Peter Poland reflects on pulling out the lead line, lobbing a Walker log over the stern and unpacking a sextant versus modern sailing gear
How sailing gear has changed over the decades
When Denny Desoutter and his team dropped PBO issue No. 1 onto the news stands in January 1967, I was already planning an ocean voyage in a small yacht.
As is the wont of foolish dreamers at the age of 21. So I bought a copy. It cost 3 shillings and 6 pence, or 18p in new money.
At the time I did not have a boat suitable for crossing an ocean. But that could follow later.
In the meantime, I was doing up an aged Yachting Monthly Senior (about 18ft long) and giving it a self-draining cockpit.
Heaven knows what my poor parents thought when I announced that I aimed to sail this diminutive and aged plywood box single-handed across the Atlantic.
To be frank, I didn’t really know how I was going to do it either.
But later issues of PBO would hopefully show me affordable and practical equipment that would help me on my way.
As luck would have it, fate intervened in the form of a contemporary university chum called Tony Brunner who announced he’d like to come along.
After just one year in a suit, he was bored with working for ICI; as was I with the daily trudge into Lloyds of London.
The YM Senior was too small for two people so it was sold (to great parental relief) and we pooled resources, cashed in our embryo pension plans, sold our cars and bought a 25ft 1954 wooden cruiser called a Wind Elf Mk2.
Not the most exciting of names perhaps, but this chunky little 25-footer with her reverse sheer, low coachroof and elegant Alan Buchanan-designed lines looked the business.
Had funds permitted, we’d have bought a Vertue or a van de Stadt-designed GRP Invicta (advertised in PBO issue No1).
But we were on a tight budget, so the older wooden Wind Elf would have to do. And she did just fine.
The next job was to equip her for trans-oceanic travels.
In those days, this did not involve a lot because – compared with today – there was not a lot of sailing gear available.
Browsing through copies of early PBOs again, I spotted the Seafarer Echosounder and Seafix RDF.
In 1968 we invested in one of each, at around £28 (equivalent to £392 now according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator) and £25 (= £350 now).
Fifty-five years of inflation applied to these prices is scary. But then a pint of beer in 1968 cost just 13p!
Such memories make me realise just how much sailors have benefited in recent times from new technology and new toys.
Scan the glossy ads in today’s PBO and you will find that virtually all the confidence-boosting navigational or boat handling aids now on offer hadn’t even been invented in 1968.
And even if they had been, we couldn’t have afforded them.
While painting and preparing our yacht we studied Eric Hiscock’s wonderful book Voyaging Under Sail, looking for hints and tips.
Then we set sail in June 1968, aiming for the Canaries.
After crossing the Bay of Biscay – where we had to lie a’hull for a night while a gale passed over and we hit our gin supply – we fetched up in Madeira after just two weeks.
Wrong island; but not bad for our first effort.
Four weeks later, despite our rudimentary navigational gear, we somehow managed to hit Barbados spot on having dodged south of a young hurricane in the process.
Eric Hiscock had advised us to head down towards the Cape Verde islands before turning right. We could then use any hurricane’s approaching winds to head for safety, south of its track.
After four weeks at sea we spotted a couple of birds and an airliner that was descending at speed.
Whereupon we fired up our Seafix and it recognised ‘Barbados’s Beeps’ dead ahead.
Later Denny Desoutter paid me a passable fee for recounting our story in PBO’s January 1969 issue.
To this day, I still vividly remember those long night watches rolling down the Trades – carefree and alone – in the cockpit of this ill-equipped 25ft wooden yacht. I was steering by hand.
Occasionally I squinted at the luminous grid of our bomber-style compass.
The newer illuminated Sestrel was no use at night because we’d run out of electricity. And our engine declined to start.
A multitude of stars blinked brightly in an inky black, pollution-free sky above.
I could sense rather than see the convoy of moving mountains of water as they rolled up from astern.
Occasionally a breaking crest flashed, white and noisy, and chucked solid water against our invaluable home-made cockpit dodgers.
Our little yacht was charging through the night, somewhere in the middle of nowhere. It was a true adventure.
But even in that wild and watery wilderness, we had a rough idea of where we were.
We did daily battle with our Ebbco plastic sextant, a clock (occasionally checked against accurate time signals on a short-wave Ferguson transistor radio), a stopwatch and a book of aeronautical tables.
The reassurance of an instant and precise push button position from GPS did not exist then.
But the saving grace of any sextant sight taken from the rolling deck of a small yacht is that each error is a ‘one off’ – not part of an accumulating disaster.
We budgeted on a position accuracy margin of plus or minus 60 miles; so we knew that our floating home was plus or minus 60 miles from somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Perhaps we were irresponsible. But there was no option.
Old fashioned equipment meant old fashioned methods.
Each landfall was an intoxicating blend of anticipation, excitement and, hopefully, relief.
Which was far more exciting than today’s GPS-assisted certainty.
If that was how we knew (roughly) where we were, how did we know how far we had sailed? Was there a plastic box powered by electricity that flashed squared off red digits at us?
No; because even if we had enjoyed live electricity (which we did not), the early B&G or Kenyon electronic logs then on the market would probably have cost more than the boat.
So we relied on a second-hand Walker log – a brass torpedo the size of a medium sized mackerel that was towed astern, spinning on a length of yellow line.
When the Walker was pulled in, a brass cover slid back to reveal little dials showing distance covered.
Eric Hiscock advised that a Walker should be painted black to stop predatory giants of the deep taking it for a flashing fish and eating it for supper.
But we never got round to this. Luckily Walker survived.
And speaking of fish, how did cruising sailors fry up the flying fish that hurled themselves on board at night?
A modern sailor enjoys bottled gas and instant hot flames, perhaps a grill and oven as well.
And cruisers today can refill these magic bottles wherever they dock. Not so over 50 years ago.
So most long-distance sailors relied on other household names of the day: Taylor or Primus.
Both made fine two-burner paraffin cookers: and paraffin could be found in most ports.
The paraffin used for cooking also found its way into our navigation lights.
These burnt the same fuel; assuming we had bothered to trim their wicks and light them, which I am ashamed to say we rarely did unless close to land.
Nowadays, new-fangled LED navigation lights burn brightly and use a fraction of the electricity consumed by conventional incandescent bulbs.
So regular battery charging is less critical.
But at least rolling down the Trades was not the same as playing Russian roulette with the convoys of steamers that now congest the English Channel’s shipping lanes.
Even in the 1960s they had radar and – assuming someone was awake on the bridge – we carried a conventional ‘rain-catcher’ radar reflector permanently hoisted up the backstay to announce our presence.
There are costlier and fancier radar reflectors available now, but many reckon that a good old ‘rain-catcher’ still gives a good ‘blip’.
But in those days it was hazardous, as I discovered when I was invited up to the bridge of the cargo ship on which I hitched a lift home.
She was steaming up the Channel at full speed at the end of her trip from the West Indies. And it was thick fog.
“You’re a yachtsman,” said the mate “come and look at this radar screen and tell me which blips are boats and which are waves.” I hadn’t a clue.
At that moment a smallish orange coloured gas-carrying ship loomed out of the fog as we slipped astern of her.
“I never saw that on the screen. Why aren’t you using your foghorn?” I naively asked. “Because if we did, that means it’s foggy so we would have to slow down. And that means we’ll miss a tide and be late into London Docks, which costs the owners money. And owners don’t like that.”
Sailing gear: Safety advantage
Thanks to clever electronics, life is a lot safer now.
The modern miracle of AIS is possibly the most valuable marine safety tool to come on the market for decades.
If you fit a transponder to your yacht, passing ships will also pick up your position and details, even if the watch keeper has not spotted your blip on his radar screen.
And the same ship – provided it is over a certain size or has a transponder – will show up on your plotter.
We enjoyed no such all-weather ‘visibility’ back in the 1960s, but we always kept white flares handy to warn an approaching ship it was about to run us down.
And we had red ones to confirm our plight if it had succeeded.
My mother gave us a liferaft because she feared she might never see us again unless we had one.
And we bought an EPIRB to help rescuers find us should we end up floating around in our new liferaft.
And – as any honest man who has ever put to sea in a small boat will admit – few things give more silent reassurance than a liferaft and an EPIRB.
An occasional dose of undiluted fear is part of the deal when crossing an ocean, but a liferaft reduces this by offering a ‘get out of jail card’, no matter how uncomfortable that might be.
Electricity is another contributor to a relaxed life aboard a small boat that we all now take for granted.
But one needs an engine (ours didn’t work) or a generator to produce the stuff.
That wonderful invention – the solar panel – had not yet appeared on the leisure market in the 60s.
The more electrically-powered equipment you have on a boat, the more often you must resort to what Hilaire Belloc described as “what is monstrously called to-day an ‘auxiliary’. The name is worthy of the thing. By auxiliaries the Roman army perished. Call it the machine and tell the truth.”
My shipmate and I agreed. Our Wind Elf Mk2 had an elderly Stewart Turner petrol ‘auxiliary’, but the wretched thing rarely condescended to work.
We were not skilled engineers so we made little effort to seek out its problems and persuade it to start.
So even if there had been such luxuries on the market (and aboard our yacht) as an electric fridge, microwave, electronic navigation aids, weather fax, radar, VHF radio, or chartplotter they would not have worked because our battery was flat.
And nor would electric lights. A paraffin lamp provided a strong enough glow for a cosy existence down below at night.
And then we had to sail the boat.
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This involved holding the tiller and trimming the sails to the wind angle and strength.
One of those wonderful roller-furling headsail systems that we now take for granted would certainly have come in handy.
But such furlers were in their infancy – and expensive. Whenever the wind got up (or went down) – day or night – there was no alternative to the dodgy dash along lurching side decks to wrestle with reluctant hanks and change headsails.
At least the trip to reef the mainsail was half the distance.
Once at the mast, we would crank away at the grandfather of reefing systems, the Turner roller reefer, complete with its sharp little teeth designed to bite careless fingers.
How things have changed.
The modern sailor can relax in the comfort and safety of his cockpit (protected by a nice modern sprayhood) and winch mainsail and headsail in and out like roller blinds.
Sailing gear game changers
Steering for long spells, whether under sail or power, is also considered an option rather than a necessity these days, thanks to the original Autohelm from Nautech (founded by Derek Fawcett in 1974) and all the imitations and developments it has since sired.
If you couldn’t afford something like a Hasler Wind Vane (they were not cheap and our homemade imitation was a dismal failure), you had to tie off the tiller or experiment with a lash up, leading sheets back to the tiller when sailing goose-winged with two headsails pulling the yacht down the trade winds.
Neither method was conducive to a relaxed night’s sleep, so watch keeping – hand on tiller – was invariably our only solution.
The luxury of handing over to ‘George’ (under sail or power) and admiring the view or taking a post prandial nap down below is indeed a joy.
But this only became readily available to sailors at an affordable price a few years later.
Modern windvane steering systems were also in their infancy.
Reading a modern website on these desirable devices today makes me realise just what we were missing in 1968.
The Hydrovane website, for example, kicks off with the words ‘Our favourite conversation happens when someone drops by at a boat show with a longing face: “I’d love a windvane, but I just can’t install one on my boat because of x, y, and z…”’
The website adds ‘Unlike many other types of windvanes, the Hydrovane can be fitted to and will work on most sailboats under about 60ft. So we often have easy answers and good news to share. Sailors leave us with a new-found understanding of how Hydrovane is different from other types. A Hydrovane can easily be fitted and will work on all transom types; on boats with any steering type (hydraulic, mechanical or tiller); on boats with mizzens; on cruising catamarans or trimarans; on boats loaded with gear (as many cruisers are); on boats with dinghy davits, arches, gantries, radar masts, etc. [ie it can be fitted offset]; and on boats that struggle with some weather helm.’
Hydrovane is one of the more expensive windvanes because it differs significantly from the servo pendulum-style systems.
It has a completely independent steering system so is not reliant on the boat’s main rudder. It has to be very strong.
The Hydrovane has been British built since 1968 and uses heavy duty materials: anodized aluminium castings, Super Duplex Ferrinox 255 stainless steel shaft.
The typical price for a 35-footer varies between £5,040 and £6,120.
The 2018 and 2022 Golden Globe Races featured numerous entries around this size, and the makers say the majority of skippers chose Hydrovane including the 2018 winner Jean-Luc van den Heede.
Another useful video is by Don McIntyre (founder of the 2018 and 2022 Golden Globe Race) at pbo.co.uk/windvane
Sailing gear for single-handers
Competitors in solo races choose from a variety of modern systems including Hydrovane, Aries, Monitor, Windpilot and Beaufort.
However, for his considerably smaller yacht my friend James Stock decided that Paul Dolton’s Sea Feather design (pbo.co.uk/seafeather) would do the job on his Twister 28.
This had guided sailors over thousands of ocean-going miles and was recommended for yachts between 20ft and 30ft.
Stock had entered his Twister Fly in the ‘solo’ Jester Trophy Challenge to the Azores and back in 2012 and thought that old favourites such as the Aries and Hydrovane were too big and heavy (not to mention costly) to bolt to his Twister’s stern.
He made it to the Azores and back single-handed without mishap.
The Sea Feather is a fine piece of engineering with a machined anodised aluminium structure and stainless-steel shafts running in delrin bearings.
Weighing in at just 35lb/16kg, it’s easy to fit or remove – and when at rest, the wind vane and servo rudder can be unshipped.
On a trial sail, I was transfixed as I relaxed in the cockpit and watched the windvane move to the wind, thereby activating the pendulum servo rudder blade, which in turn pulled (via blocks, lines and a short length of chain) the yacht’s tiller, moving it to keep Fly firmly on course.
No noise; no fuss; no electricity. And it worked as well downwind as it did to windward.
I can imagine that any sailor who fits one of these to his yacht will use it on a regular basis, even if just pottering down the Solent, because it’s such fun.
It is not cheap but is considerably less expensive than other makes suited to bigger yachts.
The Windpilot is another excellent self-steering device.
Roger Taylor of Mingming fame told me “Windpilot’s smallest self-steering gear – the Pacific Light – is very well suited to 20ft-30ft boats. Many of the Jesters have them. I’ve done about 25,000 ocean miles with mine, on a Corribee; then on an Achilles 24. Very rugged. Never had a problem.”
You can find videos of them in action at pbo.co.uk/mingming
Sailing gear: Self-steering
Moving onto electric-powered self-steering devices, a friend of mine who completed the 2007 ARC in a 50-footer said that an autopilot steered the boat for around 95% of the transatlantic trip – even under cruising chute.
Like countless others, my friends and I also used normal autopilots on many charter holidays.
Most yachts we chartered had Raymarine gear and the autopilots have proved reliable.
There’s a wide variety on offer from the simple tiller pilots (around £565) upwards. If buying an autopilot, detailed research and a visit to a well-stocked chandler are advisable because products evolve at speed.
The latest generation of gyro (as opposed to flux gate) compass controlled autopilots are also worth considering.
Successful sailor Phil Sharp said that when he needed to sleep on his way to overall victory in the new Open 40 Class on the Route du Rhum transatlantic race, he left steering to the autopilot.
“You can’t slow down. Or you won’t win. So even in over 30 knots of wind at night, I left the asymmetric spinnaker up. The gyro autopilot coped fine, even when the boat was flying at over 20 knots. I never woke up to a messy Chinese gybe, although the boat did get flattened once in a while.”
These days many high-speed solo sailors opt for top of the range NKE or B&G systems.
The secret to both these makes is the degree of accuracy and speed with which the sensors (wind speed, direction, boat speed, heading etc.) collect data, push it through a high-capacity processor, then transmit continuous corrections via the powerful hydraulic ram connected to the rudder stock(s).
The gyro also makes allowance for actual versus apparent wind speed and direction and the boat’s angle of heel and pitch.
These new generation autopilots come in ‘high resolution’ mode, have several settings (relating to weather and sea conditions) and the makers are introducing a new facility called ‘gust response.’
This makes the machine luff up or bear away as needed when the boat is reaching in heavy winds.
This level of sophistication does not, of course, come cheap; but if you want to average 20 knots down the Southern Ocean, it’s worth every penny.
Provided the automatic alarms (for wind direction changes etc) are working, the skipper can shelter and even sleep below and let ‘George’ get on with it.
So what about the amazing Ellen MacArthur who sailed her B&Q/Castorama Nigel Irens-designed 75ft trimaran solo non-stop around the world in record time?
A gyro autopilot did most of the steering, even when this powerful yacht was hitting speeds of 30 knots. She covered 27,354 miles in just over 71 days at an average speed of 15.9 knots.
Sam Davies sailed her Open 60 to success in the 2008 Vendée Globe and had many tales to tell while she was en route.
Sam told me: “Roxy was on NKE pilot all the time. If I helmed I got more tired and could have made mistakes; and anyway I was often too scared to take the helm. On a reach, it was set to steer a compass course. But downwind, it steered to the true wind angle. Over the whole Vendée, it was about 50/50 compass course or wind direction. And I had a UK version of the Tactic software to run the alarms.”
After one hairy session Sam messaged: “The last 24 hours have been really busy. I eventually managed to get a good trim for my Code 0 and covered a few extra miles thanks to that sail, until the wind increased too much. The change to Solent jib and dropping of the gennaker was really full on – to be on the bow of Roxy as we surfed the big swell at 20 knots was quite impressive.”
And all while her trusty autopilot steered the boat.
Comparing the way we sailed our 25ft yacht across the pond, it is glaringly obvious that much has changed.
Today’s sailors take for granted the fact that sophisticated self-steering gear can replace the helmsman and modern GPS will tell them exactly where they are.
It will also tell them in which direction to tell their autopilot to point the boat to reach their chosen waypoint or landfall.
If it gets dark or a fog rolls in – or both – a chartplotter and radar will point out the surrounding hazards and AIS will identify nearby ships and their heading.
An echosounder will bleep if the boat wanders into shallow water while a weather fax will warn of nasty weather in the offing.
In short, so long as the electrics continue to function, modern equipment has succeeded in dramatically reducing – even if not eliminating – many of the ‘what ifs’, fear factors and uncertainties associated with putting to sea.
And modern sail furling equipment has transformed handling a yacht under sail.
My only tinge of regret is that perhaps – thanks to the efficiency of modern equipment and aids – some sailors rarely experience that satisfying sensation of total self-sufficiency and the excitement of finding a headland or a buoy where and when they hoped (rather than knew) it should appear.
For these are the true thrills of cruising under sail.
But you can always turn off the toys, pull out the lead line, lob a Walker log over the stern or unpack a sextant once in a while.
Then you’ll be savouring sailing skills and thrills more akin to those experienced by PBO readers many decades ago.
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