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Ericson 38 -- Ronstan Traveler Upgrade

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The traveler of a sailboat allows adjustment of the lateral position of the boom and therefore the angle of the mainsail to the wind. It controls twist, which allows air to spill from the upper sail. On dinghies, the traveler can be a simple piece of line tied across the transom, so when the boom flops from one side to the other during a tack the sheet obediently follows. Bigger boats have a track on which a car slides. Travelers used to be located behind the helmsman, out of sight and therefore out of mind. In no old painting or photo of a handsome yacht is the skipper looking at his traveler, and neither is anybody else. And the boat sails fine.

But as masts got taller and booms got shorter, the traveler traveled. It moved first into the cockpit, where the new booms ended. That often put the main sheet in the helmsman’s face. Every time you tacked it swept the cockpit and knocked your hat off. So the traveler moved forward even more, to the top of the cabin house where everyone can see it. Mid-boom sheeting, as it’s called, put the traveler on center stage and made it a star.

Ours was a faded star. After 32 years it still worked pretty well, an eight-wheeled car traversing the cabin top on a graceful curve of aluminum I-beam. But the traveler is the first adjustment I make to the mainsail, so “pretty well” soon evolved quickly into not quite good enough. The control lines didn’t run easily through their blocks. The gear was vaguely clumsy and the black anodization of the track had weathered to the tired gray of exposed aluminum.

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I decided to install a new traveler system--Harken? Schaefer? Garhauer?--and allotted a week for installation and my usual cost estimate of 3xE, where E=Expected. The job took two months and all my assumptions were wrong.

It so happens that no modern traveler car design is compatible with the original 52”-long track. And no new assembly will fit in the handsome Ericson channel which the deck was designed to receive. I was advised to remove the channel and install a new, longer straight track and risers. I thought that would look brutal and ugly. Garhauer offered to bend their track to my curve, no channel required. I like their gear but I wanted to keep the channel. And not wait months for delivery.

After a week of muttering I decided to upgrade what we had. The original 1984 equipment is by Ronstan, an Australian fittings supplier. Would their new gear fit on my old track? Good question. Ronstan found a geezer in their shop who was actually there in 1984, and who said the 32mm track was unchanged. My young customer service man sounded wary of human data not confirmed by an Internet catalog. I told him I was a geezer too, and ordered the parts anyway.

Ronstan suggested buying new track, while I was at it. But the Ericson 38 track is bent in a curve, which meant sending them a pattern, and who knows if the bend and the 20 bolt holes would exactly match? So I decided to take the old track off and have it re-anodized black.

The stainless machine screws of the traveler are tapped into the aluminum channel. Being familiar with corrosion welding between dissimilar metals, I carefully soaked them in catalyst before commencing removal with utmost caution and care. Great, only half of them broke off. That meant ten stainless stubs to drill out, during which two hardened bits snapped halfway in just to make conversation. I was also careful not to break off a hardened tap while re-tapping the hole. I broke one anyhow. There are also nuts under the sea hood to come off, but after removing the sliding hatch I could fit a ratchet on them.

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Is all this sounding as appetizing as crap on a cracker? Nope, it's fun. The allure of working on an older yacht is that nothing is entirely predictable. Everything’s a head-scratcher, a private challenge and a test of personal will. Think of Einstein, or Isaac Newton, or Shakespeare—did it come easy for them? Actually, Einstein dashed off E=MC2 while holding a day job, Shakespeare churned out immortal plays like sausages and all it took was an apple falling on his head for Newton to solve gravity. But never mind that, a professional boat mechanic is $120 an hour and he’d have the same problems I did, and I'd be paying for the fun.

The anodizing shop called to say sorry, the job had failed. Your track needs to be sandblasted. I took it to be sandblasted and they anodized it again for free. Total cost, $220, plus three hours of driving and two weeks of waiting. I happen to know that Sylvester Stallone wrote the script of “Rocky” over one long weekend. But never look back.

Six weeks later I had all the parts in hand, the newly black track installed, and a revelation. The brand-new $300 Ronstan traveler car was essentially the same as their 1984 model. The two new Ronstan double blocks that attach to it, for $150 each, worked no better than the blocks they were intended to replace. I cleaned and polished the old ones and took the new ones back to West Marine. When they take a charge off a credit card it feels like your ship came in.

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Installation of the new gear was easy. The modern Ronstan control ends are less clunky, and install permanently at the track ends rather than being adjustable on it. All that remained was to fit new line. The Ericson recommendation for control lines always seemed too thick. So after careful measuring the old ones I bought 32 feet of 5/16ths from West Marine, cut it in half, rigged everything and was delighted to find the upgraded setup quite smooth, more attractive to look at all day and much easier to use.

I also found my brand-new lines too short. Did I measure wrong? Of course not. I just measured right incorrectly. The new control ends make the track effectively a foot longer. A 4:1 purchase is therefore an extra four feet of control line unaccounted for. So, never cut a line in half if neither half will be long enough.

And I already knew that.

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Updated 01-21-2018 at 02:43 PM by Christian Williams

Maintenance and Mechanical , Ericson Ownership


  1. billie williams's Avatar
    Always good information, Christian.
    Updated 01-26-2018 at 07:29 PM by billie williams