The True Price of Autopilots & Vane Gears

Writing the article we just published on the Adventure 40 steering system, including rudder and self-steering options, got me thinking about the true cost of autopilots and how they compare to vane gears.

Let's take a look, since this is a subject that's relevant to all of us, regardless of whether or not we are thinking of buying an Adventure 40, and particularly to those with the end goal of offshore live-aboard sailing, while trying to stay under US$100,000 for the entire project.

Benefits Comparison Overview

But before we get into money, a quick overview.

When compared to autopilots, vane gears:

  • Are simpler.
  • Are relatively easy to repair, even at sea, with basic tools and a few spares.
    • I have done this several times, including while on a challenging single-handed passage against the Christmas Winds from St. Maarten to Barbados—what was I thinking?...Well, there was a woman involved...
  • Do not use electricity—more on how big a win that is in a minute.
  • May, depending on design, be able to act as a backup rudder.

But autopilots:

  • Are easier to use and require less skill, since vane gears, at least if we want them to steer well, require a good understanding of sail trim to balance the boat properly.
  • Will work both motoring and sailing.
  • Are less vulnerable to damage than a vane gear hanging on the stern.

Note: this is a summary, see Further Reading for much more on self-steering options.

Cost Of Purchase

With that out of the way, let's look at comparative costs, starting with the cost of purchase:

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 25 years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 20 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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