Read my technical article with a bit of anecdote of course!
I’ve hand steered boat sailing on many different bodies of water and I’ll tell you the last place I want to be doing it is while sailing offshore at 4 AM past the Savanah River where the AIS display looks like pac-man and its cold and blowing and your crew is seasick sleeping on the floor for fuck sake because the wiring to the below deck auto pilot unit in the quarter berth was too janky to risk being pulled out. But despite that precaution to not sleep next to the wiring it gets ripped out anyway. Luckily my crew could steer while I spliced that shit back together.
The first time this happened I was sailing solo overnight on the Pamlico Sound I just let the boat round up and kinda steer itself close hauled the wind wasn’t too bad or the waves. I rewired it really quick and then got underway again.
Honestly I think it happened AGAIN (why am I like this) on mini passage from Beufort, NC to Wrightsville Beach. And then obviously with my crew off the Savanah River. So basically every fucking passage all the way down the coast.
Now as I prepare to head North I’m doing my damn best to make sure that doesn’t happen again. I’ve soldered ll the connections, used heat shrink, and have spares AP unit, motor controller, and actuator rigged up ready to go in case one fails.
I’m also giving a go at sheet-to-tiller because at this point I want as much back up as possible!
Which leads to my next point; I want a wind vane. But I also needed to get my shit together wring. I’ve had fun with auto pilots and sheet to tiller and will strive to have those onboard a vessel in addition to a vane… Maybe it’s a redundancy thing that will make me feel safer. Or who knows maybe I’m one of those people who never just “goes” because they think they always need that next piece of gear. I have a friend who solo’d his Dailer26 from Hawaii to California, then trucked it to the Gulf, launched and then sailed back up and down the east coast.
He only had a tiller pilot. So, yes, it can be done.
In the meantime, I’ve gotten pretty familiar with the Pypilot Auto Pilot. An open source software, below deck auto pilot computer and motor controller unit. It’s sold here pypilot.org , for just under $200. For any sailor on a budget that’s pretty enticing. But it comes with its caveats, like rigging your own actuator from an old tiller pilot or building anew with a windshield wiper motor. And a website/online store without much direction and description.
Apparently, computer code and engineering nerds who also sail have this elite network where they talk in a secret language to each other about their own auto pilot units they’ve engineered, or the changes they’ve gone in and made to their Pypilot unit’s software.
For the rest of us…I’m not sure how anyone who isn’t a total nerd understands this shit. Even my buddy Sam Holmes who is on the way other end of the spectrum than I am when it comes to engineering didn’t understand how it worked looking at the store. I had prior knowledge to all this because I met the Pypilot engineer, Sean D’Epagnier. Without that I would have no fucking clue what those little boxes and all the wires and shit were.
Which is why I’m writing this, a guide of sorts, because even knowing what I knew setting up the new unit Sean sent me and a backup unit proved challenging. I felt like a detective. Unearthing clues. Looking for landmarks. So, I came up with a treasure map of sorts. I heard there’s pot at the end of the rainbow, or was it gold? Either way, I make no guarantees, and Sean will probably get mad about something I say here. And, people, literally this is all I know don’t ask me questions.
So without further adieu..
For the weekend sailor and summer cruising this is absolutely great. For lake, bay, river cruising, and fair weather offshore. I have not tested it in greater than 20 knots gusting 25 offshore 20 miles. It performed well but for anything greater Sean suggests a larger driver motor. I am using a motor the size of the Simrad TP22. Sean also makes a motor controller for big boats hydraulic steering, so it can be done.
I Have personally used with success on multiple passages on the Chesapeake Bay, Pamlico Sound, up to 20 miles offshore on the Atlantic Ocean.
Plan on spending at least 12 hours on all this because boats, and if you’re ADHD at all like me a lot longer/a lifetime. Also account for the amount of time it takes for Sean or someone on the forum to reply to questions. Which, he will. Unless he’s crossing an ocean or something. Keep in mind Sean also hand makes this shit on his trimaran. Some of it’s automated.
1. I have the TinyPilot Autopilot Computer for $120 and the Motor Controller for $65. I don’t know if Sean includes an adapter or what he’d recommend but the original unit he gave me and what I still use is a 12V in (+,-) 5V3A out (USB). I also have spares. The positive and negative wires of the motor controller are wired together with the positive and negative wires of the autopilot computer adapter, to the same switch. Then with the cord provided the AP computer and motor controller link together. And it turns on and off as a whole unit.
2. The Driver/ Actuator / Motor. This is the arm thing that’s physically going to drive the boat. You just wired the brains. There are two more wires that come out of the motor controller, these need a female snap fittings (I have no idea if that’s the right name). The bitter end of the wires on the actuator will have the male fittings. You need to open up the busted tiller pilot you got that’s electronics fried out and carefully follow the wires to find the two that connect to the actual motor itself. Clip those. You’re in business. Splice those to the wire with the male end fittings. You want this wiring to be long enough to reach the helm from where you mount the unit.
Later by trial and error you will figure out which colored wire plugs in to which fitting on the motor controller in order for the unit not to drive backwards…if that makes any sense at all.
3. Now it’s time to calibrate the acellerometer. This may or may not need to be done or spelled right, but can be done on the web by connecting a device to to the pypilot wifi and going to the control page at pypilot.io . You then have to place the unit on each of its six sides for a few seconds to align the inertial sensors. If you’ve done it correctly you’ll see the sensor dots inside the sphere. It’s actually quite satisfying.
4. Now mount that shit. Find level in the settings menu and click it to level the sensors.
5. Calibrate the compass by sailing, sculling, or motoring the boat in a circle (but Sean actually says 180 degrees is fine). This is mostly automatic and will recalibrate every time the boat turns 180 degrees and its on! You can also see the dots fall within the sphere once calibrated. Neato.
6. Set the magnetic offset (I have no idea why this is the way it is I only know that it IS). I used a bunch of compasses to try and get close as possible and I just adjusted the offset until the heading on the screen matched the heading on my other compass’.
7. Now just a few more settings. I set the Servo.max_current to 5 amps. This is pretty self explanatory I guess as it controls the maximum flow of current. The max and min servo speeds should also he set to 100.
Note: Pypilot can be controlled by a remote, through wifi on any device by connecting to the automatic pypilot wifi network and going to pypilot.io, or connecting on the plugin through OpenCPN. But not yet can it be controlled with your mind. Although I think he’s working on it steering to wind! Crazy!
At this point you’re ready to test your unit. I have tested the two units I just set up successfully motoring around the anchorage. I still have a few more boat projects to complete, including sheet to tiller, before heading offshore to test the units (plus sheet to tiller) and then using the Pypilot on and approximately 600NM journey north. I will report back.
As the Pypilot tag line reads, “Finally, a Liberated Auto Pilot,” this hacker unit is pretty anti-capitalist and boat punk as fuck. Thanks to Sean for letting me test Pypilot for free, get started on yours for under $200 at pypilot.org .
Some of the problems I’ve had
-I was always ripping wires out from the actuator to motor controller, oops. I connected them to be much stronger by soldering, but did not hide them behind a bulkhead which would be best in fact I’ll probably do that before setting sail damn it there’s always more jobs.
-screen burned out on one unit, so had to be controlled through wifi but for some reason the wifi was failing intermittently so couldn’t control through web browser either which meant 0 control….Sean sent me a new unit which has a wireless remote that can adjust AP from the cockpit, plus regular remote you have to point to the motor controller, + wifi..so even if screen burned out + wifi failed again, this one should still be able to be adjusted …however you would not be able to see the course heading
-driver faulting. I still low key chalk this up to really light/nearly non existent winds but like 3 ft swells so not really enough forward momentum. But I fixed this by changing the servo. max, min, and current settings.
It’s dark. Darker than dark. No stars. No moon. No anchor lights. No house lights, dock lights, street lights. Just the night and it’s darkness, and it’s only 6:30 p.m. Winter isn’t coming, it’s here as far as the light is concerned. The weather, however, is being more lenient. While freezing rain and frosts are settling in further inland the sea breeze is on my side. I still have time.
I’m in Mill Creek, VA. I crossed the Maryland/Virginia state line today. Virginia welcomed me with a pissing rain squall, uncharted fishing stakes and a nearly lost jib halyard. It was fun and miserable at the same time. Forty three miles. Ten hours. Averaging 4.3 knots. Not awful, but not necessarily what this boat should be doing. I could certainly get better at messing with my sail controls but most of the time I’m just trying to stay alive in conditions like todays. Luckily it was downwind but not dead downwind, our slowest point of sail. The wind was right off either corner of my boat’s tush, depending on the gybe.
At this point the weather patterns are pretty simple to understand and there are two options for getting south: ride the boisterous northerlies from the cold fronts, or motor in the calms in between. I chose to ride this round of northerlies and stayed at anchor for a day of zero wind and a day of gross southerlies. I’m glad I chose to do that and sail today even though it wasn’t necessarily enjoyable or “advisable” (there was a small craft advisory all day). But it wasn’t necessarily terrible or unsafe either just…brisk conditions and not for the faint of heart, especially on a little boat.
Once you get used to the motion and the sounds, however, it’s not so bad. It could definitely be a lot worse (which you hope won’t happen), and definitely won’t get any better so you kind of just accept it. At least that’s what I did.
Swells reached the rub rail but didn’t crest. The boat rolled port to starboard. Sometimes the wind would fall out of the sails and then jerk back full of air again. It rained on and off. Lightly at first and then much heavier. The autopilot couldn’t keep up with the weather helm so I was hand steering. For most of the trip I was on a port tack heading just a hair east of dead south with one reef in the main and my working jib until the wind picks up to 25 knots with 30 knot gusts and I am under small head sail alone. I had the current with me and against me half the time. I don’t know if this affected my speed over the water so much as it affected wave heights and steepness which slowed me down excessively. I’d surf down the wave at six knots then wallow in it’s trough at four before doing it again and again and…
I am on the cusp of the Atlantic Ocean. New York Harbor. South of the Battery, the center of the tidal universe. Tomorrow, with the force of the mighty Hudson, the East River and the great Atlantic I will be sucked through the Verrazano Narrows, essentially, into the sea. -October 2
The Hudson River proved to be excellent training grounds for the rest of this trip. However, I feel like a much different person now than I was while traversing that body of water. It was the first time I would sail on tidal waters in years, and have contact with commercial shipping traffic.
Currents on the Hudson are gnarly. So gnarly, in fact, that even in 30 knots my boat would point stern to the wind if the current was opposed. After the third time this happened I stopped freaking out, and accepted it as merely uncomfortable.
I got a slow start and stayed on the Hudson probably longer than I needed to. Hurricanes were still pending and I had visions of the next Hurricane Sandy or Irene pummeling the northeast and decided to stay creekside until I knew the right path.
In Esopus Creek is a beautifully protected anchorage where the light is mesmerizing, A very nice man who worked at the Saugerties Steamboat Company pointed me in the right direction towards the best place to anchor, let me tie up for free at their unused dock the next day so I could meet some of my family. When he asked me my boat name I said, “Vanupied! It’s french for barefoot peasant.”
“But you’re wearing shoes!” He replied.
I never saw him again but had the entire brand new dock to myself that night.
From there I travelled to Kingston, NY and wound up staying ten long days awaiting a hurricane that never came in Roundout Creek. My only contact with other humans was at the power boat club and campground next to where I anchored. They were kind to me and when I left showered me with gifts like a flare gun (for protection), a bottle of rum, twenty dollars, and fresh gallons of water. Huge shout out to the Anchorage Marina folks in Rondout Creek for treating me as one of their own even though I was on a sailboat.
When I left Roundout Creek it was a fifty mile sail/motor sailing day down to Dundeberg Mountain–which isn’t really an anchorage at all and I had a miserable time pulling up my anchor in the 30 knot winds that morning.
Thanks to some friends ahead of me on an Alberg 30 I learned about the ‘Bowline Pond’ anchorage on the west side of the river across from the northern section of Haverstraw Bay. This place is the shit. Seriously a hurricane hole. Protected 360 degrees. The entrance is tricky and the waves can stack up as it gets shallow. Plenty of depth there, but if you attempt this anchorage make sure you keep the mooring ball in the middle to STARBOARD to avoid an actual stack of bricks on the other side of the entrance. This ‘pond’ is actually man made. My parents and sister visited me there and I illegally tied my dinghy to a public park entrance and we crashed a private party at the park with a live band until the ranger kicked us off. It wasn’t before I could row each one out to my boat, though! I also met some kickass New York sailors on a Westsail 32. The captain, Josh, gave me probably the most integral navigation lesson of my life which in turn saved my ass from being completely lost on the ocean during my offshore passage.
Still waiting for coastal swells to die down from hurricanes I went to Haverstraw Bay where it took me two days to fix my autopilot. All it took was some wood, epoxy, screws, and a sock. Who would have thought? I rode out another gale just south of there where I was convinced I’d drag into the shipping lanes. This was before I learned to sleep through gales.
My final stop on the Hudson before heading through NYC was the Nyack Boat Club. I fucking love this place. It’s an historical gem. I met so many wonderful people who gave me detailed current and tide lessons, anchorage spots all along the east coast, and kisses on the cheek when I left. My dear friends Aaron and Sarah on their Baba 35 where on their way north back to Lake Champlain after a summer sailing in Novia Scotia and they picked up the mooring next to me. It was the last time I might see them for a long while. It was in Nyack that I received a small single side band radio and the WQXR classical music station would become my constant companion.
The hudson continued to widen the further I went. Ferries zoomed past creating monstrous wakes. Helicopters loudly flew through the sky. There were no channel markers but many ships. It was like the wild west. While still much less crowded than NYC by land it was still quite chaotic and the worst was yet to come. I anchored for the night west of the Statue of Liberty.
The final section of New York Harbor was insanely crowded with commercial traffic. I felt like a needle in a haystack. I approached the Verrezano Narrows only to second guess my navigation and tried to hail some fisherman to ask them which way to go to avoid the ships. “That way,” they said. But I couldn’t see where they pointed since I was fucking around with the engine.
I managed not to get run down by a ship and I was shit out in the Atlantic Ocean.
June 1— Launch was bad. Real bad. At anchor now and it’s blowing hard. Dealing with a lot, but it’s good. Managed not to panic, managed not to hit any boats. Engine died midway in the dock channel, on a collision course with a beneteau and my main halyard snags my topping lift. I lost my favorite hat to the wind. The miserable troll who owns the boatyard said something about my boat sinking as he lowered me into the water, then the yard manager said “good luck, sweetie,” and pushed me off the dock. The transducer for the depth sounder is leaking. It’s okay, but it’s below the water line, so I’m monitoring it closely. Wind is howling. I don’t know if I’ll raise sail today. In full on captain mode.
June 2— The forecast is wrong so far. I’m anchored off a beach. The weather guesser says southwest, five knots, but it’s higher. I’m exposed. I’m nervous about lifting the hook and being blown in to shore. It’s supposed to clock around to the north, so I’m waiting, which could be a mistake. The boat’s a wreck. I have to eat and square away a lot on deck before I can even think about leaving. I’m basically engineless. I have to force myself not to just crawl back into the v-berth. It’s cold. Forty degrees last night. Yesterday’s sail was intense. I’m less worried about the leak, it’s slowed as the wood block has started to swell. I left yesterday at 6:30 p.m. Right off the reef in treadwell bay my jib halyard came undone. Wind still ripping when I went forward to fix it. I managed to tie it back on but forgot to go through the traveler, so sheeting became inefficient and tangled. At some point I was able to sail on a reach right into my anchorage. I anchored but not before jamming my finger in the hook I use to hold it on the bow. I know longer have a knuckle. I’m lucky I didn’t break it, but there’s blood everywhere. I’m grateful I learned to sail engineless last year. Still can’t believe I do this shit “for fun.”
Later— Weather guesser wrong again. Five knots. Ha! Maybe for five minutes. I had the rails in the water with a reef and my tiniest headsail. Five knots…
Leaving the beach was smooth enough. Sailed off the anchor broad reaching to clear the reefs. Winds were still kind of confused. SW, NW, W? Maybe I’m the confused one. Cumberland straights were easy. Nothing like that time we raced the trimaran in the McDonough, where it seemed like McDonough’s army itself was marching towards us in the form of ten foot rollers. Once south of there the wind started to rip. Gusting to 25, sustained at maybe 18. It was cold, raining, and I was getting broadsided. Do I want to keep sailing in this? No, so I made for Valcour Island, due west.
Vanupied went to weather with a serious bone in her teeth. She loved it. She’s a sadist, I swear. If only I could trim her sails properly. Always luffing no matter what I do. Maybe it’s her old, shitty sails, or maybe I’m a shitty sailor. Her backstay is sketchy. The whole time I just kept saying, “please don’t break.” If the fisherman weren’t impressed by my screeching into the anchorage and dropping the hook under sail, well I’ll be damned.
Everything is blue. Blue sleeping bag, blue lake, blue sky, blue dinghy. I’m in no particular hurry, I have to remember that. As soon as I get home though, bills are due. Car insurance, mooring fees, electric bilge pump, registration…but I don’t want to think about that right now in the blue.
June 3— Well, I’m happy to say Vanupied and I are in our home port. I’m showered, fed, and have everything I need right here. Even my bicycle is locked up on shore. I’m anchored far off the mooring field. Not yet wanting to deal with being in the throws with other boats. I just want to stay on the outskirts a little longer. When I arrived I was hungry and out of tobacco. It was a long, arduous day. Everything felt insurmountable. But not now. It all feels possible.
This time last year I wasn’t even in the water yet. And it wasn’t until another month that I found myself this far south. So, there’s time. Not much of it, but it exists.
If you want an adventure buy a small sail boat, fix it up as best you can, and live on it traveling from port to port as long as you can. You’ll be amazed at what you’re made of. How quickly life reverts to basic instincts like finding food, protection from weather, and a safe place to sleep.
You will be humbled by what you don’t know, surprised by what you do. You’ll learn a thing or two about integrity and your own work ethic–if you cut corners while fixing her up they’ll come back to visit when the drink gets angry (which she does, often).
You will come face to face with yourself. It may not be in the form of changing sail in a storm, alone on the bow of your boat, but in a relationship with someone you meet along the way–and you will meet so many, and you will learn why you are worthy of their time and help.
I’m starting to wonder if my karma is fucked. I’ve had only two days of settled weather since I launched my boat 10 days ago. Everyday I’m running from an ever changing wind direction, trying to find protection for the night. I’ve had a mutiny onboard already and my crew member left the boat today with her dog. I met a sailor boy who lives far away with a boat of his own. My heart aches a little just to think about the short time I spent with both of these humans.
My dinghy most certainly has a hole, and I’m draining my cruising kitty by passing three days of near gale north westerlies at a marina because I couldn’t find an anchorage in time for the approaching system.
But it’s not all bad. I spent the better part of the day kicking around the shop in the boatyard, picking the brain of the salty and knowledgable repair man, touching all the tools and admiring his gelcoat refinishing jobs. He helped me to replace the stuffing in the packing gland of my rudder, which was causing quite a bit of water to get into the boat. He gave me the names of all his friends at boatyards down this side of the lake, and encouraged me to use his name to try and find work.
I have the heater that I stole from my friend at the marina where I launched my boat, so I’m toasty and warm tied to the dock with an excuse to track him down on his boat next weekend to return the heater and rendevous.
My boat is finally my space again. My guests are all gone. I no longer have to worry about how long they are staying, if they are coming back, if they are enjoying my lifestyle. I’m free now, I suppose.
A few days before launch I wrote in my journal about freedom.
“I have no job, no bills, no partner, no one to answer to or take care of. I’m fucking free, but I suppose there’s a loneliness in that freedom.”
Two days later and therein I was consumed with new relationships, mending relationships, crumbling ones. All on top of a boat that never stops moving, weather that never stops pounding, fears that never seem to waver.
Despite all the drama with my ever changing and motley crew, I’m moved by what’s happened this past month and half. The onslaught of help, kindness, and encouragement. As soon as this storm passes it’s time to face the world alone in my little boat, just as I always intended to do.