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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Meet the Author


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.

18 comments… add one
  • Vera Quinlan Jun 7, 2011, 8:03 am

    Just read through all the excellent advice on autopilots. Like most we have a wind vane (Hydrovane) which works brilliantly. Would also like an autopilot. Have hydraulic steering so have considered both Simrad / Raymarine systems. Have come across the idea of flitting a ‘cheap’ tiller pilot to the vane of the wind vane. Tiller pilot steers vane /vane steers boat. Simple? Anyone have experience of doing this? Yacht is Bruce Roberts Mauritious / steel 43ft (wheel), though none of this should matter as it’s the rudder of the Hydrovane doing all the work …?

    • Colin Speedie Jun 11, 2011, 7:41 am

      Hi Vera

      We’re thinking of going down this route ourselves, having met two very experienced couples this year who use this system alone, with a main autopilot as a back-up.

      The only downside I’ve heard of is that Windpilot (who made our gear) don’t recommend that you use this for motoring, as they feel it causes too much wear on the self-steering gear. As we have a powerful plumbed in pilot this isn’t an issue for us, as we use that solely for motoring.

      Best wishes


      • Vera Quinlan Jun 13, 2011, 6:59 am

        Thanks for response Colin – have just had response from Hydrovane, they suggest the best way is to fit emergency tiller (comes with Hydrovane windpilot) and with extension to this fit autopilot. We will try this first …

  • Nick Kats Jun 8, 2011, 5:32 am

    A third option is self steering by balancing the sails & setting the sheets. This works great on my boat which is heavy displacement & has a full keel. Think John & I discussed this elsewhere.

  • François DULIEGE Dec 9, 2011, 4:25 am

    We have a 43 feet wood epoxy (twin rudderswith tillers) 10 tons cruising boat (Irisoft 44 name Tara).
    We have had since 6 years a NKE autopilot with an hydraulic cylinder from Lecomble and Schmitt. The system is mounted directly on the rudderpost inside a dry compartment with easy access.
    So far (6 years, 2 month per year, from Spain to Lofoten) we have had no problem, and be very happy with the unit, and some of its features like MOB and wireless command. 6 months ago, we had a preventive factory control of the cylinder with minor replacements.
    While preparing a refit of Tara in 2 years prior to an increase in our time spent on board (4 to 5 months per year, hopefully…) we have been thinking about that “belt and suspenders” question.
    We came to the conclusion that we would, for a budget similar to a windvane, rather buy a Watt and See power generator (http://www.wattandsea.com/) and a stand by a back up tiller autopilot like Raymarine ST 2000+.
    Power generator will provide plenty of energy beyond powering the autopilot, and the tiller autopilot will do the job in a back up situation, even if we may need to sail “underpowered” in such circumstances…
    Best regards,

    • eric Feb 5, 2012, 5:15 pm

      That’s a pretty expensive windvane if you can buy a Watt&Sea and a Raymarine ST 2000 for the same price.

  • Colin Dec 9, 2011, 7:41 am

    Hi Francois

    Good to hear of your experiences, and I’m particularly interested in your comments on the NKE pilot, which I know is very popular in France (especially with offshore racers), but is less well known in anglo sailing circles.

    And I really like everything about those Watt and Sea units – except the price…

    Best wishes


  • Francois DULIEGE Dec 9, 2011, 12:19 pm

    I agree with your comment on the price of the Watt and See units.
    But feedback after 2 years of use both racing and crusing boats is very solid, both on energy production and reliability. It can be removed and stored quite easily as well, due to relatively low weight (good for harbour manoeuvers.
    We had the NKE unit installed new as we build the boat 6 years ago.
    The only issue we had was a leak at the cable connexion with the unit, which created humidity inside the unit. This was replaced under warranty.
    We have 3 units placed in the cokpit and at the chart table all diplaying and monitoring all the parameters (Wind, deepth, speed etc…) ,and the autopilot with heading, true and realitve wind, etc…) The autopilot has a Gyro unit such as the autopilot stears the boat in heavy wind as a good sailor would do (going into the wind while climbing the wave..), and so far none of us has been able to better perform than the pilot in most conditions. We have 3 radio units that are about one third of a iphone in size, and are such that when they become 30 meters distand from the boat, their create noise and action on the rudder ( that can be set differently if you are sailing single handed or with a crew.) One of the unit can also steer the boat +/- one or 10 degrees, and engage or disengage the AP. So when we sail at night or in heavy wind, every memeber of the crew that is in the cokpit carries one od the 3 units. We had one time in 6 years to reset the computer of the autopilot (no identified cause), which took 15 mn and did not requested any assistance. All in all, very satisfied and would not do with another AP, except B&G, but it is a completely different price range
    Don’t hesitate to request for more info if needed.
    Best regards,

  • eric Feb 5, 2012, 5:00 pm

    I have a Cape Horn and can hook-up a tiller controlling autopilot to it, below decks. As the autopilot is only actuating the Cape Horn, it uses minimum power. While above deck autopilots are infamous for failing it is because of being out in the weather; being able to mount it below decks solves that problem. It also works fine under power. BTW, I use it on an Allied Seawind IIK, mostly singlehanded.

    • Philippe Feb 4, 2018, 3:40 pm

      Hello Eric.
      I hope you are still following this thread. I am interested in your set up with the Cape Horn, since I am looking at the same installation. Problem is the access to the below decks mounted tiller autopilot would sure be possible but not particularly easy, let alone fast. I would have to open a big hatch and dig down deep to connect/disconnect the tiller. How does this work in your case? Any ideas how to work around that issue.

  • Niko Dec 11, 2013, 5:31 am

    Has anyone had experience with a windvane being detachable to allow davits to be used for a tender in coastal waters then the windvane mounted again for crossings after the tender is stowed on the foredeck?

    • John Dec 11, 2013, 2:26 pm

      Hi Niko,

      I’m not generally a fan of davits, but I do think that it’s a very good idea to have a windvane that can be easily removed and stowed bellow, if at all possible. The reason is that windvanes are really very fragile. All it takes is a comparatively light brush from another boat or a wharf to total them.

      We keep our Sailomat stored in the forepeak and only install it for offshore passages. It removes from the transom mount with only one bolt, which is one the the reasons we selected it. Having said that, I would not buy another Sailomat or recommend that brand. We have had too much trouble with it over the years. But I would look for easy removal when shopping for another brand.

      • TheTourists Apr 28, 2019, 4:29 pm

        Hi John, I was hesitating on an old sailomat 3040l for my Corbin39 about $ 1800 after reading and research I would be better off buying a new windpilot pacific?

        Hydrovane Servo pendulum Servo Auxiliary,
        I am preparing a circumnavigation for the next year and I would like to find the best compromise if someone can advise me!
        Thank you

        • John Apr 29, 2019, 8:22 am

          Hi Tourist,

          I can only speak from my own experience with Sailomat, but based on that, I would try another windvane. I did manage to get the Sailomat working well in the end, but to do that we pretty much rebuilt it.

    • Colin Speedie Dec 11, 2013, 2:32 pm

      Hi Niko

      Our Windpilot Pacific can be removed in about ten minutes, except for the base plates which are through bolted to the deck.

      We always remove the gear when we leave the boat in a yard, as a result….

      Best wishes


      • Marc Dacey Dec 11, 2013, 4:33 pm

        Yes, there’s that aspect of thievery, too, unfortunately. The reality is that a windvane is an expensive bit of kit that a lot of people have chosen to forgo in favour of APs, until they see them in action! So why tempt fate or a unswung moral compass?

        Of course, another rationale for removing them when coastal or on the hard/on the hook is UV and salt degradation. They should be minor, but nonetheless, once below decks, the vanes can be serviced and usually break down into manageable pieces for under-berth stowage.

  • Marc Dacey Dec 11, 2013, 12:22 pm

    My Voyager windvane is attached to my stern via two heavy, hinged and “toothed” tabs and two heavy bolts. You can see what I mean here:


    by looking at the second-to-last photo. The line of Voyager windvanes is found at their site here:


    In my case, a transom-hung rudder with its post required a sort of Y-shaped standoff to clear the rudder post, but the whole thing is easily removed. I found the owner of Voyager Windvanes to be of great help and ingenuity.

    While I have stopped using davits myself in favour of full-time tender stowage on deck (I had a bad experience!), I can certainly understand your desire to source a detachable windvane, which, after all, is of primary use on long passages and not coastally. Good luck and I hope this has been of help.

  • Lee Mar 5, 2018, 9:29 pm

    Have a hydrovane on the back of my outbound 46. Went with it as it can be mounted off center and the wife likes to dangle her feet in the water when we get there. It works fine but breaks the pin to freeze it when motoring routinely. This occurs even when tensioned with a line using a shock absorber. Solution is to carry a half dozen pins.
    Never use it once at cruising grounds. Just take rudder and control head off. Never use David’s on passage either. So it works out as can use davits once control head off the hydrovane. Life is good.

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