Sitting at the helm for long stretches of time isn’t my favorite thing to do while sailing longer distances. In fact, when I have a guest on board, I give away the helm as soon as possible. I’d much rather be mobile and adjust sails, take photos, and generally not be tied to the tiller. However, electronic tiller pilots aren’t very effective for steering under sail – weather helm easily overpowers them, or overtakes their ability to make corrections quickly. They are good for steering under power, though. I don’t want to spend $5-6k on a windvane self-steering unit – especially since most of my sailing is in the Chesapeake – seems like overkill if I’m not going to cross an ocean (no plans for that!). So, sheet-to-tiller seems like the best alternative. I’ve always conceived it of being too complicated, or not effective on every point of sail, but I changed my perspective recently when I read the phrase “. . . every sailboat can be made to steer itself.” Hmmm. . .
I began to watch some videos on the subject, and became convinced that it was both effective and easy, so I collected the various components from my spares that I keep on board. Basically, I needed an alternate main sheet that directly and dynamically ties the boom to the tiller, and I needed a counter-balance device – in this case I used several lengths of shock cord connected to a lanyard that will connect to the slotted toe rail.
Mainsheet: runs from the end of the boom to a block fixed (at this point) to the backstay, then to a block that’s attached to the toe rail on the weather-side of the boat. This will counterbalance the tendancy for the boat to round up to weather – as wind pressure acts against the main, it’s force is transmitted to the opposite side (windward side), applying force to weather on the tiller, and subsequently causing the boat to bear off. The shock cord is attached to the leeward rail and pulls the tiller back to center line when the wind pressure lessens. Here are a few photos to illustrate:
I made up two lengths of line with snap clips to attach to the rails. These in turn are attached to the block on one side, and the shock cord on the other. This way, when the boat is tacked or jibed, the lanyards can be easily moved to opposite sides. An advantage to having a slotted toe rail, is that the length of, and therefore the tension of the lines can be infinitely adjusted by moving the clips to adjacent slots just an inch or two at a time until the correct balance is attained.
So how did it work? Well, pretty good for the initial experiment. I discovered unwanted friction in the block mounted to the backstay as a result of the line being led too closely to the bimini. We moved the bimini off the block, and that helped somewhat. We need to continue experimenting with lanyard positioning and sail trim before we can report total success on all points of sail. However, we did achieve stable steering on a beam reach and close reach on our first experimental day-sail. I was pretty satisfied!