How Not to Install a Self-Steering Windvane

Monitoring One's Progress Toward the Loony Bin: On a quest for self-steerage, our intrepid do-it-yourselfers attempt the impossible in the most unfeasible manner. On Watch from the December 2012 issue of Cruising World.

Fatty Installs a Wind Vane

Carolyn Goodlander

The best thing to do after purchasing a new vessel is to make a logical, long-range list of the projects to be completed, then diligently stick to it, completing each one in order. That’s what I intended to do, and it’s what I wish I was able to do. Alas, I wasn’t. Maturity isn’t my strong point. My heart overrules my head at will. The downside: This makes my life chaotic. The upside: I do what I want, when I want, how I want. Staid rationality, be damned!

I have fun.

Isn’t that what it’s all about?

Can’t an adult be illogical if he or she is willing to pay the price?

“Wait a minute,” my wife, Carolyn, said, sensing that our cruising lives were just about to take a nasty turn. “You can’t be serious! I mean, installing a windvane is something you do in a shipyard, Fatty, from rented scaffolding. Or, failing that, in a windless, rippleless marina, with a spacious work float tied to your transom. Not in the middle of Sint Maarten’s choppy Simpson Bay Lagoon, with ferry wakes, jet-skis, rubber-ducky tours, and ski boats zooming by, not to mention the odd interisland cargo ship. Are you nuts?”

“Let’s not go there,” I said. “About the ‘nuts’ part, I mean.”

We stared at each other. I could see her soften despite herself. I decided on a sad-puppy approach.

“Ah, come on, honey,” I whispered shyly. “Where’s the fun in that? Anyone can do stuff in a laboratory setting. The fun is out here in the wild, babe!”

“The small pieces,” she moaned, sensing she was losing the argument. “We’ll drop them overboard.”

“Piece of cake,” I said, holding up my snorkeling gear. “The stainless steel is shiny. The water’s only 12 feet deep. No problem!”

I moved in for the kill, nibbling a delicious shoulder and twisting her long Italian hair in my calloused fingers. “Whatta you say, babe? What’s a couple of holes in the transom between two lovers?”

The problem with installing a windvane is that it has to be precisely placed in exactly the correct spot. And it’s loosey-goosey to hang on to, with the rudder twisting and pivoting at will and the delicate wind-sensing apparatus moving “in the breeze from a butterfly’s wing,” as the saying goes. Nor does the windvane bolt right up. Instead, the company gives you lots of inner and outer stainless-steel tubes to precision-fabricate so that the vane ends up rigidly held in place.

Madness, you say? Well, yes. But the fact is, part of the reason we purchased our new boat for peanuts was because hurricane season was fast approaching. I wanted to be south of the hurricane belt before the major blows arrived. I had no desire to sink for a third time in winds blowing more than 100 knots. So time was short. And, alas, money was tight. We’d just made the mega-purchase of our lives, and we could barely afford the rice on our plates. We were dead broke. For now, it was rice on rice; beans were for rich people. Thus my decision to hastily mount my Monitor windvane under less-than-ideal conditions and flee to South America while my boat still floated and my creditors were unsure of my plans.

Why a Monitor? It wasn't my first choice many years back, when I made the decision. I wanted an Aries, but that company went out of business, and the Monitor was the next closest thing. So I tossed a Monitor on Wild Card, then sailed twice around the world with it working flawlessly the entire way.

I simply wouldn’t consider crossing an ocean without one. Sure, my new vessel had a $6,000 Simrad AP20 electro-hydraulic autopilot, but I have no faith in such microchipped devices. They always let me down when I need them the most. I knew the Monitor would work perfectly in 45 knots of breeze. I’d used it many times in storm conditions.

One drop of water renders the most expensive piece of marine electronics useless, and after 52 years of living aboard, I knew there were a lot of drops of water in my lifestyle.

Thus, my steely resolve to mount the Monitor here and now, regardless of logic and commonsense.

Besides, I love windvanes. It’s an emotional issue with me. They’re in balance. They’re yin and yang. They require no energy. They’re our future. We can’t keep consuming. I never want to crank my diesel to run my autopilot, not when a clever, zero-sum mechanical device like the Monitor exists.

Luckily, our new boat, Ganesh, is ketch rigged. We were able to suspend the wiggly, 50-pound self-steering unit from the mizzen boom. This was very scary, as the topping lift was long and springy, and that let the unit yo-yo sickeningly over the water as if hanging from a bungee cord.

“It’s too high,” Carolyn said and started to lower it.

“Wait!” I said. “We don’t want to put it where it should be now but rather where it should be then!”

“Huh?” she said.

“All vessels squat as they sail. And the faster they go, the steeper the seas downwind, the more they squat. Another factor: We want the windvane rudder fully in the water but never lower, because towing the rudder shaft is pure drag, right?”

“Is this a joke?” Carolyn asked. “I mean, it isn’t enough that we mount it—we have to do it precisely in some mythical place?”

“Of course. Otherwise, every greenhorn would have ’em!”

She didn’t grin back.

Just then the Anguilla ferry roared by, tossing a wake that could roll the Titanic. All hell broke loose. Ganesh rolled deeply to starboard. The Monitor went berserk, attempting to smash itself into the transom, boom, and davits.

We both leaned over the transom and grabbed it, but it had inertia. We were savagely yanked around into each other, the stern rail, and damn near overboard.
Finally, things calmed down.

Carolyn was examining a large bruise on her left upper arm and another blossoming on her right buttock.

I gulped. “Well, we sure won’t be surprised again!”

The first thing to do was get the Monitor vertical in the center of the transom. My initial attempt was with a plumb line, which is basically a string with a weight. This turned out to be useless because of all the wind and motion.

“Any other bright ideas, Sherlock?” Carolyn said, turning the needle.

“I have an app!” I said and dashed for my waterproof iPad. Carolyn thought that I was joking but I wasn’t; this app serves as a plumb line, level, and protractor—and you can play Angry Birds if you get stymied.

“Steve Jobs would’ve been proud,” she noted drily.

The important thing is to make sure that the first hole you drill is in the right spot because everything else is keyed, leveled, and plumbed to that.

I kept marking the hole in pencil and marking it again to confirm. I wanted the top of the rudder six inches out of the water at rest. I’d like to report that each time the pencil marks were in the same place, but I can’t. What I can do is tell you this: “No guts, no glory!” There comes a time when you have to think, “All right, that’s close enough.” Deciding when to act is all part of being a captain. Thus, I boldly drilled through the transom—and unexpectedly heard metal bits flying around the aft cabin.

I tried to keep my face neutral.

Carolyn smirked, hopped down on the swim platform, and peered into the aft cabin forlornly. “You drilled through one of the bronze Indonesian death masks!”

“Big deal,” I said briskly. “I’m installing a windvane, not interior decorating! Besides, the guy is dead already! He’s an artifact, not an art object. Another hole in his head will just add character.”

“You’re incorrigible, Fatty! You get so focused you ignore everything else.”

Just then, the sky opened up and we got a tropical downpour. I thought it would last only a few minutes, but it persisted.

Quickly, we scooped up our printed instructions and electric drill and dashed under the bimini. Carolyn flicked on the radio and tuned it to the marine weather. “Oh, great!” she said. “A tropical wave is passing. Lots of wind and rain and sea over the next two days!”

“I take it as an omen,” I said. “King Neptune is warning us that it’s late in the tropical season. We must get going.”

The next step was to drill a hole in a stainless-steel tube. Carolyn wanted no part of it.

“We can’t drill on the boat,” she said. “I’ve just gone over every inch of this vessel with fiberglass grinding compound. The drill flecks will rust!”

“Don’t be silly,” I said. “We’ll put a damp paper towel under the tube and catch the metal filings before they touch the deck.”

Only it didn’t work like that. The towel must’ve dried while I set up my tools, or the gust of wind was strong: Just as I finished the hole, the towel became airborne and gently fluttered aft while spilling its razor-sharp bits of metal cargo.

We both screamed and attempted to catch the towel, but it was too fast. We swiped at it madly. Then we both abruptly stopped as it disappeared over the side.
"Ouch," I said.

“Damn it!” she said in confirmation.

The sharp metal filings were embedded in our bare feet. We couldn't walk. "How many holes do you have to drill?" Carolyn asked through gritted teeth.
I couldn't think of any good way to spin it, so I blurted it out: "20!"

She said nothing. We were both sort of frozen in place. Finally, a giggle escaped my lips. “Well, I do see why most folks attempt such a complicated installation in a shipyard!”

"It is logical," she said. "I mean, if you're, you know, sane."

“Which, evidently, I’m not.”

“Don’t lose your confidence now,” she counseled. “We’ve got holes in the transom, rust streaks everywhere, and more foot piercings than a Goth girl. There’s only one choice: Onward, my captain!”

Two 12-hour days later, we finished the Monitor installation. At one point, we each had a hand on the ship, a hand on the unit, a foot preventing a tool from rolling overboard, and a foot keeping a tiny stainless-steel part from doing the same as the Marigot police boat roared by in hot pursuit of croissants.

"You're right!" Carolyn shouted to me as a sheet of salt spray filled our toolbox. "It is more of a challenge this way!"

Once, sailors from a nearby vessel rowed over to inquire what all the shouting was about. Carolyn defused them breezily: “Just love talk!”

Finally, we were alone and finished and happy. “I’m gonna hug my rum bottle,” Carolyn said. “Anything I can get you?”

“Sure,” I responded. “How about some mango juice with a side dish of mixed nuts and Prozac?”

“Happy hour!” we sang out with joy.

When last heard from, the Goodlanders were doing flotilla charters in the British Virgin Islands, to raise money to begin their third Big Fat Circle.