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!


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


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


New foul weather gear from Helly Hansen!

hh-logoAfter 10 years and 40,000 miles of ocean sailing, our foul weather gear was due for replacement, so we were thrilled when Helly Hansen agreed to support our adventures!

Outer-wear has come a long way since Seth and I last bought foul weather gear at the start of our circumnavigation, and Norwegian company Helly Hansen has been one of the leading innovators of lightweight and breathable, yet waterproof, sailing garments. hh-olympic-coast-small

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Glaciers, bears, and crossing the Gulf of Alaska: Kodiak to Ketchikan, July 2016

Sunset on Kodiak IslandWe wrote our last post from Kodiak, a wonderful town where we met a lot of very friendly people. As well as completing necessary chores like laundry, internet, fuel, and groceries, we had fun hiking the hill behind town. We really fell in love with the island of Kodiak, though, when we left town to sail to a deserted bay. Deserted, that is, except for humpback whales, sea otters with babies, and hundreds of puffins and auklets! Continue reading


New articles and an award from the Cruising Club of America!

I’m excited to share a bunch more articles that have come out this winter and spring! For those of you who like pretty pictures, out right now in Cruising World‘s June/July issue is a double-page spread of Celeste in the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean – it’s an ‘under-over’ shot (half underwater) but no, we didn’t go swimming to take it – just leaned over the gunwale of the dinghy! Rowing in Ice

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