January 11, 2011

The venerable Aries

WHEREVER SMALL SAILBOATS GATHER to cross oceans, you’ll find a forest of Aries wind vanes. Well, maybe not a forest but certainly a whole lot of trees.

A self-steering wind vane is worth its weight in gold at sea, specially if you’re a singlehander, but when Nick Franklin started selling his Aries vane in Cowes, England, in 1968, he could hardly have guessed how popular they would become.

By the time he quit making them in 1992, he had sold more than 11,400 of them in various models.

The Aries is a brutally strong piece of engineering, sculpted from stainless steel and aluminum, and even in these days of electronic autohelms it is a prized possession for ocean-going sailboats. It has no batteries to go flat, no fuses to replace, no wires to corrode. It is the Rube Goldberg of steering systems, stealing its guidance from the wind and its power from the passing water. It is a magical, 90-pound replacement for a human crewmember, but it doesn’t need to be fed three meals a day and it never steals the last cold beer. It is also the stuff of legend because of the way it was invented and manufactured.

According to Nick, the Aries was developed on purely practical level with no calculations or theories. “There have never been any drawings used,” he said. “All parts had a 'master sample' nailed to the wall, which worked perfectly and still does.”

Apart from buying castings from foundries, all machining and assembly was done in Nick’s workshop. “Most sales were direct to skippers,” he said, “with large stocks always to hand for same-day dispatch. Ninety-five percent of our sales were exports. No complaints, no records kept whatsoever, no computers, rather crazy customers. Good fun. The exact opposite to how we are told we should run our businesses today.”

Nick eventually quit making his wind vanes because he felt people were no longer prepared to pay the price for exceptional engineering. He also shot himself in the foot by making a product so well that it was good for 40 years (and counting) of rough usage.

New Aries vanes are now being built in Denmark, but Nick’s daughter Helen, in Cornwall, England, is still selling rebuild kits and spare parts for the thousands of old Aries models still working their way around the world.

Nick died in May last year aged 67 but he will long be remembered for widening the horizons of generations of smallboat sailors.


Today’s Thought
A tool is but the extension of a man’s hand, and a machine is but a complex tool. And he that invents a machine augments the power of a man and the well-being of mankind.
— Henry Ward Beecher, Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit: Business

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #145
Here are a couple of rough rules of thumb for how much paint you need. The measurements are in feet, the answers in square feet:
Topsides: Length on deck, plus beam, times 2 times average freeboard.
Bottom: Load waterline times beam times draft. Full-keel cruising sailboats need 3/4 of this figure. Light-displacement sailboats need only 1/2.

It’s sad for a girl to reach the age
Where men consider her charmless;
But it’s worse for a man when he gets to the stage
Where women consider him harmless.

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Lotte said...

We'll be going to see Peter Madsen (who hand builds every Aries windvane) and have one installed by him, before we leave Denmark in the spring. We have no doubts whatsoever that this is the right windvane for us and I can't wait to see it as an integrated part of the boat.

Phfrankie Bondo said...

...enjoyed your post today, sir. As always.

May I ask you to please read and comment on my blog post today?

I value your imput.

Thanks in advance.


John Vigor said...

Lotte, you won't be disappointed. You will be fascinated by the magic of your Aries in action. I have stared at one for hours on the open ocean. The vane goes down, the servo rudder turns, moves to one side, tugs on the rope going to the tiller or wheel, and the boat swings back onto course immediately. All totally automatic and non-stop, day and night. It is about as ingenious a machine as was ever invented by man to work without steam, electricity or computer chips.
You must think of a name for yours. Every owner does. We called ours "Mr. Klickenfuss" because my 17-year-old son would sit for five minutes at a time, clicking and fussing with the snaffle lines to fine-tune the course to within two degrees. He was a perfectionist and he came to love the Aries.
Fair winds to you in your voyaging, and good landfalls.

John V.

John Vigor said...

Phfrankie, if you're referring to windward and leeward, the top picture is quite wrong and the Hawaiian chart is correct. "Leeward" means "on the sheltered side, away from the direction of the wind."
"Windward" means "on the side the wind is coming from."
A lee shore is feared by sailors because they might be blown onto it if they cannot beat off against the wind.

John V.

Micky-T said...

I apologize for not giving this much thought before I ask, but is it possible to have an effective wind vane set up on a catamaran?

John Vigor said...

Micky-T, it depends on how fast the catamaran accelerates in wind puffs, and how fast it normally cruises.

Most multihulls are too fast for a wind vane. As they speed along, the wind tends to come more from forward. The wind vane reacts and tries to pull the boat off the wind, but that only makes the cat go faster and draws the wind ahead even more until the vane gives up in confusion and desperation.
Boats that can reach and maintain about 10 knots or more usually are restricted to electric autopilots.


John V.

Micky-T said...

Thanks John, that makes sense in regards to how fast the boat accelerates. I have in mind a little Gemini 105MC and from what I've researched they don't have that instant burst of speed such as you'd find in a scow or really light cat or tri. And more than likely I'll have her loaded with tools and excess baggage of an old cruiser, not racer.