Fixing the Autohelm

Since we have owned the boat, the autohelm has given us a few headaches. Not because of any deficiency in the autohelm itself, but more to do with the installation of it.

The first issue we had with it was in 2013. The hydraulic pump failed when we were on route to Brittany. The positioning of the pump meant that stray salt water that got into the lazarette corroded the pump and eventually it took its toll. A new pump, shipped out to Benodet fixed the issue.

The ends of the hydraulic pipes connecting the pump to the ram are mild steel, and that again does not mix well with salt water, so after several years of soaking in salt water, as we tested the new pump and deliberately loaded up the system to check for leaks, we blew a pipe! Luckily we found a hydraulic pipe supplier just half an hour’s cycle ride from Benodet and we were back in business.

However as we tested it we discovered the unsettling fact that as the autohelm steered the boat, the entire lazarette floor moved from side to side! On investigation it transpired that although the boat was built with webs moulded into the hull for the ram, whoever had installed the ram had bolted it to the plywood floor rather than the mounts! Whilst the ram was mounted very securely to the plywood floor, the plywood floor was only held in place by a few lightweight screws. We fixed this by manufacturing a stainless bracket and mounting this directly to the webs on the hull. A permanent rigid solution with the added bonus that the floor can now be lifted to examine the autohelm without disturbing it.

In 2015 as we headed out across the channel the actuator on a solenoid valve failed on the ram. A quick easy fix once we obtained the parts, but of course obtaining parts when cruising is not always easy or quick. Luckily we had visitors flying out and they were able to bring a replacement with them. We started what has become a trend for us at that time – we bought two activators so we now have a spare!

Which leads us to the failure in Biscay. The ram is attached via a rose joint to a pin on the quadrant. When new the pin is no doubt a tight fit in the hole and remains perpendicular (well almost) to the thrust of the ram, so there is little if no tendency for the rose joint to work its way up the pin. Despite this, why the manufacturers decided to prevent the rose joint being able to come off the pin with a split pin less than 1.5mm diameter I cannot understand, but what we do know, is that after many thousand miles the pin had worked its way a little loose in the hole, so it could tilt over a little and the repeated forces on the ram had pushed the rose joint up the pin shearing the split pin allowing the rose joint to work its way off the top of the pin.

We decided to take a belt an braces approach to fixing this which basically involved a new pin that fitted the hole, with a plate on top bolted down so it couldn’t be lifted and a much more beefy split pin for good measure. It may be overkill but it certainly shouldn’t fail again!

Stainless Plate
Fabricated Stainless Plate
Quadrant Pin
The new pin, plate and split pin installed on the quadrant

The Notorious Bay of Biscay

The Bay of Biscay got its notoriety in the days of square riggers. The prevailing wind would push them into the bay and onto the lee shore as they were unable to sail upwind. The sea bed also drops rapidly to several thousand metres so waves often heap up and very steep confused seas can occur.

Modern boats with reliable engines and rigs that allow boats to sail upwind efficiently have certainly reduced the risk of Biscay, however after a couple of crossings I can without hesitation say it’s still a stretch of water that commands a huge amount of respect and is likely to throw a curved ball at any time. Having stopped at L’Aberwrach to wait for a change in the weather, we moved the boat to the beautiful Camaret bay to give ourselves the best kicking off place for ‘the bay’.

The winds were still from the South West when we left Camaret but our routing software was predicting a change to the North West by the time we got South of the Brest peninsular.

It wasn’t wrong. As we neared the lighthouse that marks the southernmost point of the Raz De Seine the wind shifted 90 degrees and we set the sails for a pleasant broad reach overnight.

Because the air temperature was so low we decided to change the watch system for this leg. We opted for two hour watches rather than three. The disadvantage of this was that the off watch crew only got a maximum break of four hours but we decided that was preferable to getting very cold for three hours at a time.

Throughout the night the wind veered as forecast and dropped so by morning we were looking for ways to get some more speed. We tried the Parasailor, a favourite of ours but there wasn’t even enough breeze to keep that filling sensibly in the slightly rolly conditions so that came down and the engine went on.

By early evening the wind had increased a little so the Parasailor went back up for a few hours and we had a pleasant few hours before we took it down for dinner as the wind was by now going forward on the port side and increasing.

The forecast was for the wind to increase during the evening and build to 20 to 23 knots overnight from the East.

We were over half way across the bay by this stage and we settled down for our second night expecting it to b slightly less comfortable but fast and not unpleasant.

One might think that winds from the East would be ideal for a Biscay crossing and actually it was certainly better than the SW winds I had on my last crossing but what we didn’t expect was quite how steep the waves built. With the swell coming in from the west and the wind from the east, the wave faces were unexpectedly steep. The direction we were travelling meant we were travelling perpendicular to the wave direction so effectively sailing along the waves and depending on whether we were on the face or back of the wave the effect on the heel of the boat was quite surprising. There was no moon and a lot of cloud too so in the dark it wasn’t possible to see the waves coming – often you would hear the breaking of a wave seconds before it arrived, heeling the boat to starboard before the wave passed underneath and the boat picked itself up and rolled back upright to port down the back of the wave. For those off watch, sleep wasn’t as easy as the previous night!

By 1 am the wind had built to closer to 30 knots at times so we had reduced sail quite a bit to quieten things down but we were still travelling quite fast, often travelling at eight to nine knots in the pitch black. It was quite wet in the cockpit due to the waves hitting the hull and being blown up and across the boat. Since the auto helm was doing the steering, the preferred watch position was well forward in the cockpit sheltered by the screen and spray hood.

We have a chart plotter at the front of the cockpit and auto helm controls there so it’s quite a sheltered comfortable position to monitor other traffic (of which there was very little) and keep an eye on the boat.

Shortly after 1 am there was an unusual bang, unlike all the other bangs and crashes that are typical of a yacht fast reaching through confused seas and after a few seconds it was obvious that the autohelm had disconnected and the boat was running off course.

Having grabbed the wheel and tried to re engage the autopilot it was obvious that the peace and relative warmth of the cockpit front was not going to be an option for the near future and I set about hand steering while I tried to figure out what could be wrong and how we could fix it. The most unfortunate aspect was that without the autohelm it was clear we would need more than one person on watch so the 4 hour off watch periods were history!

Trying to maintain course for long periods of time in the pitch black with waves pushing the boat around was tiring and even after reducing sail still further it was clearly going to be a long night, so I did what all good skippers should do – I went to bed!

Well actually it’s not quite true. I left Pete at the helm and went to wake Lesley for two reasons; firstly to join Pete on watch and secondly because all the electronics for the autohelm were beneath the bunk she was sleeping on and I wanted to check all the connections and fuses to ensure the problem wasn’t a quick and easy fix.

It is fair to say that lesley was not best pleased to be woken! When I asked if she had slept well her response was ‘I didn’t get off to sleep for a long time since there was something banging and crashing just behind my head for ages. Suddenly it all went quiet thankfully so I could get some sleep, but now you are waking me up two hours before I start my shift.’

Needless to say, we put two and two together quite rapidly and concluded that shortly before failing, the autohelm was making more noise than normal, since it was no more than a metre from her head, albeit the other side of a bulkhead!

After explaining the failure to Lesley, she was a little happier to be woken so joined Pete and I dismantled the bunk to get to the electronics, only to confirm what we now suspected, which was that the failure wasn’t just a loose wire and was more likely a mechanical issue in the bottom of the lazarette.

Having put the bunk back together, recycled all electronics and checked everything we could think of that was accessible in the middle of the night I did leave them to it to grab a couple of hours sleep.

Sleep didn’t come fast as my mind raced thinking through the systems and it wasn’t long before based on the knowledge of the system and Lesley’s description of the noises I had a pretty strong feeling about the cause. I suspected the hydraulic ram had come off the pin on the steering quadrant – the split pin that prevents it from coming off had always seemed a bit flimsy but theoretically there should be very little force on it. In the morning light, if conditions allowed we could empty the lazarette, lift the floor and take a look. Until then we had to hand steer.

When I emerged on deck to take over steering it was obvious that it had been a tough, wet job in the pitch black of the night. Sail had been reduced yet further but still the helm loads and seas meant it was a welcome relief for Pete who didn’t take long to doze off having relinquished the wheel.

As it was beginning to get light, we discussed the plans for emptying the lazarette but the theory and execution ended up being rather different due to a series of unplanned events which ended up with Lesley being smacked across the face with the main sheet and receiving two black eyes and a bruised forehead, an accident that was bad enough but could have been far worse. We were reminded very clearly that no matter how well things are planned, they can go very badly wrong in an instant at sea. In this case we hadn’t factored in the rising sun, which temporarily but critically reflected off the instruments blinding the helmsman and completely obscuring all indication of course and wind direction.

The good news was that the diagnosis of the autohelm problem was correct, so we were able to replace the split pin and take a much needed rest from hand steering, until the new pin sheared two hours later!

The remainder of the journey was uneventful. As we closed the shore, the wind died and the seas flattened out enabling us to shake out the reefs and enjoy the sunshine as we sailed into La Coruna – total journey time just over 48 hours from Camaret.

Safely moored in La Coruna marina we walked into town for a much earned beer and tapas with Lesley sporting the biggest sunglasses she could find to avoid Pete and I potentially getting arrested for gbh!

Port Solent to L’Aberwrach

Before we left Port Solent we had subscribed to the PredictWind weather routing software and that was telling us that we had a weather window that would give us a pleasant trip to North West France, but if we went further we would have a pretty tough time. We opted to sail to L’Aberwrach, wait a day or so for the weather system to go through, then carry on across Biscay.

The software was spot on, and we dropped anchor in the mouth of the estuary after an uneventful but very cold crossing in the early hours and went to bed.