Monday, November 24, 2014

Making a Tiller Pilot Cover

My research into tiller pilots suggested that they are pretty reliable devices, lasting many years for some users.  Others, who relied on them for 24 x 7 blue water cruising, observed much higher failure rates, owing perhaps to greater number of hours used, but also to sun and rain.  There seems to be some agreement that making a cover for the device will improve its longevity.  It is relatively straightforward if you're handy with a sewing machine.

My device is a RayMarine ST-2000, but I believe the physical form of the 2000 and the 1000 are the same, so the covers will be identical.

The materials required are:

(1) 28" x 14" piece of suitable fabric (I used Sunbrella)
(2) 6 inches of 1" velcro
(3) 3 1/4" x 6 1/4" vinyl window material
(4) a grommet or sewn ring for the push-rod pass through
(4) suitable thread
(5) a sewing machine and basic sewing skills

I have a SailRite Ultrafeed which I find to be a great machine for canvas work.  I used to sew with an Elna, which is a sports-car of a sewing machine, but just doesn't have enough oomph to get through multiple layers of canvas, let alone vinyl window material, without a lot of skipped stitches.  The Sailrite is, in comparison, a pickup truck.  But it is a walking foot machine, which means that the work piece is fed through from both the bottom (as with a standard sewing machine) but also from the top (the walking foot).  It also has a direct drive 'transmission' that delivers maximum power from the motor to the 'drive train'.  After struggling with many canvas projects with lighter-duty machines, the LSZ-1 has made me a believer.

I thought about what it needed to do, and how to make it for a couple hours, and made a prototype. It was clunky, with too much handwork.  I refined the design and simplified the construction process, and the result was far better on the second pass. 

If you're interested in doing your own, and like to build things with a sewing machine, it is a fun project for a rainy winter day.  Or two. 

If you'd like to use my design, I'll put together a pattern and a detailed set of instructions: $5.00 and a SASE.

If you want a kit with the materials, and the instructions, $25.00.

If you want a signed copy by the artist, send me C note ;-).  Its going to be a long, rainy winter.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A tale of two toddlers

My Photo
s/v Yare (image cadged from

The Center for Wooden Boats has a Third-Friday Speaker each month for most of the year.  This month's event was a particularly timely topic for me.  Tor and Jessica Bjorklund spoke on the topic of sailing the Inside Passage to Alaska... with two toddlers!

Their boat, s/v Yare, will be known to many locals... I have admired her for years, seeing her often at her slip at Jensen's on Portage Bay.  Yare is a classic design whose lines Tor encountered as a 12 year old in the upstairs library at CWB.   Their traditional elegance set him on a trajectory that continues today.

When he set out to build one, he found a hull for sale at bargain prices... made of steel.  Tor enrolled in the Northwest School for Wooden Boats to acquire the skills necessary to finish her out (8 years in a barn near Port Townsend).   The boat inspires admiration for her beauty and confidence for her stout countenance.

Tor and his partner, Jessica, set off for Alaska with two one year old toddlers - Lars and Odin.  The mind boggles at challenges of keeping two one year olds happy and comfortable on such a journey.  Sixteen diapers a day to wash and dry!  Astonishing.  And what a gift, to bring up children in a passage-maker playpen.

Tor and Jessica had many stories to tell and lots of useful information for Inside Passage aspirants.  I will incorporate many of their suggestions on places (and especially clothes!) in my own planning for the way north.  Their blog of the trip is at

Friday, November 21, 2014

Commissioning a tiller pilot

Complaining about the difficulty of getting a tiller pilot installed and calibrated is probably a small thing compared to having an obedient hand on the tiller when your attention is required elsewhere.
Still, for a device that has been around as long as the Ray Marine ST/1000/2000, one might expect clearer instructions and a better calibration interface.  There are six buttons on the device, and a lot of overloaded combinations (chords, if you will) for invoking various states of calibration and operation.

Since calibration is only rarely invoked, and hence not easily retained,  best to keep that manual handy!

My first attempts were near the end of a tiring, chilly day and were less than fully satisfactory.  The next day I went out on Lake Union and tried again, with greater success.  Having calibrated magnetic deviation and heading,  I tried the +40 degree test called for in the manual to assess tiller-gain.  Hit the +10 button 4 times, and the heading should come to starboard by 40 degrees without excessive hunting.  In my limited testing so far, I determined that the rudder gain needed to be dialed down, and I did this, which improved the performance of the pilot.  I'll probably dial it down further still.  There is considerable nuance in the performance of this device,  and it will take a fair amount of experience to grow comfortable with it.

One issue I have not resolved is that the tiller pilot seems to become confused if you move through a large course correction in one go (for example, hitting the +10 or -10 button multiple times in succession).  One at a time seems to work reliably.  Multiple times seems to confuse the pilot and put the boat in a tight circular course.

I am wondering if causing a maximal extension of the push-rod is the culprit?  When I was careful to avoid doing this, I had no problem.  If the push rod goes to either end of its excursion, it pulses, seemingly trying to go further than it can.  Might this be causally related to heading confusion?  I don't have enough experience with the device to know.  Any readers have any insight?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Tiller Pilots

I have hovered over the acquisition of a tiller pilot for several years, once having even manufactured a mounting point for one.  I didn't install it.  Misgivings about its non-traditional complexion and fear of the siren-call of creeping complexity stayed my hand.

Last summer convinced me that cruising alone without one is inconvenient, and possibly more dangerous than accommodating the additional set of failure modes of yet another electrical gadget.

I decided to get a Ray Marine, and having done so had to choose between the ST1000 and the ST2000.  The additional push-rod thrust of the beefier model is appealing, but the clincher for me was the underlying technology.  The two models look nearly identical, but the ST2000 translates circular motion to linear push-rod motion via a recirculating ball drive.  According to Wikipedia:
Low friction in ball screws yields high mechanical efficiency compared to alternatives. A typical ball screw may be 90 percent efficient, versus 50 percent efficiency of an Acme lead screw of equal size
The lower-power ST1000 uses the less efficient lead screw push rod mechanism.  I have not found field reports that bolster the benefits of one over the other, so I'm acting on the belief that one is a more compelling engineering approach than the other.  More power for about the same current draw.

Installation required some custom engineering. Ray Marine sells various adapters to assure that the geometry of the installation can be matched with any given boat.  None of them seemed workable for Ripple's deck and cockpit configuration.  Layout measurements indicated that the pivot point for the fixed end of the device needs to be uncomfortably close to the aft deck cleat, and 8-9 inches above the deck.  The solution that I engineered is a stanchion designed to look as natural as possible in it's position on the port quarterdeck.

I laminated a block of oak from which to shape the stanchion using West System epoxy, wondering at this point if I could bring it to a pleasingly aesthetic, non-clunky shape.  The picture conveys the source of my misgivings:

I roughed out the block with a bandsaw and (mostly) a stationary belt sander, shaping it to something that seemed about right:

I filled gaps, coated the stanchion with some West System epoxy to improve durability, and smoothed the whole thing with 80, 180, and 220 grit paper.  Two coats of Brightside primer followed by three coats of Brightside white polyurethane finished the stanchion for installation.  Three brass threaded inserts, epoxied into the base, receive three stainless steel bolts screwed in from below-decks through a suitable backing plate.  A dab of anhydrous lanolin in each threaded insert should prevent electrolysis between the stainless steel and brass.  The base and backing plate are bedded with Dolfinite.  I was prepared to enlarge the through-deck holes in the event of slight misalignment, but it turned out to be unnecessary.  The rated thrust of the push rod is 275 lbs, so the stanchion must be quite strong, able to resist these substantial lateral stresses.  It looks and feels to me strong enough, but the proof is in the use.

Location of the stanchion on the port quarterdeck, near the stern deck cleat, the combing, and not so far from the auxiliary anchor, places it in an already crowded area of deck real estate.  On a boat as small as Ripple, it is another thing to trip over, but the starboard quarterdeck remains relatively open.  Of course, it is important that it not interfere with aft mooring lines and the mainsheet while underway.  I think it will be fine.

The hardest part of the installation was drilling holes in a perfectly good deck and tiller (for the tiller pin).  The first-time-perfect-alignment made me feel better about it.  Its all wood, right?  Everything can be fixed.

I'll sew a cover for the tiller pilot unit to keep rain and sun at bay (field reports highlight the importance of this additional kit).  The completed setup:

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Summer Summary

The Summer has come and gone without updating Ripple's blog.  I'm no better at paper logs, either, but the following is a brief summary of the last few months.
  • Six coats of fresh varnish (le Tonkinois, of course) in the Spring
  • Finished Stuart's Little in time for my trip north
  • Departed for my trip north to rendezvous with Terry Noreault for a trip through the Gulf Islands and Princess Louisa Inlet on July 5.  Seattle -- Port Townsend -- Friday Harbor -- Bedwell Harbor -- Princess Cove -- Nanaimo -- Jedediah Island -- Lasquetti Island -- Smuggler's Cove -- Pender Harbor -- Thunder Bay -- Princess Louisa Inlet -- Powell River -- Pender Harbor -- Mayne Island -- Roche Harbor -- Lopez Island -- Coupeville -- Edmonds -- Seattle.
  • I learned a tremendous amount on this trip, from sailing with Terry and from the variety of conditions and how Ripple and her skipper responded to them.
  • The trip was terrific in many ways, including the good fun of sailing with Terry (he on Sailmates, me on Ripple)
  •  The Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend.  Great to see old friends and meet a few new ones.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Piece of Cake

I am still building a dinghy.  It is still almost done, a bit further down the almost-ness scale than when last I wrote.

I've accepted the fact that I am not the varnisher that I once hoped to become, but c'est suffice.  After a trip abroad and the distractions of nice weather, The Big Push has begun, and the trigger is in part the baking skills of a friend, Leslie Braley. 

There's a long story here, but the essence of it is that one musician has offered to play on recordings for other musicians for a kick-starter contribution of a given amount, and my friend, Leslie, wants very much for it to happen for her, and is offering cake-baking skills to raise money.

Every boat christening should involve bubblified adult beverages and cake, so I have commissioned a cake for the event, and my Mom is hot to have a party, so I have to get this event scheduled.  That is, finish the damned dinghy.

Today marks the 4th coat of varnish... i'll do 6 or 8.  Then I have to repaint the interior, because what I needed was masking paper 8 inches wide rather than simply masking tape.  Install the oarlocks, assemble the tiller/rudder assembly, add pintels, add the name decal, attach the mast step, apply leathers to the mast and mast partners, screw down the thwarts, sew a sail, sew a boat cover, and affix  the duckboards in an easily reversible fashion.  That should do it.  A deadline will help.  Thank you, Leslie.

In the meantime, Ripple's Spring Varnishing Jamboree is underway.  If you're going to do one, you may as well do both.  A trip to Port Townsend for my favorite varnish (Le Tonkinois, official varnish of the French Navy) and I have no excuse not to get this done.  Not a month too soon, either, as the minimal number of coats I applied during last year's epic refit were starting to look awfully thin.

The need, combined with perfect weather, created the opportunity to get this done.  It took me the better part of a day to tape off the companionway, the bowsprit, the hand rails, the house bullnose, the combings, the cockpit, the tiller, and the rails.  That done, each coat takes about three hours, maybe a bit more if sanding is needed (a light leveling sanding every two or three coats).

By the end of the coming week I'll have 6 coats on all the brightwork, and the dinghy will be in final punchlist status.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The New Bronze Age

This past weekend I took time out from dinghy-building to participate in the bronze-casting workshop that has been offered by the Center for Wooden Boats for a couple of decades.  Originally launched by Sam Johnson, it has been ably taught by James McMullen for the past decade and a half.  The two-day workshop at the Camano Island CWB facility takes you though the basics of managing and using a simple low-volume foundry for casting parts of bronze that can be put to work on a boat.  Take your spouse and rent one of the Cama Beach waterfront cabins.

Most of us rarely use anything hotter than our kitchen stoves.  To bring 15 lbs of metal to 2000+ degrees and pour its molten spirit into a sand mold is an uncommon experience, at once primitive and technologically powerful.  Literally, transformative.  An undifferentiated chunk of alloy is transformed, by dint of conceptualizing, patterning, molding, melting, casting, and finishing, into a durable, useful boat part (or perhaps an object d'art) over a period of hours. To proceed over a mere pair of days from complete novice to, well, a novice with the rudimentary skills to effect such changes is nothing short of exhilarating.

There are many patterns made by the instructor that can be used to cast useful or attractive objects... Plaques, oarlocks, cleats, rings, pintels, gudgeons, and many others, including the ever-popular busty-mermaid marling spike (I did two, the second patterned from the first).  Some of us ventured into parts of our own design, as well, as with the tiller comb I patterned onsite and brought home to do final finishing.  A future post will show its installation and use on Ripple.

You'll also learn how to bootstrap yourself into all the tools necessary, including the foundry.  I am hopeful that some of the veterans of the workshop may coalesce into an informal casting cooperative to fire up some molten bronze on occasion.  Cast in stone has nothing on cast in bronze.

Want to play?  Demand for the workshop has occasioned the scheduling of a second workshop this Spring, to be held in late April.  Contact the Center for Wooden Boats for details.  You won't be sorry.

My productivity for the weekend included a rattler (a tool used in the making of the mold), two marling spikes, a bronze towing-eye for the dinghy,  and two pieces which I patterned myself, intended for use as a tiller comb when finished out.  I also had two casting failures, both with the towing eye.  Leaving the pattern in the mold is the most basic of bone-headed failures.  Glad I got THAT out of the way.