Windvane Or Autopilot, Part 2

The best extra crew member of them all?

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 pictures to enlarge them so you can really see the details of our gear.

Keep all leads on the control lines simple, chafe free and without extreme angles that can generate excessive friction. The only need is to remove the slack, not overtighten them. Peter recommends using a simple clam cleat in an appropriate place in one of the lines to provide adjustment. Finding the best route for the control lines obviously makes sense, not least to ensure that lockers can still be opened when the vane is in action. As the large locker in the foreground contains our liferaft and grab bags, that was critical for us.
Keep all leads on the control lines simple, chafe free and without extreme angles that can generate excessive friction. The only need is to remove the slack, not overtighten them.
Peter recommends using a simple clam cleat in an appropriate place in one of the lines to provide adjustment.
Finding the best route for the control lines obviously makes sense, not least to ensure that lockers can still be opened when the vane is in action. As the large locker in the foreground contains our liferaft and grab bags, that was critical for us.
Simple plain bearing blocks are all that is needed to handle the control lines – expensive roller bearing blocks will suffer from excessive wear in practice, and so are unsuitable. Using snap hooks to link the wheel lines to the control lines helps to keep the cockpit clear when the gear is not in action. So if we need to make an emergency course alteration, we can disconnect the gear in seconds, either by loosening the butterfly nuts on the wheel brake, or pulling a snap shackle.
Simple plain bearing blocks are all that is needed to handle the control lines – expensive roller bearing blocks will suffer from excessive wear in practice, and so are unsuitable.
Using snap hooks to link the wheel lines to the control lines helps to keep the cockpit clear when the gear is not in action. So if we need to make an emergency course alteration, we can disconnect the gear in seconds, either by loosening the butterfly nuts on the wheel brake, or pulling a snap shackle.
There has to be some form of ‘fail safe’ sacrificial element in the drive train, that will break and so prevent damage to the gear if it becomes overloaded. Some gears use a sacrificial thin wall tube (always carry at least one spare) between the gear and the rudder that will shear in the event of impact or overload – but remember to always attach a line to the rudder! Attaching the control line double block on the coaming with light line (4mm) worked too well for us (due to chafe) so now we simply don’t overtighten the locking wingnuts on the wheel drum – if the gear becomes overloaded, this allows the drum to slip and so instantly de-powers the gear, avoiding any damage.
There has to be some form of ‘fail safe’ sacrificial element in the drive train, that will break and so prevent damage to the gear if it becomes overloaded. Some gears use a sacrificial thin wall tube (always carry at least one spare) between the gear and the rudder that will shear in the event of impact or overload – but remember to always attach a line to the rudder!
Attaching the control line double block on the coaming with light line (4mm) worked too well for us (due to chafe) so now we simply don’t overtighten the locking wingnuts on the wheel drum – if the gear becomes overloaded, this allows the drum to slip and so instantly de-powers the gear, avoiding any damage.
It pays to make a thorough check that all adjustable nuts and bolts are secure before any long passage. During our last passage a ‘clacking’ noise and a wandering course alerted me that the lock nuts on this pushrod had come loose. A dab of Loctite and a couple of spanners soon cured this, but a quick once over before departure might have spotted it. It’s also a good idea to check all nuts and bolts on the mounting brackets for tightness, and in some cases cracks at the welds – these gears transmit a huge amount of power when they are working in anger and something may well suffer in the long-term.
It pays to make a thorough check that all adjustable nuts and bolts are secure before any long passage.
During our last passage a ‘clacking’ noise and a wandering course alerted me that the lock nuts on this pushrod had come loose. A dab of Loctite and a couple of spanners soon cured this, but a quick once over before departure might have spotted it.
It’s also a good idea to check all nuts and bolts on the mounting brackets for tightness, and in some cases cracks at the welds – these gears transmit a huge amount of power when they are working in anger and something may well suffer in the long-term.
On our old boat we had a Monitor vane, which we liked a lot, but it wasn’t great in light airs at first. Fitting one of their over sized light airs vanes cured this weakness, and also increased the gear's response in medium airs, such that we never used the original blade again. Peter warns against emulating this unless the finished item is of exactly the same weight as the original blade to ensure the overall balance is unaffected.
On our old boat we had a Monitor vane, which we liked a lot, but it wasn’t great in light airs at first. Fitting one of their over sized light airs vanes cured this weakness, and also increased the gear’s response in medium airs, such that we never used the original blade again.
Peter warns against emulating this unless the finished item is of exactly the same weight as the original blade to ensure the overall balance is unaffected.
Our Pacific has a simple strip of spinnaker fabric glued to it, to help the vane in light airs – and it works! We find that as a result the gear works well even in really light conditions downwind, where many vanes struggle. It can also help to mount the air blade vertical in its bracket in really light conditions, and progressively angle it aft in stronger winds to reduce flutter – another way in which experimentation and simple, incremental adjustments can make a big difference to overall performance.
Our Pacific has a simple strip of spinnaker fabric glued to it, to help the vane in light airs – and it works! We find that as a result the gear works well even in really light conditions downwind, where many vanes struggle.
It can also help to mount the air blade vertical in its bracket in really light conditions, and progressively angle it aft in stronger winds to reduce flutter – another way in which experimentation and simple, incremental adjustments can make a big difference to overall performance.
We’ve met quite a few owners who have converted their vane to accept a drive from a simple, low cost autopilot. All swear that it works well, makes the gear simpler to use and less affected by shifting coastal winds - an advantage in correcting a recognised weakness of vane gears. Because the pilot is not driving any real weight, power consumption is low and reliability high. Peter warns that it’s not a good idea to use this system for motoring, though, due to prop wash over the auxiliary rudder leading to premature wear and tear of bearings, and suggests that it is better to use a plumbed in autopilot for motoring, not least because there are no power consumption implications when the engine is running. Photo credit: Windpilot
We’ve met quite a few owners who have converted their vane to accept a drive from a simple, low cost autopilot.
All swear that it works well, makes the gear simpler to use and less affected by shifting coastal winds – an advantage in correcting a recognised weakness of vane gears. Because the pilot is not driving any real weight, power consumption is low and reliability high.
Peter warns that it’s not a good idea to use this system for motoring, though, due to prop wash over the auxiliary rudder leading to premature wear and tear of bearings, and suggests that it is better to use a plumbed in autopilot for motoring, not least because there are no power consumption implications when the engine is running.
Photo credit: Windpilot

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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.

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