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Autopilots & wind vanes

Apr 5, 2011

To the editor: As Jimmy Cornell, the offshore sailing guru, comments in his recent book, A Passion for the Sea, “Few other items on an offshore cruising boat have been debated more fiercely than these two stepbrothers who…attract love and hatred in equal measure.” Aboard our Montevideo 43, Bahati, we have found, after more than 20,000 nm of hard use on three self-steering systems that, with a good measure of understanding, mixed with the right dose of humor and patience, not to mention regular maintenance, all three will, on balance, serve you well over the long term.

Like Cornell, we decided to rig Bahati with both electrical and wind-vane systems. The Raymarine S2 linear drive (www.raymarine.com), nicknamed “Bruce” (after our best hand steering crewmember to-date, Maine merchant mariner, Bruce Brown) aka “Big Otto,” is attached directly to the rudder head along with an old backup wheel-mounted Raymarine Autohelm 3000, and a Monitor wind vane from Scanmar International (www.selfsteer.com) mounted on the transom. We keep our trusty antique Autohelm 3000, “Little Otto,” handy for quick and easy swap-out use as needed. All three systems have needed repairs since leaving Maine in October of 2006, but the Monitor has required the least attention and has become our most reliable and trusty steering partner. We’ve come to call it “Chairman Mo” and he has proved tried and true especially during our recent wild and wooly Indian Ocean crossing when the Raymarine S2 was giving us a hard time.

According to Hans Bernwall, at Scanmar, who manufactures and markets the Monitor, most long-distance sailors do as we did, run with their power-hungry electric autopilots until they give up the ghost and only then do they discover how truly reliable and easy their wind-vane system really is. In our case, when we did the refit on Bahati at Portland Yacht Services in Maine, we setup the S2 linear drive, operating in conjunction with our hi-tech Raymarine course computer. The S2 is attached with a custom-built heavy-duty stainless steel arm directly to the rudder-head (more on this potentially troublesome item below).

Falling back on the wind vane
We first learned to use the Monitor on our 21-day passage from the Galápagos to the Marquesas in 2007 and then did not really use it again until we crossed the Indian Ocean this fall. We fell back on it after our S2 drive and the course computer both failed followed by the stainless arm which we tried, with varying success, to get repaired in Bali, again on Christmas Island, and then finally on Cocos-Keeling where a fellow named “Digger,” the local car-repair genius, finally managed a beefed-up welding repair job that lasted all the way to South Africa.

Our S2 linear drive began to act-up en route from Langkawi to Singapore after the second course computer died (probably the result of a close lightning strike when we left the boat for a couple of months on her own in a Malaysian marina.) Our first course computer gave up the ghost, fortunately still under warranty, while we were sailing in Tonga. In that case, we were able to get a replacement shipped into Niafu via Raymarine’s most-helpful Sydney team and we were up and running again in a matter of days. The problem with these systems is that they are built around a closed-circuit computer system, much like the current Toyotas and Hondas which are impossible to repair without taking them into “the shop,” something which is hard to do when you are thousands of miles away at sea. In the case of the second course computer failure, due to our more remote location and the fact that Raymarine is still in the process of aligning a reliable Malaysian resource team, it took us more than a month of e-mail and satellite phone pursuit to locate and land a replacement unit via Singapore. We used the old Autohelm 3000 with good success during that time while single-handing the dreaded Strait of Malacca. Finally, with the help of Raymarine’s local sales rep, Leonard Teo, aided by their “best tech guy,” Jon Cooper, both in Singapore, we managed to get our third course computer up and running. When we had this system set-up and booted we lost the AIS and GPS computer links and have not been able to recover them despite the good and thoughtful help from Raymarine Singapore.

To Singapore for repairs
The S2 linear drive, which is run electronically by the course computer (and mechanically drives the rudder attached to same with the aforementioned custom-built stainless steel arm) had worn out its internal belt-drive as well as several of the fine teeth on its gear system. These issues were first diagnosed by Lawrence Leow, owner of Cirrus Marine (www.cirruscooling.com) in Phuket, Thailand. Leow was unable to do the repairs in time before we left the boat lagoon and suggested we take it down to Singapore. While we were berthed at Raffles Marina we had it rebuilt by the good folks at Supratechnic (www.supratechnic.com) who then shipped it to us via Bali (at great expense due to the ever-corrupt nature of the Indonesian customs system.) In the meantime, we had a replacement S2 drive delivered by our incoming crew from Auckland, New Zealand. We now carry a spare S2 drive and have just had a second stainless steel arm built by Baden Reed at BR Stainless in Simon’s Town, South Africa, where we’ve been for a couple of months before our upcoming 5,200-mile Atlantic crossing. Reed and his right-hand man, Marty, did a beautiful job copying the old arm and creating one that looks much beefier and, hopefully, will last for years to come.

When the old stainless arm began to show signs of wear en route from Singapore to Bali, we had a local stainless crew in Benoa, Bali, do some re-welds and strengthening of the set-screw attachments to the rudder-head, but they broke all together just a day out of Bali en route to Cocos-Keeling. We decided to re-route via Christmas Island in the hopes that we could find another competent stainless welder there (which we did…thanks to the local mining operation) but those welds also popped only a few hours out of Christmas Isle. We then discovered “Digger” on Cocos who did a very strong reinforcement job which has stood us in good stead since then.

All these repairs and re-repairs might have been avoided had we relied more on our Monitor. After leaving Cocos my trusty Indian Ocean mate, Ben Powers, and I decided to take the load off Digger’s weld and put the Monitor to the test in the notorious Indian Ocean cross seas and “enhanced” trade winds. “Chairman Mo” stood by us brilliantly and we became more and more comfortable with tweaking his adjustment lines which, thanks to Powers’ ingenious redesign, we were able to run from our center cockpit. This was a relief after much dashing across the top of the aft cabin with heavy seas from astern threatening to wash us overboard.

The Monitor comes equipped with two air vanes made of 8-mm Lexan Thermoclear reinforced with plastic rode inserts. The small vane is built for winds of more than 15 knots and for when you are sailing downwind in a stronger breeze. The larger vane is for lighter air when the apparent wind is lower. After interchanging these two vanes numerous times in the constantly shifting Indian Ocean winds, Powers came to the conclusion that Scanmar might do well to create an adjustable vane which could be slid from one position to another using a couple of set screws. I’ve encouraged him to come up with some spec drawings to present to the Monitor folks for their consideration. Sure sounds like a plausible concept to me and would save a lot of time, effort, and wear-and-tear on the air vanes. We’ve reinforced both vanes with duct tape from time to time. Other than that and some minor repairs like replacing the Spectra steering lines due to gradual chafe once in four years, plus swapping out two of the three nylon washers in the yoke that had disintegrated under intense tropical UV onslaught, the good Chairman has required little attention. The folks at Scanmar say that no greasing or lubing is necessary, just regular washing with fresh water to take care of inevitable salt accumulation.

Steering by the wind
The beauty of the Monitor is that it sails the boat using the apparent wind as a guide unlike any electrical system which steers whatever course it is told to steer regardless of what the wind is doing. Of course, this means that you must keep an eye on your heading while using the wind vane and make small adjustments as the wind shifts, easy to manage once you’ve become familiar with the system. The most important thing to understand about the Monitor is that it requires the sails to be trimmed properly for whatever point of sail you are managing prior to putting the vane into action. Once the sails are optimally trimmed you can trust the Monitor to do the rest of the job by itself. Without proper sail trim you will find yourself frustrated with the Monitor’s performance and blaming your wind vane for its inaccuracy. This is why many new Monitor owners ultimately credit their wind vanes with teaching them to sail their boats more efficiently and effectively.

Monitor also now offers a Monitor emergency rudder conversion kit which can ostensibly be rigged at sea should you lose your primary rudder control. We have recently invested in this handy piece of equipment (roughly $1,000 U.S.) which we keep strapped on deck in an easily accessible location, next to the Jordan Series Drogue, hoping, of course, that we will never have to use either of them.

Incidentally, “Small Otto,” our wheel-mounted Autohelm 3000, also broke down just north of Bali, but we were able to get the essential plastic geared drive-cone, which had broken some fine teeth, forged out of bronze in less than a week’s time thanks to a local Dutch “fix-it” yachtie, Cornelius, who works off his boat and runs a tight little shop ashore near the Benoa Marina. Hopefully “Small Otto” will continue to serve us well en route the rest of the way home to Maine. It is no longer manufactured and replacement parts are impossible to find.

The long and short of the autopilot story is that there is no perfect answer and every boat has its own unique needs and demands. In our minds, the Monitor comes closest to perfection under sail and the Raymarine systems have served us well under power. Everyone we have met who owns the Monitor has found it reliable. There are wearable parts but these are easily replaced and, with a little TLC, the Monitor system will serve you well for many years. The design has evolved over decades of experimentation and field testing. You can contact us via our website, www.bahati.net, for further information and discussion regarding this much-debated issue.

—Nat Warren-White has nearly completed a circumnavigation aboard his Montevideo 43, Bahati. He is currently in the Caribbean after crossing the South Atlantic from South Africa.

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