That sinking feeling you get when you know something is probably wrong but don’t want to admit it yet hit me as I peered into the stern compartment at the autopilot shelf. We were at anchor in Friday Harbor, and I was doing a routine inspection of our new autopilot system now that we had put it through some rigorous testing.
Sometimes with boats there’s a temptation to stick your head in the sand and ignore possible problems, or not proactively inspect things because you’re afraid of finding a problem. Ignorance is bliss as they say. But this is something I always try to avoid. Ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away, and with boats it usually will come back to bite you.
On this inspection of our fiberglassed plywood autopilot shelf I saw a small chip or crack in the top layer of ply, which hadn’t been there before. There was no indication the shelf had moved, but it certainly warranted further inspection. For a few hours I agonized over what it would mean if the shelf were failing. I had put a ton of work into researching and installing the autopilot system the best way I knew how, and yet somehow all that due diligence still wasn’t good enough. If this were a real issue it’d mean I’d failed at one of the most important parts of the project.
I knew if I had to rip the shelf out and rebuild it, it’d be undoing the work already done and doing double that to grind it out and build a new, stronger one. But it’s the right thing to do. The autopilot drive puts up to 650 pounds of thrust on this attachment point, and we want to make sure it’s something we can have complete confidence in.
[This is part 3 in a three part series. You can read more about the autopilot install in part 1 and part 2.]
We’ve been moving fast (relative to our usual pace) in the last week. After a quick provisioning stop in Port McNeill, we had a southeasterly wind forecast for Saturday May 18. So we decided to skip the Broughtons and use this wind to sail downwind and make miles towards the Central Coast.
We were a bit unsure about the forecast though – Canada said SE 20-25 and the ECMWF (in Windy) said SE 15-25 with gusts to 28. 15-20 would be great, but 25-28 can make some pretty rough, close spaced waves in a strait, and we’d be doing most of this with wind against current. The ebb ends at 9am now and the flood runs 9am-3pm. The wind was forecasted to run only until 4pm, so most of our southeast wind would be opposing the flood current (we did start at 6:30am though to catch as much ebb as possible out of Port McNeill).
We couldn’t find any accounts of people sailing Q Strait in a southeasterly (NW wind predominates in the summer), and one of our guidebooks warned that winter easterly systems could be dangerous (but it’s spring now, and those presumably were stronger systems). Queen Charlotte Strait has very complex currents and underwater topology, not to mention numerous rocks to dodge.
Anyway, all our worrying was probably for nothing, because we ended up having a great sail. The wind was SE/ESE 15-22, mostly less than forecast, with occasional light periods (SE 9-12). And the day was sunny with great visibility – a rare but fortunate condition for a southeasterly. I’d hand the forecasting win to the ECMWF once again, although its gust forecast was misleading this time.
In part 1 I wrote about some of the planning and decision making process that went into researching an autopilot system for our boat. In this part we’ll get into the technical details of installing a tiller arm and autopilot drive shelf.
The most difficult part of the job, and one that is custom to every boat, was figuring out how to attach a below-decks autopilot drive to the rudder post. Our boat, a C&C Landfall 38, has a pinched stern and very limited space around the Edson radial drive. The autopilot drive is a surprisingly large piece of equipment – about 3 feet long at full extension, and the motor housing is about 8” tall by 9” long.
The attachment of the end of the ram to the steering system is very important because the drive can exert strong forces on the system (650 lbs of peak thrust with the Type 1 unit). The proper way to attach to the rudder shaft is a tiller arm – typically about a 10” long piece of cast bronze that is clamped around the rudder shaft, above or below the radial drive or quadrant. Edson and PYI’s Jefa manufacture them, as well as Buck-Algonquin.
The only problem was our Edson radial drive was already using up nearly all the vertical space available on our rudder stock – of about 4.5”, it uses up 3.75” (the concave disc model). Standard tiller arms are a minimum of 1.75” in height, too large to fit in 1.25” of space.
I looked at all the available tiller arms, measuring and re-measuring, but none of them would fit. Next I considered more drastic options like whether I could move the radial drive up or down to make more space (I couldn’t), and options like flipping the radial drive or buying a new one with a slimmer profile. I talked to people at both Edson and Jefa and both were very helpful, but ultimately this was a very difficult problem – the C&C Landfall 38 simply was designed with a very confined rudder shaft space.
A slimmer Edson radial drive or a Jefa drive with integrated tiller arm might have worked, but would add a substantial amount of work to the project. A radial drive swap isn’t trivial, and each option also would’ve changed the height of the steering cable track, which would require re-engineering the idler shivs to be at an appropriate angle / height (otherwise the steering cable will chafe).
“Windy, windy!” I remarked for what seemed the upteenth time this month. Early May has had a lot of wind, nearly every day, from the northwest. This is due to a big high pressure system parked offshore of Vancouver Island, creating gradients with the low pressure over inland BC and Washington. It’s also meant nice weather – sunny and hot.
I can’t remember the last time it’s rained. Although it’s probably only been 2 weeks, that’s a long time to go without rain in the Pacific Northwest spring. Our boat became more and more salt encrusted as we bashed upwind to Campbell River.
In Campbell River we did a significant boat repair project (more on that later), and provisioned for our circumnavigation of Vancouver Island, which will take us through July. With 2-3 months till our next big grocery store, we bought even more stuff than we did in March in Seattle! After a tiring three days of boat work and chores, we were ready to move on to Johnstone.
Sunrise from Otter Cove at 6am
The decision to add a below-decks autopilot to our boat wasn’t an easy one. For one, it’s expensive, and also a very difficult, time-consuming install. Furthermore, we already have a wheel-mounted autopilot. Why on earth do we need a different one? Then there’s the eternal debate between windvanes vs electric autopilots.
The answer to why we needed a below-decks autopilot is an easy one – our Raymarine ST4000+ wheel pilot simply can’t handle our boat in strong wave conditions, running with a following sea. And that’s the main job we need an autopilot for. The wheel pilot is rated for vessels up to 16,500 lbs, and ours is 17,000 lbs when empty. Loaded with cruising gear it’s likely 19,000-20,000 lbs.
The new autopilot system – Raymarine EV-200
Probably the biggest thing motivating a below-decks autopilot is the memory of our Hecate Strait crossing last June in a gale. I hand steered for almost 18 hours in big, breaking, following seas because the wheel autopilot couldn’t handle it. But there have been plenty of other times where it would’ve been nice to have an autopilot I could have confidence in.
Hecate wave state before it got hard. These were the “easy” waves.
The end of April and start of May found us transitioning into much easier cruising conditions. Partly it was the weather (less rainy and more moderate winds) and partly the location – we found a lot of great anchorages on the Sunshine Coast and in Desolation Sound.
Our week of waiting for a gale to pass paid off and we had a great crossing of the Strait of Georgia on Sunday April 28. We started out with NW 18 at Entrance Island and still very sloppy seas (3-4’ close spaced chop) – the boat got covered in salt back to the dodger windows. It’s impressive how rough this area (around Entrance Island and Nanaimo) can be in relatively moderate winds. But things calmed down quickly and we sailed right up to Smuggler’s Cove.
We had never been to Smuggler’s Cove and found it had all the things we like in an anchorage – gunky, well protected, scenic and some good hiking. Oh and shallow is always good too, with our manual windlass – our biceps have gotten enough of a workout lately.
We stayed two nights in Smuggler’s and then sailed up to Pender Harbor for reprovisioning, and then to Sturt Bay. We lucked out on our sail to Sturt Bay and had light southeast winds the whole time – flying the spinnaker! This was unexpected because the forecast was for light NW, and the wind stations on the western side of Texada were showing NW winds. Somehow though it was flowing from the southeast in Malaspina – we suspect it was outflow wind from the snowy mountains of the Jervis Inlet area.
If you want to understand the power of the wind, there’s no better way than being on a boat in a gale. It’s truly amazing how the wind can push a boat around like it’s a toy. If I have to be on a boat in a gale though, I’d very much prefer it be in a nice anchorage.
The forecast for Saturday April 27 had been clear well in advance – NW 25-35 kts (later upgraded to NW 30-40). So we had plenty of time to prepare, and slowed down our passage through the Gulf Islands – with strong north winds all week we’d have to wait out this gale in a good anchorage.
There aren’t many good anchorages in the northern Gulf Islands though. The Gulfs are quite challenging compared to the San Juans because most of its anchorages are open to either the northwest or southeast – the two primary wind directions. Strong winds can rule out almost 50% of its anchorages.
We wanted to be close to the northern end of the Gulfs and the passes out to the Strait of Georgia though so we could make our sail across it once the winds calmed down. We decided to try Degnen Bay, on the north side of Gabriola Passage.
But another challenge with Gulf Islands anchorages (in addition to many of them being quite small) is that several of them are crowded with permanently moored boats and unused mooring balls. These include Ganges, Silva Bay, and Degnen Bay. This can make it very difficult to find a good place to anchor.