What could this be? As I haven’t done a boating blog post for a while, and I usually share my technological improvements, here is my newest one.
The problem is the oldest one in the book. When you are sailing a boat, you have to hold the helm and steer your boat on the course you have chosen. You can’t let go of the tiller to go forward in the boat to sort out your rig or just to have a pee. You have to hold the damned thing all the time, otherwise the boat will go out of control and perhaps capsize. In the history of seafaring, there has always been the option of lashing the helm. This involves tying the wheel or tiller of the vessel with rope so that the rudder stays in a fixed position. Jushua Slocum could lash his helm (no fancy self-steering gear) and set his sails in such a way as the boat would sail an arrow-straight course for hundreds of miles, allowing a man to get a nap between watches. That being said, a thirty-seven foot ketch handles differently from a light ten-foot dinghy.
On my little dinghy, I have experimented with a bit of string to tie the tiller pushed hard over to lee for heaving-to. It was quite fiddly, so then I tried a length of elastic bungee cord from one side of the boat to the other. I would just decide what position I would leave the tiller in and wrap the bungee around a couple of times. I needed an easier way to lash and free the tiller.
I didn’t need to invent anything new, but the solution came from a dinghy sailor by the name of John Huntingford. He explains the device on a page of the Dinghy Cruising Association website. Here is a photo of the device installed on a boat to help conceptualise it.
For the technical details, I’ll leave the dinghy-cruising reader to see the link above and this pdf, Helm Impeder. I’ll give some impressions on the device as I installed it on my boat. To set it up, I needed to work out the proportions between the amount of rope going through the fairlead on the tiller and taken by the snap hook, the length of the piece of elastic and the rope going from the elastic, through the aft pulley and forward to its cleat on the tiller. I got it right by trail and error, given that my tiller is rather short.
I took my boat out yesterday in very calm conditions, though the wind did manage to give me seven to eight knots. I would handle the boat normally, and I set the sails for sailing windward against the tide. I then pulled the rope on the tiller to fix the helm and experimented with the mainsail and jib, adjusting my weather helm and lee helm. I still need to be able to cleat the mainsail. That is my next project. In calm to moderate conditions, the boat sails itself – well, almost. If the sails are not very precisely set, the boat will veer off course and either luff up into the wind or go to lee. The system is designed so that you can give yourself both hands free just for the time it takes to reef the mainsail, take down the jib, free a fouled line or just to take a leak, take a swig from your water (or something stronger) bottle or eat something, anything. You can release the helm impeder at any time, just with one hand and then steer the boat normally.
This device involves friction, so I don’t know how long the crosswise rope is going to last before it wears out. When the device isn’t needed, it can be unhooked from under the tiller, and there will be no friction on the rope, which then just flops into the bottom of the boat.
Dinghy cruisers sometime tend to over-equip their boats, and one fellow I know calls his hobby Mirror Mods (1 and 2), meaning that he “tunes” his Mirror dinghy like young people in the 1960’s embellished their motorcycles with chrome and extra headlights and rear-view mirrors. It becomes a hobby in itself, and one is never satisfied. On the other hand, Mr Sumner has given me the ideas I needed for my reefing sail, the most important modification to my boat after the adoption of the Mirror rig. I esteem him and his long sailing experience greatly, even though his presentations bring a smile to my face. Each boat has its limits, and it is perfectly possible to ruin something that worked well before. There is a balance between having what you need, whether it is a long cruise for several days involving bivouacking or just a couple of hours in the bay. My boat is too small for a full camping package, so I tend to trailer-sail and be land-based, taking the boat out for limited trips. A new book has been published on this fascinating hobby – The Dinghy Cruising Companion by Roger Barnes. This book brought me to discover the Huntingford helm preventer and many other useful tips about anchoring, trailers, coastal navigation and all sorts of things. His description of sailing in Brittany, including the trip from Loctudy to the Glénans, is exquisitely written. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys sailing for the sake of discovering a different kind of life than what is found on land.
I have often sung the praises of cruising as opposed to racing “round the cans”. The sea is a space of freedom and spirituality, but doesn’t give a damn about breaking a boat and drowning its skipper. If we approach with modesty and humility, knowing our own limits, it is possible to escape the cares of “real life” even if only for a few brief hours. Roger Barnes is someone I would like to meet, and that might happen at the two events I intend to attend next year, the Semaine du Golfe (my humble boat has been accepted) and the Route du Sable. He writes about his boat, the Ilur, which is a wooden lug rig vessel, fourteen feet long and very beamy, designed by the French boat builder François Vivier. I must say that such a boat would tempt me in the future for its seaworthiness and simplicity. We’ll see… It is true that an Ilur would expand my horizons, enabling me to camp in the boat, and therefore no longer be limited by where my road vehicle and trailer can go.
I know there are some sailors who read this blog, especially my Spanish friend Juan de la Fuente who has my sister ship. There may be others who are bitten by the bug!