Question: How does Gavan steer Doireann as he rows across the Atlantic?

Answer: How Gavan steers (while tweeting) is an important question as most failures of Ocean rowing crossings are due to problems with the steering system.

Doireann has a big rudder about 1m long and half a metre wide.  Its super lightweight but very strong Carbon fibre with a wing like profile. A 50mm stainless steel pole is imbedded in the rudder blade and protrudes up through the bottom of the boat into the little cabin at the back of the boat. Then a tiller arm is attached to the top at right angles. Worst case you can reach in here and move the arm side to side to steer the boat.

On Doireann (and every boat will be a bit different) the arm is attached to a rope. One end goes out the left hand side the other the right, out along the boat to the front of the two rowing positions where Gav does his thing. He can take the rope in his hands and steer the boat when he is not rowing. This happens a lot in big surf where the oars can get in the way but where steering is really important for max speed and to avoid sliding sideways and being rolled over . He usually stands facing forward for this. Its a buzz and a great rest from slogging on the oars for hours on end. It can however be very tiring and when faced with 60 kmph winds for long periods its not a full time proposition.

Gavan is one of two boats trying out a new foot steering system this year. This is how coxless rowing boats on the river or in the Olympics are steered. In their case the rudder is 50mmx50mm but Gavan has a relatively big craft to move. When he is rowing his feet are fixed into straps just like rowing machines at the gym. The right hand one can pivot under the ball of the foot and a little arm extends from the toe where the left and right ropes can be clamped in place. So he can swing his heel left and right to pull the rope over and back. This bit of kit was only added at the last minute so Gavan has had no time to test it out. So far he is happy with it. It has one big advantage, it allows you to turn off the third method of steering and one of the most important pieces of kit on the bot, the autopilot.
All the boats must be capable of being steered by an autopilot. Its obligatory and its failure effectively doubles the time to cross. Even the pairs, trios and fours. All boats have three of them on board.

 


So it is a kit of electrics and mechanics in a waterproof box about 400mm long and 100x50mm across- a length of 3 be 2. Inside is a long threaded rod attached to a 12v motor, electronics and a tiny electronic compass. This is placed in the little cabin at the back and can be snapped on and off the arm in place of the rope. When its turned on you can see your compass heading. you can simply press a button to keep going in that direction or you can connect to a GPS and follow a route. Normally you snap it in place and tell it to go the direction you are travelling. Then when the wind and waves swing you off that course the compass spots it and tell the little motor to push the rod in or out and bring it back on course. 
It means Gavan can just keep rowing without adjust his foot or have to pull harder on one or other side. More importantly it means Gavan can keep going in the right direction when he stops rowing for food or sleep or sunbathing….
Its a critical bit of kit though and this morning it is top of his worry list. He is just into his first bit of high wind big sea rowing. You cannot row and may need to lock yourself inside for much of it. As such you really depend on the autopilot. Unfortunately we had trouble with them while preparing the boat and it locked to one side while he was asleep in the font cabin and could not hear it struggling. It was replaced but we did not have time to put in some limit switches to protect it from overheating. A second one developed a compass fault and needed to be replaced just before travel. Ideally they would be tested and calibrated for different sea states so he could use on for big rough seas like today (he is in 65 Kmph wind as I write at 11am sat) and another for calm stuff. You might also swop them to reduce the burden on the motor.
We need to keep our fingers crossed for this little babies. Most get christened are are consider full crew members on a boat! If they dont work, Gavan’s tweeting gets curtailed.