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Three Boat Modifications Worth Special Mention


How you choose to equip your boat is very much a personal thing, and I don’t mean to overlook that fact while offering the following comments.  However, there are a series of common challenges faced by all sailors who choose to cross the Atlantic and cruise Europe, and hearing about each of the following boat modifications might prove helpful IF the effort and cost involved make sense for you and your crew, for your boat and your budget.

 Solent Stay: 

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Fig. 1, Whoosh's Solent Stay and Mast Fitting

Almost all cruising boats we see these days are equipped with a furling headsail.  Which means crews need to address what they will do offshore when it starts blowing hard enough that roller reefing the headsail is no longer appropriate.  (I won’t even bring up the adrenalin-producing prospect of the furling gear failing).  This usually results in one wondering how to add an inner stay if the boat isn’t already equipped with one.  Within the U.S. – and perhaps also in Canada? - this seems to default to a single choice:  a staysail stay, i.e. a stay anchored on the mast roughly between the spreaders and the masthead, this tension in turn needing to be opposed by running backstays to keep the mast from pumping in heavy air.  An inner stay usually ends up consisting of the following components:

1.      Deck fitting to accept the bottom end of the stay and the tack loading of the sail, tied deeply into the structure of the boat

2.      Substantial attachment point on the mast to which the top end of the stay is attached

3.      Opposing attachment point (sometimes, as part of a common fitting with 2. above) on the mast to accept the running backstays

4.      Running backstays and the tackle and/or levers necessary to tension them

5.      Attachment points aft on the side decks to accept the running backstays when tensioned

6.      Staysail tracks & blocks through which the sheets run to winches in the cockpit

7.      The stay itself, quite possibly with a release lever so the fore triangle can be opened up for easier tacking when the inner stay is not needed, and finally…

8.      A way to tension & stow the inner stay when it’s unrigged from the foredeck

A glance is all it takes to see this can be a big project as measured in time, effort and cost.  (And alas, I haven’t even mentioned the sail!)

 The Solent Stay is an alternative I first read about on Brion Toss’ web site (; search the Archives using the term ‘Solent Stay’) but I could find no local examples of this in use nor anyone who could give me a first-hand account of how well it worked.  (The farther a field I looked, the more I realized this just wasn’t done too often, at least in the Eastern U.S.).  Essentially, the Solent Stay is an inner stay that is placed just below the masthead and the existing forestay’s attachment point, thereby benefiting from backstay tension and eliminating the need for off-setting running backstays…and possibly also the inner tracks, cars and blocks for the sheet leads to the cockpit (see Figure 1).  Equipped with a release lever, the Solent can be removed from the foredeck and, because it’s geometry is different from a staysail stay, most likely secured directly to a bail on the side deck, just aft of the forward lower shroud, a simple and functional stowage location. (A released staysail stay usually needs to be rove around something before being tensioned due to its different geometry).  The only other additions required for a Solent Stay are the sail and perhaps a dedicated set of blocks on the existing genoa track along with dedicated sheets left attached to the sail.  Offshore, one can choose whether to leave the stay set up with the sail hanked on and bagged – and perhaps the sheets pre-run through their respective blocks – or the stay can be left stowed on the side deck with the sail in its locker.  This essentially is a choice between easier tacking/jibing and being continuously prepped for bigger winds.

Running short on time and believing there was a legitimate rationale for the Solent Stay approach, I ended up installing one on WHOOSH while wondering if I was doing the right thing.  And after some initial, very satisfactory but brief sea trials, off we sailed for Europe.  It only took us until Bermuda to begin seeing seeing European boats regularly…and to realize this was in reality a far more common approach than I’d realized..  By the time we arrived in Horta, Azores, I was amazed at how common a solution it is.  Some boats boasted roller furlers on both forward stays (not unlike the Scutter rig that Shannon used for some years), and a few even had three forward stays!  I was – to borrow the British phrase – gob smacked!  Nothing changed when we arrived in England.  In fact, as I write this (in Lymington, off the Solent), a new Rustler 36 – one of the few high-end offshore cruising boats still built in England – sits just down the dock from us and exhibits the exact same Solent Stay installation that WHOOSH has, except that I chose a beefier release lever and thicker wire (see Fig. 2 a-d, comparative pictures of the two boats).


Fig. 2a, Whoosh's Solent Stay Deck Fitting
Fig. 2b, Rustler 36 Solent Stay Deck Fitting


Fig 2c, Whoosh's Release Lever
Figure 2d, Rustler 36 Release Lever

The primary reasons to consider a Solent Stay rather than a staysail stay include the fact that the installation is simpler and less costly, it may clutter the deck less if additional tracks are not added, and it also makes the use of a longer luffed sail possible, e.g. to supplement the genoa under some sailing conditions as when sailing across the wind in lighter conditions and looking for every ounce of sail pressure you can apply to the boat.  Its disadvantages are that the headsail needs to be partially furled in order to tack or jibe it, and the sail is not as useful across as many points of sail as a staysail might be.  The specifics of such an installation depend, obviously, on your boat’s deck and hull structure, and also on her sail plan.  But the reason I mention it here is to underscore the fact that there is an alternative to the complicated staysail arrangement we all know so well in the U.S., and that it appears to be widely accepted by offshore sailors outside the U.S.  So if your North American boat isn’t already set up with an inner stay able to handle conditions with the winds start to moan, don’t overlook at least considering a Solent Stay before deciding how you’ll add to your boat’s rig and sail plan.  And if you’re interested in the details of how we designed, sourced and installed our deck & mast fittings, feel free to drop us an email.


Tiller Pilot controlling a Wind Vane:  I had read several accounts of this hybrid arrangement in the past, mostly in British sailing magazines, but found this combination rarely in use among boats I saw along the East Coast and even in the Caribbean.  As with the Solent Stay, in the end I added this capability somewhat as a ‘leap of faith’, in the absence of hard feedback from others but based on what made sense to me at the time.  Subsequently, at cruising cross-roads like Bermuda, Horta and Falmouth, I saw this arrangement far more frequently and had a chance to talk with the crews about its use, as well.  I also found the RayMarine folks in England to be very aware of this use for their tiller pilot products.

 Why would you want a tiller pilot controlling your wind vane? Well…to begin at the beginning, a comment about wind vanes:  Making a long offshore passage with only an autopilot (which can fail mechanically, electrically and/or electronically) is not often the preferred choice.  How frequently are vanes found on offshore boats?  I walked along the Horta waterfront many, many times and, every few days as boats would come and go, I played a game of ‘How Many?’ by counting the total number of transoms I could see, and the subset of them equipped with wind vanes.  The lowest percentage I counted was 66% but the average was around 75%; a few times it reached 90%.  And keep in mind that most of these boats were not from the U.S., where many owners can afford to heavily equip their boats, but rather from a range of countries where most sailors are less able to do so.  Choosing and using a wind vane is of course a topic unto itself, but a vane’s lack of reliance on electricity, its increasing power as the wind & seas build, the fact that repairing a mechanical device at sea is often more feasible than recovering from an autopilot failure, and the likely redundancy that a vane will give many boats – since many cruising boats already have some form of autopilot – are all good reasons to carry a vane, and doubly so offshore.  (In addition, vanes which include an auxiliary rudder provide additional redundancy to the rudder/quadrant/cable system itself).  Hand steering is at best a physically draining, uncomfortable and undesirable consequence of losing self-steering when on a long passage offshore.  For short-handed crews like Patricia and I, losing self-steering immediately degrades safety, destroys any chance of the passage being enjoyable, and unavoidably extends the passage, as well.  So…you might want to look long and hard before you head across an ocean without a vane.

 But what does a tiller pilot add to using one’s wind vane?  Here is a summary of the answers I heard from a mix of sailors in Horta who were using this arrangement:

1.      In lighter winds, when any vane is least effective and the steered course tends to consist of a wider arc, the tiller pilot will steer a far straighter course.

2.      Sometimes winds are fluky, e.g. near island contours, and not uncommonly when the wind is also light; in variable winds, a tiller pilot again steers a straighter course

3.      In motoring or motorsailing conditions, a tiller pilot provides redundancy should one lose the autopilot (at less cost than a back-up pedestal-mounted autopilot)

4.      It draws far less current than a below-decks autopilot will, and even fewer amp hours than a pedestal-mounted above-decks autopilot

5.      Given its benefits, it requires little in initial purchase cost or maintenance/repairs IF properly rigged and used.


Rigging a tiller pilot to a given wind vane on a specific boat will require a customized approach, but the following might be a useful checklist of things to consider:

1.      The pilot should be easily connected to or disconnected from the vane’s attachment point…including at night with no moon or in overcast weather.

2.      The pilot should be mounted such that, when the pushrod is midway in its throw, it attaches to the wind vane while the vane is in its neutral steering position; also insure the attachment point will allow sufficient throw by the pilot pushrod to steer the boat

3.      Because wind vane blades should be neutrally balanced relative to their counterbalance weight, be sure your mounting technique doesn’t change this balance significantly…or readjust the blade’s position accordingly

4.      The pilot should be permanently attached in some fashion to the boat (not counting where it fits into its mounting socket at one end and the pushrod’s tiller pin at the other)

5.      The electrical plug should be a truly waterproof connector (which may not be what the manufacturer provided you), and properly fused or with its own breaker

6.      The pilot should be protected against salt spray and wind-driven rain while operating normally…but such protection should not impede operation of the controls

7.      The pilot should have adequate RFI protection if your boat is equipped with a SSB radio


You can see how we chose to attach a tiller pilot to WHOOSH’s Sailomat wind vane (see Fig. 3). 

Fig. 3, Whoosh's Tiller Pilot/Wind Vane Arrangement

We achieved these goals to an acceptable degree, although reconnecting the pilot to the vane on a moonless night takes the watch flashlight, as does adjusting the course using the control panel since the control keys are not backlit (a feature that would have been a nice addition to our otherwise feature-rich but entry-level RayMarine 1000+).  I’m also watching the electrical connector closely as its longevity remains suspect in my mind.  And because we think the pushrod and keypad seals will not protect the unit from water intrusion (salt or fresh) indefinitely as they harden with age, the cover Patricia made up for it covers the entire unit.  She sewed on a see-thru vinyl panel to allow viewing the LCD screen and keys.  On the other hand, some crews just use plastic cling-wrap in wet weather.


I started out using the tiller pilot in the belief it was, if properly protected from the elements, otherwise bulletproof.  After all, it was only pushing/pulling a control mechanism on the vane and not the tiller attached to a big rudder that in turn was controlling the boat.  Then I began hearing about pilot failures when we arrived in Horta, resulting from the internal gears being made of plastic and being destroyed when the pushrod is heavily worked as conditions deteriorate and controlling the vane sufficient to maintain the required course becomes more difficult.  And then the same thing happened to me one snotty night, when the wind built and I should have swapped out the pilot for the wind blade but was too comfortable under the dodger.  When having the unit repaired in Portsmouth, I learned that RayMarine had a batch of bad bearings installed on these units and that was the cause of my failure…but also the others?  I don’t know but here are some suggestions I’d offer when using a tiller pilot offshore:

1.      Familiarize yourself with how to change both the ‘rudder gain’ and ‘deadband’ adjustments. The first will insure the pilot is moving the pushrod sufficiently given the conditions in which the boat is sailing and must be steered, while the second refers to how narrow and ‘tight’ – or wide and ‘forgiving’ – a course the tiller pilot will accept.  As my experience grew, I found it not uncommon to adjust these settings more than once in a given watch as conditions change; the goal is to find the right mix between steering a steady course and not over-working the tiller pilot.

2.      If the pilot seems very ‘busy’, operating almost constantly rather than being on something approaching a 50% duty cycle, you may be asking more of it than is fair.  Feel the main housing where the motor is located; how warm is it?  And even so, consider adjusting the ‘deadband’ setting a bit and/or the ‘rudder gain’.

3.      As you find the pushrod increasing its throw and nearing its limits – and especially if the pilot stops trying to correct because it ran out of ‘pushrod throw’ or the vane’s control point can’t be further shifted – you might want to remove the pilot and switch to the air blade unless the calibration adjustments mentioned above can reduce the pilot’s workload.  I’m not real pleased when relying solely on the unit’s built-in protection circuitry, which is there to protect the unit’s gears.


Using a Terminal Node Controller (‘TNC’) with laptop and SSB Radio:  A TNC is the equivalent of a SSB ‘modem’ as it allows the digital output of your computer to be transformed into the analog signal sent – and received - by your radio.  (I hasten to point out before going further that an entire book could be written on this subject)!  There are experienced cruising sailors who think the $600-900 U.S. cost of the TNC can be better spent elsewhere since one of its main benefits – receiving email via the SSB radio – can be accomplished in many other ways when ashore, though not at sea.  Pocketmail, Cyber Café, direct ISP connection are all examples.  And to be fair, another reason some steer clear of using a TNC is that there’s a fairly steep learning curve initially, although you can rely on a vendor like HF Radio ( to help you through this phase.  So…if it’s pricey, requires a later model SSB radio in order to work properly, mandates the placement and use of a laptop somewhere on the boat, and isn’t intuitively obvious to initially use, why do I have it on my ‘Best Mods’ list?  Here are the ways we’ve benefited, along with some sources of information and related comments. Hopefully, I’m stating all this in normal English at the expense of using more correct technical jargon, as one problem most of us have when starting to climb the learning curve on TNC/SSB use is the language specific to this topic.


Benefits of a TNC Offshore

(presumes suitable SSB radio & laptop also onboard)




Send & Receive Email

Internet via some intermediary with whom you ‘connect’ using your SSB

This service is available from non-profit Sailmail*, for-profit vendors and/or ham radio’s Winlink** system;

Range: Thousands of miles

Receive current weather products from the internet

With Winlink: huge selection of wx products, buoy reports, GRIB files, and more

With Sailmail: more limited selection

With For-Profit Vendors: it varies

Having the raw data along with multiple forecasters’ views of f’casted highs & lows, winds & waves, 500 MB changes and almost real-time buoy data all help greatly with routing decisions by the crew;

Range: Thousands of miles

Receive Navtex weather f’cast and navigation information – offshore & coastal

World-wide transmissions on 518 & 490 kHz from stations located along all major coasts

Alternatively available on a dedicated Navtex receiver;

Range: Several hundred miles

* Sailmail refers to a world-wide non-profit commercial system which offers a gateway service to the internet; vessels use marine equipment/frequencies with only marine licensing required; daily connect time is limited to 10-15 mins.; see for more info

** Winlink refers to a world-wide system of shore stations which serve as gateways between vessels using Amateur Radio equipment/frequencies and the internet; daily connect time can be up to several hours if connecting with multiple shore stations; see for more info


Perhaps it sounds mundane, tedious or even counter-intuitive to be receiving email offshore; isn’t that one of the things we’re trying to escape?  Here are some uses we made of our TNC on our last passage, none of which in retrospect we would choose to do without:

  1. Digital-quality weather products provided routinely when we connected with Winlink; the specific products were selected before the passage began and then sent to us using an automatic ‘request and receive’ feature.  As our position changed over time, we rotated out some products in favor of newer one; free service
  2. When we lost access to a regional forecast service due to propagation, the same information was emailed to us by a net controller; free service
  3. Like most everyone our age, we have both older, frail parents and a broad circle of friends; thanks to the TNC, they were all able to ‘come along for the ride’ via the occasional group or individual emails.  It’s hard to overstate the value of maintaining relationships at home when off on a journey to which others find it difficult to relate; free service
  4. At several points, we supplemented offshore forecasts with local, inshore forecast information by copying the Navtex broadcasts on 518 and 490 kHz; especially helpful as we approached the English Channel; free service
  5. Special navigational aid changes and also recovery work with an exclusion zone were also announced on Navtex broadcasts; free service
  6. Although it’s available using multiple means, our TNC downloaded weather fax transmissions from Germany, the UK and U.S. and, provided the laptop was running and radio left on, it did so automatically – a big help for a short-handed crew; free service


If this is of interest to you and you’d like a “hands on” experience in using this software, download Airmail or Sailmail and play with it on your own computer.  If you’re more serious and would like the “hands on” experience to include understanding how to select the right products, set up an HF rig on your boat, and use these TNC-based programs, then consider attending the annual SSCA Gam held in mid-November in Melbourne, Florida.  The players who created and now operate these services, along with the key software developers who make it all possible, are all in attendance and conduct an all-day, hands-on seminar series.  And the cost – for the entire 3-day Gam – is peanuts.  It’s the best single resource I know of for cruising sailors who want to better understand this whole arena of products, skills and capabilities.


© Jack Tyler – September, 2003

WHOOSH, currently cruising the Hampshire Coast