Self-Steering Without an Autopilot

By David VanDenburgh Sr.

We were a week out of Hawaii heading for San Francisco and both our autopilot and our backup autopilot had packed it in. We tried a fix but upon opening the case found the gears ground to powder. It looked like someone would need to steer all the way home (about three or four weeks). I figured this would be the perfect time to see if I could make Pygmalion (a Westsail 32) steer herself.

When the wind is forward of the beam, self-steering is not too hard to achieve (at least not in a full-keel cruising boat – those of you with fin-keeled flat-bottom modified racers are on your own!). To accomplish it, you have to understand the forces involved.

First, put the boat on course and hold her there. Then tinker with sheets until the helm is well balanced – just a touch of weather helm. The principle here is to move the center of effort and the center of resistance very close to one another, with the center of effort just slightly aft of the center of resistance. The center of effort is moved aft by easing headsails and hardening the mainsail (on a sloop or cutter) and/or the mizzen (on a ketch or yawl). Conversely, the center of effort is moved forward by hardening the headsails and easing the main (and/or mizzen). (There’s not much you can do to move the center of resistance unless you want to move stores around and rebalance your boat.)

If the wind were steady in force and direction, all you would need is a light bungee cord to hold the tiller or wheel against the slight tendency of the boat to head up, but of course the wind is not steady. Puffs will cause the boat to heel which will cause her to want to head up (stretching the bungee cord). Lulls will let her stand up which will cause her to want to head down (as the bungee cord pulls the tiller up). Fortunately you can take advantage of your boat’s reaction to heeling.

What you want to do is translate the extra tension on a sail created by a puff into a force that pulls the tiller/wheel in a direction that will head the boat downwind a little to resist the tendency to round up. Conversely, you want to translate the reduced tension on a sail during a lull into a force that turns the tiller/wheel in a direction that will head the boat upwind a little to resist the tendency to head off.

There are a number of ways to do this, but the easiest way is to tie a line into a headsail sheet with a rolling hitch (or taut line hitch) and bring it to the tiller (through a block or two) so that increased tension in that line will pull the tiller up and resist the tendency of the boat to head up. This force will probably need to be balanced with a bungee cord pulling in the opposite direction. In a puff, the boat heels and wants to round up into the wind, but the increased pressure on the sail pulls harder on the sheet and therefore on the self-steerer line tied into the sheet, which pulls the tiller up and resists the tendency to round up into the wind. When the puff eases, the bungee cord pulls the tiller down, heading the boat a bit off the wind. It takes tinkering to get it right.

Using this rig, we were able to get Pygmalion to steer herself for hundreds of miles at a time, setting us free from the tiller and reducing fatigue.

Sailing Downwind with Twin Headsails

Sailing downwind in light wind (say 3-8kts) can be a little frustrating, especially if there’s any sea left over from earlier winds and your sail inventory doesn’t include light-air or downwind sails. In those conditions, the mainsail typically slats back and forth as the boat rolls about, and the jib collapses and fills, often blanketed by the main. Dropping the main and sailing under jib alone quiets things and saves wear on the rig, but a modestly-sized headsail doesn’t provide the area needed to move the boat adequately – as is the case on the cutter-rigged Cape Dory 36 with a Yankee jib.

A great solution for gaining a bit more speed without the expense of a spinnaker, and without too much fuss, is to hoist two headsails. In our case, we pole our Yankee jib on one side and sheet the drifter off the end of the boom on the other side. Since the Yankee is on the furler, the drifter is set flying (or loose), attached only at the head, tack and clew. If you don’t have a drifter, the same configuration with a genoa and jib would work.

Here is a short video of the twin headsail configuration we use aboard Ariel, a Cape Dory 36.

SISU, Cape Dory 28


Guy Leslie is no stranger to Cape Dorys. He learned to sail in a Typhoon on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., and then moved on to a CD25 that he sailed on the Patuxent River and Chesapeake Bay. The CD25 made a short trip over land when Guy moved to Traverse City and West Bay, where she spent 23 years in Guy’s care. As much as Guy liked his CD25, he said that he has “realized a dream in purchasing the 28”. SISU, Finnish for “dogged determination”, has already made an extended trip to Beaver Island during her first season. Guy hopes to continue cruising Lake Michigan and beyond.

Second Wind, CD Typhoon


A brief message from Jim Trandel, owner of Second Wind.

“This is a picture of my 1983 CD Typhoon Weekender moored at Monroe Harbor in Chicago. I’m retired and spending most of my free time on the “Second Wind” my first sailboat. The Second Wind is from Vermont – Lake Champlain. She was not sailed much according to the three previous owners and was kept in pristine condition. Even her cushions are in excellent condition and the original sails are still crisp and stain-free. It was a great find and worthy of the 34 hour trek to get her to Chicago. I have replaced the running rigging and plan to replace the standing rigging and seacocks when she is on the hard this Winter.”

Report: Beaver Island Rendezvous



There could be no greater testimony to the high caliber of Cape Dory owners than a loosely planned event – hosted by a couple of newbies, no less – turning out to be a great time. And such was the case for the Lake Michigan rendezvous held Aug. 2-6 at St. James Harbor, Beaver Island, the relaxed island atmosphere and its natural beauty providing the perfect backdrop. Even without a carefully planned schedule, tours, or activities, there was plenty of good conversation, a congenial spirit, and a lot of enthusiasm for the event – and even excited talk about planning one for next year.

Thanks in large part to the efforts of Cathy Monaghan and Great Lakes Fleet Captain Ed Haley, who regularly posted registration reminders to the CD Board, 10 people registered for the event and four boats made the trip. Now this number might be small in comparison to some of our other fleets, but as our Dear Mr. Dunn pointed out in a recent issue of Masthead, the vastness of the Great Lakes shoreline tends to complicate things. (Some quick math indicates that the one-way mileage average of the four boats is roughly 160nm)

When Ariel and her crew, Dave and David VanDenburgh, arrived Sunday evening, August 1, we were greeted with a pretty harbor made more attractive by the presence of two Cape Dorys, SISU (CD28) and Spindrift (CD300MS). After anchoring and settling in, we dinghied over to SISU and met Guy Leslie and Jan Jones. Guy is a long-time Cape Dory owner (first a Typhoon Weekender, then a CD25) and the proud new owner of a beautiful CD28, SISU, which he purchased in Holland, MI, in September 2009 and brought to her new port in Traverse City. When he heard about the rendezvous, Guy was eager to meet up with other CD owners and said he “just had to make it.” And make it he did, taking SISU on their first extended trip together. Little did he know he’d have a few more opportunities to “get acquainted” with her as the week progressed. In the true spirit of a rendezvous, however, he found that he had plenty of support as he dealt with tough anchoring conditions and some transmission issues. Much to his credit, Guy remained optimistic and unflappable through it all.

Guy Leslie descending into the engine compartment to ferret out the cause of his transmission woes.
Guy Leslie aboard SISU.

Monday morning dawned rainy and windy, a 15-20 kt southwesterly setting in for much of the week. The gusts proved too much for SISU’s anchor and she began creeping downwind through the anchorage, her anchor fouled with weeds. Once SISU was safely re-anchored, we went ashore to meet Bill and Mary Kay Movalson, new owners of Spindrift, a very clean CD 300 Motorsailer out of Gladstone, MI, just north of Escanaba.

A weedy bottom made for tough anchoring.

Bill and Mary Kay Movalson’s CD 300 Motorsailer, Spindrift

Bill and Mary Kay purchased Spindrift in May and, like Guy, they were excited to hear about the Beaver Island rendezvous. Bill is quite the gadget/innovation guy and has already made a number of upgrades to the boat, including custom dinghy davits and pilothouse doors. Mary Kay is a gracious host and loves the comfortable ride and versatility afforded by the Motorsailer. Bill and Mary Kay had obligations in Mackinac and needed to get an early start in the morning, so the group enjoyed drinks and conversation aboard Spindrift before heading to Shamrock, a local restaurant. Just as we were leaving the dock, Mike Ritenour and Sue arrived aboard La Vida, a CD33. Rit and Sue, exhausted from their 60+ nm trip from Cheboygan (not to mention their earlier travels through Lake Superior and the Soo locks), opted to settle in for the night and anchored in the harbor.

La Vida anchored in St. James Harbor.

The group met in the morning for coffee and breakfast (and yet more great conversation), and then walked over the St. James Boat Shop to check on Bill, a skilled woodworker and old friend of Rit’s. Bill and his apprentice make fine cherry buckets and strip canoes. Sawdust covers the floor of the shop and partially completed boats hang from the ceiling or rest on sawhorses. After taking a bit of joshing from Bill, whose 80-something mind is as sharp as ever, Rit added another cherry bucket memento to his collection.

Old Bill splicing a handle for his cherry bucket.

After some exploring and stocking up on groceries, the group migrated to La Vida for drinks and conversation. Rit gave a tour of La Vida, which is absolutely decked out with gear, while Sue listened graciously. For those who don’t know, La Vida was a victim of hurricane Hugo and rescued by Rit, who has put some 60,000 miles under her keel since then. To say that she is equipped is an understatement. By Rit’s own account, even the Coast Guard during a courtesy inspection finally gave up trying to find fault when they realized they weren’t in the presence of your typical Weekend Warrior. Rit’s good nature and wonderful companion, combined with his considerable experience, made the time aboard La Vida a real privilege.

l-r: Michael “Rit” Ritenour, Guy Leslie, Sue

Two members came in by ferry: Kevin LeMans and Great Lakes Fleet Captain Ed Haley. Kevin had originally planned to sail Raconteur, his CD30, but crew plans fell through and he ended up camping on the island with his family and joining the group for breakfast. We hope to meet Raconteur in person at the next rendezvous! Ed Haley traveled and then traveled some more to make an appearance, and we are grateful for his dedication. After completing a 500-mile bike ride through Iowa with his son, Ed drove to Charlevoix and caught the ferry to Beaver Island, arriving just in time to sort out some transmission issues on SISU. Not surprisingly, Ed once owned a CD28, so his experience came in handy.

Dinner with the crew the night before departure.

Friday morning brought with it a shift in wind, giving everyone a fair wind home. We said our goodbyes over breakfast, courtesy of the GLF, and set a course for home. Rit, Sue and La Vida set out through Gray’s Reef Passage and on to Mackinac; Ariel headed south for South Manitou Island (and St. Joseph); and Ed and Guy messed about with SISU before Ed took the ferry back to Charlevoix. Despite his earlier transmission troubles, Guy made it home safely to Traverse City without a glitch.

Rit and Ed Haley say goodbye.

Although the newbies might like to take credit for a successful rendezvous, there’s no doubt that it was due to the unequaled character of your typical Cape Dory owner. After all, great boats pick great people. Perhaps there will be more great boats and great people next year?! We’ll keep you posted.

Ariel in early morning sunlight, departure day.

Anchor Light LEDs

Many boats use masthead-mounted anchor lights, but some may still be using the older Guest anchor light (pictured above) that hangs in the rigging. While the Guest lights don’t exude the charm and tradition of a paraffin lantern, they have the advantage of being seen more easily than masthead lights, which tend to blend in with a starry sky or tower high above a boat powering nearby, and the large 6v battery will last for a couple hundred hours. The standard incandescent bulbs, however, leave a little to be desired in terms of luminosity.

Good news: There is an affordable LED replacement that not only burns longer with less energy but also burns brighter than the incandescent. I purchased and installed one prior to our month-long summer cruise, and it worked well. It was much easier to spot from shore in a crowded anchorage than the old incandescent, and it burns as bright as many masthead lights.

There may be other suppliers out there, but I purchased mine for 6.95 + shipping from eLite, part T3-1/4 (10mm) Miniature Bayonet (BA9s) Base LED Bulb. The company responded promptly to my order, notifying me of invoice receipt and shipment date. The bulb arrived quickly and well packaged. Time will tell just how long the bulb will last, but we spent some 25 nights at anchor already this summer.