03 October 2010

I Am Captain

Way back in April (April!?!?), at the very beginning of my intermittent 2000 mile voyage on the Blue Moon, I complained about being relegated to crew member:

"I had been looking forward to Captaining my boat on a carefree cruise along a balmy palm-fringed shore. Instead, I seemed to be nothing more than the Crew who was expected to do this and do that all day and all night long.

I resented it!

But after a few days, the Blue Moon and I have come to terms. I give it what it needs, and she is giving me at least as much back. I am happy to be 90% Crew, and 10% Captain. We are reconciled to this relationship. It fits us."

There were many reasons why I felt like an overworked galley slave, including the fact that I was in over my head and had no idea what I was doing, and so I had to work twice as hard as I should have.

But the biggest reason of all was that I was a slave to the tiller. Sure, when I was sailing off-shore on long tacks, my sheet-to-tiller self steering system freed me from the heavy burden of helming the boat. But for various reasons -- that I'll discuss in a later blog post -- sailing free off shore has been impossible or impractical since Ft. Meyers and the beginning of the Okeechobee Waterway.

As a result, I hand-steered every mile from Ft. Meyers to Jacksonville.

And then there's the problem of too many crew...
"Get that oar out of my back!"
wikimedia commons

This summer, while I was re-filling my cruising kitty, it came to me like a sudden jibe that the Blue Moon came with an Tillerpilot. You know the kind of thing I mean:

Navico Tillerpilot
photo Navico
Bob, the previous owner, had mentioned that the Tillerpilot didn't work, and indeed it did not work when I first tried it. Didn't even power up. But I figured if I could build a wooden boat, fixing a simple Tillerpilot should be a snap, so I took it apart and started probing around its innards.

Turns out, the only problem I could find was some slight corrosion on the power connector. When I cleaned that off with a pen knife and a bit of sand paper, the unit powered up on my bench, with a 12 Volt power supply substituting for battery power.

So I dragged the Tillerpilot down to Jacksonville with the rest of my 175 lbs. of luggage, and tried it out as soon as I could.

In short, it worked beautifully.

Freedom is an Tillerpilot!
photo jalmberg
I cannot tell you what a difference this device has made to my cruising experience.

For one thing, I no longer make breakfast -- or even coffee -- before setting out in the morning. I wake up at dawn and get underway immediately (well, immediately may be an exaggeration... I'm not at my most brilliant at dawn), and once the Tillerpilot is set up and working, I leisurely go below and start the coffee.

Of course, I pop my head out the companionway every minute to make sure some Hullabaloo isn't roaring around the next bend, aiming to run me down, but having to keep a good watch and being tied to the tiller are two very different things.

One thing I find very difficult is to steer and read a chart or -- even worse -- a cruising guide. As soon as I focus on the page, the boat veers wildly off course. Usually straight for a mud bank or day marker. Read a whole sentence, or find a marker on the chart, and I'm liable to be headed in the opposite direction. But with the Tillerpilot, I can almost read without distraction. Almost, because on restricted waterways like the ICW, or even in a large Sound, like St. Catherine's, you must -- must -- keep your wits about you and keep a good watch. It's amazing how those day markers creep up on you.

But, as I say, even with those restrictions, the Tillerpilot has reversed those figues I quoted above. At least while underway, I'm now 90% captain, and 10% crew. That is, I can spend most of my time anticipating problems, planning ahead, navigating, and giving orders to Helmo, my somewhat dim, but tireless, new crew member.

A must-have piece of equipment for the long-distance cruiser.

>>> Next Episode: Good luck/bad luck


  1. hear hear, the only thing better than an autohelm is a willing junior crew member & they're rare as a constipated duck.

  2. I suggest petroleum jelly on the power connector contacts, to stop them getting corroded again. They may originally have been plated, and this will now have gone in the corrosion and cleaning, so the corrosion will come back very easily.

  3. I never heard the petroleum jelly trick, but it sounds like a good one, and I happen to have a jar in my first aid kit. Thanks!

  4. I wouldn't single-hand at all without my tiller-pilot. I quite like the petro. jelly suggestion too, next time mine stops working (as it will) I'll give it a try. To minimise the risk I've built a cover for it out of plastic 2 litre drinks bottles. I cut the bottom off one bottle, the top and bottom off another, and just the top off a third. The bottle that still has a neck goes over the push/pull rod (a close-ish fit), next on goes the topless and bottomless 'sleeve', then, with a hole cut for the pin, the last part goes on. I used electricians tape to seal/join the bottles. There's enough give in the plastic to operate the buttons. It won't protect in the case of a deluge, but it keeps the spray off.


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