Elegant and efficient

In this age of the ubiquitous autopilot, the question might be raised: Why would a voyager be interested in a wind-vane self-steering unit? The answer is as simple as the reason why many people voyage in the first place self-reliance.

Many of us hand over control of our voyaging homes to mysterious black boxes driving motors and hydraulic rams inside equally mysterious black cases, while sensing the correct magnetic direction to steer via hidden compass. There is tremendous appeal to simply setting a course on a dial or keypad and then sitting back while the electrons do all the work. When everything is working right, there is nothing finer.

However, anything 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.”

Those of us who are handier with a hammer and a screwdriver than we are with a multimeter and a soldering iron can appreciate the mechanical robustness inherent in contemporary self-steering gear. Yes, they can break, but we can look and say, “See, it’s bent.” You can’t do that with electronics. Contemporary electronic autopilots are essentially sealed units, not repairable in the field by ordinary mortals.

Wind-vane steering is very different. Every unit consists of stainless steel or aluminum tubes, castings and fabrications that could be welded virtually anywhere in the world. Yes, gears could potentially break or paddles could be snapped off, but these are things that are possible to replace by anyone capable of sailing a boat to places where there may be no electronics dealers. Many wind-vane parts could be jury-rigged from common spares carried aboard every voyaging boat.

Of course, some argue that autopilots are so cheap, especially the smaller wheelpilots and tillerpilots, that a spare or two can be brought along for backup. This is true, but in the case of the underdeck autopilots, changing one over while at sea could be very difficult. And the underdeck ones are generally more expensive than vane gears.

Another problem some voyagers may have is electric power consumption. Manufacturers of some of the smallest units claim they burn fractions of an amp, but those figures tend to be under ideal conditions with a well-balanced boat, a taut steering system, and moderate winds and seas. Stray from these ideal conditions on your boat, however, and power consumption can rise dramatically.

And there is always the scenario of losing all electrical power. I get great joy every time one of my flashlights turns on, because I have experienced the letdown of them not turning on so many times. If keeping something functioning that is electrically simple is so difficult, why should we expect things like alternators, generators and batteries to be more reliable?

A further argument for wind-vane self-steering is that it can complement the advantages of an autopilot perfectly. For example, some autopilots have a difficult time steering when the wind is up and the power requirement increases. Essentially, the amount of power an autopilot can supply is fixed, while a wind vane’s power actually increases with wind speed.

Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, when there is no wind, a wind vane is obviously useless. It is then that the simplest, cheapest autopilot can steer a boat on a near-perfect compass course.

The best of all worlds appears to be an autopilot for use when the wind is light or non-existent, or when a sailboat is motoring and a wind-vane self-steering gear for offshore passages, when the wind is likely to be blowing steadily.Modern servo-pendulum gear

The history of wind-vane self steering, as outlined in Peter Christian Forthmann’s out-of-print book, Self-Steering Under Sail, reveals some fits and starts prior to 1960, but that date is widely considered to be the beginning of the modern era for these devices.

Tales of early short- and single-handed sailboat races are replete with tales of long stretches spent at the helm due to the failure of the self-steering or its inability to handle particular weather conditions.

In 1960, Blondie Hasler sailed the first Observer Singlehanded TransAtlantic Race (OSTAR) using a self-steering gear of his own design, as did the other competitors. However, the superiority of Hasler’s servo-pendulum system soon became apparent, despite the lack of speed of his converted folkboat, Jester.

Hasler conceived Jester as an extremely comfortable single-handed voyaging platform. He completely decked over the boat; visibility came from peering out from under a tiny, round bubble set in an opening in the turtle-like deck. The controls for the Chinese lugsail and the self-steering were led inside the boat, so that theoretically, one needn’t leave the relative comfort and safety of the 26-foot hull.

A key component of Hasler’s desire to cross the Atlantic in his bedroom slippers was the ability of the boat to handle itself under all conditions with an occasional tweak from its Sybaritic master. According to noted cruising author, Eric Hiscock, Hasler steered by hand for less than 50 nm during four single-handed Atlantic crossings, totaling about 12,000 miles.

Later in the 1960s, Eric Tabarly and Marcel Gianoli invented the so-called horizontal-axis wind vane, which was connected to a servo-pendulum to create what has become the basic design of most modern wind-vane self-steering devices. Instead of a simple blade (or tiny sail) rotating on a vertical axis like a wind vane on a barn roof, the horizontal-axis vane has an axle through the vane shaft that allows the blade to flop over to one side or the other when it is not pointed directly into the wind. In reality, the axle is tilted at some precise angle, fine-tuned by much trial and error, which creates the proper balance between sensitivity and stability.

The advantage of the horizontal-axis vane is that a greater range of movement is created for a smaller deviation from course. This, in turn, moves the servo-pendulum farther to one side or the other, creating greater power than is available from a vertical-axis vane.Comparing gear

It is quite a trick to get all of the angles, lengths, gear ratios, pulley diameters, lever arms, etc. just right to create a wind vane and servo-pendulum that is sensitive in light airs, stable and powerful in heavy airs and can provide enough travel to handle various tiller and wheel steering arrangements.

Each of the major wind vane manufacturers claims to have produced the ultimate compromise of these parameters, along with providing easier mounting, greater durability, more power, better customer service, etc. The manufacturers provide reams of quotes from satisfied customers, so it is very difficult to rate one gear as objectively better than another.

However, some general observations can be made. Scanmar International claims to be the largest manufacturer of wind-vane gear in the world. Overall, however, Hans Bernwall, president of California-based Scanmar, said that sales for the industry as a whole have declined in recent years, mainly due to the proliferation of cheaper autopilots.

Bernwall points out that every one of his customers probably has an autopilot already and may have experienced the sometimes fickle nature of electrical devices on boats. By contrast, his Monitor wind vane, built of all stainless-steel parts, was used by progressively more competitors in each running of the BOC Challenge single-handed around-the-world races (now called AroundAlone) until, in the last running of the race, every wind vane used was a Monitor. There were no Monitor failures during the BOC, Bernwall said.

Another wind-vane system is the German-based Windpilot wind vane. This vane system won a gold medal in the Atlantic Gear Test in 1999, a survey of 85 skippers participating in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC). Unlike the Monitor, Windpilots utilize aluminum-magnesium pressure diecastings.

The wind-vane manufacturers seemed to have fixed the many problems experienced by long-distance sailors using earlier equipment that often used dissimilar metals in contact, inevitably leading to electrolysis and sometimes failure. While the engineering put into wind-vane units and their materials has fixed the vast majority of these problems, all manufacturers recommend periodic rinses with fresh water, no matter what materials are used in construction.

Another big proponent of stainless steel is Fleming, a company with Australian and U.S. manufacturing. Fleming utilizes investment cast 2205 stainless-steel components. The company claims this eliminates all structural welds (as are found in the Monitor and others). Fleming also uses stainless-steel roller bearings from Harken and Lewmar winches, meaning that these parts should be readily available wherever yacht gear is sold.

Canada-based Cape Horn produces an interesting-looking gear that mounts cleanly using a single tube through the boat’s transom. Alternately, for boats with stern scoops or other configurations, a system of tubes is custom designed by company President Yves Gélinas. In fact, each unit is custom designed for each boat. When the single-tube mounting is possible, the Cape Horn is certainly one of the best-looking gears on the market.

The Cape Horn transmits its wind-vane signals to the servo-pendulum using a clever bent rod rather than the usual gears and shafts. The pendulum’s steering action is transmitted through the transom tube directly to a boat’s steering quadrant, if possible. This could eliminate difficulties in routing steering lines to steering wheels, especially on center-cockpit boats. Alternate arrangements are available for boats without quadrants or those that use tillers. Gélinas claimed that no spare parts are required the gear is built strong enough in the first place, he said. It is guaranteed for one circumnavigation or 28,000 miles.

Hydra Engineering of England builds the Auto-Steer, which is another unit utilizing aluminum castings mixed with stainless tubes and fabrications. The wind vane and paddle are both of wood, making for easy replacement upon breakage.

Voyager Windvanes of Canada makes an exceptionally clean-looking unit that the manufacturer claims is one of the few that can be mounted inside stern davits. The vane mounts unusually close to the transom of the boat. The wind-vane post can be made any length so that it can clear radar arches and bimini tops. It is essential to get any wind vane up into clear air, if at all possible, or else course-keeping ability when close-hauled will be negatively affected.

Other contenders include the venerable Aries wind vane, now made in Denmark. Nick Franklin of England invented the Aries, which has been widely used by voyagers for many decades. I sailed to Labrador and back with one, and I can say that it works well, as plenty of power and is rugged. It took a lot of tweaking to get set on a steady course, but I’m not sure this is unusual. Plus, we had it mounted on a narrow-beamed Sparkman and Stephens design that always sailed on her ear, which is not good, as the paddle often has little range of movement before it comes out of the water.

Sailomat is another servo-pendulum gear that has been around a long time. Sailomat units utilize a distinctive streamlined, single-post mounting system.

The Navik is sold in the United States by Scanmar, but is only for boats about 30 feet and under. It is very light and inexpensive. There are probably others that work equally well or better, but this lot certainly includes the heart of the market.Other options

In addition to traditional servo-pendulum gears that utilize the boat’s main rudder for steering, several manufacturers build models that provide an auxiliary rudder off the transom, which is controlled by a wind vane turning a trim tab.

Scanmar sells the Auto-Helm, which utilizes a horizontal-axis vane to control the trim tab. Advantages of this system include the circumvention of the friction inherent in a boat’s regular steering apparatus, no lines leading to the cockpit and an instant emergency rudder already mounted. This system might be particularly advantageous with center-cockpit boats, where long leads could add steering friction and stretch in the wind-vane lines. An option is to purchase just the wind-vane unit, attaching it to a trim tab on a transom-hung rudder.

The Windpilot Pacific Plus is an auxiliary rudder system that is somewhat different. It incorporates a complete servo-pendulum wind-vane system, which then controls the boat via an integrated auxiliary rudder. It is easy to spot, as there are two paddles in the water, one behind the other.

The Saye’s Rig, distributed by Scanmar, uses a vertical-axis vane controlling a servo-pendulum paddle that connects to outboard or large keel-hung rudders via a special metal connecting rod. In other words, there are no control lines to the boat’s tiller or wheel the steering action is transmitted directly to the rudder blade itself. Traditional voyaging boats with long overhangs and huge barn-door rudders are often seen with a Saye’s Rig on the stern.

Hydra Engineering makes a simple horizontal-axis vane that controls a trim tab that is attached to outboard rudders on boats up to about 35 feet long. This system also eliminates steering lines.

Several manufacturers supply kits to allow the attachment of a simple tiller-type autopilot to act as a steering sensor when there is little wind or the boat is motoring. The autopilot input replaces the input from the wind vane temporarily, but the tremendous power of the servo-pendulum blade in the water is still available. This is a way that a small autopilot can be used to steer a boat much larger than the autopilot was designed to handle. A small, inexpensive tillerpilot can steer a boat with a wheel using this system.Decisions

Every self-steering gear mentioned here appears to be well-made and well-designed, with many satisfied customers to attest that it is the best ever. Because of subtle differences, one type of gear may work better on one type of boat, while another type works better on other boats. It is certainly worth contacting the manufacturers for their recommendations, but there should also be direct discussions with owners of boats similar to yours. Hopefully, you’ll be able to obtain contacts from the manufacturers for people who have used a particular vane gear on a particular type of boat.

Due to the almost art-like nature of melding wind-vane parameters into an effective unit, I would hesitate to purchase any unit that I have not personally inspected and discussed with several owner/users.

Unlike most gear purchased today, wind vanes are generally sold directly from the manufacturer, and these companies are small and willing to talk. They will assist you with installation, send out extra parts that are needed and generally back up their products with service that is not seen elsewhere in the marine world.

John Kettlewell has been writing about boating for more than 20 years. Along with his wife Leslie, he authored the Intracoastal Waterway Chartbook and numerous articles. See his website: www.kettlewellpublishing.com.