June 9, 2010

Of Boats And Yachts


I'm mad.

Well, angry, actually, but I could be mad, too.

It's that damned autopilot of mine.

A few weeks back, I went into painful detail about how long it took to get it repaired and back into my boat.

But I'm still stewing about it.

That's because the first Catalina 30's didn't need autopilots. First of all, most autopilots mount on a steering wheel, and back in those days, there was no wheel.

The Catalina 30 don't need no stinkin' wheel.

The original boat had a tiller, with the mainsheet attached to the end of the boom, where God intended it to be. I've sailed Catalina 30's with tillers and they sail just fine, thank you.

The sheet was led to a traveller that ran across the cockpit, right next to the tiller. The jibsheets were an arm's length away. From one comfy spot, you could control pretty much everything you needed to sail the boat, all by yourself.

What a concept!

A photo from the first Catalina 30 brochure showing the original layout, with tiller, boom-end mounted sheet, and traveller in the cockpit. Please try to ignore the fact that the guy looks like he's dressed to cruise the Castro - not that there's anything wrong with that. Also try to ignore the fact that, like most brochure photos from the '70s, the guy is doing all of the sailing and the woman is staring off into the distance with body language that says, "Oh, Mr. Wonderful, take me away with you, please."

So, what happened to that nice, simple boat you could sail all by yourself?

Well, new Catalina 30's were sold to people moving up from little itty bitty boats. And those people went to the boat show to see all of the big boats.

At the boat show there were a lot of big boats. And some of those boats were yachts. You could tell the yachts from the boats because the yachts were the ones with the steering wheels. Great big gleaming stainless steel steering wheels. The bigger the wheel, the better the yacht.

And people who were moving up from little itty bitty boats to a great big boat and who went to the boat show thought,

"Why should I spend all of this money on a mere boat when I can get a yacht instead?"

And this was not lost on the clever marketing folks who sell Catalinas. They could sell a lot more Catalina 30's if they turned the simple Catalina 30 from a boat into a yacht.

But how could they do that?

Exactly - by adding a great big gleaming stainless steel steering wheel where the tiller used to be.

The Great Wheel of O Dock, which has, for generations, separated helmspeople from their sail controls.

Presto, instant yacht.

But the clever marketing folks at Catalina didn't stop there.

They knew that people who buy yachts eat canapés and watercress sandwiches. Everyone knows that.

And nothing can be more inconvenient, when you're trying to eat canapés and watercress sandwiches in the cockpit of your yacht, than to have the mainsheet and a bulky traveller getting in the way.

So, if this was to be a proper yacht, those would have to go.

It turns out that you can move the mainsheet to the middle of the boom if you add 26 fiddle blocks and ratchet blocks and bullet blocks and turning blocks and route the sheet forward to the mast, down the mast, through a rope clutch, and back to the front of the cockpit by adding another 26 turning blocks. Of course, with all of the leverage you lose by putting the sheet in the middle of the boom and with all the friction those 52 blocks add, you now need a winch to crank the sheet in.

Oh well, yacht owners don't mind that. They can just have the steward or the sommelier crank in the main a bit on their way down below to fetch some more watercress sandwiches.

Because if one of those yacht owners is actually steering from behind the great big gleaming stainless steel steering wheel, there's no way in heck they're going to be able to reach the mainsheet or the traveller controls from there.

So a boat that one person used to be able to sail single-handed became a yacht that requires a steward and a sommelier to sail.

(Wait, don't tell me you're going to Google 'sommelier'. That's just one of those snooty French guys whose job it is to guide you to the most expensive wine on the winelist.)

Of course, the clever marketing folks at Catalina have thought of a way around all of that. After turning this into a yacht that requires a steward and a sommelier to sail and charging you for a lot of fiddle blocks and ratchet blocks and bullet blocks and turning blocks and a winch you don't need, they will happily sell you something that turns all of that back into a boat that one person can sail all by themselves.

And that, of course, would be an autopilot.

At the moment, though, I can't think of why anyone in his right mind would want an autopilot.

Of course, I'm not in my right mind. I'm mad.

Maybe I should hire a sommelier.



  1. LOL: very funny and very true :)

  2. Thanks, JP. I was hoping anyone who has injured himself in some debilitating way trying to squeeze past that wheel might relate to this post.

    Tillerman, I'm always impressed with the ingenuity you use to sneak in shameless plugs for your own blog like that.

    I can't remember what I blogged about last week, let alone last year. But somewhere in that calculating mind of yours lurks a SQL database.

  3. Yes, it is a tragedy. Yes, we are all complicit by our desire for a bigger yacht. No, we won't be going back to the romantic age of tillers.

    A little perspective.
    1) We would not be driving boats with ridiculously large stainless steel wheels and autopilots had not the Laser sailing lobby driven yacht manufacturers that much insane. There are huge, vast, numbers of little boats with tillers. We're that far out with wheels and autopilots because the Laser sailors pushed us that far out. They are complicit, perhaps even more so than the average person.

    2) While there is a lot of hyperbole in the news about this being the greatest, biggest, worst yacht ever, the real facts are that it is still 1/6th the size of the Poseidon 180 Yacht, and 1/20th the size of the Motor Yacht Eclipse.

    Source: World's Most Expensive Sail.

  4. Bob, for once I must agree with you.

    Those unstable Lasers are forever married in the minds of the sailing public with falling in the water and getting wet. Show me a Laser sailor and I'll show you someone with chattering teeth.

    For years, sailors have been trying to coax their spouses out sailing. More often than not, they start on one of those Lasers. How can they help it - the blasted things are everywhere. The spouse gets dumped in the water and they go looking for a bigger boat - one that will not remind them of the Laser.

    Laser - tiller - wet. It's a mantra that's hard to get out of one's head. So, the spouse says, "You can get any big boat you want as long as it doesn't have a Laser... I mean, tiller."

    If it weren't for the Laser, Bob, I'd have a nice tiller in my boat and a nice, convenient traveller in the cockpit. And I wouldn't need a damned autopilot.

  5. A yacht, strictly speaking, is any boat that is used for pleasure.

    I do understand that some of the gizmos added to boats improve safety or help make up for a lack of hard-to-get crew.

    But what happens when boats become so complicated and on-board systems so fragile as to remove the pleasure from boating? Is it no longer yachting if boat ownership turns into indentured servitude?

    Do Laser sailors (that is, the ones who enjoy chattering their teeth and being inverted into frigid water) therefore enjoy more "yachting" than owners of cruising boats?

  6. michael wasp6/9/10, 11:37 AM

    A little late to the game, but I'm in...

    Since I became a Laser sailor 62 years ago, when I was born, it has continuously surprised me that I am evil as a consequence and responsible for upsetting progress. I find it hard to believe we aren't all Laser sailors, since we all swim in the same ocean. Or have I missed something?

    I remember having a similar discussion with Bob recently about the consumption of Pilsner, in a slightly different context.

    My question to Bob today is "how would you define survival?" Just look around you - the world of sailing has degraded demonstrably in just the half century I've been observing it. Lets replace "survive" with "thrive" and see how the argument changes. If that's hyperbole, so be it. It's also hyperbole to claim that a disaster such as the Catalina 30 we are discussing is ultimately harmless. An argument about who has the biggest yacht is infantile.

    Sorry O'Docker, I have no sense of humor about issues such as this.

  7. Michael, thanks for your thoughts.

    I think I resort to humor sometimes to keep from saying some things I might later regret. I know a little more about Laser sailors than I might let on. Some college friends of mine once got really drunk, went out and bought some Lasers, and I've kept in touch with them for the past 40 years. I have seen how hard they struggle to keep those boats right side up and have heard a lot of stories about the political battles in the Laser class association just to put on a simple little regatta. Although most of them have as much sailing experience as some America's Cup sailors, they still get wet every time they go sailing.

    When I start to hear some of the uninformed rhetoric that is often unleashed during a Laser regatta, or arguments designed to cloud the significant issues, little red flags start waving. Those are usually protest flags.

    I try to keep things pretty light here. But if you reread my post, I hope you'll see that I still think the Laser is a pretty ridiculous little boat.

  8. I remember walking the beach at Hyannis in 2002 in the wake of the Laser Worlds.

    As long as we use wheels so intensively, we'll have to manage the consequences as best we can. It seems obvious that the consequences weren't too well managed here. And, trying to export the excitement of sailing a small responsive boat like the Laser to boats without a tiller is not the same thing as reducing maintenance or cost.

    What isn't obvious to many people are the relative impacts of different forms of sailing. How many people realize, for example, the large amounts of unhappiness emitted from trying to fix a broken autopilot? And how many people consider the deaths of thousands of barnacles in the world to be an acceptable price for anti-fouling paint?

  9. I feel like I'm the victim of some sort of international Laser conspiracy.

    Everyone who's leaving a comment here today, except for Pat and JP, has embedded a link back to Tillerman's blog. I feel like just a tool in his quest for world domination.

    This dialogue hasn't really been an open, unbiased discussion of the relative merits of sensible, comfortable boats like the Catalina 30 and quirky, nervous little cockleshells like the Laser.

    Blog commenters can be so crafty.

  10. baden powell6/9/10, 1:22 PM

    Talking of tools...

  11. I thought earlier in the day I might say something later regarding this topic. Remind me what the topic is.

  12. Simply put, I prefer tiller steering. There's much more of a oneness between skipper and boat. None of those cables and pullies to mask the slightest nuance of a change of direction. And yes, the goddamn wheel basically holds me, a big guy to begin with, hostage back in my little space. I often sail alone, and there's alot of banging and stubbing going on just to get the sails trimmed.

  13. Is that really Baydog, or just another of Tillerman's straw dogs? No link back to the Tillersite, but I'm still not sure.

    Here's a verification test that only a South Jersey native would know:

    Chambersburg's nickname is:

    a) Little Italy

    b) Pieland

    c) Vatican III

    d) The Burg

  14. Too easy O Docker. Please. A little more difficult. Funny you mentioned the Burg. Someone was just lamenting the other day that there are only two or three Italian restaurants left down there worth going to. They're all Central American or Spanish!

  15. Is nothing sacred? Ah well, sounds like new culinary opportunities.

    If I may return to the topic of this post (I had to look it up, too), I much prefer a tiller, also. I like not having to look down to check the rudder position and think you get much better feedback about weather helm.

    In really light air, you can also feel when you've got just enough way on for the rudder to start working and how much helm you can apply before stalling the rudder.

  16. Burt Chambers6/9/10, 3:03 PM

    Talking of dogs, I think the phrase you are looking for O Docker is "sock puppet" not "straw dog".

    But I do agree with you that tillers are best. But beware of the tiller of doom.

  17. Would all these names be former schoolmates?

  18. I really like the name Arnaud Psarofaghis.

    I'm going to squirrel it away for the next time i need a rhyme for esophagus. You can use sarcophagus only so many times before it gets old.

  19. My wife went to school with a kid named Sturgis Katurgis. I would have killed my parents.

  20. You wouldn't recall if Sturgis preferred a tiller or a wheel, would you?

  21. Bergen County landlubber

  22. Oh.

    I know it's pointless, but as Blogger of Record here, I feel obligated to try to return to topic every now and then.

  23. Definitely tiller. And don't hire a sommelier, just read Wine Spectator and drink as many different wines as possible

  24. I like the name Bora Gulari too.

  25. O Docker, this was a GR8 post.

  26. Thanks, Doc and Frankie.

    Frankie, I wonder if you share my disdain for wheels or for sommeliers.

  27. I once helmed a 37-footer with a tiller which had been designed with a wheel in mind. The tiller was a lot of work. But my preference for sailing is definitely a smaller craft so that a tiller w/extension is preferable. All of my "bucket boats" have tillers. Any boat under 33 feet should have a tiller, IMO

  28. I do share your view on wheels and sommeliers!!!

  29. My friend, Zach came over last week and asked me to help him decide what kind of yacht he'll buy. We search the net for hours for the models, styles and features of the different watercraft. Since he needed something to suit his sailing pleasure, he purchased a Hunter 306 - a family cruiser that is less than 30 feet in length. He got it with a very good deal. I guess, he's still on the phone talking to the
    yacht transporter for the paperwork and delivery details. He just couldn't help smiling - I can see that he is so excited! As for me, I could settle for any boat, I think it is the company that matters!