Coral is a Rustler 31, designed by the celebrated Holman and Pye naval architects in the 1960s as a cruiser racer. She is very much of her time: low in the water, narrow of beam, fast for her size, even though solid and heavily built. In cross-section she is a traditional wineglass shape, with a long, deep keel ballasted with two and a half tons of lead – so different from modern yacht designs which tend to be more lightly built, wider and higher and much more internal space. She is quite small at 31 feet with cramped accommodation: just one main cabin for living and sleeping; a fore cabin with two extra bunks, which is usually crammed with spare sails and stores; and a deep and safe cockpit where the work of sailing takes place.
Coral is a sloop, which means she has one mast held up by steel standing rigging; a mainsail and foresail or genoa, controlled by rope running rigging – halliards to hoist the sails, sheets to control them. The cockpit in the stern has side benches which lift to access deep lockers where all the necessities of sailing are kept – pumps, mooring lines, boathook, spare anchors; engine controls; a large diesel tank; and all kinds of bits and pieces that might come in handy. The tiller, which steers the boat, comes into the cockpit through an opening in the transom (the flat stern of the boat) where it is bolted to the rudder that hangs from the aft end of the keel. Each side are large winches that control the genoa sheets. The cockpit is sheltered by a red spray hood, now rather faded, and matching canvas dodgers along each side with CORAL written in capital letters.
I have equipped Coral with Aries wind-vane steering gear, hand-made to order from a small firm in Denmark. Aries can be set to steer the boat at a constant angle to the wind. A solid cast aluminium frame is strongly bolted to the transom, supporting a wind vane above and a paddle deep in the water below, connected by a clever set of gears and levers.
To set Aries, the wind vane is adjusted by cords to sit upright, leading edge into the wind. Strong lines from the paddle run to the tiller to steer the boat. When the boat goes away from the required course, the wind blows the vane over, and through the gearing this rotates the paddle in the water. The forward movement of the boat then catches the paddle and pushes it to one side, pulling the lines attached to the tiller and steering the boat back on course. The vane then comes back to the vertical allowing the paddle to return to its neutral position ready for the next adjustment. In actual practice the vane is in continual movement, so that Aries makes constant small adjustments to the course.
Aries is a simple cybernetic system, a cycle of information (wind-vane, heading of boat, wind direction) which controls a cycle of power (the paddle pushed by the force of the water as the boat moves forward pulling the tiller). As a cybernetic system it is never still because the “correct” course to sail can never be predetermined: to be “right”, the system has to move in a direction that, if taken to an extreme, will be “wrong”; every action calls forth a reaction and thus corrective feedback. So Aries works on the same principles as all natural ecological systems to maintain a dynamic balance around a zone of relative stability.
Aries is almost an additional crew member. Without it, all this single-handed sailing would be impossible. In most winds I can set it to steer Coral for hour upon hour, making continual adjustments, never tiring, never getting distracted, always following the wind. Particularly going to windward, when the relative speed and direction of wind and boat makes the cycle of information most sensitive, Aries will steer better, more consistently and in stronger winds than most human beings, and certainly for longer.
Note: the picture shows Coral before I stalled Aries; she is shown here with an old Hasler vane steering, which never worked very well