Sunday, August 2, 2009

Solent Stay Installation

Where to begin?

I've been putting off writing this post until I had some measure of conclusion to what has been a fascinating and difficult process. As boat projects have gone, the design and installation of a solent stay on Aeolus has been the most technically difficult and, in some ways, the most physically demanding of all the numerous projects I've done thus far. This first picture is the view from where I spent most of my day today: at the top of the mast. Actually, this is looking toward my daily dinghy commute from my neighbor's dock to Aeolus. Not a bad way to get to a boat eh?

I'll start at the beginning, as my own search for information on solent stays only turned up one or perhaps two things on the web that were of any use. To honor the original intent of this blog, I will do my best to make this entry useful to others.

This process began with a recognition that our previous sail plan was only suited to the middle range of wind conditions. A typical sloop rigged with two sails, basically. Knowing that we will always encounter winds below 10 knots and above 30 knots, especially in our offshore travels, I knew it was time to diversify our sail plan. The genoa needs at least 10 knots to come to life, and in wind above 25-30 it is poorly shaped and poorly suited. Like with most all of my other projects, I began by reading everything available on the subject of headsails. I own several of the classic books by Calder, Casey and Leonard, and these were useful, especially Leonard. I also read everything I could find online, including all the sailnet and cruisers forum archives.

What I concluded boils down to this: Given our genoa is roller furling, it is impractical to use the headstay for both a storm jib and light wind headsail as well. This is true for various reasons, including the need for a free stay for hanks, a separate halyard and the desire to not remove the genoa to hoist another sail. Therefore, some form of inner stay was required. Of these options, all but the solent stay require running backstays to support the mast. Only a solent stay is installed high enough on the mast to not require running backs. This was a compelling advantage to solent stays for me.

A solent stay has the masthead fitting as high on the mast as is possible, and therefore as close to the attachment of the backstay as possible. This reduces any chances of mast bend from an unsupported stay placed further down. Just imagine the pulling forces on the mast and you can picture it. The solent stay is then brought down to a point on the bow that is capable of supporting the forces of the bow fitting.

Seeing that there are some important forces involved here and wanting to get it right, I decided to gain some consultation from Brion Toss Yacht Riggers. I'd read his books, seen his videos and heard him speak and so knew him to be a nice guy who knew way too much about rigging. In general, I am one of those people who prefers to go it alone and make my own mistakes and relish my own triumphs. I find most things are quite possible to do with only help from books and a little willingness to struggle here and there. Anyone who has read this blog knows what I mean about what I have done without paying someone else for help. Perhaps most importantly, I know for certain when I have done something whether it was done properly and how to fix it again if I ever need. But, I thought, this involves some forces that are quite structural to the boat and maybe it is best to get some help.

I will make a very long and actually quite painful story short by saying that I did indeed work with Brion Toss and his staff in a phone and email consulting capacity and did receive some useful guidance in the placement of the solent stay. Along the way there were an unbelievable number of headaches and frustrations with that experience and so after several months of patience, I decided to go it alone. To his credit, Brion remained a very nice guy and my bad expereince is no comment on his persona but rather on the particulars of my business interaction with his firm. In any case, all is well that ends well and I'm grateful for the help Brion provided and have been happy to take it the rest of the way myself.

The most important challenge in the placement of a solent stay is the placement of the bow fitting. The goal is to get it as far forward as possible to give yourself a larger sail triangle to work with for a drifter or spinnaker. The drawback of having the center of effort farther forward for your storm jib is minimized by the proper sizing of the storm jib for this placement. My storm jib was beautifully built by Carol Hasse and took into account the forward triangle my solent stay would create.

My options on Aeolus were several, with various advantages and disadvantages. The Gulf 32 actually came with an option for an inner forestay, which I'm pretty sure had running backstays and the bow fitting was placed just forward of the bow sliding hatch where there is a ledge leading down to the chain locker. Placing it here has the advantage of being a clean place to work on top, but requires some sort of fancy reinforcement or connecting rod in the V-berth as the deck itself is not suitably strong. This would require a removable fitting that connects from the ceiling of the Vberth through the flooring where the mattress sits, and down to the hull where some sort of padeye would have to be anchored. This was a very tricky thing to install and had the disadvantage of being in the way of the Vberth whenever that stay was rigged.

Another option was to place the bow fitting on either side of the windlass but on the forward face of the bulkhead creating the chain locker. This requires the fitting to be off center by a fair amount to clear the windlass, but Brion Toss said this would be fine as it wasn't much of an angle difference. However, the symmetry lover in me didn't like that idea, and neither did Carol Hasse.

The third and final option, which ended up winning, was in some ways the most simple and yet difficult. This involved anchoring the double padeye bow fitting onto the bow inside the chain locker and just enough below the headstay attachment to not interfere with the genoa furling. On Aeolus, there is a very substantial anchor roller set up that has a vertical brace from the anchor platform down to the bow to support the vertical forces. There are three bolts that come through this anchor support rod and into the chain locker, with an aluminum backing plate to distribute the forces. These three bolts are exactly where you would want the double padeye for the solent stay.

OK, so how do I attach the double padeye to a place with three bolts already coming through? I went through countless pieces of paper sketching out various ways to do this and eventually hit upon one that ruled the day.

I decided the most beefy and elegant way to do it would be to anchor a thick stainless steel plate to the bow where the three bolts are and then to drill and tap the screws for the double padeye into this same plate. Sounds easy enough. Oh Jesus.

I shopped around for stainless steel stock and after a lot of nights of comparing prices and options, I settled on McMaster-Carr as my supplier. You can get any size or thickness imaginable from them and the prices were great. I wanted thick and unquestionably strong enough and so ordered 3/4" 316 Stainless. I got a piece 3" wide and one foot long and paid $76. I thought that was a very good deal. My thinking was that I ordered twice as much as I though I would need, in case I screwed up, which I did.

I knew I would be drilling and tapping the 5/16 inch flat head screws machine screws for the double padeye into the stainless bar, and so got the necessary tap and a cobalt drill bit. It is important for me to note here that I do not own a drill press. A drill press would have made this job far easier and saved much difficulty. I do not own one. I don't have one. I couldn't justify buying one just for this job and none of my friends has one. So I did all the drilling by hand...

After securing the stainless bar in my vise, and grabbing a chair to stand up above the piece, and marking the first hole, and trying to drill a straight hole in EXACTLY that spot, I found it slow going. I used motor oil to keep things moving in the hole and to prevent too much heat build up, but it still got so hot with my old home drill that it overheated the drill bit. Eventually though, I did get through the thick stainless. By eventually I mean 10-15 minutes of constant drilling and stopping to oil and drilling again. Great, now I can tap the hole. The tap works alright but wants to catch and bite as it gets deeply into the 3/4 inch stainless. I keep it oiled and back it out and work slowly and eventually get the hold tapped. The screw fits fine and there I have one hole done after a good 30 minutes of work.

Drilling the second hole is way more critical as the first hole didn't have to align with any other holes, but this one did. So I did my utmost to make sure this damn hole was aligned perfectly and drilled the puppy as with the last one. About halfway through the hole my drill bit snapped off perfectly in the hole. Snapped off clean. NO way to get it out. Damn bit was cobalt steel and there was no way to drill it out with a cobat bit without completely ruining the hole for any future tapping and use by the screw.

OK, that time wasted, but I can shift the padeye to the other side of the bar and there is room to try it there. After buying every 5/16ths cobalt drill bit on San Juan Island, I repeated everything I said above, drilling even more slowly and not letting the bit get too hot. Drilled a hole, got it tapped, drilled another and got it tapped. Wow, making progress here. Two down and two to go. Drilled the third hole alright and while tapping it guess what? This time the tap snapped off in the hole. FUCK!!!! NO, more like FUUUUUUUUCCCCCCCCKKKKKKKK! Except I had to do it under my breath the way that ever good neighbor and family man must do.

Good thing I bought enough stainless for two tries at this.

I decided the agony of drilling with my old household drill was just too much. It was a 1500 rpm 2 amp Sears drill that had served fine for household projects but this was no household project. I went and bought a new DeWalt corded drill with an 8 amp motor and a support arm for leverage and a larger chuck. This thing kicks ass. I have a nice cordless drill I leave on Aeolus and knew I wanted a corded drill for the extra power required for this job.

So with my new drill I start into my new piece of stainless, ready to apply all my lessons learned. Boy the drilling goes much better with a slower speed (800rpm) and super strong drill with the wonderful leverage arm on the side of the chuck so I could bear down on it. I drill a hole and tap it, and drill a hole and FFFUUUUUUUCCCCCCCKKKKKFUUUCCCCCKKKKKFUUUUUUCCCCKKKKKKK! Not again! My second tap, despite going very slowly and lots of oil and doing everything gently, snapped off in the hole.

Now, I know I'm not the sharpest crayon in the box, but this is testing my self confidence. I almost threw in the towel and decided to find a machine shop in Anacortes or somewhere and farm off the job. A more sane and less masochistic man would have done so. I have too much of my dad in me and just can't quit when I have a mechanical problem in front of me. Alvin Drope was not the most skilled or talented mechanic, but damn that man could work. I learned a love of fixing things from him and have the same inability to accept defeat with iron objects.

So I launched back into it but decided to eliminate this faulty variable. Figuring there must be a better tap material out there I got back onto McMaster-Carr and discovered there is a bajillion different types of tap designs and materials. Bonanza. I ordered two high speed steel taps, which were rated to deal with metal even harder than 316 stainless, and that had a good point for the type of hole I was working with. When they finally came I could finally begin again, and I'm happy to say that on my final try everything worked perfectly. I was able to drill all four holes accurately, meaning dead vertical by hand, and in line with all the other holes, which gave no margin for error. The new taps cut the stainless like butter (what a difference!) and I went to bed that night with the pure lovely satisfaction of having succeeded at a very difficult problem.

That is one of the sweetest feelings known to humankind.

My challenge was not over, however. Now I had to take this piece to the boat and figure out how to connect it to the bow where the three bolts come throuh for the anchor roller support arm. Another long story short, I decided to tap one of the holes right into the bar as this wouldn't present any alignment problems and would be super strong. I then drilled a larger hole through the bottom of the plate so I could use a normal nut on the bolt. These two bolts hold the stainless bar to the bow and are plenty strong for the forces involved. The one bolt farther down required me to make a custom support plate on the outside of the bow, as it is curved there and I wanted more protection than a big washer.

With the bow fitting done (stop and thank your holy molecules...) it was time to install the masthead fitting. This was made by Yachttech in BC based on drawings of my mast I had sent to Brion Toss (this was a major PIA) and uses a bolt through the mast to secure the fitting.

This weekend I spent most of the time at the top of the mast while I marked and drilled and expanded the holes for the masthead fitting. I've become completely comfortable being 40 feet off the deck of the boat holding on to this skinny pole but it is physically difficult to work with only one hand. Another plug for how much I love my mast steps! I hoisted the drill with my halyard so I didn't have to worry about it and after a handful of trips up and down to make it all happen, I am glad to say it is installed just right and ready for the wire. This first mast photo shows my cordless drill hanging from the halyard and the masthead fitting hanging from a line I tied to my waist. My foot is in the mast step.

I've ordered wire and fittings from rigging only and will finish up that part when it comes later this week. Having replaced all my standing rigging myself last year, I know this part is actually very easy and not worth discussing. The wire will attach to a Johnson turnbuckle that can be tensioned by hand with levers. Model # 46-501. They are usuallly used for backstay and inner forestay situations. It is a beautiful piece of machinery and more simple than a Hyfield lever.

One of the design considerations was whether to use wire or rope for the stay. Although Brion has become an advocate of synthetic, he never got around to providing me any information on why it is best for my solent stay and Carol Hasse strongly encouraged me to stick with wire for all the usual reasons. I've decided to go with wire this time and if in 5 years the synthetics have proven themselves against chafe and UV and such then I can switch then.

Well, this is a very long post, and surely only of potential interest to someone considering a similar project. I wish I had found one like this when I started my research though, and so here goes. Even at this length there is a tremendous amount of information I have left out and so contact me if you would like more details.

I can't wait to fly my new Carol Hasse storm jib this winter off my new solent stay!


rick said...

Great work on your Solent Stay! I'm starting to plan a similar project for my Catalina 34. I'd sure like to get any additional information you can share! There is just not much out there on the web.



Brian said...

Hey Rick,
Sorry it has taken so long to see your message and respond. Feel free to email me at with any questions you have. I had been searching pretty fruitlessly for information on solent stays too. Happy to help.

DavidB said...


I have been looking for a Gulf 32 myself to love. I just gave away my "Miss Olivia" 37' Monk bridgedeck cruiser that is in Mats Mats Bay near Port Ludlow. I know Brion Toss... Old MACaid client (I own MACaid, Apple computer service in the area). Anyway, looking for a G32 that needs work so the cost is low! If you see one, let me know please.

Cheers, David Brader