Gone Floatabout

Sailing, Photography, Wilderness


All Blue Water Boats Should Steer Themselves

So says Yves Gélinas, the incredibly accomplished and innovative sailor who invented the Cape Horn wind vane, and Seth and I agree wholeheartedly!Strong SE wind

Twelve years ago, Seth and I and two friends set off on our circumnavigation aboard Heretic with no self-steering gear at all. No electronic autopilot and no mechanical wind vane. We both came from racing (round-the-buoys) backgrounds and were used to hand-steering boats to get the best out of them at each and every moment. With four people taking turns at the helm, it was possible to make ocean passages like that, but it wasn’t much fun and it wasn’t very sustainable (in the most literal sense of that word, as in, able to continue indefinitely) for longer passages.

Cold sailing

Hand-steering Heretic off Rhode Island in November 2006. Me on the left, one of our friends – John – at the helm.

Upon reaching the Bahamas after our first week-long passage, Seth started to look for a wind vane to buy. Fortuitously, we met a sailor at a beach potluck who had just completed his circumnavigation and wanted to sell his wind vane. We installed it aboard Heretic soon thereafter, and by the time we reached Panama we’d gotten the hang of using it. After that, Seth and I could sail alone together very comfortably. We like to joke (semi-seriously!) that we didn’t sail around the world, our wind vane did!


Nice sailing

Wind Vane steering Heretic


It’s hard to emphasize enough just how important some form of self-steering is aboard a short-handed vessel. Solo watches are very, very difficult without some way to leave the helm for at least some amount of time. Self-steering gear frees you to take care of all the other demands of sailing the boat – reefing, navigating, radio calls, securing an item on deck that may have come loose, etc. – as well as anything you might like to do for yourself or for the watch below – cooking, making coffee, quietening something rattling that might be disturbing the sleeping person, etc.

Tying down the lace-line

Seth ties down the laceline after reefing

Without self-steering, all this becomes very difficult and much of it requires another person to help, which means both crew members get significantly less sleep. It’s also extremely tiring to hand-steer a sailboat in ocean swells and wind-waves, especially in rough weather, so that a longer passage would be exhausting. It’s obviously possible – one of our friends did it from Honolulu to Tahiti nonstop – but it’s taxing in many ways. So when we were looking for another boat after selling Heretic, there was no doubt in our minds that a wind vane was an absolutely essential piece of equipment. Most fortuitously, Celeste had a Joshua model Cape Horn wind vane already!

Chukchi Sea

Cape Horn wind vane steering Celeste through rough seas north of the Arctic Circle


Since we are both classic boat nuts who don’t appreciate clunky stuff cluttering up the clean lines of a beautiful boat, we were immediately taken with the low profile and streamlined appearance of the Cape Horn.

Celeste among growlers

Cape Horn wind vane looking not at all like an oil derrick on Celeste‘s stern! Polar ice edge, Alaskan Arctic.


And as we started using it, we were very happy with how it worked and how well it steered. Remounting it was simple, as the deck mounts and the leads for the control lines were already in place. We spent our first few passages (north outside Vancouver Island and then onward to Haida Gwaii and Ketchikan, Alaska) learning to use it. The principles involved were, of course, familiar to us after some 30,000 miles of sailing with a wind vane on Heretic, but every boat handles differently, so we had to learn how best to balance Celeste for the Cape Horn to work to most advantage on each point of sail.

Wind vane

Cape Horn steering Celeste on passage between Haida Gwaii , British Columbia and Ketchikan, Alaska. July 2014.

Very basically, servo-pendulum wind vanes work like this: You position the vane into the apparent wind on the course you wish to steer and then hook up the control lines to your wheel or tiller. Whenever the boat starts to move off course, the wind will push the vane one direction or the other. The vane is connected to a rudder in the water, so that the movement of the vane translates to movement of the rudder. This external rudder has enough power to move the control lines running to the boat’s tiller. These lines will push or pull the tiller (which obviously controls the boat’s rudder) to correct the boat’s course.

You can see how this works in this video (minute 1:05 – 1:27):

We’ve found servo-pendulum wind vanes to be very reliable and simple to use. Plus they don’t use any electricity, something that is incredibly important on a small sailboat with only a few solar panels to generate power.

Our Cape Horn wind vane has steered us about 10,000 miles so far and we’re not sure exactly how many miles it steered with Celeste‘s previous owner, perhaps another 10,000. With all the rough conditions in the Arctic, we’re planning to do a bit of maintenance on our vane before our next big passage, and then we hope to have this marvelous piece of engineering – and crucial bit of kit, as the English magazines put it – steer us many more thousands of miles!  Fast sailing



An interview and an article

A couple of links for readers who are interested:

Our partner Katadyn has a new blog  and recently interviewed us by phone for it – the interview is up online here. Approaching Polar pack ice, Arctic Ocean_AlpineAire and Optimus Heat

And Classic Boat magazine just published their April issue, with my piece about sailing in the Arctic on a wooden classic as one of the cover stories! CBApril18-print-cover

I promise to catch up on our posts about the California coast soon!


Critter Post 7: Atlantic Blue Tang

A big departure from my earlier Critter Posts: this one doesn’t live in Alaska and doesn’t breathe air! The Blue Tang is a reef fish native to the tropical Atlantic, so with this Critter Post, we’re harkening back to Seth’s and my global circumnavigation aboard HERETIC, during which we snorkeled with Blue Tangs in the Caribbean on the way out (2006/7) and the way home (2010).Blue Tangs-3

Continue reading


Inside Passage, express style. (September 2017)

Fishing boat in Cross Sound

Fishing boat in Cross Sound, the evening we reached the Inside Passage again

After a couple days of rest upon reaching the sheltered waters of Southeast Alaska, we set off for a nearly non-stop trip south down the rest of the Inside Passage. We started on this marathon on September 9 and our goal was to be back in Port Angeles, Washington in two weeks.  Continue reading


Prince William Sound and Kenai Fjords, Alaska, June 2017

Whale in Prince William SoundWe left the Inside Passage behind for our third Gulf of Alaska crossing on June 9, 2017 and had an easy passage except that first I, and then Seth, came down with some sort of flu. I think we may have caught it from a few people who were sick at Baranof Warm Springs. It didn’t manifest itself until the second day – the first day was very pleasant sailing with a moderate south swell and light south wind. We were sailing a close reach because the apparent wind was so much further forward (due to Celeste‘s speed) than the true wind. On the second day, the sailing was still good, with the wind up and down in strength but steady in direction from the south. By the afternoon, though, I had started to develop a headache and fever that persisted almost until we raised the islands off Prince William Sound. It was made rather worse on Day 3 by the wind dying but the swell increasing – a nauseating combination. Seth came down with the bad headache/fever as well on that day. Fortunately the sailing/motoring was easy, so we didn’t have to work too hard while we were ill. We both recovered on Day 4 and by evening we came into Prince William Sound and anchored a few hours later in a lovely, deserted spot on Knight Island. Continue reading


Interviewed by Psychology of Sailing Website

A few weeks ago, we were honored to be asked for an interview by Fabio at the Psychology of Sailing website, whose focus is how sailing and psychology can influence each other and promote mental health and well being, as well as a sense of purpose in life.  Our interview just got posted yesterday, and you can read it here. I hope you enjoy it as much as we enjoyed answering Fabio’s thoughtful questions! http://www.psychologyofsailing.com/outdoor_life_interview/


Celeste on the Alaska Peninsula, 2016


Magazine articles update

I’ve been thrilled to have a lot of articles published in sailing magazines this winter. For those of you who are interested, here’s a quick recap:

  • Out right now in Ocean Navigator March/April 2017 is “Sail Fast! Aleutian Islands to Juan de Fuca Strait in Seven Weeks”, about our summer 2016 voyage. Despite having a schedule to meet and thus having to move faster than we would have liked, it was a great cruise and we managed to pack in the spots we most wished to see. cropped-celeste-and-glacier.jpg
  • For those of you who are Cruising Club of America members, the same piece will be coming out in this year’s Voyages
  • I’m also honored to be the newest member of the editorial team for Voyages – I had a lot of fun creating the maps for each article this year.
  • And I was honored to be one of the judges for this year’s Chuck Husick Technology Award, presented by Ocean Navigator to an innovative technology product in the boating market. It was a hard choice among all the great nominees, but the you can read about the final winner here.
  • Cruising World  just posted Episode 2 of our Arctic Voyage video series! It’ll be up on YouTube soon. 🙂
  • In the January/February issue, Cruising World published my piece “Alaska’s Wild Coast” about our 2014 cruise along the Alaska Peninsula the ‘wrong’ direction – from east to west – and now it’s online hereFirst view of the Bering Sea
  • Sailing magazine published my article “Captain Cook’s Paradise: New Zealand’s Bay of Islands” in the January issue – unfortunately it’s not yet online.

    Dolphin and dinghy

    Dolphin seen from the dinghy in New Zealand

  • Across the Pond, Sailing Today ran my “Introduction to High Latitude Outfitting” in their February issue whose theme was the cold northern climes.
  • Also in Britain, last but not least!, Water Craft ran my story about the Steamboat Liberty Belle as their lead feature, along with a cover shot! watercraft-cover

As always, a big thank-you to all my readers and hope you enjoy these pieces!