioning

    Last summer I tweaked the position of the strippers on our sheet winches. Makes all the difference to usability and sheet holding if we get a full wrap from the stripper to the direction the crew will pull really right.

    Before the change we were having trouble with the sheet slipping out of the stripper after a tack. After the change, problem gone. Small adjustment, big gains.

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  • New Year’s Resolution

    While dealing with all of the expense and aggravation, it’s easy to forget what a wonderful privilege it is to own a sailboat and be able to go sailing any time we want.

    We took quite a few people sailing last summer, but my New Year’s Resolution is to share sailing with even more people in 2023.

    Here’s a link to a great article on just that, and why it matters:

    Hey, wanna go sailing?

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  • New Iridium Go! exec

    Predict Wind have a preliminary announcement video for a new faster version of the Iridium GO!.

    Not a lot of details yet, but it’s supposedly a lot faster, although not fast enough to use for actual internet surfing.

    The big drawback will be if the unlimited data package available with the original GO! is not offered with this new unit or is a lot more expensive.

    I’m guessing it might not be the great deal that the unlimited plan on the original unit is since the new GO! uses the Certus modem like Iridium Pro.

    If no unlimited plan is offered, or a much more expensive one, I’m thinking that for many users who are just looking to download email and weather information at sea the original GO! may still be the best option since I have never had any problems getting all the weather data and email I need over the older unit.

    Definitely the key thing to look into and clearly understand before purchasing one of these new units is the availability and cost of an unlimited plan.

    One upgrade I did like is that the new unit has a speaker and microphone and so can be used for telephone calls without connecting a smartphone. This is a big safety benefit since there have been incidents with the old GO! where users were not able to get voice communications working quickly in an emergency.

    Here’s the intro video, not that it’s much use:

    And here’s a Q&A that might be more useful.

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  • Disturbing Failure Modality In Some Fall Arrest Devices

    While researching fall arrest devices I came across the video below from a seemingly credible source that explains how several popular devices can fail to arrest if the attaching carabiner gets oriented in ways that I can easily see happening when climbing masts.

    Worth 15 minutes of your time, particularly if you use climbing backup devices.

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  • Important Update To Recent Mast Climbing Article

    I have just updated my latest mast climbing article in light of some very important and counterintuitive new information that climber, sailor, and AAC friend-in-the-comments Drew found.

    Don’t miss this (scroll down to second alert box).

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  • A Crash Jibe Looking For A Place

    I’m in the throes of replacing the autopilot computer on our J/109 (more on that in a full article).

    First off, when I opened this box to connect up the drive and clutch I was distressed to see this terminal type.

    These things have no place on a boat, at least if they rely on the screws alone rather than contact plates that the screw compresses onto the wire, but, even then, for critical systems I far prefer ring terminal blocks.

    That’s bad enough, but my distress turned to horror when I disconnected the clutch wires and found that whoever had set this up—given the history of the boat almost certainly a boatyard “professional”—had jammed the wires so far in that the screws were on the insulation, not the wire—look closely at the photo.

    This could have caused a nasty, and likely intermittent, failure at any time over the last 18 years since the autopilot was installed.

    Bottom line: you gotta check everything and “boatyard maintained” is often more of a warning than a reassurance.

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  • Cruiser Tools—Jesus Pliers

    Years ago, when the world was young, I worked as a mainframe computer technician for NCR Corporation—yes they made computers, great big ones.

    In the workshop, which I shared with a bunch of techs who fixed mechanical cash registers and accounting machines—fiendishly complicated contraptions that it took great skill to work on—a common cry was “where the blazes are my jesus pliers”.

    A name that was, I suspect, conferred on the tool because if you needed to get a circlip off, praying to a deity was the only alternative without the pliers.

    Point being, it’s not a tool we often use on boats, but when we need it (look at your steering gear) you gotta have it.

    Yes, I know you can get them off with two small screwdrivers. Good for you.

    But sooner or later we will damage a vital clip that way, or drive a screwdriver through a tender part of our hands.

    I buy the combo ones that will remove a clip inside or outside.

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  • Cruiser Tools—Files

    On our McCurdy and Rhodes 56 I had a whole bunch of different files, but that was a 25-ton boat where weight, while important, was less of an issue.

    Since selling that boat, along with all my tools, I have found that the three files shown above will do most things, and while I have a few more at home in the workshop, these live in my tool bag on our new-to-us J/109:

    • Fairly fine metals file flat on one side and curved on the other
    • Four-in-hand
    • Rat tail file, quite coarse

    I use the middle one by far the most. Makes short work of removing a lot of fibreglass, epoxy or wood, and will even work on aluminum. One of the most common tools I reach for with a lot of functionality for its size and weight.

    More Tools:

    • More recommended power and hand tools for voyagers.
    • And here are four more that most cruisers don’t have, including me up to a few years ago, but should.

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  • Wire Tie Best Practice

    Our new-to-us J/109 was filled with wire ties like the one on the left. Horrible things because when changes and additions are made people tend to just add more wire ties over the existing bundle.

    So, as I clean up the wiring, I’m replacing the ones on the left with those on the right (first photo). Way better, because when I make changes at a later date I just snip the old tie and replace it with new, like so:

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