Thursday, September 10, 2015


Over the past month I have spent some 150 hours sailing—moving south for the winter. This has given me plenty of time to rethink some elements of the QUIDNON design, and to introduce a few improvements. While some are purely products of reflection, others resulted from direct experience with a sailboat design which I found to be inadequate. Here, I will explain the changes in prose. I will come up with updated drawings as time allows.

Wheel vs. Tiller

The sailboat I have been sailing has a very traditional layout: a pedestal at the back of the cockpit, with a wheel, a throttle and a shift lever. On top of the post is a binnacle with a compass. On top of that is an instrument cluster: a GPS chartplotter, a radar and a VHF radio. It seems simple, rational, well designed. But it is also horribly constraining.

The wheel is comfortable to operate from just one position: standing directly behind it. This gets tiresome rather quickly. Other positions—sitting behind the wheel, sitting to the left or to the right, standing in front of it—don't work nearly as well. Some group of minor muscles quickly runs out of its glycogen supply, and you have to try something else—like standing directly behind the wheel again.

Now consider the tiller.

• My favorite position when conditions are calm is to lounge with my back against the back of the cockpit and the tiller protruding from my armpit, with my right or left arm draped over it.

• To steer, I just wave that arm to and fro, not even having to lift it. When the conditions are not calm at all, my favorite position is to tie a neoprene strap to the tiller, and work it with both of my feet to push it away from me.

• When I am pulling up to a dock, I like to stand on one of the cockpit seats—the one closest to the dock—look over the side and steer with my extended foot on the tiller.

• When going upwind, I like to connect an extension to the tiller, sit on the cockpit coamings (on the leeward side, since crew weight distribution doesn't matter on a big boat with a small crew, and the leeward side is more sheltered and more comfortable) and steer using the tiller extension.

• When the autopilot fails (as it does sooner or later), I can run a line from a sheet through a block to the tiller, connect a strap pulling the other way, and then adjust the lengths of the line and the strap until the boat steers itself. This is called “sheet-to-tiller steering,” and Slocum used it during his first ever solo circumnavigation. It doesn't work with wheels.

• One good, inexpensive option for an autopilot is the so-called “tillerpilot.” These are telescoping sticks that run on 12V and incorporate a fluxgate compass, a network interface (NMEA2000) that allows them to work with wind sensors, and clip to a spot on the boat and a spot on the tiller. They don't work with wheels. With wheels, the two options are a “wheel autopilot,” which uses a stepping motor and a belt and works only in calm conditions, and a “below-deck” unit that includes a compressor, a hydraulic ram and a bunch of electronics, and costs a fortune.

• Wheel steering systems have a tendency to break. There is a lot to break. There is typically a key that keeps the wheel from just spinning around on the shaft; if that little piece of metal somehow gets lost, so is your ability to steer. Then there is a chain going down the pedestal, some pulleys, and a cable that goes around the quadrant that actually turns the rudder. Tillers directly connect to the rudder shaft, typically via a hinge.

• There is often the need to fix the rudder in a certain position. With wheels, there is typically a friction knob on the side, which is tightened and loosened. It takes time to operate and never works 100%. The best solution with a tiller is a rack: the tiller clicks down onto a toothed rack; after that it doesn't move at all. This takes no time at all to operate—just push the tiller down onto the rack to fix the rudder, and pull it up again to steer.

The one advantage of wheel over tiller is that wheels can be made to apply a lot more force to the rudder. To apply an equivalent amount of force, a tiller would have to be too long to fit in the cockpit, have too wide a swing range, or require superhuman strength to operate. But a rudder that requires a lot of force to operate is a badly designed rudder. Well-designed rudders are balanced: they have just enough bias so that they trail in the water with the boat moving without fishtailing, and in calm conditions can be deflected with a fingertip.

In heavy weather, even a balanced rudder can suddenly become heavy. This is especially the case when going downwind with waves on the quarter. They tend to roll under the transom, and when they do that water washes over the rudder in the wrong direction—aft to fore—rendering it temporarily inoperative. It also has the effect of slewing the boat around. But this is where a tiller is especially useful. With a wheel, in such conditions it is necessary to quickly spin the wheel while the boat is slewing, and then control it, allowing it to spin back slowly to bring the boat back on course. This is a lot of spinning and controlling, and wears you out in no time. With a tiller, you can be comfortably seated with both of your feet on the tiller. When the big wave rolls under you, you push with your legs, and then offer some resistance to bring the boat back on course.

Cockpit layout

Having spent some 150 hours trying to get comfortable in the cockpit, I had a number of realizations.

• The cockpit can't be too wide. It must be just wide enough for the shortest crew member to be able to sit on one side with the feet on the edge of the seat on the opposite side, knees bent slightly. That, it turns out, is a key ergonomic requirement.

• The cockpit coamings must provide back support. A lot of boats have almost vertical coamings that hit you somewhere in the back with a sharp corner. The worst case scenario is that they hit you near C5 and C6 cervical vertebra. Sail a boat like that long enough, and your arms will go numb. Cockpit coamings have to be high enough so that they fully support the shoulderblades of the tallest crew member when seated upright, and the back of the head when slouched down.

• The angle of the coamings should be laid back at an angle that makes it comfortable to sit with one's back against them, legs extended forward, knees bent. Upright coamings result in something close to a fetal position, and it doesn't work for adults for any length of time.

• The tops of the coamings should provide comfortable seating as well, with the back resting against the lifelines, both along the sides and over the transom. In good conditions these are the best places to sit and enjoy the breeze and the view. These should not be obstructed with shrouds, stays, winches, cleats and other hardware. With QUIDNON there are no shrouds or stays to worry about, and there is just one massive winch—a big 3-speed crab winch that's used as both the anchor which and the halyard winch, and is mounted right in the cockpit for ease of single-handing.


The QUIDNON design shows a big pilot house, but a far more minimalistic layout can provide reasonable comfort in most conditions and result in better sailing performance. The minimal cockpit has a floor that cuts into the space below and drains into the engine well and the anchor chain locker directly below. It has generously high coamings, sides and back, with seats on top of them, with railing that wraps around the seats to provide comfortable back support and a handhold for climbing in and out of the cockpit onto the deck. Sea cloths on the railing can be used in heavy weather. On top is either a canvas bimini or a hard fiberglass roof. In front is a fiberglass-and-lexan dodger, which shelters the companionway hatch.

Running rigging

QUIDNON's running rigging is rather simple, but it can produce a mad tangle of line in the cockpit. A good solution is to have the anchor chain/rode, the halyards and the centerboard lines come in on one side of the companionway hatch, next to the crab winch, and the sheets to come in on the other. The other lines are short and don't produce much of a mess. All of these lines should be provided with clutches. Obviously the anchor chain and rode descend directly down into the anchor locker. But so can the halyards, the centerboard control lines and the sheets, where they come to rest in canvas bags hanging from the top of the anchor locker (in which, it turns out, there is room for everything). To tidy up the cockpit, one just feeds the lines into their respective scuppers in the bottom of the cockpit, and they vanish from view!


Putting the instruments on top of the steering pedestal, it turns out, is a spectacularly bad idea. They are expensive, fragile, and, at that location, in harm's way. In heavy weather someone might get tossed across the cockpit by a big wave, miss a handhold and rip the chartplotter or the radar directly off its mount. A much better place for the instruments is under the dodger (a hard, fiberglass and Lexan dodger) in a box that can be locked. The cockpit layout should be such that the crew member with the shortest armspan can hold the end of the tiller with one hand and operate the instruments with the other.

Remaining questions, previously left unanswered, are: 1. where to put the VHF antenna; and 2. where to put the radome.

The VHF antenna will be mounted on top of the mainmast. The logic there is that although it will only work with the mast up, when the mast is down you are either inshore or close to shore, range is not important, and a handheld VHF will do.

The radome poses a problem, because there is simply nowhere for it to live where it will not be in the way of something—the sails, or the booms, or the running rigging, and still be high up enough and yet still have an unobstructed view.

Deck beams

I previously designed QUIDNON with deck beams—transverse timbers that reinforce the mast tabernacles where they exit the deck—on top of the deck. I have since changed my mind: the deck beams are going to be below deck. Yes, they will cut into the headroom in a couple of places, but I think that this is a much better design:

• Less deck clutter: if on top, the deck beams would cause people to stumble over them in the dark, not to mention complicate the arrangement of deck chairs.

• Better structure: the hull will be formed around two very strong upside-down trapezoids, reinforced at the corners using generous triangular brackets called “knees.”


I problem I have run into in the past is what happens to navigation lights on a sailboat once you take down the masts and motor. You might still have navigation lights (the red-greens that take up 2/3 of view pointing forward, 1/3 (red) on the left and 1/3 (green) on the right. There is also a stern light, white, which takes 1/3 of the view pointing directly back. In my case the red-greens were mounted on the front of the mast, and there was no stern light, so I was left with no navigation lights. But whatever the case the steaming light (white, 2/3 of the view pointing forward) is halfway up the mainmast, and that goes down with the mast, as does the anchor light, 360º, atop the mainmast.

There are two additional problems, which have to do with human nature. There will generally be some sailboats around when you go sailing, but when you take your sailboat motoring, along rivers and canals, you are likely to encounter many more motorboats than sailboats, and naturally the motorboat drivers won't be looking out for sailboats—they will be looking out for other motorboats. Anybody who can drive a boat can read the red-green-white navigation lights, but the steaming light halfway up the mast is not obvious, because motorboats generally have a steaming light directly on top of the pilot house. Nor are they likely to spot your anchor light, hanging up in the heavens 50 feet up where they are definitely not looking, hidden among the fixed planets of the celestial sphere, and if you have no other lights on will narrowly avoid plowing directly into you in the dark. I have learned this the hard way, and now only use the anchor light if I am anchored next to a bunch of sailboats (that have their anchor lights on—a rarety) but I leave the nav lights on all night otherwise. This doesn't seem to raise any questions with anyone, but causes everyone to slow down and proceed with caution because a stationary vessel with nav lights on is an unusual sight.

And so I see absolutely no reason not to fit QUIDNON with the following lights:

• Red-green nav lights on each side of the bow, right below the rail, as shown

• White stern light on the aft edge of the aft arch

• Steaming light on the forward edge of the forward arch

• No anchor light. To achieve the same effect, turn both the steaming and the stern light on at the same time. Their illuminated sectors together add up to 360º.

Other combinations just don't work. Putting lights on masts doesn't work with the masts down. Puttling lights on top of the arches will get them smashed by the boom sweeping across in no time. Putting a steaming light on the front of the foremast will make it snag the sail parrels on the way up and down the mast.

I'll try to come up with updated drawings as time allows.