Self Steering a Catalina 27

The problem. It wasn't long after we purchased "Corleto", our Catalina 27 that I discovered three things about sailing her in Puget Sound. Unless we were just daysailing across the Sound, which is only 4 miles wide in most places, we spent 80% of our sailing time sailing close hauled. (This is because the waterways are long and narrow and the winds follow them.) Second, our autopilot has a drift angle of about 20 degrees. This works fine when motoring, as the autopilot isn't fighting the helm all the time and it averages out nicely. Sailing close hauled, however, the course has to be set off the wind an additional 5 to 10 degrees to keep from luffing when the autopilot drifts to windward. Over the course of a day, this means that distance to windward made good, is less than half what it can be by steering manually. The third thing is that when the wind is really blowing hard, the autopilot can't keep the boat on course for more than half a minute.

Self steering vanes have always fascinated me, but they do represent quite an investment for a coastal cruiser and they take up a lot of space. In the fall of 1997, the challenge of designing a home built unit suddenly became quite attractive to me. I got every book I could find on the subject, and started experimenting. My first 8" steering oar had so much power that it bent the 2" ash arm at 4 knots, yet it had practically no effect on the steerage of the boat when the main rudder was secured. This convinced me that I had to use this power to turn the main rudder. I redesigned the oar to a 3" blade, pivoting at the top with steering lines to the mid point of the oar led to the tiller through blocks. I made a vane such that it would rotate the oar when the wind shifted off the set direction. It actually worked. The only problem was that it swung 90 degrees to correct, oversteering to the extreme. Correcting the oversteer is not a simple matter and it was only then that I began to understand the problems in designing a vane system, and gained a new appreciation for the commercial vanes.

picture Sheet to tiller steering became my next passion. Using the principles from "Self-Steering for Sailing Craft" by John S. Letcher, I rigged up pulleys and surgical tubing and found it worked quite well for steering windward. In my trip from Astoria to Port Townsend in 1998, I brought my gear along and we used to steer Mark's Pearson 30 and it worked better than either hand steering or autopilot. When we had to motor sail, we quickly found it would not work at all. For my Puget Sound sailing, the tacks were too short for it to be practical as it has to be reset on each tack and with commercial traffic and other recreational boats, it becomes more trouble than it's worth. In the picture at the right my brother-in-law keeps watch as we self steer across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, close hauled in a shifty 10 knot breeze. This is a situation where sheet to tiller steering works best.

The best solution in most cases I found, was to just lock the helm and let the boat sail itself. With the sails balanced such that the boat will stay close hauled with the tiller locked a few degrees to windward. She will stay close hauled as long as the wind stays relatively steady and the boat doesn't run through strong cross currents or encounter heavy swells. Tacking is quite easy using the autopilot. Hitting the "standby" button locks the helm and it can be fine adjusted using the "P" and "S" buttons. So when I tack, I have the jib sheet ready and hit the button to move the tiller about 20 degrees to lee and leave it there. As the boat comes about, I crank in on the new jib sheet and hit the "auto" button just as the bow swings on to the new course. By the time I have the jib sheeted in hard and cleated off and any adjustments made to the main, the boat is approximately on it's new course and I hit the "standby" button. I've had lots of fun "racing" other boats while sailing single handed and eating my lunch. Sailing this way in 15 knots of wind and my working jib, my tacks show just 65 degrees change in compass heading. This is a huge improvement over the 110 degrees I used to experience using the autopilot in automatic mode. I managed to sustain speeds over hull speed sailing this way if the hull is clean and the wind is sufficient. In heavy weather, I resort to hand steering to prevent the hull from pounding, falling off on the crests of large waves.

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