This article was originally published on SailNet in September, 2000.
But when we set out on our first adventure we were only planning a one-year sabbatical of island-hopping in the Caribbean. We were on a budget and it was cheaper to buy two identical autopilots (one for parts) than the $3,000 windvane system that we lusted after. Our dream was that, at the completion of our voyage, the second autopilot would still be in its box, shrink-wrapped and untouched, ready for resale. However, that was not to be. We used all the parts in the second unit and even rebuilt a few, but those two little Autohelm 3000s ended up steering us 19,000 miles in what turned out to be a three-year voyage to 23 countries around the Atlantic. They soldiered through the worst Atlantic storm we’ve seen in our 11-year cruising history for which I am eternally grateful.
On our next transatlantic passage in 1997, we added a windvane system which is now the primary self-steering gear on Two-Step. But we still use our Autohelm 3000 in light wind conditions.
Pros and Cons Electro-mechanical autopilots, as opposed to wind-powered windvane self-steering systems, are appealing to sailors for many reasons. Autopilots are generally more affordable, they are lightweight and install cleanly in the cockpit or invisibly below-decks. The steering impulse for autopilots is a compass heading so by design they are good at holding a course. A wind shift does not affect the heading they’re steering the way it does a windvane. They are also easy to operate—punch a few buttons and you’re on your way!
However, they do draw power, which is always a major concern on a long offshore passage. When the wind and seas are up, so is the effort at the helm and that effort translates into more amps drawn from the battery. Some autopilots draw three amps or more almost continuously in a heavy sea. They handle well in big seas except when the wind is from astern; then the boat tends to yaw and broaching is a big worry. Our autopilot just doesn’t react quickly enough to a slew. Sometimes on that first trip I would wake up while off watch and hear Paul shouting at theautopilot, “Turn you idiot. Turn!” (I think that’s why it always chose to break down in the middle of the darkest nights—revenge!)
I also find the constant drone of the autopilot’s motor tiresome, but on hot windless days at sea this is forgiven. Our autopilot steers us faithfully onward to our destination when the windvane lags.
I also enjoy the sense of harmony it brings to the boat. The drive of a sailboat is generated by the position of the boat and the orientation of the sails to the wind. So is the drive of the windvane. Set both to the apparent wind and drive is assured. Both the sails and the windvane then work quietly (…ahhh) together in tune with your surroundings, getting you where you want to go. Except, of course, if there isn’t any wind…
In our book, Sail Away! A Guide to Outfitting and Provisioning for Cruising, and our video, Transatlantic Crossing, Paul demonstrates how windvanes are driven by the power of the wind and the flow of water past the yacht. Some understanding of the physics involved is necessary to operate windvanes successfully—no easy pushing of buttons here. This is a deterrent to some sailors, but I actually found it to be an advantage of sorts. On our first few passages using the windvane, I never grew tired or bored on watch. I was too preoccupied playing with the thing and trying to figure out just how the heck it was steering the boat!
Selecting a Self-Steering Windvane by Paul & Sheryl Shard
Fine-Tuning the Autopilot by Dan Neri
Autopilot Overview by Tom Wood
Buying Guide: Autopilots
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