Q&A: Windvane Or Autopilot?

Question: Do you prefer a windvane or an autopilot for longer passages? I currently only have an autopilot and am wondering if I should fit a windvane as well? My boat is a Nauticat 32 (10 meters) displacing 5.4 tons.

Answer: On Morgan’s Cloud we have both and I think there are very good arguments for this ‘belt and suspenders’ approach, particularly for the typical cruising boat that will be sailed double handed much of the time.

In fact, I believe that reliable steering is not a luxury but a necessity for short handed boats on any passage that will last longer than a day. Even on a passage that will last just a single night, a double handed crew will be very tired by the time they reach their landfall if they have been forced to steer the whole way; and tired sailors have accidents. Also, it is not possible for a single watch stander to properly sail the boat, navigate, and manage vessel traffic while being glued to the helm.

The key word in all of this is ‘reliable’. Even a really beefy properly installed autopilot system—and many, perhaps most, are not—will fail at some time. The same goes for a windvane, although perhaps to a lesser extent. But if you have both, you have a reasonable chance of having some way to self steer at all times. One of my tougher sailing experiences was a three day beat to windward, singlehanded, against a reinforced trade wind and big seas, from Saint Maarten to Barbados. The autopilot died the first day and I would have been truly up the creek without the vane gear. Incidentally I broke that too, but the great thing about vane gears is that they are often fixable at sea with the tools to hand (mine was); not so autopilots.

Also, both systems have their strengths and weaknesses: We use the autopilot most of the time as we find it easier to set up and use, particularly on shorter trips, but on a long passage, like a tradewind transatlantic, steering with the vane gear cuts our total electrical consumption in half.

Finally, I believe that any cruising boat that goes offshore should be able to function and complete her passage after a total electrical failure. Autopilots will be quickly rendered useless by a failure of the boat’s primary electrical generation method—often the main engine—and this may still be the case even if the boat has solar cells or a wind generator since autopilots are power hogs and only high output power generation systems can keep up with their demands.

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John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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