Self-steering on board

24 Aug

Siobhan steeringAutopilot? Windvane? Both, or hard-core hand-steering? Problems with our autopilot have caused some headaches on Totem. So why don’t we have a windvane for self-steering, instead of relying only on an autopilot?

There are a lot of reasons to add a windvane. They don’t need any power, whereas running the autopilot 24×7 on longer passages sucks a fair bit of from the battery bank. A mechanical windvane has fewer moving bits to break down, and no finicky electronics.

We took a hard look at windvanes before we took off in 2008, and were biased to add one to Totem. But like EVERYTHING on a boat, it involved a set of compromises. In our case, as much as we really wanted to employ green-powered-self-steering, the compromises ultimately didn’t add up.

We’re a bit too big

Totem’s displacement (20 gross tons) pushes the top end of the range for vane designs. Because of Totem’s size, setup would require us to use our boat’s rudder in addition to the windvane rudder. That means we would have to lead lines to our wheel. Because Totem has a center cockpit, lines would spiderweb the aft deck, across the cockpit combing, etc. Clean decks are safe decks, so this is pretty unappealing. Of all the reasons we didn’t end up with a windvane on Totem, this was the kicker.

self steering- Sage

Vane setup on the 38′ Wauquiez, Sage

You need the right conditions

A windvane is awesome in the right conditions, but needs, well, WIND! Around the equator are calms and squalls, not steady trade wind breezes, and around the equator is where we’ve spent most of our time the last few years. Between late 2012 and early 2015- basically, from Papua New Guinea through Asia- we did a lot of motoring on passages. Those motoring miles would have to be hand-steered if we didn’t have an autopilot. The alternative is to sail different routes (I can’t imagine skipping PNG, our most memorable cruising destination), or much longer passages (which introduces safety questions), or cut back / skip regions (but we loved Southeast Asia!) to stick with the trade winds. Again, compromises, and they’re fine for some boats- just, not us.

Windvanes break down, too

They are mechanically simpler, but that doesn’t make them infallible. Our last boat, a Hallberg-Rassy 352, had an Ares windvane; the prior owner had installed it in anticipation of a circumnavigation that never happened. We were excited to get familiar with this piece of cruising gear, since the HR was our practice boat to learn systems before taking off on our own adventures and we were biased towards windvanes.

Over the four-ish years we had the boat, we didn’t use it once. At the time, our weekend/holiday style sailing involved day hops instead of passages; those shorter transits typically included many changes apparent wind direction. Getting a windvane set can involve a lot of tweaks and adjustments…easy for longer passages, inconvenient on short jaunts…especially while juggling a herd of small children. Probably in part from lack of use, it started having some pretty ugly looking corrosion problems.

self steering- zephyr

Zephyr makes it work on their heavy 48 footer

Windvanes cost how much?

We never planned to forgo an autopilot; the windvane would be additional equipment. Looking at the cost to add one, other concerns aside, we felt our money was better spent on backups / redundancy for the autopilot instead of an additional system.

The Monitor windvane considered for Totem starts at just under US$5,000. It would require a special mount to accommodate our transom shape- over $2,000 more. Want to use it as an emergency rudder (another arguably great reason for a windvane)? That conversion kit runs about $1,500. And then, you have to install it- are you adding labor costs or doing it yourself? Basic hardware is now nearly $9,000- taxes? Shipping? Labor? Spare parts? Upfront costs are just one part of the picture, but this “free power” system just got pretty expensive.

Don’t let me give the wrong impression

I think I need to clarify: I think windvanes are an amazing tool! I wish it did make sense for us to have on one: we try to live with as light a footprint as we can, and the lure of wind-powered self-steering is strong. But everything on a boat is a compromise, and for the reasons above, it didn’t make sense to add the windvane to Totem. Another time, another boat, we’d happily consider adding one to the transom.

This post is syndicated on SAILfeed


  1. Bernard Heise

    Hey Behan. I imagine that you know by now that we’re exceptionally fond of our windvane self-steering. Which isn’t to say that it never breaks, but it has always been easy to repair and really gets going when the going gets tough. To my mind, there is simply no comparison in terms of reliability — more specifically, a low-budget reliability that does not require lots of spare parts — especially since the operation of an electronic autopilot depends not only on the autopilot itself but also upon the boat’s electrical system. Consequently, the autopilot system’s level of complexity and vulnerability is far beyond that of an independent windvane unit.

    In any event, just a few points: First, the typical servo-pendulum (Monitor, Aries, Sailomat, Cape Horn, Wind Pilot, etc.) doesn’t use its own rudder to steer the boat — it steers the boat using the boat’s rudder. I should add here that your photo of the Wauquiez shows, I think, a Hydrovane unit, which is *not* a typical servo-pendulum unit. Personally, I don’t trust them and nothing I say here pertains to that gear. Second, you can certainly use the servo-pendulum to steer the boat when motoring. We use an inexpensive tiller pilot that moves the actual windvane back and forth, a function that requires very little force and draws very little power. In effect, for a couple of hundred dollars, we’ve turned our servo-pendulum unit into an autopilot. On a servo-pendulum unit, the actual power to steer the boat doesn’t come from the wind but from the boat moving through the water — it is the flow of water that swings the steering oar. Third, in all honestly, I don’t think that the size or displacement of your type of boat is an issue here. And while, admittedly, running lines between the gear and the wheel can be problematic, with a little thought this can be accomplished without much clutter even on a center cockpit boat. Finally, I gotta say, too, that once you actually *know* how to operate a servo-pendulum unit, there is no “inconvenience” when using windvanes for “day hops” and “short jaunts.” We’ve used our servo-pendulum windvane not only on longer passages but throughout our entire time in South East Asia, for example, in the lightest and most fickle of winds when most other boats have long given up on sailing and turned on their motors. In any event, what is true is that you need to know how to use the equipment — and that requires a certain degree of skill which can hardly be obtained if you “didn’t use it once.”

    I have nothing against electronic autopilots — under certain situations and for certain boats (in particular, catamarans, racing boats, and crews that have the financial resources to create and properly ensure a bulletproof *system*), they are/might be better suited than windvane servo-pendulums. If we could all have and reliably operate the kind of autopilot that steers Alaskan crab fishing boats, that would be peachy. But it has become pretty clear to me that an awful lot of cruising boats are floating around with electronic autopilots that just don’t stand up to the rigors of a tough passage. On Momo, we’ve used our Sailomat self-steering gear very reliably for almost twelve years on numerous passages, including conditions that repeatedly overwhelmed the electronic autopilots of other nearby boats. The unit is mechanical; in a pinch, many of the parts can be created or improvised from raw materials; and the only parts specific to the unit that we’ve actually replaced are a few bearings.
    Cheers. Bernard.

  2. Florin

    Hi, Totems.
    We have a Hydrovane on Roz Avel (à 44 feet 13 tons – almost 15 in charge, actually – Kelly Peterson Cutter). As I admit that since we crossed Gibraltar I never used it, it was of grat help about everywhere since La Coruña, upto the Algarve. The truth is that it needs wind, or better said it needs boat speed, but in light breeze you can use a light sail, like a big gennaker or assymetrical spinnaker, and that gives you the speed that keeps the beautiful NACA profile of the rudder foil effective. The stuff costed about 5000€, with the VAT discount as it was delivered in a non-VAT site (in our case, Alderney in the Channel Islands). Installed it ourselves, and as for the auxiliary rudder it works without any special device excepting a tiller – you can use the device you probably have to use your windlass manually – that normally fits without any adaptation). I agree that we needed some explorations on the way to trim sails, especially downwind, but I used it while sailing for just 7-8 hours in Galicia, with tacks to take and winds changing between the Cies Islands and the coast, tacking with that gear is really easy – just prepare it for the “future” wind angle, and normally all ou have to do is work your sails. Frankly I prefer that to autopilots (which, as you said, are pretty “gourmands” in electricity, especially in strong winds and a bit rough seas.
    Thanks for your great articles, we might not agree on all but you give us the chance to exchange on a lot of ideas.

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