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Fine-tuning a wind vane for peak performance

Jan 1, 2003

As novice voyagers, my wife Marci and I have been faced with a multitude of decisions, the first being to actually drop the shore-side attachments and go sailing. Then there was the additional equipment for Kotchka, our 1969 Hinckley 38, as well as storage issues, as in what to bring, what not to, and where to put it all. Everything required decisions. One of the more significant, at least in terms of dollars, was our decision to purchase a windvane self-steering device.

We had an old belowdecks autopilot. It was power hungry and we were loath to run the engine to charge batteries. So, even though a windvane is a pretty serious voyaging accessory, we felt it would be a prudent investment. It would free us from the helm when sailing and we could limit the autopilot use to motoring.

At this point it's worth noting that our voyaging plans are modest. A cruise of the Canadian Maritimes, then south along the U.S. East Coast to the Bahamas and Cuba, constitute our year one plan. We do not intend to do a circumnavigation or an Atlantic Circle. Our blue-water passages will be three to five days at the most.

After some research we settled on the Sailomat 601. Like most of the manufacturers, Sailomat follows the servo-pendulum design. As a result, all brands share a certain "Rube Goldberg" quality. Frankly, we think they're rather ugly. They obscure the transom (oh, what a shame to hide that beautiful gold leaf lettering!) and most require control lines running through the cockpit. Worst of all, they require a significant number of holes drilled in the hull for mounting. As a general practice, we try to avoid holes in Kotchka's hull.

The Sailomat has a few features that lessened these issues. The mounting footprint is small and you only need to drill four holes in the hull. Removing the steerer from the bracket is relatively simple. And, since our cockpit is divided into two sections anyway, we decided that we could live with lines that would cross at the divide. Other brands (e.g., Monitor, Fleming, Aries, etc.) all have a following and I certainly do not make any claims as to superiority.

The assembly and mounting of the Sailomat was generally straightforward. The manual described the process well, and anyone comfortable using hand tools and a drill should not have any significant problems. However, once we got the new unit assembled and mounted, more decisions became necessary. The best way to lead the steering lines and position the blocks required some additional thinking. We made sketches and a few trips to the marine store for additional parts. After one last check that all was ready, we began our sea trials.

The manual suggested you begin by trimming for a close-hauled course. Since many boats, Kotchka included, will almost sail to windward by themselves, going upwind is a relatively easy initiation to windvane self-steering. But, we weren't just out doing sea trials - we were en route from Portland, Maine, to Mt. Desert Island to meet some friends. We were heading down east in the prevailing SW winds. That means broad reaching in moderate to light winds. But we pressed on with the trials. We adjusted the angle of the air blade, tensioned the lines, and, voila, we seemed to be self-steering. But something was not quite right. The windvane was very slow to respond and seemed sluggish. The boat was meandering around a bit; thus Marci created the name "Mr. Wiggles."

So, what then? First, consult the manual. A possible culprit was lack of tension in the control lines. We re-tensioned the lines and some improvement was evident, but it still didn't seem right. Further consultation with the manual suggested that we should check the balance of the airvane assembly. We needed zero wind or we needed to partially disassemble the airvane and bring it indoors to balance the unit, so we saved this for later.

We jumped on the first opportunity to try the balancing act. We disassembled the airvane, brought it indoors, and followed the suggestions for adjusting the position of the counterweight to find the neutral balancing point. But the counterweight is not symmetrical. We adjusted the weight up and down on the rod and rotated it around until the assembly appeared balanced. But, the nub on the end of the weight stuck out so that it wouldn't clear the mast tube when the vane was re-assembled. After considerable time and energy was spent continuing to tweak the counterweight, we gave up and placed a call to Sailomat for further advice. After some additional consultations with the manual, a few exchanges of e-mails, and many weeks of adjustments we finally got the unit correctly balanced.

During this process we cruised Nova Scotia and started our southbound trek down the U.S. East Coast. We disassembled the unit repeatedly for re-balancing. We've used it on all points of sail. When crossing the Gulf of Maine heading to Nova Scotia, we used it off and on, but light airs had us motoring more than hoped for. Later, during an 80-mile, mostly downwind, passage from Liverpool to Halifax, in heavier air and bigger seas, we found a new problem. Mr. Wiggles was over steering and the resultant yawing was considerable. Some of this back and forth is inherent, but this seemed excessive. Further consultation with the manual revealed some tips to dampen this tendency. We tweaked and re-tweaked and make some improvements. On our trip from Nova Scotia back to the U.S. we had 20 knots and gusty wind on the beam. The wind steerer did a good job in these conditions, but when the wind got lighter and clocked aft, the unit would not hold a steady course.

Finally, after further use and testing, some input from a helpful sailor and Sailomat owner, plus more tinkering, we now have the unit performing well. Here's what we've we learned.

1. Sail trim and balance are critical. Windvane self-steerers will not compensate for an excessive press of sail. A little weather helm is fine. Since reefing early is a firm rule on Kotchka, this is not an issue. Ease the sheets, keep the boat as upright as possible and the windvane will perform better.

2. Compared to electric autopilots, windsteerers require more involvement from the crew. Since they hold a constant angle to the wind you need to monitor your compass course and tweak them on occasion, particularly when coastal sailing. In the steadier winds of passage-making this is less of an issue.

3. Patience is important. There is a bit of a learning curve. How your boat handles, how stiff or tender she is, friction in the control lines, wheel vs. tiller, etc., all affect how windsteerers perform.

4. Light, shifty airs are tough for windvanes to handle, particularly the servo-pendulum type on a wheel-steered boat. Eliminating friction in the boat's steering system and the vane will help. On Kotchka we discovered that proper tension in the control lines is important. In heavier wind we keep the control lines quite taut; in lighter airs we ease them a bit.

5. Lines running through the cockpit have not been an issue for us.

6. When setting the self-steerer, be sure everything is in synch. The vane is in a neutral position, the helm is neutral (or nearly so) and you are on course.

7. Once you have the vane working you need to monitor things for a few minutes. You will likely need to make a small adjustment. Again more crew involvement.

8. Before heading out for a passage, double-check all the lines, blocks, fittings, etc. When out conducting trials near Boothbay Harbor, Maine, a friend aboard for the test noticed a loose bolt. Vanes are in constant motion, so nuts and bolts do come loose or corrosion can cause things to stick.

9. Even for coastal cruising we find ourselves using the windvane on a regular basis. Yes, it takes a minute or two longer to set up vs. the instant on of the electric autopilot. But, no power drain and generally quiet operation are more than enough reason to use it.

10. Once you get comfortable with the operation, they are rather fun. The air blade flops one way, the steering oar turns, lines tighten, the wheel moves and the boat turns. It almost seems a bit of magic is involved.

11. The vane may well make you a better sailor. You'll learn to keep the boat balanced. You'll learn to nearly steer the boat via the sails alone.

12. Friction is a performance killer. Use low-stretch lines and good turning blocks, and keep your steering system in good shape.

During the process of tweaking our windvane, our old electric autopilot packed it in. We opted to remove it and replace it with a modern, less power-hungry model. The old autopilot added a lot of extra hardware and, therefore, friction to the steering system. With this now out, the improvement in the windvane is significant.

Prior to our windsteerer installation Marci and I hand-steered Kotchka virtually all the time while under sail. Now we leave the harbor, set the sails, trim to our desired course, engage the windsteerer, and let Mr. Wiggles do the work. It has made our sailing more enjoyable, more relaxing, and even safer. In the past, when meeting veteran voyagers, they all seemed surprised when told we always hand-steered Kotchka. Now we know why.