Monday, 28 April 2014

Making Serenity Self-Steering

Sailboats, after the initial investment to buy, repair, upgrade, and improve, are relatively inexpensive things to operate. By using the wind, you save a lot of money in fuel. The downside is that you don't have a motor running all the time to provide power for electronics and electrics, and keeping the batteries charged up.

You can use things like solar panels, wind generators, and so on, but regardless of which method you use to keep your boat's batteries topped up, electricity is almost always in short supply. This means that sailors are always looking for ways of doing thing without power, as they would have in centuries past.

An electronic autopilot is very handy when you are sailing alone, or even with a small crew. There are times when you need to let go of the tiller to take care of something. An autopilot is like having another crew member aboard, but one that requires a constant supply of electricity. It is also expensive to buy and install. So, what are the alternatives?

Those who follow Dylan Winter on his voyage around the UK in a small boat will probably have seen his video showing what he is experimenting with aboard his Westerly Centaur, Harmony. His method requires using a small jib rigged like a cutter rig's staysail, but used for steering, not driving the boat.

I don't have an extra sail of appropriate size kicking around, so I have something else in mind. This method uses a line attached to the boom. To me, this looks like a much simpler way to do it, and has less friction in the system. Everything is also in the cockpit, where you can more easily keep an eye on all the parts.

This video show one boom to tiller design in action:

Serenity already has a TillerTmer, but this device just locks the rudder in place, and does not compensate for wind gusts and waves. When sailing alone, I use it while raising the sails to keep the boat head to wind, and it is also good for heaving to. It does not work as an autopilot in anything but the most ideal conditions, and not for very long.

Serenity tending itself while I relax at the mast for a minute or two. 2013-08-02

Since I will usually be sailing alone, a good form of self steering would come in quite handy. This will be an interesting thing to experiment with this coming summer. I'll report back on my progress. Use the comments to let me know what you use.


  1. Thank you for your post. After 20+ years of hand steering I finally got an Raymarine autotiller. I told my wife recently, "The autotiller has completely improved my sailing experience by a factor of 3. If it broke tomorrow I would buy a new one. If it broke every year, I will still get a new one." It has liberated me from the monotony of holding the tiller. I can do things around the boat. While single-handing, I can clear out the clog in the anchor locker drain - under 16 knots of glorious heeling. I can go below and grab some items or chew on a snack. It's pure liberation.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Nothing has changed for me aboard Serenity since this was written, but I do have a used tiller pilot now that someone gave me. I just have to get it installed. Maybe someday soon I'll get to experience your liberation, and enhance my serenity.