(The following article was published in the Good Old Boat magazine, Issue 30 (May/June 2003), www.goodoldboat.com)
Meet the sailing inventor who circumnavigated in an Alberg 30 by Karen Larson
Words fail the writer who would describe Yves Gélinas. Maverick? Free spirit? Innovator? Genius? Adventurer? Dreamer? One who achieves his dreams? He deserves all of these appellations and more.
Born in Montreal, Quebec, Yves started his professional career there as an actor and filmmaker. But he closed the book on that career with a dramatic last chapter: he set out to sail around the world solo and non-stop while starring in his own film about the trip.
Why would anyone choose to sail around the world without stopping to smell the roses along the way? Yves says he needed sponsorship to make the trip, and the only way to interest potential sponsors was by doing something a bit daring. "No one would have given a cent for a conventional tradewind circumnavigation," he points out.
In making this voyage, Yves says he was attempting to succeed at an art form combining many disciplines. "This was my performance," he notes, " . . . completing a circumnavigation, writing a book [published in French only so far], making the film [With Jean-du-Sud Around the World - a marvellous piece of work available for some time and now also on DVD and videotape], making the windvane, and sailing the boat." His film won many awards even though the trip was not concluded as Yves had hoped. His Alberg 30, Jean-du-Sud, was rolled and dismasted in the Pacific Ocean, cutting the circumnavigation into two legs.
"Yves says he needed sponsorship to make the trip, and the only way to interest potential sponsors was by doing something a bit daring."
After repairing the mast (by himself and in the middle of nowhere, it should be noted) Yves concluded his trip - a total of 282 sailing days - and completed his film. The year was 1983. But his interests were no longer in filmmaking. This man was a sailor, an interest that led to a new career as the manufacturer and distributor of an integrated self-steering windvane of his own design - the one that had taken him around the world with no hand steering once he was outside of a harbor. Because of his own experience with it, Yves guarantees his CapeHorn Windvane for 28,000 miles or a circumnavigation. Whichever comes first.
No one sails without encountering breakdowns. This actor-turned-sailor was fortunate to have a natural mechanical aptitude to make up for a lack of formal training. He had made it his mission first to prepare an Alberg 30 for a circumnavigation, then to invent the windvane to steer her, and finally to repair all breakdowns while under way, including the mast and water generator. About that generator: using the tools and materials at hand while at sea, he simply fabricated a new propeller. Wouldn't anyone?
His boat preparations involved making Jean-du-Sud nearly unsinkable by creating five watertight compartments using the four existing bulkheads. He reinforced the portlights with Lexan windows bolted on outside. He strengthened the cabin-top. He removed the Atomic 4 and gas tank to make room for storage. (Years later, Yves still sails this boat and has since added a 9.9-hp outboard.) He built a new mast. He beefed up the rigging. He created weathercloths that would break loose if the boat were pooped by large seas, and he developed an innovative dodger that could withstand a knockdown or onslaught by a heavy sea without being crushed.
Referring to his windvane design, Yves says, "I had been thinking of the design of a wind-operated self-steering system for as long as I had been cruising under sail: I have always considered that there were more interesting things to do than be stuck at the helm." Yves created his self-steering windvane since he lacked confidence in the windvanes that were available at the time.
In looking back more than a decade, he says, "I introduced the third generation in self-steering." He credits Blondie Hasler with developing the first-generation vane, which worked on the servo-pendulum concept. But, Yves says, "A feathering windvane could never produce an impulsion greater than the course deviation." Like the first version, the next innovation was also created for a singlehander sailing in the OSTAR. The newer design was used by Eric Tabarly's Pen Duick IV. This one was created by French engineer Marcel Gianoli, who found that if the axis of the windvane were brought close to horizontal (rather than vertical), the impulse produced for a given course deviation would be much greater, allowing a smaller vane to steer with greater precision.
"The system I designed for Jean-du-Sud integrates the self-steering into the boat [Note the Cape Horn's much smaller support structure -Ed.]. It also integrates all steering modes: hand, wind, and autopilot. Third generation," Yves says. "This was the third vane I had designed and built for my own use. This prototype kept course upwind or downwind, at Force 2 or Force 10, under spinnaker, under trysail, through Cape Horn swells, even under jury rig after I was capsized and dismasted."
"I have always considered that there were more interesting things to do than be stuck at the helm."
It was Yves' fervent hope that the mast he had built in St. Malo, France, before beginning his voyage would be strong enough to withstand a rollover. He sold his Alberg 30 mast to help pay for a new and stronger mast extrusion. He created a double-spreader rig, fabricating the fittings himself and replacing 1/4-inch rigging with 7-mm wire. "It was bullet-proof," he says. "But later I learned I had made one mistake." At the time of the rollover two lower shroud chainplates pulled out of the deck, he says. They should have been more strongly attached.
Of the rollover, Yves says, "The boat is small. I couldn't fall far." In his tumble in the cabin, Yves accidentally hit the bilge-pump switch, turning it on. "By the time I looked, the bilge was dry," he recalls. But the view that awaited him outside the cabin was another matter. "I saw the gooseneck, but I couldn't believe the mast was broken. The break was at the first spreaders. The shrouds were cutting the rail. I didn't want to jettison this mast. I knew every rivet by name, and I couldn't afford another one. Eventually I had to dive to tie a line around the mast and winch it up."
The nearest land was 150 miles to windward, naturally. Yves made it there under jury rig and hauled his boat out. He got a piece of the original mast extrusion from the boatyard in St. Malo and created an inner sleeve with which to splice the two sections together.
Fast forward to 1989. Yves had become a Canadian national hero upon completion of his voyage. Halfway through the trip he was something of a "cause célèbre" when he went missing for many days following the dismasting. Without a mast, he lost communication for long enough to make headlines from one end of Canada to the other.
He had no money, but he did have a product he had tested and believed in strongly. "I started CapeHorn without any money and with just the tools I had on the boat," he says. "At first I had the work subcontracted, and I would sneak into the shop to see how they used the tools to build it and even what tools they were using. Eventually I traded a windvane for a lathe. I built the first 60 units myself. Later I hired my nephew, Éric Sicotte, who was out of a job. These days, he builds the vanes, and he is as interested in the success of this company as I am. He is very meticulous. I am very lucky. At 64, I am able to take time off for sailing in the summer."
Lucky is the word Yves would choose to describe his life. But the writer is still beset with the problem of the correct word that will describe Yves himself.