From the Pilothouse
From Ocean Navigator #120 March/April 2002
Whether you choose mechanical self-steering or electrical or a combination of both the gear needs to be carefully considered for its intended application, which includes the kind of maintenance it will receive. Here, Marci and J Kolb enjoy some hands-off sailing courtesy of their Sailomat windvane.
Our special section this issue examines self-steering systems. In his story on wind vanes (page 50) John Kettlewell leads with his chin when he writes, "[A]nything that relies on electricity in a saltwater environment will fail at some time or another. It is usually not a matter of 'if,' but of 'when.'" Sven Donaldson makes a seemingly contradictory remark in his story on autopilots (page 60) when he writes that an autopilot will be essentially trouble-free if it is supported by a sound electrical system. What gives? Are electrical systems unreliable in the saltwater environment, therefore making wind-vane self-steering the only way to go, or does an over-reliance on a force as maddeningly unpredictable as the wind present unacceptable compromises?
It wasn't long ago that both systems, autopilots and wind vanes, had reputations for being temperamental at best, requiring frequent repair and seemingly constant attention to maintain a vessel on a given course. Yet autopilots available on the market today, particularly if equipped with a rate gyro and supported by a .eefy enough electrical system, as Sven points out, can stand up to the variability of the wind and waves. Similarly, wind vanes are capable of being used in conditions that range from zephyrs to raging gales. Each wind-vane unit is a collection of finely tooled components, crafted by precision instruments with high-grade material. And each of the businesses that produces wind-vane gear and autopilots generally offers excellent customer support.
The near religious belief in one self-steering system over another likely has more to do with the types of people wandering the oceans on sailboats: some prefer fiddling with mechanical objects — lines, blocks, nuts and bolts — others are more comfortable with circuitry and CPUs. Which is all fine, except that it's important to know what kind of sailor you really are at heart. But, like most things having to do with boats, a compromise seems the most sensible. If you are a wind-vane person, it sure would be nice to flip on a low-powered, simple autopilot for a 24-hour stretch of motoring through the doldrums. Similarly, even the most fastidious electrical engineer would appreciate the simplicity of turning the steering over to the steady trades as they come wafting over the quarter, drawing the boat along without drawing on the batteries.