Windvane Or Autopilot, Part I

A windvane is the best type of crew member—silent, powerful and efficient

Sitting in the Canaries watching all the yachts turn up to make the transatlantic crossing has been instructive in one sense. I’ve spent some of my time counting the number of boats equipped with what used to be the long distance boat’s badge of honour—a wind vane. And talking to the owners has been instructive, too.

Pèlerin is the first boat in over twenty-five years that I have owned that has an autopilot. It’s the latest version of the famed Robertson family, the Simrad AP28. When it deigns to work, it’s a great piece of equipment, but it has been far from reliable (numerous global re-sets, one new control head, leaking ram) in a few hundred hours of relatively light use, which is not impressive. It’s also noisy below, to the extent that you’d need to be deaf to sleep in the aft cabin when it’s working, and it is incredibly power hungry when conditions are anything less than calm. On the positive side it is easy to use, and steers a very good course, so it’s no surprise that until recently it got used far more often than our other self-steering device, a Windpilot Pacific windvane.

But that’s been changing, as Lou and I have worked hard to become more adept with the vane, devoting the time to learning its eccentricities, and learning how to trim the boat to keep it happy. On our latest passage, the autopilot was in charge for less than 10% of the time, as the vane steered us quietly, safely and economically to our destination.

Which To Choose?

In an ideal world any offshore boat should have both an electronic autopilot and a windvane, which is why we went down that route. But these are big-ticket items, so if your budget is tight you’re looking at major expense. To replace our autopilot would be around $5000.00, and the Windpilot a little less. If you had to choose, which would it be?

I’m going to stick my neck out and say the windvane, a position that once upon a time wouldn’t have seemed in any way unusual, but in today’s gizmo driven world might be viewed as eccentric. And whilst I’d accept that our less than perfect experience with the AP28 has certainly had a bearing on this, I still think I’d back the vane. But if last year’s Yachting World survey on the ARC contestants is anything to go by, I’d be in the minority, as whilst 182 boats had an autopilot, only 32 had a vane.

It’s not as if windvane development has exactly stalled, new developments and improvements to the existing gears keep coming through, and there continue to be new gears on the market. At least three of the manufacturers offer an emergency rudder installation (Monitor, Windpilot and Hydrovane) that is either part of the existing gear, or an add-on. There are scaled up versions (Windpilot Pacific Plus, Sailomat) and scaled down versions (Windpilot Pacific Light, Mr Vee) for smaller boats—the choice is endless.

Constant Improvement

Vane gears have also improved dramatically in terms of response over the years, so the old idea that they were only suitable for longer keeled boats is no longer true, although they still make a very good match with directionally stable boats. The dramatic changes in apparent wind angle as very fast ocean racing boats accelerate means that they won’t handle any craft of that nature, but that’s about it—the right gear will work fine with most fin keelers, even at the performance end of the scale. Some argue that an autopilot might have an edge in terms of miles run per day as you can push the boat harder, but equally this well argued trial by Southern Ocean veteran Tony Gooch suggests otherwise.

What’s Not To Like?

I think that there are a number of obstacles. The first is that they are unsightly (and vulnerable) on the stern of many boats—owners just don’t like the look of them. The second is that they don’t perform well in coastal waters, where the wind is more fluky, and shifts far more, meaning that you can spend too much of your time trimming the vane. The third, and the major stumbling block in my view, is that they do demand real input from the crew—you have to learn how to set them up in all weather conditions and for all points of sailing. And this requires that you spend time perfecting your sail trim, as the vane will not fight an unbalanced boat. So many owners of vanes have remarked to me that they aren’t over impressed with their gear, but in the next breath have admitted that this might well be because they haven’t played around with it enough to really get to know it.

For me the clinchers are that a windvane works better the harder it blows, the complete opposite of an autopilot, and it fulfills our desire to have independence from electricity in the event of a disaster.

So in Part 2 I’m going to look at some of the ways to get the best out of a windvane, with a list of dos and don’ts that might just convince you (if you don’t already have one) to consider one of these great, silent, tireless devices that consume no power and never ask for a pay rise!

Further Reading

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Meet the Author

Colin Speedie

Colin, European Correspondent here at AAC, is a deeply experienced offshore sailor who holds a Yachtmaster licence, and a gifted photographer and talented writer who has added a whole new dimension to Attainable Adventure Cruising. In addition, since Colin and Louise are from England and had their OVNI 435, Pèlerin built in France, they bring a European perspective to our site. You can read more about Colin and Louise and their business at their website.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Dick Stevenson Dec 8, 2011, 1:02 pm

    Colin, There are apples and there are oranges. Our autopilot is an Alpha 3000. It has none of the modern bells & whistles, but it has steered Alchemy for 15 years and 40,000 miles (we are rarely at the helm) without a hiccup. It sips power, is soundless and very powerful. It has steered as in 50+ knot winds with commensurate following sees and upwind in 40+. We have a Monitor wind vane as well which, sad to say, we are beginning to think of as lightening protection (because steering constantly when you are just 2 is in the last resort category) rather than a primary steering device. That said for years now we have been mostly near land (the Med and coastally up to England) and not doing really long passages. Especially near land and on day hops the fussiness of a vane means we would not consider the Monitor. I hate reporting the above, but to some extent it feels like the encroachment of roller furling headsails over good old reliable hanks way back when. The ease, reliability, responsiveness, and power of our Alpha has won the day on our vessel. My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy
    Ps. We have had times where we thought to get rid of the Monitor, but having back-up steering when you live aboard is too important. D.

    • Colin Dec 8, 2011, 6:07 pm

      Hi Dick

      It sounds like you’ve got the best autopilot of them all – which I’ll bet is also the simplest. The companies that make them seem to suffer from the same attitude of the purveyors of all electronic devices – load it up with trickery. As I’ve said before I’d give anything for an autopilot that was (a) simple, (b) powerful and (c) reliable – and that’s it. Anything else I could live without. Our pilot can (according to the book of words) do just about anything, and I can’t for the life of me see the point of that.

      I’d agree with you that vanes aren’t the greatest asset for coastal work, but offshore I think they’re great. And I think that until someone produces an autopilot that can fulfil my above criteria, we’ll focus on the vane as our No 1 third crew member.

      Best wishes


  • Carolyn Shearlock Dec 8, 2011, 1:11 pm

    We had both a hydraulic autopilot (big, beefy unit favored by the New Zealand fishing fleet) and a Monitor on Que Tal. We used the autopilot whenever we motored, but the Monitor whenever under sail. This may be largely due to both Dave’s and my background in racing small boat — we both LIKE fiddling with the sails!

    If we were starting from scratch — and assuming a boat that a windvane would fit/work on — we’d probably go with a Monitor again, but hook up a tiller pilot to it. Much cheaper than a full autopilot, works with the Monitor system, AND takes a lot less power. I’ve talked to a few boats that use the system and really like it, but I’ve never done so myself.

    • Colin Dec 8, 2011, 6:11 pm

      Hi Carolyn

      And I’ll bet the autopilot that the fishermen like (always a good sign) is simple as well as robust.

      Like your selves we like the vane, and don’t mind the fiddling with it to get the best out of it. And I’m of the opinion that the course it steers is more ‘natural’ than with the pilot, in that the boat seems more in harmony with the wave train, and the wheel moves far less than the pilot – just like a good racing helm would.

      Best wishes


  • Dick Stevenson Dec 8, 2011, 3:49 pm

    Carolyn, A number of friends have a tiller pilot connected to their vane with a variety of home built adaptations. All have been pleased, but I think there has not been heavy usage as at least on a few boats it was a back up to the below decks autopilot and not the only electric autopilot. I remember some concern for bearings etc with the prop wash always agitating the vane’s oar just astern. Dick

  • Dick Stevenson Dec 9, 2011, 3:10 am

    Colin, And you will have a smoother ride. One thing I have observed, in my admittedly quite unscientific manner, is that the wind vane responds to all the elements: not just wind but wave action, boat attitude etc. so you end up with a smoother ride. With the electric autopilot, there is only the compass feedback so, in certain conditions, it tends to slam into waves when a vane feel the wave through the oar and smooth things out. I would be interested in whether others have observed this as well. Dick

    • Colin Dec 9, 2011, 7:36 am

      Hi Dick

      So it’s not just me! there’s no doubt in my mind that the course steered is more ‘organic with the vane than the pilot, which seems to want to do battle with the boat’s wishes. I’d probably never noticed this before as I’ve always used vanes, but it’s really marked (at least) on our Ovni.

      Let’s hear from anyone else out there who has experienced the same syndrome.

      Best wishes


      • Lane Finley Dec 11, 2011, 3:56 am

        We have always sailed with both autopilot and windvane on our boat, an Annapolis 44. To me they are two distinctly different tools, one we use for sailing and one we use for motoring. The only exception is that when I am single-handing in coastal waters I almost always use the autopilot as coastal winds can change quickly and that can send the boat offcourse when you least want it too if you are using the windvane. Perhaps most modern sailors have become accustomed to push-button technology and don’t have the patience to learn how to “play” with the windvane and their boat’s sail trim. Its a shame really, because there is something special about watching your windvane effortlessly steer you boat through the ocean without drawing a single amp from your batteries. I agree that the windvane seems to correct the course in a more efficient way. Also, the boat will excelerate quicker after being slowed by headseas. This is because the windvane is working on apparent wind and not the compass course. We have an old Flemming windvane and a WH Autopilot. Both have been reliable for over twenty-two years and many miles.

        • Colin Dec 11, 2011, 10:58 am

          Hi Lane

          The second mention of WH autopilots, both favourable. I think there may well be a case for going down the commercial route for autopilots for long distance boats – any other views either for or against would be welcomed!

          Kind regards


  • Victor Raymond Dec 9, 2011, 10:10 am

    Of course another great article, thank you. Several points: I have the Simrad AP22 and I was pleased and surprised to find that it worked flawlessly. The only time it went offline (standby) was when we were slammed by 35kt squall at night. It was more than the autopilot could handle but was the right response With no AP input the boat naturally took the path of least resitance with respect to the wind and this allowed me time to reset the sail trim for the new wind speed and direction. Had I been using the Aries wind vane I suspect it would have commanded a major direction change although without the corresponding sail trim that strategy would be short lived.
    I look forward to your second part as sadly I have not been successful in getting it to sail the boat as I would expect I am convinced it is operator error but have not have a long enough passage to try every adjustment.
    S/V Rajah Laut
    Meta Dalu 47

    • Jean-François Eeman Dec 9, 2011, 11:07 am

      Hi Victor,

      I hope you are fine !

      If I’m correct Rajah Laut is a Michel Joubert plan with a hung rudder. The rudder is not compensated…

      The boat works well under autopilot most probably because the ram is powerfull (I don’t know your model of pilot)…
      But I’m afraid that whatever the windvane model you’ll try, it will be really hard to make it work on such a configuration…

      I sincerely hope you’ll find the way to tell my I’m wrong !!! But my previous boat was a Joubert plan built according to the same ideas (hung rudder, not compensated…)
      I had a Fleming wind vane and as soon as the wind started blowing, it did not work unless we completely underpowered the boat…
      I’m my eyes it was not because of the windvane but because the boat was really hard to balance, not having to use a lot of power to steer…

      Please tell me if I’m compeltely wrong. I’ll be happy to amend.

      • Victor Raymond Dec 9, 2011, 6:06 pm

        Dear Jean-François
        Yes, thank you. Doing well. Hope you are doing well also.

        The Rajah Laut is the Joubert design and the rudder is transom hung and very large. It is retractable like the keel except vertical not swinging. The boat like David Nutt’s Danza has Whitlock steering so requires the special Simrad/Whitlock drive. It seems very strong and the wheel only moves slightly back and forth to keep the boat going straight even in 6 foot swells.

        The previous owner said he used the Aries almost exclusively unless motoring, even downwind with twin headsails. I am quite convinced it would sail better than with the autopilot would with a quartering swell.

        I am not sure if the rudder is compensated or not since I am unfamiliar with the term. It is not a barn door and is very effective when motoring since the prop wash flows right over it. In spite of being a swinging keel boat it can turn very sharply but reverse is always interesting.

        I still wish I could have a Boreal but that does not seem likely at the moment. Take care and happy holidays.

        • Colin Dec 10, 2011, 9:19 am

          Hi Victor and Jean-Francois

          I think what Jean-Francois means is that rudder is not ‘balanced’, an Anglo technical term.

          There’s no doubt that some boats are more difficult to match with vanes (and autopilots for that matter) than others, and it’s a matter of trial and error to get them to perform well.

          But if the previous owner sailed with the Aries all the time, perhaps a good place to start is to ask him how, if you haven’t already – he may have some really useful pointers.

          Kindest regards


          • Victor Raymond Dec 10, 2011, 10:01 am

            Dear Colin and Jean François
            You are both correct. The rudder is not balanced as the gudgeon and pindle are forward of the rudder. However the rudder is a shapped foil with several fences to control ventilation. The boat steers fine without deployment of the retractable extension and one really only needs the extension when heeled excessively. Of course this is something avoided as a matter of course for flat bottomed boats.
            With much appreciation

          • Jean-François Eeman Dec 14, 2011, 2:08 pm

            Dear Colin,
            Dear Vicor,

            Indeed Balanced !

            Victor : I had – I believe – exactly the same kind of rudder. When we designed the new ones, we did simulations and we think the fence at the bottom of the rudder is usefull but we have doubts about the utlity of the ones which are placed at the rear edge of the rudder…
            But on our boat we could use them as steps to go and swim. So not useless…

            Let us know if you succeed making her work with a windpilot. The actual owner of Juan sa Bulan 1 is very keen to know 🙂


  • Jean-François Eeman Dec 9, 2011, 10:45 am

    Dear Colin,

    Very very interesting post. I look forward to read the next part…

    A few random “remarks” (if you do allow me) without defending one system rather than the other .

    – Windvanes do not work when you are motoring…
    – The effectiveness of a windvane also depend in a great proportion on the hull design and the course stability of the boat and how “neutral” the steering is/can get…
    Some boats will almost never work with a windvane because they are hard to trim correctly or need continuous trimming.
    Some others will with a minimum of effort and human intervention sail on for days.
    (speaking about race boats : in the first “Around Alone” and ” Vendée Globe” most of the boats were sailing most of the time under windvane)
    – Even with a autopilot your boat needs to be trimmed correctly.
    At Boréal we measured the difference in consumption between a not and a well trimmed boat … and well “trimmed” pilot (when trimming is possible) The difference is huge !
    (I used to race Figaro Solo boats and we spend hours and hours training, building a list of trim combinations corresponding to wind direction, force and wave patterns. We spend more time on that, than on steering ourselves)
    – For a good autopilot (complete system) for a boat of 40 ft and more, a budget of 5.000, – is -according to me – underestimated.
    – To Dick : You are completely right when you steer on the “compas”-mode of your autopilot; Some pilots steer on a apparent wind angle, some more sophisticated pilots even incorporate an adaptation to wave patterns… The behaviour gets better and better… So greatly depends on your pilot, on the mode you use, and on the trim…

    As always : Not a universal truth, just my point of view based on my experiences…


    • Colin Dec 10, 2011, 9:24 am

      Hi Jean-Francois

      All really good points and well made.

      The latest generation autopilots are very clever devices, and there are some benefits from the latest algorithms to cope with different wave patterns etc. But they require as much time to set them up properly to get the best out of them as a vane, and are still less reliable, in my view.

      But you’re right, it’s critical to get a well balanced boat, and fine a unit that suits it – which I’ll be touching on in Part II.

      Best wishes


  • Philip Dec 9, 2011, 10:58 am

    We circumnavigated, 46.000 miles, with the help (+/-95% of the time ) from “Raymond” our ARIES Vane gear when our boatspeed was 2.5 knots or more. In light airs or when motoring we had a small tiller AUTOHELM pilot connected to the ARIES which gave us full satisfaction (though the connection ARIES-AUTOHELM required a bit of trial-error when originally worked out). Oiling Raymond on a regular basis and changing the lines to tiller twice were the only things which had to be done for a flawless function of the vane. We have an 18 ton 40ft steel double ender ketch with long keel (which probably contributed strongly to the boat holding its course so well). Raymond and us ready to go for a second round.

    • Colin Dec 10, 2011, 9:28 am

      Hi Philip

      Good to hear your positive experience, and it’s maybe significant that your boat’s design worked so well with the Aries, a vane that is not as quick in response terms (in my experience) than some of the more recent units. It’s very important to match boat and vane to get the best results.

      Regular washing or oiling (depends on the bearing materials – don’t get it wrong!) and attention to wear and tear and chafe are all vital to get the best out of your vane, whatever model it is.

      Best wishes


  • Nick Kats Dec 9, 2011, 11:14 am

    Hi Colin
    There is a 3rd possibility, which should be included here.
    This is that the boat sail herself, just by balancing the sails & setting the sheets, and perhaps lashing the wheel. These boats need neither autopilot nor vane.
    This possibility is the simplest of all.
    Some of the boats on this website should be able to self steer. Remember Joshua Slocum?

    • Jean-François Eeman Dec 9, 2011, 11:41 am

      Thank you for this additonal remark !

      Even with a modern hull it is still possible…
      On Juan sa Bulan 3, we have a system with two excenterd daggerboards of the rear of the boat.
      As soon as we have 12 knots of wind (apparent) and the boat is correctly trimmed, the boat goes windward alone…
      We determine the angle trimming the main…


      • Colin Dec 10, 2011, 9:37 am

        Hi Nick and Jean-Francois

        Boats that will sail themselves are a wonder, but as I’m sure we’d agree, whilst many modern boats will sail themselves upwind in a flat sea OK with just the helm trimmed – that’s about it! Some form of self-steering is obligatory.

        Having sailed old gaffers many years ago that needed only a becket on the wheel to sail their course, I’m right with you, but as our boat needs a third helmsman, it’s windvane vs autopilot for us, and I’d bet it’s the same for most of us.

        But as the simplest system of all, it’s got a lot going for it.

        Kindest regards


  • Jim Almond Dec 9, 2011, 2:16 pm

    Personally, I would not leave without both a tiller pilot and windvane. I have a Cape Horn vane which comes with a quadrant that lives in the lazarette. With the pilot connected to the quadrant it stays dry and steers the boat with ease due to the mechanical advantage the quadrant provides. Even the very smallest pilot can steer via this ingenious system.

    • Colin Dec 10, 2011, 9:42 am

      Hi Jim

      I’ve only recently looked at a boat with this set-up, and I was impressed, especially as it offers even more independence in the event of a failure of any part of the wheel steering’s mechanism.

      Neat and unobtrusive, too, with no lines in the cockpit, too. My only concern would be that it might not be possible to install such a set-up in all boats. But proof (if it was needed) that windvane development has by no means run out of steam.

      Best wishes


  • Daria Blackwell Dec 9, 2011, 4:12 pm

    We have both a wind vane (Monitor aka Jolly Mon) and an autopilot (aka Otto). We use Otto when there’s wind and Jolly when there’s none.

    And yes, Nick, when we lost steering mid-Atlantic (twice — on two different occasions— seized gear box and quadrant dislocation), we steered by balancing the sails and our Bowman 57 did brilliantly on her own until we could effect repairs.

    By the way, we also had to replace the vertical stainless steel post on the Monitor twice in three years. Both times it sheared in heavy following seas — once during a gale and once in light air. Luckily, we had tied the blade off as recommended so all we had to do was heave to and replace it with the spare provided. We love our Monitor.

    • Colin Dec 10, 2011, 9:45 am

      Hi Daria

      Good to hear that the fail safe device on the rudder did it’s job – other vanes use a variety of ways to build in this overload reduction effect, as I’ll discuss in Part II.

      And yours is a big, heavy displacement boat for a vane, so full marks to the Monitor – no wonder you love it.

      Kindest regards


  • David Nutt Dec 9, 2011, 5:30 pm

    On Danza, an 18m steel ketch and a sister ship to Chay Blyth’s original British Steel, we use a Robertson autopilot connected to the Whitlock (now part of Lewmar) drive motor. This system worked flawlessly during a 5 year, 42000 mile circumnavigation and a more recent trip to Greenland and return. It has steered through calms, big seas, lots of wind and everything in between. Colin is so right in his comment on trimming the sails so the work done by the autopilot is minimal. On the wind we can sail Danza simply by sail trim and no pilot at all and if you cannot or do not trim correctly nothing but a soon to be tired helmsman can steer the boat. I sailed over 15000 miles with an Aries on a previous boat and found it great with decent wind as long as the trim was frequently attended to. Few of us like to admit how much we motor especially during a voyage to the arctic where laying out in a long spell of calm weather is only waiting off shore for the next gale. It is then that the autopilot is of such value. I always advise people to buy the best autopilot they can as it is such a vital piece of gear.

  • Colin Dec 10, 2011, 9:53 am

    Hi David

    Your boat has a wonderful pedigree, and having personal experience of Robert Clark’s ketches, I can attest that they are beautufully balanced and easy to trim, so I’m sure the pilot wouldn’t be overloaded.

    Autopilot and vane is undoubtedly the best route, especially as vanes shouldn’t be used when motoring. Robertson have always had a sterling reputation, which is why we went for one (albeit now under new ownership), but so far our experience has not been as positive, but we live in hope!

    Kind regards


  • Victor Raymond Dec 10, 2011, 10:07 am

    In spite of my positive experience so far with the Simrad née Robertson AP if it were to fail completely I would replace it with the WH autopilots from Bainbridge, WA.
    This is the one Steve Daschew raves about and it looks like a no nonsense tough one built for Alaska fisherman.
    Check it out online and also read what Steve has to say about it.
    Thank you

  • Jan Dec 10, 2011, 11:06 am

    “Windvanes don’t work when motoring.”

    This is not our experience. “Bo”, our monitor windvane, nicknamed by my husband because she steers a perfect 10, can steer in all but the lightest of winds. Pretty much as long as our sails are up, and there’s enough breeze to move the boat along at a couple of knots, the windvane seems to work fine. We were skeptical but like others, enjoy fiddling with the sails and as long as our Passport 37 is balanced, the windvane will work while motoring.

    We also have two autopilots – “Boris Jr”, named for the boat’s prior owner, the wheelpilot is used only in flat water, anchorages and such – it was on the boat when we bought it and was undersized. “Boris Sr” is the belowdecks autopilot we added in Cartagena. It works fine, but is very very noisy.

    If we had to pick just one, we’d pick the Monitor windvane.

    Cheers! Jan

  • Bob Tetrault Dec 11, 2011, 2:04 pm

    Hello all, can’t contribute to the discussion of which is better because we have always used autopilots. Sea Return is a cc ketch of more than 25 tons so could never get the self steering folks interested in supplying one due to the displacement. I have used them on boats of others and have had good experiences provided it was blowing and the boat was balanced.

    Now I do know something about autopilots and wish to give credit where it is well deserved. We are rigged with duel autopilots both with drives on opposite sides of a very large quadrant. I mention this because each must pull the other along meeting with some resistance even if the other is disengaged. Our latest “Auto” (fondly named by the my kids when young) is a Simrad AP 25 connected to a Rate Compass and our Simrad Wind instruments. The drive is not Simrad/Robertson but rather a Ray Marine single ram. This brute makes almost no noise and is powered by a elec/hydraulic pump the size of a frozen orange juice can. I cannot exaggerate how quiet, efficient and frugal this set up is. Auto steers to the apparent wind flawlessly with algorithms that seem to “learn”. If the pilot gets off course more than a preset value it sounds an alarm forcing the crew to acknowledge. This is usually due to a wind shift or velocity drop requiring a little trim and you can go back to whatever.

    I am sure no human could compete in anything but the wildest conditions. Auto cannot anticipate but I’m beginning to wonder. I have seen the amperage spike to 10A at 12vdc but that is while maneuvering and shifting the rudder on high speed. The usual draw is 1-2A and then only when applying rudder. The other side is a electric clutch Benmar drive that does reasonably well under all but the worst conditions. It sees little use these days, the control head lacks the modern bells and whistles and it like the juice.

    We split our house bank into two banks of 420AH each. We can usually sail under autopilot for 12 hrs on each bank without discharging the bank more than 50%. Of course all the other creature comforts are being powered also.

    The AP-25 has only been about 10,000 miles but so far flawlessly.

    • Colin Dec 12, 2011, 5:59 pm

      Good to hear a positive response for the AP25, Bob.

      We were confronted with a dilemma when our boat was approaching completion, as the AP25 was still on the market, but the AP28 was just out. What to do? Go with the new unit which might have bugs, or the old unit that was thoroughly de-bugged?

      In the end we decided to go with the new, working on the principle that the older version would soon be a ‘legacy’ item, and spares would become less available as time went by. We have had our problems with the new unit, which may be down to it being ‘too new’ when we got it. It’s hard to say.

      But if we can get it to perform as well as yours, we’ll be very happy.

      Kindest regards


  • Daria Blackwell Dec 11, 2011, 2:50 pm

    I forgot to mention earlier that our Bowman 57 has a net displacement of 27 tons and the Monitor wind vane worked flawlessly once we got everything trimmed and set. I loved not having to use electricity to power it. So simple.

    Otto is an aging WH and it is a workhorse. At one point, it got finicky so Alex took it apart and realized some of the contacts had corroded. A bit of solder at sea and it was good to go for another 10,000 nautical miles. Unfortunately, it does not interface with the GPS so we are looking at replacing its brain. Apparently that’s possible. It only gets noisy when something is not right and it starts working too hard. Otherwise, you hardly notice it, even in the aft cabin.

  • Colin Dec 12, 2011, 6:03 pm

    Hi Daria

    That the Monitor copes so well with such and large boat is highly impressive, and must have at least something to do with the inherent balance of your the Bowman and your knowledge of how to trim her.

    Good to hear too about an autopilot that you can repair at sea. That’s the sort of engineering and electronics I like!

    Kindest regards


  • Giancarlo Dec 14, 2011, 1:52 pm

    Ciao a tutti,
    we did sail with both Windpilot pacific and NKE gyropilot they both have pro and cons allready mentioned in the previous post,my point is more focused on the ”life saving,,or better to”huge stress saving,, in case the electric system or the autopilot fail during an ocean passage,no matter if in the trade winds or hight lattitude, with just a couple,see single hand,on board.
    So ,i would say,the windwane is a piece of gear that deserves hight respect on any cruising boat with a couple on board.
    Forgive my AItalian english

    • Jean-François Eeman Dec 14, 2011, 2:00 pm

      Hey Giancarlo,

      We would be very curious on your feedback on your NKE autopilot ?
      And its ram ? You have a Lecomble-Schmitt ram ?

      Looking forward to read you !

      ps. my english is not better than yours but we will understand each other.


  • Giancarlo Dec 14, 2011, 2:49 pm

    Bon soir Jean-François,
    mon français c’ est encore pire,
    my feed back with NKE gyro and L&S 60 type on our ”old,, passoa46 is very positive,easy to set up and not excessive power hungry in the trade winds expetially with a double head sail set up(buttrfly genoa boomed out and genoa poled out)
    I will mount 2 Nke gyro on our new boat under constuction

    • Colin Dec 14, 2011, 4:43 pm

      Hi Giancarlo and Jean-Francois

      Great to have such experienced people commenting on this subject – and whilst none of us have perfect command of each others language, we can all benefit from each other’s experience – it’s the quality that counts. And my Italian is undoubtedly worse than your French, Giancarlo, your English is good, and Jean-Francois speaks excellent English, so don’t be put off! Between us, we’ll get there.

      I hope you’ll both feel free to comment on Part II, which focusses more on practical ways to get the most out of a wind vane, as I’m sure that everyone will benefit from your experience – which will be coming up soon.

      Best wishes


  • Giancarlo Dec 14, 2011, 5:13 pm

    Hi Collin,
    thanks for your supporting words,one main issue with windvane is ,according to Mr Windpilot , the initial set up ,if you click on my name you will see the ”perfect set up ,,done by Peter,the inventor of the windpilot in Gran Canaria
    On our new boat i preferred a tiller steering which i hope will improve and simplify the system.
    looking forward to read Part 2

    • Colin Dec 15, 2011, 7:24 am

      Hi Giancarlo

      That looks like a great, simple set-up, and I’m happy to say almost identical to ours.

      Thanks for the useful comments on the Pacific and the NKE autopilot, and I’m sure we’ll all look forward to hearing more about your new boat – because the old one looks pretty good…

      Best wishes


      • Giancarlo Dec 15, 2011, 10:16 am

        Ciao Collin
        yes indeed, the Garcia is a great boat,she looked after us for 5 years living onboard.Francescana was sold in Panama
        I also find that the daggerboard trimming was helpfull for the behaviour of the Windpilot
        I will also appreciate if you have a comment on the new boat,i never share opinions with anybody on the new design
        Best from Italy

        • Jean-François Eeman Dec 15, 2011, 10:54 am

          Am I the onlu one to be very curious on what your next boat is going to be ???

          • Colin Dec 15, 2011, 11:06 am

            No – I am, too.

            Don’t keep us in the dark, Giancarlo!

            Best wishes


          • Giancarlo Dec 15, 2011, 11:19 am

            JF and Collin,
            i will not keep you in the dark,is a big plesure to share with you, i think if click on my name you will be linked to my humble blog where you can see some pics of the building process

  • Steve Dec 15, 2011, 1:23 am

    Hi Colin and Hi to you Jean-Francois,
    Glad to come across this chat as I search for different products for the new boat being built.
    Colin, My plan is to have both the NKE auto pilot and the Windpilot Pacific on the Boreal 44. I only hear great things about NKE and the Windpilot Pacific will be perfect as the Boreal 44 has a fold down platform on the stern. I’m thinking instead of getting tons of spare parts for the NKE (they are expensive ) but to get a Raymarine small tiller pilot for the Windpilot. If the NKE unit fails I would have an alternative for motoring. Do you know if one can use a tiller pilot on the Windpilot Pacific unit to motor with in an emergency? Did it with the last windvane, (monitor) on our last boat and it worked great as a backup if the autopilot had ever failed.

    • Colin Dec 15, 2011, 7:36 am

      Hi Steve

      Glad you’ve found the discussion useful. With the range of experience that resides in our commentators, it’s no surprise!

      I think your planned installation sounds good, and I’d think that the Boreal with its moveable daggerboards will be an easy boat for either system to handle.

      We’re planning to go down the small tiller pilot route at some stage, but not specifically for motoring, as Peter Foerthmann of Windpilot doesn’t recommend it (more on this in Part II). But it would undoubtedly work in a emergency, and it does have other benefits when used in its normal manner.

      It might be instructive to look at what the French racing fleets carry or replace regularly on their NKE pilots, because they use NKE almost exclusively – Jean-Francois should be well placed to help with this.

      The NKE unit isn’t at all cheap, but if its performance and reliability are as good as most owners suggest, then perhaps that’s to be expected – as the old saying goes, ‘you pay peanuts, you get monkeys ‘ ….

      Best wishes


  • Jean-François Eeman Dec 15, 2011, 8:24 am

    The first time I went to Patagonia it was with Nicole van de Kerchove on her Esquilo, a steel boat of 9 m with chines…
    She sailed around the world with her in the 70’s… and became one of the stars of the french sailing world.
    The boat was steered since the seventies by a very, very simple windvane Bernard Moitessier designed for her. She built it herself. 30 years later this same selfmade system sailed us all the way down…
    If you agree and if there is any interst from people who want to try to make their windvane themselves, I can scan the pictures and sent you them for publication…
    Long long time ago Nicole gave me the plan, I might be able to find it back…
    (Nicole died 3 years ago in the mountains around Puerto Williams. She would have loved your site which we did not know at that time. She would have loved the idea of sharing experiences and I’m sure she would have shared the plans of her windvane.)

    • Colin Dec 15, 2011, 9:07 am

      Hi Jean-Francois

      I knew of Nicole very well (having lived in France in the 70’s) and she was a wonderful talent in so many ways – pianist, writer, photographer and philosopher – beyond her undoubted abilities as sailor. You were very fortunate to know and sail with her, as I’m sure she would have been a great mentor and inspiration. What a tragedy she was taken so young.

      If anyone out there is interested is seeing the plans for her vane, maybe they could contact me and we can see if that’s possible.

      Kindest regards


    • Victor Raymond Dec 15, 2011, 11:08 am

      You bring up very interesting snapshots of your past! Also interesting that they are related to Rajah Laut in some way. Moistessier had Joubert design his famous Joshua. The boat yard Meta built the steel hull near Lyons where Rajah Laut also had her keel laid, so to speak. Although in aluminum alloy (5086) the Strongall method is very similar I believe to steel construction with little to no internal structure other than from the massive tankage and cabin roof structure and supports.
      Was Esquilo a product of the Meta yard also?
      Thank you for sharing this interesting bit of nautical history.

      • Jean-François Eeman Dec 15, 2011, 3:59 pm

        Dear Victor,

        I’m afraid we are mixing up different things:
        Joshua was indeed build by Mr. Jean Fricaud and his son Joseph in Chauffailles in 1961… (Méta opened the same year or in 1962 in Tarare).
        They built the boat for the price of the steel sheets!
        And at that time they had never build a boat before.

        BUT it was Jean Knocker who offered to design the boat for Bernard Moitessier (for free).

        Esquilo was built in 1968 in steel in Volendam (Holland). The design of the hull was a standard design from the yard. Nicole with the help of Bernard and Loïck Fougeron modified the layout and the superstructures.

        If you like stories (and allow my to be nostalgic) :
        It was my father who bought Nicole’s first boat. (A yellow Corsaire). Except for my parents she was the first person I evever sailed with (I was less than a month old…)
        Much later, in 1995, it was with my small boat she crossed the Altlantic towed by kites…
        The first time I went to Patagonia it was with Nicole.
        The first person we met arriving in Ushuaia was Jean-François, my actual partner in Boréal…
        Juan sa Bulan 1 was the boat of her brother. We sailed 4 or 5 times togehter in Patagonia on board of JSB 1…

        Far far away from windvanes… (soory for that !!!)
        But very close to my heart…


  • Dick Stevenson Dec 17, 2011, 6:08 am

    With all the discussion of electric autopilots, especially with respect to questions of quality, I suggest keeping an Alpha 3000 in the picture. Please see the first email response in this thread for details. Dick

  • David Foster Mar 12, 2012, 3:21 pm


    I am reading Bernard Moitessier’s book “The Long Way” for the second time. He mentions Nicole and Esquilo in the book. I found this post because I decided to google Esquilo. The search led me to a link to your post. I have been amazed that Bernard built his windvane and got so much use out of it. Then to find a post by someone who was so close to Niciole and has plans to the windvane is incredible! I really want to explore building one for my CSY 33. I will email you directly.

    Thanks to everyone who has contributed to this post. I will now search for part 2.


  • Bill Robinson Aug 8, 2013, 10:29 pm

    For the past 5 years, I have been using a French built , Beaufort Orion windvane. It is an all stainless steel unit, and looks very similar to a Monitor. It does however have some unusual features that help it to work very well. One can adjust the stroke of the operating arm, this in turn varies the deflection of the sevo blade and thus the rudder movement. It also has an adjustable counter weight, which makes it easy to set up in light wind conditions. I have mine set up to connect to a small tiller pilot for motoring, this works well for coastal passages as well. It has no bevel gears, instead just pins like the old French Atoms gears. This is simple, strong and could be repaired easily. My yacht Jenain is a 12 ton, steel Ebbtide 36, with a full keel and an outboard rudder. Beaufort make other windvanes too, very suitable for smaller vessels. Previously, I sailed about 40000nm with an Aires, but the corrosion between the aluminium parts and the stainless steel fastenings was a major problem. Also the unit did not work in very light conditions, as there was just too much friction.

    • Colin Speedie Aug 9, 2013, 6:09 am

      Hi Bill

      I’ve seen this model on a number of French boats, but yours is the first report I’ve had of their advantages – thanks.

      I, too, had a Aries originally. Great gear, but same problems that you found. Then a Monitor, which I found almost too sensitive, then finally our current Windpilot Pacific. All of them had their good points, but I like the Windpilot best.

      Incidentally, would your Ebbtide have been built by Oceancraft or Terry Erskine? Both good builders, and I still see 33’s and 36’s around.

      Best wishes


  • Bill Robinson Sep 8, 2013, 10:14 am

    Hi Colin,
    I had my Ebbtide’s steelwork built by Ankon Metal yachts in Cape Town. (I think she was the first round bilged 36 to launch). I then trucked her up to Johannesburg, finished her there, and launched in Durban 1996.
    I must say that the Beaufort Orion has been great, with the exception of a failure of the servo blade, (bad engineering, replaced for free). It has a lot going for it.

  • Dick de Grasse Dec 13, 2013, 11:05 am

    I’ve used a Ratcliffe auxiliary rudder/trim tab vane gear on my Tartan 34 for many years on several ocean-crossing passages -I love it! Any thoughts on having an auxiliary rudder available with the main rudder locked amidships? The vane drives the trim tab which drives the auxiliary rudder. Know of any other auxiliary rudder type gear?

  • Tobias Nov 29, 2015, 6:20 am

    Hi, our next project is to fit a wind vane. What to buy?!

    Found a Swedish web page recommending Monitor, they state it is the best one. On the other end they list wind pilot as the worst brand.

    What should we go for please? Our boat is a Norlin 37, specs here:

    If we can get an emergency rudder functionality by fitting a windvane, well that would like killing two flies with the same newspaper. (Swedish saying).


    To bias

    • John Nov 29, 2015, 10:45 am

      Hi Tobias,

      I don’t have any first hand information on either system—we have a Sailomat, which I don’t recommend—but I know Colin is a great fan of the Windpilot, which would be a powerful endorsement for me.

      I would suggest you put “windpilot” (without the quote marks) into the search box above the sidebar and you will find a bunch of useful stuff on this site.

    • Jo Nov 29, 2015, 11:22 am


      I can’t say why system is better or worse, but I the players in the wind-vane market seem to hold a lot of personal grudges against each other. Peter Förthmann of Windpilot doesn’t seem to be an easy character and some of the players aren’t gentlemen either. If only half the stories are true, the intrigues in Dallas or Dynasty are only the amateur league compared to the dramas in the wind-vane business. Friends becoming mortal enemies, business partners stealing from each other and mudlslinging galore.

      Don’t trust too much what the manufacturers say about each other or themselves, try to get some independent input.

  • Bill Attwood Nov 29, 2015, 8:54 am

    Hi Tobias.
    We have a Windpilot Pacific fitted to a Rustler 36 and are very happy with it. I wouldn´t go to sea without a windvane system, and would always choose one in preference to an autopilot if I could only have one. The Windpilot is configured so that a small and cheap tillerpilot can be connected in place of the vane if you are motoring. Two sailing friends have a Pacific and a Pacific Plus, and are also both happy with theirs. I have also sailed with a Haslar windvane and an Aries. I would tend to be wary of any value judgements which refer to “the worst of”. I think that most of the windvane systems available today are good products, although all will have pluses and minuses. The only minus I have for the Windpilot is the system of trimming the vane. It requires going right to the back of the cockpit which can be uncomfortable in bad weather. I crossed the Indian Ocean with an Aries, and was fairly happy with it, although it steered a course more like a snake – the Windpilot holds a much more direct course. A positive for the Aries is the method of trimming the vane, a tug on the line turns the vane through 5° on a ratchet system. Any windvane system will require quite a learning curve, and I believe some people will give up when it doesn´t function out of the box like an autohelm/autopilot.
    Yours aye,

  • steve Nov 29, 2015, 12:57 pm

    Hi Tobias,
    I’m very happy with our Windpilot Pacific on our Boreal 44. I’m even more happy with the service the owner of Windpilot Peter Forthmann provided us. We were the first Boreal with a windvane and there were some bugs to work out. Peter was always there for us answering our emails right away even well after his working hours at the shop were over. If I remember right when we crossed the Atlantic our last 13 days we never once touched the windpilot, she took care of its self, we were sailing wing to wing dead down wind and the windpilot worked perfectly.
    We have also used the monitor on our previous boat, Mason 44 and it was a wonderful device, not as robust as the Windpilot but a very good machine. Also a good company to work with always there to help you if you have a problem.

    And Bill Attwood,
    We use use a three strand cord around the wind direction knob on our Windpilot. This cord comes back to the cockpit and we just pull it in the direction we need to make the adjustment for wind change, usually a very very small pull on the cord does the trick.

  • Bill Attwood Nov 29, 2015, 2:17 pm

    Hi Steve.
    Thanks for the reply. We also use the endless line to adjust the Windpilot vane, but the layout of our cockpit, tiller steering and mainsheet horse in the middle of the cockpit make the process of adjusting less than easy. The Aries system means that the lines can be of any length, and a pull on one line works the ratchet on that side. The Windpilot system means that both sides of the endless line need to be held in tension. It was unfair of me to describe this as a disadvantage, if I wanted an easy life I wouldn´t sail a yacht.
    Yours aye,
    ps I am very envious of your Boreal, they come close to my ideal cruising yacht.

  • Tobias Nov 29, 2015, 6:04 pm


    One thing the surveyor noted is that to put a tiller directly on the rudder quadrant, in case of steering wheel or wire failure, the aft locker must be open. Major hassle to steer like that in rough seas.

    So he suggested to create a lead-through to connect the tiller with the locker closed.

    Wouldn’t mind skipping that job.

    Am I compromising safety by ignoring his advice, instead purchasing Hydrovane, being a second/emergency rudder as well as a wind vane? (I could have three steering options by buying Hydrovane as well as doing what he says, but more job for me).

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