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 often only high output power generation systems can keep up with their demands.

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