By the crew, I don’t mean a row of matching T-shirts on the rail – or complaints from the foredeck that the sun goes behind the sail every time I go about.
Singlehanders don’t have that kind of crew. What I mean is the autopilot and the windvane. The one was getting far more attention than it deserved, and the other, none at all.
When I bought Samsara, she came with a Raymarine tillerpilot of indeterminate age. The previous owner insisted it worked – and it did.
Until I left it out in the rain.
I don’t mean rain going sideways in a 72-hour Atlantic gale with breaking seas that fill the cockpit so that the tillerpilot goes floating off like a bath toy at the mercy of a two-year-old.
No, it just rained and the wretched thing stopped working.
“Water ingress” as the local Raymarine agent called it. Obviously, it was a lot older than I thought. I bought a new one.
Within a month, that was back at Raymarine under the guarantee: “water ingress”, the report came back.
The second time it went back, they said they’d send me a new unit.
They never did – just the old one back again – and some free advice: “Don’t leave it out when it’s not in use.”
But what happens if I need to use it in the rain?
I found out in the Cape Verde islands – water ingress … and then again in the Caribbean…
By Grenada, I had realised I was never going to remember to bring the thing in every time it rained. So, I got the local sailmaker to run up a little waterproof jacket for it with a Velcro fastening at the back and a window at the front so I could see to press the buttons. It was rather like dressing a favourite doll.
But it didn’t do any good.
By the time I got back to Falmouth, I had already placed my order as soon as the mobile signal popped up off the Scillies – and this time I would have a proper autopilot, with the compass and the circuit board hidden away below decks. This one arrived in an enormous cardboard box full of component parts and manuals – and advice about routing the cables and avoiding electrical interference…
I couldn’t make head or tail of it. I sent it back and ordered another tillerpilot – and three months later, it was still in perfect working order. I emphasised this when I sold it on eBay and got Dave Jones of AdvancedTech Marine to order up another box of component parts, manuals and what-not. Dave knows all about electrical interference.
It seems a lot of trouble to go to just to get in and out of harbour at the same time as dealing with the warps and fenders.
Because the real self-steering is the Aries windvane. This came with the boat. It’s the lift-up version like the one I had on Largo back in the 80s – the same model that Jon Sanders choose. If it’s good enough for someone who’s been round the world eleven times on his own…
Aries owners tend to be a bit evangelical about their self-steering, so it is only right that once in my lifetime, I should make the pilgrimage to a little lock-up industrial unit on the north side of Amsterdam. There an ex-plumber called Lean Nelis repairs and manufactures what he unashamedly calls “the beautiful mechanism”.
I reckon my Aries is a 1990 version – which makes it thirty-three years old – and in all that time, I don’t think it’s had a proper service. I didn’t realise it needed one until Con Brosnan in Ireland showed me his (lying on the floor of his dining room like a piece of farm machinery in a barn).
His didn’t wobble. It didn’t clonk either. The whole thing seemed much more “solid” somehow. This was not surprising – as Lean was to discover, thirty years’ of wear on the main shaft had moved the stainless steel axis in ways that were never intended. In all, it took him 13 hours to put it all right what with all the wrecked bushes and bearings – and there were some extra hours devoted to sitting around the workbench surrounded by tooth vane carriages and pivot shaft spacers, drinking coffee and getting to know the neighbours.
This part of north Amsterdam used to be the artists’ quarter, and it’s still a rabbit warren of artisan workshops. For instance, next door there was Nico, who could talk for hours about rebuilding old bicycles.
Of course, there’s no money in old bikes – not in the Netherlands where everyone has an old bike – so the rest of the time, he repairs saxophones…
…saxophones? Did he do clarinets?
Sure, he could do clarinets.
The next day, I delivered mine. It hadn’t been serviced since before I took off for the Caribbean in 2021 – much against the advice of the last woodwind technician. The whole thing had begun to wobble, I told Nico.
He fixed it – replaced the cork, gave it new pads – and offered some free advice: Don’t let it dry out. Get a length of garden hose. Make some holes in it and push a damp sponge inside. Then insert the whole thing into the instrument when not in use.
Or, I suppose I could leave it out in the rain…