5 February 2022: Can She Do It?
5 February 2022
White Cay, Berry Islands, Bahamas
Cumulative Mileage (NM)
Crew on Board
Skipper, first mate, chef, entertainment and more; I guess that is solo sailing for you!
GENERAL WEATHER OBSERVATIONS
9 knots, light enough to sail but not quite enough to sail fast.
Not a cloud in sight!
Sunny, warm but not too warm.
Dry, thank goodness!
Leaving for Nassau this morning to spend a couple of weeks in my less than favorite harbor city. Only a roughly 40 nautical mile sail, but I wanted to be sure to get there with plenty of time left in the day and not pushing sunset through the harbor to my anchorage.
I was pretty pleased at my 8:15am departure time when my goal was 8am. That is 8:15am with anchor stowed and moving to sea. Good work me!
I was not particularly looking forward to this sail as there was a chance the winds would be too light to sail, there was a chance the winds would not be quite as forecast and be right on the nose and based on my last sail – I had a broken autopilot.
It had been a very busy few days and I did not get a chance to take a look at the autopilot. Nor did I even find time to watch the YouTube video a friend shot through when we were chatting autopilot issues.
I put up the mainsail before I even started with the anchor because the winds were so very light. Plus I dove on my anchor when I moved a couple days prior so knew it was all grass below me and was not planning on any snags or surprises. Anchor went up relatively smoothly without an autopilot. It had been occasionally temperamental since I bought the boat, really, so I sometimes just did not bother setting it at all. The pull on the chain tended to pull the bow in the direction I needed it to go, albiet slowly, but my motto is that ‘slower is safer’ anyways.
Aa I steered my way out of the anchorage and into the open water, followed closely by my catamaran neighbors and now friends (a family of 4 on SV Seadragon), we exchanged photos by text message. I feel like it is such a cruiser thing, it is so hard to get a photo of your own boat under sail so it is nice to have someone remember to send you one.
This is SV Seadragon, a 48 foot Lagoon, leaving the White Cay anchorage in the Berry Islands. Gaining ground on me and passing very quickly!
They snapped this photo as went past me, though it is from a distance because I was hand-steering and trying to eat my breakfast and let’s just say that my hand-steering skills are questionable. Let’s just say I was so not on course that I made a point to message them to confirm that I was not in fact drunk!
After finishing my breakfast, I put a little bit of effort into adjusting my sails. A feat that was to be fruitless because not only was the wind too light (I had not even turned off the motor yet despite having full sails up) but also I just could not for the life of me steering in a straight line as I did my normal sailing checks for other boats, checking the sails and checking the charts. I was not in the mood for this hand-steering business to say the least.
So what made the most sense (sarcastically) was to just disassemble the autopilot right there on the helm while moving and hand-steering. Great idea, Cally!
In my head when I started taking it apart, which I had never done before, I thought I would be first disassembled and removed from the helm for me to fiddle with. Then I realized, after a fair amount of effort (and even more zig zagging) that it was a complete circle and to remove it I would have to remove the helm. And no way I was removing the wheel, my current only way to steer without getting the emergency tiller, while underway with 38 miles ahead of me.
So I steered from bottom of the wheel, crouched on the ground attempting to hold course from what I could see of the compass, as I separated the two circular pieces, front plate and back plate, from each other and examined the inner contents. An activity that I encourage anyone to do (except for I did this after applying some coconut oil to my legs, I do not advise repeating that step – let’s just say it adds complications).
My best attempt at a description of what I found inside is that it is a little motor (external), connected to a cog (inside) that it turns. That cog has a belt with teeth that runs around the circle of the autohelm. When it is disengaged the belt is loose and the whole thing rotates freely. When engaged, by turning a lever, the backside of the lever pushes up against the belt and makes it taut so that the teeth are engaged on the cog and the wheel no longer spins freely. Then it is up to the motor to turn the wheel. A little weird to think I did not know that was how my autopilot was working all along.
I wondered if the teeth on the cog were worn out when talking about it with my friend. Because no matter what heading I set it could not hold course and it would turn to the side and hold some other setting. So we had thought, if the teeth in the mid section of the belt were worn out then the wheel would just turn until something managed to engage. But looking at it, the teeth looked fine. And i could not figure, with my arms wrapped around a moving wheel while steering, how to loosen the belt enough to shimmy it along to a new, less worn place.
I did notice an arrow. Thinking that must mean like, put my forward facing the bow or something. I decided that the autopilot already did not work, so maybe I will just rotate that arrow elsewhere and reassemble. Maybe that would be a different place on the belt. And if not, well, I was back to hand-steering anyways. So I tightened all the visible screws, just for good measure. And reassembled. Well, all but one screw which I could not get back in. It was a screw that secured it to the helm. But the other five screws securing it to the helm went on fine so I reasoned it would be fine.
Once it was reassembled, I engaged it and set a heading. And it did NOTHING.
I was a little dismayed. I had my hopes up because I was feeling so lazy and did not want to hand-steering. So I did the most technical thing I could think of and gave it a good strong “whack!” muttering some sort of curse word I am sure. And ta-da, it engaged and started to work!
Literally, for the rest of the sail, I had zero autopilot problems and it even was performing better than before the breakdown. I WAS MAGIC!
I spent the rest of the sail enjoying my day. Trimming sails, getting some Vitamin D, catching up on podcasts. I did not see a single boat all day from the moment pretty early on that Seadragon was out of my visual range until I was approaching the Nassau lighthouse.
I radioed into Nassau Harbour Control to request permission to enter, lucky I know my boat registration number off by heart (though I could have gone down to check it now that I had a working autopilot) and proceeded to the anchorage. A place I was familiar with from the couple of months spent in Nassau back in 2018/2019.
A friendly charter catamaran – the full-time paid crew kind – helped me pick a spot as it was a little tight, and came over to say “hello” once I was settled on anchor. It was nice to make friends straight away and we planned in a couple days to do some drinks. For now, I was going to have a shower while the water was hot from the engine and to cook some dinner.
Even now, 7 hours later, I was still pretty chuffed with myself for the old autopilot fix. Still pretty bloody pleased as I write this later in the evening. After a great day on the water with probably borderline too much sun, I know that I will be sleeping well tonight!
“If you can see yourself doing something, you can do it. If you can’t see yourself doing it, usually you can’t achieve it.”
– David Goggins