Windvane Or Autopilot?—Part 2

The best extra crew member of them all?

Don't miss the slide show at the end of this post

The first time I used a windvane in anger was back in the early 1980s, aboard my newly purchased UFO 34 cruiser-racer whilst delivering her home from Scotland through the Irish Sea. Fitted with a then state-of-the-art Aries vane, we had strong tailwinds for much of the way, which the vane handled fairly well, impressive because the UFO was an early IOR design and a known handful downwind. But when the wind eased, the vane really began to struggle, failing to respond quickly enough to hold a course, and in the end we had to take over by hand.

Over the next few weeks we tried everything to sort this out, with the aid of the late Nick Franklin, designer and builder of the Aries. We cleaned all of the bearings, added a lump of plasticine to the counterweight, and even tried attaching elastic cord to help the vane recover, all to no avail. Finally, during a last despairing chat with Nick the main culprit emerged. “You haven’t by any chance painted the blade?” queried Nick, and immediately the penny dropped—the previous owners had painted the plywood blade with several coats of gloss, and added an attractive logo on both sides at the top—and this was enough to unbalance the blade to the extent that it wouldn’t recover to vertical quickly and smoothly.

Match The Boat To The Gear

Our experience with the Aries over time taught us that it is critical to pick the right vane gear for your boat. Some vanes are underpowered for larger boats, others, whilst powerful, are too slow to react to a fast boat. Although we finally got the Aries to work reasonably well with the UFO it was never a perfect match, as the Aries tended to better suit heavier, more directionally stable boats. The Monitor we had on our Frers 39 was a more harmonious combination, but required regular adjustment, largely because the boat was very sensitive to trim.

So when we were looking for a suitable gear for our Ovni, which has the added complication of a lifting centreboard that can be used to trim the boat, we contacted several different vane manufacturers and spoke to a number of other Ovni owners with experience of different gears to help us come up with the right choice. This also proved to be a valuable opportunity to evaluate what the all-important after-sales service might be like, in case we needed it. That the Windpilot Pacific has proved to be such a good match for Pèlerin is at least partly due to the time we spent gathering the opinions of so many experienced people beforehand, so I’d advise any prospective vane owner to do the same before shelling out any hard earned cash.

Getting Off To A Good Start

With a new unit, I follow the installation instructions to the letter, as care at this time pays enormous dividends later on. This may sound obvious, but like many simple devices, correct and accurate installation is absolutely critical to their successful operation. Then I do the same with the operation instructions—there are many small mistakes that can all too easily be made in the early stages.

Once underway, devote plenty of time to learning how to trim the boat so that the vane is able to do its job smoothly and efficiently. A vane simply will not cope with a badly trimmed boat. Of course, every boat is different, and whilst you know how your boat likes to be set-up, it’s also true that many of us have a less perfect command of sail trim than we think we do. I learned early on that I tended to oversheet the main, so easing or reefing the main is now the first thing that I’ll try if the vane is not happy. It can take time to get the vane working at its best on all points of sail, so persevere and experiment until it all falls into place…it’s fun.

Servicing most gears is usually very simple. Wash down with fresh water at the end of any passage, and check all fastenings. Some gears use bearing materials that need oil based lubrication, whilst with others this is a big mistake, as water lubrication is all that is needed. If in any doubt at all, check the manual.

There’s Always Room To Learn And Improve

Whilst preparing this article, I asked Peter Förthmann of Windpilot, builder of our current Pacific gear, to comment on some of my thoughts in the accompanying slideshow, which he kindly agreed to do. Peter has been a leading light in the development of the modern vane gear, and his free book on the principles and operation of self-steering systems is well worth reading, as is his extensive blog on all matters to do with cruising under sail. Peter has been immensely helpful to us both before and since we bought our gear, and has recently made some helpful comments on our present installation that we’re currently incorporating. A reminder that there’s always more to learn, and we’re looking forward to seeing how they work out in practice. We’ll keep you posted!

Windvane Tips

You can click on the slideshow to enlarge it so you can really see the details of our gear. Use the buttons at the bottom to move through the show (it does not advance automatically).

Slideshow requires a reasonably up to date copy of the Adobe Flash plug-in or iPhone/iPad or Android and that java script be enabled.

{ 24 comments… add one }

  • David Nutt December 20, 2011, 10:01 am

    As Colin mentions, it is so important to adjust the sail trim correctly for any vane gear to work and equally for any autopilot to work at maximum efficiency. Even though we only have an autopilot on Danza (Robertson controls with a Whitlock electric drive) we always trim as if we were sailing with a vane gear. I think I might have only learned this because of so many thousand miles with an Aries vane.

  • Colin December 20, 2011, 3:54 pm

    Hi David

    Absolutely right – if you want to reduce power consumption with your autopilot, check your trim!

    And as you point out, a vane gear really makes you work on this – the benefits when you get it right are immediate and easily recognised.

    Best wishes


  • Tom Hildebrandt December 20, 2011, 7:28 pm

    Have you had any experience with the Cape Horn vane? Or second hand comments you wish to share?


    • Colin December 21, 2011, 7:29 am

      Hi Tom

      I’m afraid I Don’t – I’ve looked at a couple of units on French boats, but that’s it. The few comments I have heard have been varied, some for, some against. But that’s not unique to the model, and as I’ve tried to highlight in Part II, it’s as much a question of matching the gear to the boat, as some suit particular boats better than others.

      There are some interesting ideas in the Cape Horn, and, once again, it shows that there is still room to innovate with these devices.

      Anybody out there with some first hand experience?

      Best wishes


      • Noel January 15, 2012, 11:29 am

        have had a Cape Horn on the my Heritage 35 for 16 years. never really got it to work right until this past summer when on my way down East from lake Ontario. stopped in Montreal and had Yves Galenas ( the designer and builder) down to the boat. He took the unit back to his shop brought it back the next day and reinstalled it. Due to lack of wind! didn’t get a chance to use it until the Cabot straits. It worked a charm!! except for downwind in large seas. I especially like that all the lines are contained in the lazzerat and not in the cockpit so no tripping hazard.

        • Pierre January 17, 2012, 9:42 pm

          My model of Cape Horn is external on a 12 meters Jeanneau Sunfizz .

          Did Mr Gelinas give any details of what he may have found in the unit that needed attention ?.

          • Peter Foerthmann January 18, 2012, 5:04 am

            Hi Pierre,

            what I can offer: just send some picts to me the direct way and you will get support of any kind. Please show installation and in diff. picts line transfer.

            kind regards
            Peter Foerthmann

    • Peter Foerthmann January 16, 2012, 4:05 pm


      Good afternoon,

      The question raises which one of the Cape Horn models is being in question – and, even more important which kind / type of boat.

      It is being said that a transom through installation will offer advantages.

      I would appreciate to consider this:

      Transom through installation, beside of the challenging task of drilling a large diameter hole into the skin of a boat, might be tempting by reasons of optical appearance only.

      The shadow side however will be considerable:;
      – water ingress into stern compartment as transom through components are not totally sealed
      – line transfer at the inside of the lazarette will need carefull installation requring lot of space at the same time. Space for useful equipment will get taken by line transfer inside lazarette.

      Most importantly however are some considerations in terms of the practical usefulness:
      – line transfer to the short lever on quadrant side will not be an advantage, as short lever will require high forces added by the loads of the entire mechanical wheel steering behind of it, as this has to be moved from the wrong power lever. i.e. double loads = ending to less sensitivity particular in following winds
      – difficult setting and trim as any change of trim will require shortening ropes at one side of quadrant and lenghtening at the other side – keeping the entire line transfer well tensioned at the same time.

      Thats what I would call a chellenge!

      What I can offer are some pictures of a VALIANT with both units, firstly a Cape Horn and a Windpilot Pacific thereafter to illuminate the problem.

      Life always will be a compromise, but from my honest opinion the disadvantages of a line transfer to the inside of lazarette will be substancial – just to get the lines away from deck.

      If lines might be disturbing on a sailing boat, perhaps it might be the perfect time to head for a powerboat – okay. joking!

      kind regards from Hamburg

      Peter Foerthmann

  • David Head December 21, 2011, 6:41 am

    The ‘Monitor’ steering on our Saga 40 cannot be faulted, but the careful balancing of the sails is vital. A recent problem did arise: Over a season the sensitivity of the steering was diminishing. Working well in a heavy breeze, but progressively poorer performance in lighter breezes. No matter what I did there remained a lack of performance. Stripping the unit uncovered a small amount of wear, but this added to the torlon rollers skidding rather than rolling was enough to be the culprit. The contents of the worldwide service kit allowed me to return the vane gear to working order.
    Having used vane steering I cannot envisage sailing a boat without such an aid. I admire the ‘Monitor’ for its simplicity and course steering accuracy.

    • Colin December 21, 2011, 7:35 am

      Hi David

      It’s often the case with these gears that problems of the nature you describe can be traced back to very simple origins, demonstrating how sensitive they are.

      We had the world wide service kit for ours, and over time used very little from it (a couple of sheaves, as I recall), but it was comprehensive and well worth carrying.

      Good to hear from another happy vane gear owner!

      Best wishes


  • Steve December 21, 2011, 1:14 pm

    On our last boat a cutter rigged Mason 44 with a monitor vane I often wondered how many miles we lost over a 24 hour period before we learned how important sail trim was. One only had to look at our wake to see we were sailing all over the place, we called it the big waddle. As mostly broad reach sailors,( trades) main sail trim was most important for the vane to sail us in a strait line.
    The thing I like most about having auto pilot and vane is using the auto pilot to set the course you want while trimming sails and making major changes to vane. Doing so sure took a lot of frustration out getting everything right when sailing short handed.

    • Colin December 21, 2011, 1:53 pm

      Hi Steve

      Good point about using the autopilot whilst you set the vane up and get the boat trimmed, something that we tend to do, too. There’s no question that autopilots have their uses, beyond taking control of the steering over long passages, and their ease of use encourages them to be used in that way.

      Best wishes


  • Erik Snel December 21, 2011, 6:44 pm


    I also have experienced how sail trim will affect the performance of the windvane.
    I just purchased a 2nd hand Navik to go with my also recently purchased Victoire 34. I had good experience with a Bouvaan on my previous boat.
    Anyone have experience or tips with the Navik? The Victoire is very stable when beating to the wind, I can even balance it without windvane or autopilot just by fixing the wheel and trimming the sails. Therefore I think the Navik will do fine, but any tips are welcome,

    Kind regards,


    • Colin December 22, 2011, 7:17 am

      Hi Erik

      I have no personal experience of the Navik, but a friend sailed a Contessa 32 in the Azores And Back race some years ago with only a Navik as a self-steering set-up, and it steered them safely all the way with winds up to F10. Naturally he loved it.

      They are quite lightly constructed though, and tended to be used on smaller boats where their light weight was a benefit. They were handled by Plastimo for many years, but spares have been hard to come by recently as they haven’t been made for some time. However, whilst researching this post I learned that Mr Vee wind vanes have taken over the tooling and are selling spares for the Navik via their website, so they may be able to help with advice as well as spares.

      Best wishes


  • Erik Snel December 22, 2011, 8:13 am

    Hi Colin,

    Sounds good, can’t wait to take the boat sailing with the Navik!
    I know Mr Vane, and am aware he can help with spare parts and maintenance.



    • Peter Foerthmann January 16, 2012, 4:20 pm


      Good afternoon,

      disregarding of the fact that there are quite a few yachtsmen having the NAVIK fitted at boats of size like CONTESSA 32 and VICTOIRE 34 it might be reasonable to consider that this gear has been ment and designed for smaller boats only.

      A quick view to the material thickness of pendulum arm tube – in particular donwstairs where the pushrod driveing the trim tab – and the transferring components between vane and rudder oar might enlighten that particular higher loads might exeed the potential of the material choosen.

      Which is one of the reasons of why one will find so many NAVIK units in french marinas where only the corpus is being fitted while the rest of the gear has been taken off.

      Under normal conditions I would consider the NAVIK being capable to manage the VICTOIRE 34, it however the condition might deteriorate I would hesitate to consider this as to be a fully trustable solution.

      Unfortunately manual helming is increasingly incinvenient if serious weather – so as ever -life remains a compromise – also in terms of imnvestment…

      Good Luck
      Peter Foerthmann

  • Peter December 23, 2011, 3:21 am

    I have never udes a windvane, but hope to one day sail far and wide over the globe. I am reading up best I can (Cape Horn unit looks very tempting), and would like to hear to what extent you would disqualify a wind vane for coastal cruising. Someone will always be on watch, and in my humble opinion the winds are fairly stable as soon as you get out from the inner archipelago here. Am I missing how stable the wind must be for this vane to work? One of the benefits I was hoping for was constant wind-related correction that the auto pilot won’t give me.

    Thankful for your input regarding coastal cruising with wind vane.

    • Colin December 23, 2011, 7:16 am

      Hi Peter

      I’m not suggesting a vane wont work for coastal cruising, it will, but you will find that you spend a lot of time trimming the vane. You never realise just how shifty and variable in velocity the wind is close to land (especially near hills and valleys) until you use a vane. Changes in either factor that might not be immediately apparent or even move you to trim the sails will almost certainly require some trimming of the vane.

      And as you mention, someone must be on watch at all times – there have been cases of boats running ashore aftyer a major wind shift when left unattended under the management of a vane.

      Whilst it won’t answer your wish to be wind driven all of the time, I’m told that hooking up a small autopilot to the vane (as in the slide show) improves matters significantly when sailing closer to the shore, as the vane is effectively steering to the course, not the wind. This should translate into less fiddling with the vane, as the boat should be able to smooth out the little shifts and lulls that would otherwise plague the vane (and you) in wind mode.

      Best wishes


  • Pierre Laplante December 27, 2011, 11:41 pm

    Hello !

    I installed a Cap Horn on my Jeanneau Sunfizz (40 ft/ 8.5 tons) centerboard, in 2009 in a preparation to sail from Quebec, Canada to Europe via the Azores the following year. Which I did in 2010.
    I bought the gear directly from Mr Yves Gelinas the conceptor near Montreal. I was therefore a bit biased in selecting the model. Additionnally, while I was very much tempted by the Windpilot model for lot of positive comments received, the price of the Cap Horn compared to importing the Windpilot made a big difference.

    The Cap Horn has worked very very well between Canada and The Azores and became frustrating on large following swells in 20 +kts wind after the Azores. I have made much less utilization of my vane the following season while coasting along France and Northern Europe all the way to Norway. First because I had installed a new Autopilot working amazingly well, and also because I could not get the vane to work properly anymore.

    I will certainly disassemble the gear next Spring to clean and/or lubricate all moving parts but I believe the difficulties with the vane come mostly from my improper trimming of the sail plan.

    I remain convinced the a Windvane remains the most important piece of gear for offshore cruising, much less in coastal navs.
    Now that I have both, I would not part with the vane, but I will with great pleasure find my way to get the Cap Horn to work well again. A proper functionning of one’s windvane is quite a challenge, but also a confirmation you can properly trim your sails.
    I chose to install externally as opposed to integrated, with blocks and lines, attached to a custom made removable 18 ” tiller directly on the rudder shaft in lieu of a drum on the steering wheel.
    Unless most of your time is spent offshore, if you have a swim platform/scoop equipped stern, I would recommend
    an easily removable unit .

    Pictures available


    • Colin December 28, 2011, 8:55 am

      Hi Pierre

      If your problem with the Cape Horn was progressive ( was alright at first, then performance deteriorated) it certainly could be friction in the bearings due to salt or another contaminant. But it’s sometimes the case that rapid changes in the strength and direction of the apparent wind, such as occur when the boat surfs, or slows up on the back of a wave can fool the gear.

      Good point about an easily removable unit, and not only to free up the sugar scoop when sailing coastally. It’s also a good idea if you’re leaving the boat ashore for any length of time in a boatyard with less than perfect security – it’s not unknown for these gears to be stolen.

      Best wishes


    • Peter Foerthmann January 1, 2012, 8:04 am

      Good Morning Pierre Laplante,

      if your unit lacks performance at downwind courses, here are the critical questions to answer:

      – enough line pull both side
      – effective direct power transfer without slack / play
      – effective transfer ration between unit and wheel

      Also you may answer: which unit did you install, the external unit or the one which has been integrated at the inside of the stern with direct transer to the quadrant?

      If you want to proceed in sending some pictures of installation and kind of line transfer to my email, you will get my immidiate response:

      And, don´t be shy, there will be no problem on my side to provide useful advice, disregarding if the mind-seeker has choosen my own or another brand gear. I am old enough to keep my fingers away from any kind of punishment.

      Interestingly perhaps to get the answer of Yves Gelinas.

      kind regards from Hamburg
      Peter Foerthmann

  • Kevin Eidsmore February 2, 2013, 10:16 pm

    Hi! I work selling PCs for a living (not much business). I was playing this PC game recently called Patrician 4: Rise of a Dynasty. It’s about playing as a merchant boss.. with captain(s) to use. I mention that because I thought about doing this in modern time (NOW). So, I looked up about RC boats… then I found ‘autonomous’ boats out there (experimental). So, what do you think about using an autopilot sys. for a sail boat to cruise the world.. and arrange bank transfers via international ph. calls? There is a worry about running into something like bouyeys.. or maybe other ships.. I was thinking about cams too. So, this whole sys. would have on the boat>a sat. dish & internet service via the Irridium sat. network.. and a DVR w/cams.. and a laptop PC with sailing software by Nobeltec.. remote PC software by whomever (many makers)… and so I would be on dry land sailing with my PC at home. Well, so what are all your thoughts? Is it possible for this to happen with an autopilot on board a sail boat… or just a reg. powered boat?

    • John February 3, 2013, 10:02 am

      Hi Kevin,

      My guess would be that its possible with current technology, assuming a very large budget.

      That only leaves one question for me: why would you do that?

  • Garreth April 29, 2013, 6:11 pm

    has anyone experience of using a trim tab vane gear? I am contemplating installing one on my William Atkin Thistle, a heavy displacement double-ender with aft hung rudder . Issues I am concerned about are the rudder trim tab area ratio, and whether a trim tab which follows the forward sweep of the rudder would cause problems. Most trim tab systems I have researched have a rudder with a verticle trailing edge or as with SV Sarana the trim tab mounted some distance from the trailing edge on extended bearings. I would prefer a trim tab which followed the Profile of the existing rudder for both strength and astheatic reasons.


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