“So do you anchor at night while you’re on passage?” It’s one of the most common questions I hear from friends and family and curious strangers. It’s probably a question I would’ve asked if I wasn’t the one sailing. But when you stop and think about it, the ocean is VERY deep. Back when we made the Big Left Turn and we were off the Oregon coast we saw 10,455 feet deep. That’s basically TWO MILES of water below our keel.
While I’m not generally a betting woman, I would be willing to bet the farm that there never has been, nor will there ever be a boat that could carry enough ground tackle to anchor in the middle of the ocean – especially ours. So in order to make big passages, you have to sail all day and over night without stopping. Craig and I both did this while we were aboard a tall ship (because we’re badasses), so we already knew that we would have to set up a watch system. This means that during a passage, the entire day is split up and the crew takes turns being “on watch”. While on watch, the crew is responsible for all the things: steering, checking on systems, monitoring the weather and sea state, looking out for traffic and stray debris big enough to do damage (yes it happens), puking to leeward, and generally ensuring the safety of the boat. Anyone who is off watch generally tries to catch some shut eye because soon enough it’ll be their turn to keep everything going.
So to recap – we sail 24/7 because we can’t anchor in the ocean and lots of shit has to be monitored as we go. One thing we don’t want to do the whole time is steer by hand. After days on end it gets old and can be surprisingly exhausting in heavy weather. There are a couple options available to relieve us of that duty.
Option 1: Most people are familiar with autopilot, and that was already installed on the boat when we adopted her. It’s great and keeps the little lady on a compass course like a champ. This style of autopilot is best for power boats, or windless days on sailboats. Unfortunately for us, when it is windy, winds don’t follow a straight course like a steady compass bearing. Annoyingly, the wind likes to meander and swirl and interpretive dance across the surface of the water like it’s in that movie “American Beauty” and trying to get a plastic bag to fly around and make people cry. And every time the winds shift, either the sails or the compass heading needs to be adjusted. I think we all know I’m not about to deal with that. Plus, if you’re sailing, the autopilot can drain the batteries a substantial amount.
Option 2: Convince a crew member to join us and lock them to the binnacle with a bucket of protein bars. Throw icy water on them if they start to doze off. Hire a good lawyer.
Option 3: The Hydrovane! This little beauty allows us to set an autopilot based on wind direction rather than a compass bearing. As the wind shifts, the course of the boat will automatically adjust to keep the same point of sail relative to the wind. We won’t necessarily point the boat in the exact direction we want to go, but that’s normal for a sailboat. If you’re not a sailor and are a little confused about all of this because I’m doing a terrible job explaining it, just trust me on this one. It’s brilliant and analog. There’s no electricity to worry about, it’s just gear ratios.
We’ve upgraded and installed plenty of systems on this boat. Adding the Hydrovane was one of the best things we could have done. We love it so much we named it. Jibbers has kept us on course and sailing well for hundreds of miles and cost way less than a lawyer.
Wanna know where that name is from? It started by saying “Jesus take the wheel!” but calling it Jesus was a little too much for me. Then I remembered this video.
If you want some of the nitty gritty on how the installation went down:
- C prepped all the things (read instructions, watch the videos, unwrap parts, lay it all out, get mounting pads traced and cut out, etc.) in the days leading up to the Big Install Weekend. Duh.
- K shows up on Saturday morning, in the sunshine, fashionably late. Duh.
- C starts to organize all of the materials and realizes he has the wrong size PVC pipe to serve as the dummy shaft and has to run to Home Depot. Because of course. To his credit, he didn’t even drop any curse words. He just picked it up, and walked to the car, quietly fuming.
- While C is getting new PVC, K watches all the installation videos and starts to get irrationally freaked out about drilling holes into the hull. SIX! Six new holes in that beautiful baby blue hull. My god.
- Spend the rest of Saturday making good progress, mounting the Hydrovane slightly off center. (Originally the plan was to mount in on the center line, but a neighbor convinced Craig that off center would be better. I almost objected but thought to myself “I haven’t done any of the research, what do I know?”) We get the top bracket with one mounting pad secured to the boat and think, “Well check that out!” as we pat ourselves on the back.
- All of the neighbors on the dock come watch the process and make super helpful comments and suggestions. “Is it supposed to be crooked?” or “Are you sure you want to do it that way?” or “Did you mean to do that?” or “That’s not how I would do it.” Most of them are jokes, and some of them are helpful, and the rest of them are ignored unless they come with beer or cookie dough ice cream.
- Spend ALL DAY Sunday attempting to figure out how to mount the bottom bracket, which has two mounts that attach to the boat. No real progress made, but a plan is in place for C during the day on Monday while K is at work.
- K shows up to boat on Monday after work expecting to continue the sloowwww progress (if you can call it that) made on Sunday. Instead, Neighbor Kevin giggles while C tells K that we have to start from scratch because otherwise the mizzen boom will interfere with the wind vane while we are under sail on a port tack. So those two holes we drilled in the hull on Saturday? The ones we were so proud of ourselves for lining them up perffffeeectly? Those holes won’t work now. Now those holes have to be filled. Now we have to start alllllll over. Because of course.
- K allows C one evening of pouting. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Let’s move on.
- C works with Neighbor Shipwright Karl to get the new mounting pad made to accommodate mounting the Hydrovane on the center line on the canoe stern. I didn’t know that starboard came in other colors and that it came in SUPER thick slabs. But now you know, too. Learn something new every day! I’m sure this tidbit will help you immensely for years to come.
- Installation Weekend 2 starts with great progress on Saturday. doesn’t trust it. But this time we get ice cream from Neighbor Lani and snacks and wine supplements from the Commune Neighbors who bike over.
- Sunday has a ton of progress and more ice cream from neighbors. The Hydrovane is effectively mounted and we just need backing plates!
- Pearl, the dog from down the dock, is a favorite and K learns first hand that Pearl has a thing for cleavage.
I’m not even sure what else happened – at some point it all became a blur (because of the tears) and I forgot to keep track of the progress. It seemed to drag on forever though. Probably because this thing cost a lot of money and ruining it would be devastating. More likely because someone is a perfectionist. Most likely because at some point in a big project, the motivation disappears and you find yourself rushing to just fucking finish it already and then you gall the stainless steel bolts intended to keep the entire device mounted to your boat, even though the instructions warn you about it and you find yourself kneeling on the dock with your arms stretched to the sky yelling “WHHYYYYYYYYY?”
In the end, Will and Sarah and the rest of the Hydrovane team helped to get us through the installation process. They were absurdly helpful and responsive, especially considering they are in a different country and in the middle of boat show season.
The whole shebang was a classic boat project: had to borrow tools (and purchased some new ones); had to take multiple trips to the supply store; took much longer than anticipated; dropped a slurry of curse words; and THRILLED to be done with it.