Reliable systems for high-latitude voyaging

To the editor: I read Eric Forsyth’s recent story on his attempted Antarctic circumnavigation (“Turned Away,” September) and felt some comments are warranted for the safety of all who have passagemaking in mind.

Preparing a 30-plus-year-old boat for a cruise to extreme latitudes takes a ton of planning, as well as a sequential look at systems that are also 30-plus years old. Seacocks, thru-hulls and shaft logs define the difference between a boat and a hazardous submersed object. Steering is the difference between a shelter and a vehicle. In extreme latitudes, these systems take on greater significance since the consequences of failure are more severe and potentially fatal.

When preparing the boat, we would suggest a complete inspection of the steering system, which means every pin, every chain link, all bearings, etc. Steering inspections for extreme latitude vessels need to be taken to the extreme to prevent failure and to be prepared in the event of a failure. So, the emergency tiller and independent autopilot systems need inspection, testing and, perhaps, replacement.

In refit seminars and boatyard seminars, I always suggest replacement instead of repair of systems on boats 25 to 30 years old. Trying to salvage some life out of the vast majority of systems that old is difficult at best. Chain and wire rope in a steering system should be replaced every seven to 10 years, and more often if sailing in the tropics due to the salt in the atmosphere. However, when going to extreme latitudes, replacement of chain and wire and a level of spare parts and components appropriate for the voyage cannot be advised strongly enough.

John Eide’s article in the same issue (“Refuge in an Antarctic volcano,” September) was a wonderful story of a great cruise on a boat designed to sail the extreme latitudes. All the systems were purposely designed and built for the voyages he was intended to take. The steering was near the top of Skip Novak’s list of purpose-designed and purpose-built systems, as he knows the consequences of failure. Both of these articles were written by very experienced sailors with many sea miles under their keels, and there are wonderful lessons in their tales. Thanks for keeping the quest for knowledge alive. 

William Keene is president of Edson International, a manufacturer of steering gear, in New Bedford, Mass.

Eric Forsyth responds: Since she was launched, my Westsail 42 Fiona has averaged 10,000 sea miles a year, much of it in high latitudes; she is a heavy weather boat. As Will Keene suggests, the steering system has been frequently overhauled and parts replaced as needed. The failure of the universal joint, robbing us of emergency steering, surprised me. It is a measure of the force of massive Southern Ocean waves that it failed.  We were in good company, in 1872 the clipper Cutty Sark had her rudder torn off by big seas off Cape Agulhas.

By Ocean Navigator