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



Work and Play in Marina del Rey (January 2018)

That title rhymes… sorry… couldn’t help myself 🙂

Marina del Rey

Marina del Rey seen from northern promenade

In our last post about our current sailing voyage, we’d reached Marina del Rey, a huge marina complex just north of Los Angeles, CA, on December 12, 2017. (Sorry for being so behind on the blog, everyone!) We settled in at the California Yacht Club, thanks to very generous friends of friends, fellow Cruising Club of America members Steve and Stephanie Hathaway. The California YC members and staff made us feel very welcome and we were extremely grateful to be able to berth CELESTE there for a full six weeks.


Settled into our slip at CYC. Photo thanks to Stephanie Hathaway.

We soon had the boat all put away for our absence over the holidays – less of a process than when we’d left her for months in the storm-tossed Aleutians, but still a bit of work. When we returned in mid-January 2018, she was just as we’d left her, always a relief!  Continue reading


What a difference a day makes: Contrasting stops in Southern California (December 2017)

We said goodbye to Morro Bay, and the wonderful time we’d had there seeing the elephant seals, on December 9, 2017. Since San Francisco, we’d gotten into a habit of leaving at sunset, and we did so again as we motored across the Morro Bay bar and set sail in the wake of the beautiful tall ships, Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain.

Leaving Morro Bay

Leaving Morro Bay in the wake of the tall ships

The light breeze we encountered at the harbor mouth soon died off to nothing, so that we started the engine again to motor through a flat calm. We had an uneventful rounding of Point Conception, a notorious bit of the California coast, in the middle of the night, and we were close enough to see the hazy red glow of the wild-fires that were engulfing that area at the time. In fact, the air was so thick with smoke that my chest felt very constricted by the end of my watch, so much so at one point that I had trouble breathing. I obviously shouldn’t have waited until then to root around for my respirator, but one’s motivation to dig around with a flashlight in the recesses of the tool lockers isn’t great by 3:30 AM after fighting sleepiness since midnight.

Ash on the ocean

Ash on the ocean during the Southern California wild-fires

When dawn came, we could see how thick the smoke really was – we even saw large patches of ash lying on the calm water. Continue reading


Pirate Ships and Pinnipeds! Morro Bay, California, December 2017

Sea lions, Monterey

Sea Lions on Monterey breakwater

After spending the month of November on the East Coast, Seth and I returned to CELESTE in the marina in Monterey, California. We arrived just in time for the Holiday Boat Parade, of sailboats and motor boats bedecked in Christmas lights.

Christmas lights in Monterey

Monterey marina ready for Christmas!

Continue reading


Sailing, Scuba, Hiking, and Sea Otters: Monterey, California, October 2017

Sailing through Golden Gate

Sailing out the Golden Gate, October 2017

Sailing out of San Francisco Bay, under the Golden Gate Bridge, was a much more relaxed experience than coming into the Bay in the fog and dark. We had sunshine, no ship traffic, and a lovely light breeze – just enough for us to cut the engine and truly sail through this famous waterway.

San Francisco in our wake

Goodbye, San Francisco

For some reason, our departure from San Francisco felt like a milestone for both of us. Continue reading


San Francisco, October 2017

Waves at Crissy Field

Apologies that it’s been so long since our post about the passage down to San Francisco. After the excitement (both good and bad – see earlier post) of coming under the Golden Gate Bridge, we enjoyed a week of being anchored off Sausalito among local live-aboard characters and fellow transient voyagers. The anchorage itself was a little rolly, exposed as it is to the whole bay across to San Francisco itself, but you can’t argue with a free place to keep a boat in California!  Continue reading


2017 in Photos

Happy new year, Gone Floatabout readers!

Just like last year, I’ve put together a little “year in review”, with some of the highlights (or not so high lights) of 2017 aboard Celeste: Continue reading