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:

Sure, it’s possible to buy an autopilot for less, and/or cut corners on the deck controls, but we are specifying for offshore, often shorthanded sailing where the autopilot is vital, so cheaping out would be a bad idea.

In fact, I would call the above a middle-of-the-road option in terms of cost. Add in a higher-quality and smarter brain¹, as well as say a satellite compass¹ to improve steering, and we can easily spend US$15,000 or even US$20,000.

¹ These links are for cost comparison purposes only, not an endorsement. Selecting the right vane gear and/or autopilot is a complex endeavour depending on the usage profile of each of us, and beyond the scope of this article.

On the other hand, we can also spend more than listed above for a vane gear, particularly if we add a backup rudder option. But then I would argue that’s not relevant to this cost comparison since it solves a problem that autopilots can’t.

Anyway, on the surface of it, an autopilot is about 1.5 times more expensive than a vane.

Installation

We then need to add in installation. Having installed both autopilots and vane gears on a couple of boats, I would estimate the DIY installation costs as about the same. Say around US$1000 for parts and fabrication, although that’s highly variable depending on boat type.

So that’s a wash when comparing the two.

Hidden Costs

But wait, once we get either option installed we are not done spending money or installing stuff, at least on a boat that’s going offshore:

Autopilot

Electrical System Upgrades

A powerful under-deck autopilot on say a 40-foot boat will require at least 100 Ah at 12 volts (1.2 KWh) for each 24 hours at sea, and often more than that—some combinations of boat and sea state will double that estimate.

I know that sounds high, but don’t be fooled by the electrical usage of your autopilot when coastal cruising. Once offshore, particularly with the wind aft of the beam in big tradewind swells (where we cruisers all want to be), hourly autopilot electrical usage will double, or even treble, from that in relatively smooth water.

At this point a lot of people will tell you that this is no longer a problem because we can feed even the hungriest autopilot with renewables. Sure that’s true (with caveats), but at what cost?

We will need:

  • A larger battery bank to carry the loads through the twilight and dark hours, when there is no charging from the solar panels, and for cloudy days.
  • To substantially increase the size of the solar array and maybe add a wind generator to keep up with the demand, over and above that required to keep up with other loads.
  • In some cases, to fit a generator (or run the main engine) to charge at least twice a day.

And doing the first two right is harder than it sounds:

  • Wind generators put out almost nothing under about 10 knots apparent wind speed, so once off the wind (even in 18 knots of true wind), where we need them most to feed the autopilot, they do little.
    • If the wind generator shades the solar panels, as it often will, it can actually constitute a net loss of generating capacity.
    • Given this, and the advent of more efficient and less costly solar panels, I recommend dropping wind from the energy plan for many usage profiles.
  • Solar panels installed in places other than an arch aft, tend to suffer from rig shading to the point that the actual daily output ends up being half to one third of those on the arch. The point being that the more solar we add, the less efficient and cost effective it gets.
  • All of this can, and often will, add un-seamanlike clutter that will make it difficult to properly access the sails—more here.
  • Arches, wind generators, biminis and dodgers, studded with solar panels, have a surprising amount of windage, which can severely impact the boat’s upwind performance, to the point of making the difference between clawing off a lee shore, and not…

…Whoops, my well-known hate of deck clutter is showing, so let’s just assume for the purposes of this article that we can add enough additional renewables and batteries to feed the autopilot without screwing the boat up.

Call it at least US$6000 to do that (including some money for installation) over and above the renewables we would need with a vane gear.

…Wait, I can’t help myself:

Actually, since I hate clutter and drag, I would solve this problem the same way that most singlehanded racers and AAC contributor Andy Schell do: a Watt and Sea hydrogenerator.

That is, as long as the boat is fast enough to make that work—think average daily runs of over 160 miles.

That option is in the six-grand range, too, so no cost savings.

Of course, there is a third alternative to feed an autopilot, with no added capital cost for solar, but still requiring a larger battery bank, and with increased fuel and maintenance costs, and that’s to run the engine to charge at least once and likely twice a day. But these days most of us are trying to avoid, or at least minimize, that.

Spares

Autopilots are intrinsically complex and also not at all fault tolerant, since a failure in any component (brain, compass, drive, ram, controls, or rudder feedback unit) will bring the whole system down, and almost certainly in a way that will be impossible to fix at sea.

So, if we are going to go to sea shorthanded and so be totally reliant on an autopilot, there’s a strong argument that we should also be carrying a complete spare unit. Yup, that’s another US$6000.

To bring some real-world experience to this, we have, over the years, used our spare:

  • compass,
  • rudder feedback,
  • and ram

in situations which would have resulted in having no functioning autopilot for weeks if we had not carried the parts.

That said, we never carried a spare autopilot brain, but, on the other hand, we had a vane gear.

Vane Gear

But let’s make this fair. Vane gears have hidden costs, too:

Backup Autopilot

They don’t generally steer well in very light air, and not at all when motoring, so we need to include a good-quality tiller pilot in the vane gear estimate, for say US$1000, or a cheap above-deck belt-driven wheel pilot for around US$1500.

And it’s also nice to have one of these electronic options when coastal cruising in the shifty winds that prevail inshore and which make using a vane gear a pain in the neck.

Spares

Vane gears are generally DIY fixable, even at sea, but it’s still a good idea to carry some spares, including the immersed paddle and the wind vane. Call that $US800.

The good news, even with minimal parts, is that if the thing does break in a way that’s unrepairable at sea, the light-duty pilot we added above will, with care (heave-to when it gets nasty), get us to land where we can sort things out.

Big Wins For Vane Gears

OK, clearly the hidden costs for an autopilot are way higher, but there are even big wins for the vane gear on boats that have an under-deck autopilot as their primary system.

No Increased Electrical Capacity Required

We will not need to spend the added bucks on the electrical system, or at least nowhere near as much, to feed the autopilot because we can use the vane gear while the renewables catch up and power other loads.

Less Spares

Another big win for having a vane gear as well, is that it removes the need for all those spares for the autopilot—yes, we may want some spares, but it’s perfectly sensible to cut back on them, like Phyllis and I did.

Conclusion

Wow, this is is getting complicated. Here’s a spreadsheet that will clarify things:

So, to answer the question I postulated in the title, and assuming DIY installation:

  • Vane gears are way cheaper than autopilots, once we look at a full system for multi-day offshore voyaging use.
  • Even if we want a full-on under-deck autopilot, also installing a vane gear makes a lot of sense, since we can then pay for it out of the savings of not having so many parts for the autopilot, and we have a completely independent backup that does not require electricity.
  • And if we are willing to use the vane gear, rather than the autopilot, whenever we are at sea and we are sailing, we can also delete the cost and clutter of the added renewables and batteries.
  • The Adventure 40, with an under-deck autopilot and no vane gear, would cost about US$13,000 more to “Be Ocean Ready on Day One” because of the costs of added electrical capacity and spare parts.
  • Full on all-singing, all-dancing, high end autopilot systems cost a lot of money.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to sell you on not buying and installing an under-deck autopilot. After all, I have had one on all of my boats.

But I do think that the math, plus the advantage of a simple backup, makes a very strong case that all shorthanded offshore cruising boats should have a vane gear, regardless of whether or not the budget will run to a powerful autopilot.

You also now know why I have always insisted on the Adventure 40 having a vane gear as standard equipment.

Being Realistic

If you think I’m full of…err…misguided with my estimates of the autopilot electrical usage and associated costs, it’s important to realistically calculate the true electrical usage once offshore, and, further, not to overestimate the daily charge we will get from solar and wind, which is typically about one half of what people estimate.

To that end:

The Spreadsheet

Obviously there are a whole bunch of ways to slice and dice these calculations, so if you want to experiment with different variables, here’s my spreadsheet for download.

I would also appreciate if you check it for errors, thanks.

Further Reading

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Michael Feiertag

This article is a timely and excellent follow up to that regarding the A40 rudder and steering gear. I was recently mulling A40 energy and steering while in bed awaiting sleep, where I do some of my more productive thinking.

I find it conceptually and qualitatively spot on, considering our 3 year experience with a mix of modest alternator, genset, wind gen, minimal solar, and large battery bank. Though the estimates for electric consumption of offshore AP seem high, I am not in a position to dispute them, and will more closely track my own use.

How will a boat be used? Lots of anchoring in windy places — wind generator makes sense, otherwise not so much. At least a little solar for unattended charging is nice; installing more may be unsightly or unsafe. Embracing a generator, properly installed and regularly used, may largely elimnate other charging sources and extraordinary battery banks. Of course, reducing consumption should always be considered, even if rejected.

It is exciting to consider a possible fresh start, with ample forethought, adding on to the standard A40 platform. Therefore I eagerly await more releases of the design.

Nathan Moore

I too am champing at the bit for more news of A40 progress. I would very much like to buy one in a year or two.

John Cobb

Is it time to put my current boat up for sale? 😉

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
I also endorse both wind vane and below decks autopilot. For most cruisers, and certainly for Alchemy, most of our wandering is coastal and a wind vane is just too fussy and labor intensive with the changing wind speeds and directions that occur along the coast: not to mention being near the hard stuff. I am sure it can be and is being done successfully, but is way to close to hand steering for us.
I also carried a complete spare autopilot. After 16+ years without a hiccup, for our last Atlantic crossing (in the higher lats), we bought a new system, installed it and put the old-but-good into spares. That also we ended up using our autopilot for passage making over the wind vane* and, I am almost embarrassed to say, the vane has been largely relegated to back up (like enduring a lightning strike and losing all circuit boards).
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy
*Our autopilot, now unfortunately no longer in business, is an Alpha 3000 (we were fortunate that we bought our spare just before it closed shop). I heard it was designed on the west coast to take sleds from San Francisco to Hawaii so it is very quick reacting, very powerful and sips amps (45-60 per day). And with a big freezer we needed to run the genset every day anyway, so power was not a big issue. It was also far less expensive than the quoted gear in the article, in part, I suspect, because it had no bells and whistles.

Alastair Currie

Great article and very relevant (again) as I have the Raymarine ACU400 and Monitor. For older windvanes, like Monitor, they can be refurbished at a very reasonable cost through parts only supply from Scanmar International, a good option if a second hand one comes up for sale. They do offer a rebuild service but I have no experience of that.
I have the Raymarine ACU400 controlling an existing NECO motor. The NECO was converted by a reputable company to run from the ACU400 but has now given up after a short time of use. I would advise that it is a false economy to use old equipment with new systems to try and keep cost down.
I have a centre cockpit, rod steering, and the NECO motor did drive a chain and sprocket. I am now planning on fitting a Jeffa drive unit but have not decided if the DD1 (direct drive onto tiller lever) or Sprocket drive unit 300, onto the existing sprocket, is the most suitable. The stern of the Rival 41C is a bit pinched in, so not sure about the foundation installation to mount the DD1 and available room, the SD 300 would fit on the existing base with a converter bracket, but will require a custom sprocket bushing.
However, my main point, old motors are a false economy.

Women!
Ah John, your tale reminds me of a similar impulse. I used to plan my clients sailing experiences around phone box locations in the 80’s, before mobile phones and public facing internet. There are a lot of remote anchorages on the West Coast of Scotland with a lonely, red phone box, just at the road side. On occasion, I would be late for a call and the ladies prerogative was to let me know I was late, which kind of annoyed me inside, especially in poor weather after a long beat, I never let my annoyance show. If the lady was not there, when I called, hey, that’s life. The nearest I ever got to an apology, was after we were married and I introduced that good lady to sailing. We dropped anchor at one of the bays with a lonely red phone box and I said, “I used to phone you from there”. Her reply, “it takes a lot effort to get here, glad I was worth it”. Man, sometimes you just have to soak it up.

Marc Dacey

We have both a Voyager windvane and an Octopus drive pushing a Marol hydraulic ram to a transom-hung rudder. If we go “windvane”, which is the preferred choice downwind offshore, we bypass the hydraulics and run line to the tiller from the vane via blocks. Then it’s just a problem of trim. I do agree about light airs complicating things, however, and an added issue is that windvanes in high seas or over about 30 knots apparent dont work as effectively (like most autopilots) as well as competent hand steering.

I’ve seen Dyneema control lines chafe through and autopilots part from their mounts offshore, so I believe in belt and suspenders.

Interestingly, we do have redundancy in the compass department over our network, either from the GPS, a Thrane LT-1000 NRU, or a Precision 9 on the mast tabernacle.

Marc Dacey

Oh, agreed. We were on a four-person delivery crew and, indeed, wave heights of six to seven metres were invovled at a few points, as the 25-45 knots had fully developed the sea state. Got some pants-wetting photos out of it!

We were encouraged to press on by our weather router. I would have heaved to or deployed the JSD on our own boat as our crew of three (and the fact of my own age at this point) argues for it.

James Greenwald

Thank you John and Phyllis,

Another Fine article.

I can attest your estimates are accurate and somewhat conservative from my perspective.

I have a pension to be rather OCD with anything with setting up my vessel. We are still going through an extensive/expensive refit on my 1988 Swan 53. I too hate boatyards even in our case a Swan certified yard. They have done for the most part high quality work, albeit at a extreme price and not without me having to pay close attention to the details.

As a couple and solo offshore sailor, a huge inference was placed on the AP system. We went with the best B&G interface and controls, oversized Lecomble & Schmitt hyd linear drive for primary AP1 and Jefa sprocket drive unit for AP2. The system has separate fail safe redundancy. Granted this is overkill and the power consumption / cost is substantial. Well north of your figures.

I am a cruiser but abhor looking like one. Deck crap keep to a minimal.

Thank you for insights,

Jim

Matt

I am quite fond of our Hydrovane, although I freely admit I have not yet used it enough to know how to get everything tuned just right.

One of the boat’s previous owners had an Autohelm 4000 hooked up to the Hydrovane, i.e. he’d lock the main rudder at the right angle for balance and then let the Autohelm steer with the vane’s auxiliary rudder when the wind was too light for the vane to work. Since I inherited this system as a big box of disconnected parts, I can’t speak to how well it worked, but I’ve seen similar setups elsewhere as a cost- and power-saving option versus a beefy under-deck autopilot.

It would be nice to have a simple autopilot for motoring. The windvane is of course useless under engine. I get the feeling that for this use case — just “hold a straight course while under engine” and nothing more — you can get by with a much cheaper and simpler autopilot than would be needed to handle the boat under sail. We certainly don’t have the battery power to spare for using an autopilot under sail.

Marc Dacey

Indeed. Our first boat, an otherwise excellent 1973 Viking 33 sloop, was very squirrelly deeper than 155-160 degrees, even tiller-steered by a venerable Autohelm 1000. Our present boat has a tiller used just with the windvane and which involves bypassing the hydraulic steering via either of the wheels. Simple is better, and save a lot of amps.

Eric Klem

Hi John,

This seems like a fair and worthwhile analysis and I can’t argue with the conclusion. I spent a lot of time as a kid hand steering to save the batteries and somehow I still really enjoy doing it. One additional dimension I didn’t see mentioned is the life of the system. For some people this won’t matter as they are going on a 3 year cruise then selling the boat but for others who plan to own the boat for 30 years, replacement interval and parts availability become a big deal.

I find the current state of the marine electronics industry pretty depressing. While some find the additional features and interconnectivity really exciting, I see an industry trying to chase the smartphone model but without the resources to do a good job of it and without realizing that these components require installation so changing every few years is a real pain. To me, there are really only 2.5 important new features that differentiate a modern system from one that is 15 years old and those are AIS, smarter autopilots and the half is the fancy new doppler radar systems. Everything else can make things a bit more convenient but it doesn’t fundamentally improve our enjoyment or safety and eats up disproportionate time and money. The cost in terms of product is that the systems are buggy and have short lives so we have to go through all of this on a regular basis. Not all manufacturers are equal and some are navigating this reasonably well but it is tricky to figure out which is which. We are replacing a good bit of our electronics this year so I contacted the couple of service guys I am friendly with to see their impression and their comments only made it more depressing, once I heard those it was pretty easy to pick who I was buying gear from. Autopilots seem to be on the better end of the spectrum but if you don’t want to replace stuff piecemeal, I think you will be replacing the whole thing more regularly than anyone wants to admit from most of the brands.

Despite my general despair at going the marine electronics route, I do share the feeling that windvanes are too finicky inshore where our current sailing happens. For us the answer was to get a CPT autopilot. On the good side I installed it in under 2 hours, it is super simple and is pretty energy efficient but on the bad side, it isn’t smart and so isn’t the unit you want driving while pushing the limit on a broad reach. For the type of sailing we do right now it is great but for a boat that benefits from a smart pilot, I would be looking for something else offshore.

By the way, I am in total agreement on including a windvane on the A40. If you want to claim an offshore ready boat, then it is needed and you should focus on your target market rather than try to do something for everyone. I actually think it could be a great coastal cruising boat too, I just don’t think that the requirements and design should be done through a coastal cruising only lense.

Eric

Dick Stevenson

Hi Eric and John,
Many a skipper (always a male in my observation), who has an elaborate and integrated electronics package, presents his “system” in an evangelical manner as really important to the safe running of his vessel (as do some venders and manufacturers). Often it is portrayed as tantamount to required kit before leaving the dock and often, in describing their system, are writing in a proselytizing manner to those still working out what is important to have on board.
In responding to these writings, I have come to characterize the work (always an impressive amount) that goes into these systems as a “hobby” that is little related to staying safe at sea. And I have nothing against hobbies on board, but a distinction should be made between hobby and the safe running of the boat (my interest in SSB radio, marine and Ham, is now a hobby when it used to be more important to safe functioning).
My reservations with this hobby, aside from it being presented as important, is that it leaves many a skipper at the dock tinkering rather than out there cruising. More importantly, these elaborate systems are, in many respects, more problematic for a cruising boat as the more bells and whistles, the more likely a failure point that could take down the whole system.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Matt

I evaluate this kind of stuff on a total cost of ownership basis. And on that basis, $10,000 of gear that’ll need to be replaced in five to ten years is just impossible to justify….. even before I put a value on my time.

And marine electronics are a real time suck. You can burn dozens, or hundreds, of hours installing and troubleshooting and fussing with them. If your time is free, sure, but mine isn’t, and I’d rather spend that time sailing.

Eric Klem

Unfortunately it seems like we are all generally in agreement on marine electronics. I actually just re-read a few of John’s posts on the subject and my thinking is pretty similar right down to how you mitigate these issues. Given that we are replacing many non-autopilot things this year, I have stressed way too much about how to keep the project contained with a good chance of actually meeting my requirements. I have actually put this off for many years now exactly for these issues and part of the reason we chose the CPT autopilot was specifically for the zero electronic integration aspect. My math on a lot of this look’s like Matt’s, the denominator is really important and I just don’t have faith that it is very many years with a lot of the systems people are buying.

Eric

Sonita Sadio

Hi Eric (and John!),

Could you tell us more about your experience with the CPT?

My husband (experienced offshore sailor) and I (obsessed with sailing for 7 years now) own a vintage boat, Ohlson 35 (full keel), that we plan on keeping in the Caribbean. We also prefer robust and simple systems without unnecessary bells and whistles and can’t be bothered with tricky gadgetry.

After our first double handed shakedown up to Maine from New York we realized AIS was non-negotiable for safety reasons (Buzzards Bay in fog, anyone?). Next addition is the autopilot.

We enjoy steering and though we don’t underestimate the rigors of sailing in the Caribbean we don’t plan on crossing oceans using an autopilot for hours expecting to keep a course. We just want to be able to sit down to dinner together sometimes. Also would be nice to not be chained to the helm on overnights when you want to look more closely at something on Nav or run to the head.

Given our narrow beam, limited battery capacity, and simple requirements, a below decks system is overkill and we don’t want to make any holes in the stern for a vane.

So we’re between the CPT and the Raymarine for our wheel pilot. Everyone says go with the Raymarine mostly because they’ve not heard of the CPT and feel Raymarine will be easier to “fix” and easier to find parts. But people who own CPT say they are reliable and on those occasions when they need adjustments, can be fixed easily on your own… just keep spare parts on hand.

My husband also heard that the belt is a hassle and your foul weather gear gets caught in it.

Any information you can add would be very helpful. Most people are down on the CPT but the people who own them seem to be happy.

Thank you!

Sonita Sadio

Eric Klem

Hi Sonita,

The CPT is a no-frills easy to install and reliable unit. Its performance is as-expected for a non-smart autopilot. Using it is easy but it doesn’t have a separate interface so you occasionally need to move around to adjust something. I don’t think it has the ability to steer to a wind angle which I could see being annoying offshore. With the belt, we have never had anything caught in it and it is in a pretty out of the way spot provided it is mounted to the pedestal and not a seat but I do worry about our kids putting their fingers in there. When I changed our pedestal guard and needed a different size mounting bracket, I called up CPT and was shocked to hear that the new bracket would only be $11 and it showed up a few days later so my service experience has been very positive. I guess I don’t know what else to say on it, it just works but is super simple and doesn’t steer like a fancy unit from NKE or B&G. CPT has gone through at least 1 ownership change and the early units did have issues with a relay wearing out which owners would change themselves but that is no longer part of the design, I really haven’t heard of any issues with other ones.

Wheel pilots is a very common topic on the CS owners forum in relation to the CS36T which is what we have. There is often discussion of whether the Raymarine unit is actually powerful enough for our boats in coastal conditions but I know the CPT has more than enough power for them. It sounds like you have some longer distance aspirations so I would want to understand whether the Raymarine was actually enough autopilot for your use case.

With regards to your comment on AIS, I really like AIS and we have and use it but I personally feel it is possible to sail the trip you mentioned from New York to Maine with reasonable safety without it, heck we all did that 10 years ago. What I don’t think you can skimp on unless you truly have no schedule so can sit out fog and only do day hops is radar. Radar with ARPA included gives you almost all the information AIS does, what it misses is the vessel info like Name, MMSI, length, etc but I rarely find a need for them. However, what it does that AIS doesn’t is pick up all the boats that are not transmitting AIS which is still the majority around here. To me the biggest reason to have AIS would be to transmit to others, I see a lot of boats with radar that cannot effectively interpret it. If I were doing long passages in good weather places, then I would think about whether AIS was appropriate as the primary tool for nighttime use as radar is power hungry.

Eric

Eric Klem

Hi Sonita,

One more thought I didn’t think of when quickly replying last night. When I first installed the CPT unit, we noticed that the wheel was not equally easy to turn at all orientations with the autopilot disengaged. This was small but noticeable if you have a boat with good steering feel. I checked and the pulley on the wheel was aligned to within the tolerances stated in the installation manual. The solution was to take a dial indicator and get the pulley aligned to a much tighter tolerance, I think I did it to something like <0.020″ total runout. Now, you can’t feel it at all. Nothing wrong with the unit, I just felt the tolerance given was too loose.

Eric

Sonita Sadio

Hi Eric,
Wow thanks for taking the time to write this thorough response detailing your experience with the CPT. Wish I had a dollar for every sailor in our lives who says “just go with the Raymarine…. what if you need parts?” Meanwhile the enthusiasm among actual CPT users has been impressive. Seems like it is for a particular type of sailor, though… one who values a robust, simple, reliable solution and doesn’t mind a bit of hands on. We’re hands on and have no problems with making the occasional adjustment. I watched a few install videos and feel confident we can install this ourselves… only one electrical connection!

Thanks also for the comment on the belt safety. I think it was our AIS installer (who wanted us to go with the Raymarine system) who mentioned that issue. I wouldn’t want anyone putting their fingers anywhere near the center of the wheel with any autopilot.

That’s also great info on the pulley tolerance. We’ve decided to buy the unit (with a couple of replacement belts). I’ll be attentive to this issue.

Point well taken on AIS. We are set up to receive and transmit. The radar we inherited needs a new motor. We need to get that sorted asap. On our way up to Camden we almost got mowed down in Buzzard’s Bay overnight in fog by a tug boat coming clear across the channel in front of us out of nowhere. It was the most harrowing sailing experience of my life. We need radar, I agree.

I’ll read John and Phyllis’s articles on radar. I tend to come here first to get up to speed on any given subject quickly before branching out into the wild west of forums and you tube! If you have a suggestion on radar I’m open to hearing it as well.

This Ohlson is our “lab,” our first foray into boat ownership before we get the bluewater boat in a couple of years. We’re having fun with the vintage wood boat and learning all of the systems on a smaller scale… deciding what we need and what we don’t. Will be fun to cruise and explore the Caribbean for awhile.

On the next boat we’ll have a vane for sure in addition to something else. I like the idea of having the CPT as a backup system with which we are already familiar. I learned there are even delivery captains who own their own units that they bring to boats that have no autopilot.

Thanks again for your help Eric.

Kind Regards,
Sonita

Victor Plavner

John… I would love to hear your thoughts about vane steering on a sailing catamaran. Because of design are we relegated to autopilot?

Matt

From a theory & math (not practical experience) perspective, I’m inclined to agree. Most cats that have clear airflow to the vane are too quick and twitchy to respond well to one; most of the slower and more ponderous cats have huge bridgedeck superstructures that screw up the airflow to the vane.

A well-designed cat can carry two or three times more solar photovoltaics than a monohull of comparable gross tonnage, which would make the electrical burden of an autopilot less worrisome.

Andre Langevin

I love the concept of vane gears. But they seem to be limited to yacht in the 30-60 feet range and are not for everyone. Also they are not for larger yacht, not for racing yachts, not for catamarans. So vane gear are not a universal solution. The autopilot is a universal solution, from car to plane to train to whatever. The energy problem is secondary and should be addressed. But as you said the investment should include spares and more than that because even if you have spares, doing a calibration of a new autopilot head at sea is not a simple task to do. It would be better to have a complete offline autopilot independant and ready to go. It might be costly but one autopilot is worth 3 human working on shift on a day. And sail better than all of them.

For Matt. I have installed Furuno electronics + autopilot on my boat in 2008 and apart from a few updates… and the dreadfull date rollover of January 2022, so far so good 14 years later and still working very efficently. This is the most install and forget that you can get. I had 3 laptop computers to replace in the same 14 years !!! Good news is there are now plenty of low cost Furuno spares on Ebay.

Petri Flander

If saiboat specific functions are the criteria of “sailboat focused autopilot” , then there is only two off-the-shelf autopilots in the world – NKE Gyropilot2 and B&G H5000AP+Hydra CPU (or higher). Both are ~6000USD, and angle sensor, working unit, sailing instruments and displays need to be added.
Those two are the only units that on downwind get aggressive when boat gets close to accidental gybe, and on upwind, steer up when gust heels the rail to water.
So, with this criteria, there is NKE GP2 and H5000AP, and then there’s everything else, including B&G Triton.

Petri Flander

I was wrong. English Gyropilot 2 page is down, but wayback has it.
There is no aforementioned “digital helmsman” jibe-preventing /luffing functions on NKE, they are B&G H5000 specific. So, then, H5000 seems to be the most advanced commercially available sailboat autopilot now.

What GP2 has is very good basic design and useful adjustments that can be stored as presets. What’s really special on GP2 is that if remote control gets more than set distance from boat, GP2 stops the boat by tacking to heave-to. Don’t know it that can be programmed to H5000 also.

Martin Levesque

Hi Petry
I was surprise of your comment on NKE and can confirm you after validation that NKE manual indicate the SuperMode Rafale and SuperMode Surf are present on the Giropilot 2. At my knowledge are not present on the B&G,

Petri Flander

Hi Martiny,

can you point to a document or video where those GP “supermodes” are mentioned? To save you some trouble, there’s no mention about that on either english or french GP2 pdf manuals, as available on NKE website.
Or is this a Gyropilot 3 thing?

Martin Levesque

Hi Petri

With pleasure, this is the HR processor module for the GP2. You can dig information in the different manuals here

Manuels utilisateurs – nke Marine Electronics (nke-marine-electronics.fr)

and go directly to the HR processor manual here page 22

43_Pilot_HR_um_FR_37 (nke-marine-electronics.fr)

I’m sorry for the typing error in your first name in last post, Martin as no Y either ! -:)

Wish you the best

Petri Flander

Thank you Martin. That was a very good reply, this clarified the situation a lot.

Seems that the reason why “SuperModes” are nowhere to be found, is that they’re nowhere to be found on English manuals. The English link to “Pilot HR Notice Utilisateur” goes to wrong document…

So, situation with NKE Gyropilot 2 is similar to B&G H5000 – if you want to have advanced “digital helmsman” functions (ie. autopilot starts to behave like good human helmsman) , you need the “race processor” installed and necessary software options bought, enabled and configured. (In addition to necessary sensor package etc.) Otherwise, you will just have a quite standard system AP with good presets.

I made a quick machine translation of French manual you linked and it explained “Rafale” and “Surf” modes pretty well.

What was not clarified on the manual is how the GP2 behaves when the boat is approaching accidental gybe on downwind.

Martin, could you please have a look if you can find something about this ‘gybe prevention’ from NKE materials? Cheers, PF

Martin Levesque

Hi Petri

We might got a bit too far off subject on this thread, or not?….So John feel free to remove it after Petri read it if value add is questionnable…

Answer :

In the same manual as last post (HR Processor) at page 20 you can see ”Temporisation de passage de Bôme” and ”Offset d’angle lors du passage de la bôme” This will help on what i think you are looking for. This permit to define speed of transition in the jib, put a time delay/interruption at centered boom or offset angle. That in theory looks great… But NKE have done them products for IMOCA/VendeeGlobe serious sailors.. so it should have a minimum of safety value in ceftain sea states.

43_Pilot_HR_um_FR_37 (nke-marine-electronics.fr)

But if you permit me to opine,…, if you are looking for coastal cruising I would guess that a goog jib preventer with GP2 only setup would suffice and for offshore (No Budget constraints) it would be nice if all other safety items and systems on the boat are resolved in the first place. And I’ll add that a jib preventer would be needed anyway since electronics can’t avoid all jibs in all situations.

This setup requires a system like the Imoca schematic in the manual incorporating notably the GP2, HR processor and 3D sensor and if you single hand a backup pilot in my opinion for offshore.

I discovered that they have recently lauched a GP3 that is an evolution of GP2 incorporating the HR processor and probably the 3D sensor. A technical investigation/analysis would be requirred to compare them and I dont have the time for now.

Hope it help you and if you are still interested I would recommend that you send them an email for enquiries and contacts who uses andknow the product and reliability.

Finally it looks in the posts I read on the net recently that B&G 5000 (Great profuct also) still have PCB circuits batch problems and display fogging problems. I’ll recommend to investigate that prior commitment. NKE looks to have good reliability track record.

Martin

Martin Levesque

Hi John ,

I totally agrre with you and the users of these Ferrari’s needs to learn and tune them… Not that much complicated but…

After a good setup (Polars & sea trials adjustments in different sea states & Wind speeds adapted to the hydrodynamic of the hull) they should have fun to tune them while navigating to get the maximum of them.

If the user dont have fun to trim sails a minimum they wont trim the autopilot.

The main lesson of a 2020 yachtinworld pilots comparison article was stating that most users are using the factory settings without adjusting them to the yacht….and probably complains about them.

Best regards,

Martin

Petri Flander

Hello Martin, thank you for looking into this. And thanks for John for the bandwidth 🙂
As it seems, this thread seems to be “The first on the internet” where GP2 “Supermode” is even mentioned.
The Elders of internet will be pleased…

But, back to the track: Martin, that part of GP2 manual talks about intentional gybe, so it doesn’t apply to when trying to compare autopilots on their ability to prevent accidental gybes when downwind at heavy seas. GP2 might have enough “brains” to do something about it, but it is really the manufacturer’s responsibility to present their case.
So, on my playbook, B&G gets one point over NKE from their “Recovery mode” (can be found on page 72 on H5000 manual, and on key features on B&G website)

And the preventer… well…

When the AP let’s the boat round up upwind (or the helmsman himself, that’s fallen asleep due to lack of sleep, because of lack of proper heavy-seas-duty AP…), the master instructor of sailing Mr. Murphy sees it immediately, and sends the next wave crest directly to that “prevented” mainsail. Then, if helmsman is not already awake, he wakes to that WHOOSH sound that mainsail boom makes when it swings by, on the way to leeside irons.
Preventer is the second line of defence, Helmsman/AP is the first.
In order to make preventer work properly, it needs something that gives way on wavestrike, instead of failing spectacularly on one go. Climber’s Rip-open pads, hydraulic winch with load sense – whatever works.

Anyhow, it pretty much seems, that the case of “real heavy-seas-duty autopilot for cruisers with displacement hull boats” is still very much open.
It should be able to:

  • Do it’s utmost to prevent a gybe, warn if it starts anyway, and preferably do something useful about it, after the fact. If singlehander is on a bunk, it takes a while before he appears on deck.
  • Steer a proper S-curve when need arises
  • Be able to keep the boat heaved-to or forereaching, as much as technically possible.
  • Be able to assist on keeping the boat stern to waves when on JSD.

These features are doable. But, for them to appear, ‘cruiser community’ should tell the manufacturers that these are what’s needed. Racing-sleds don’t need these features, these are for cruisers on displacement hull boats.

How was it again…
“Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they are yours”
-R. Bach

Martin Levesque

Hi Petri,

First I am totaly Brand agnostic and wont debate on wich one is the best since it depends on many tlhings and user profile. And to avoid any speculation i’m not in the yacht business… But I’ll give you my actual preference. just for fun..

At this time I believe NKE GP2 (with the HR module) is the best PACKGE for my kind of user profile available.

I Believe also that if you try a complete re-reading of the NKE Doc’s and in absence of answers you asked them you’ll conclude that your points are solved.

Did you know that these IMOCA guy’s surf under spi under their Pilot…. But I wont assume that they sleep while doing this…

I agree with you that we should ask more from the industry for evident reasons but as in formula one R&D is done first for ferrari’s drivers… And it’s good that some prefer B&G since it helps products improvements by induced competition..

As in the car industry people dont really read the manuals and a yachting world article stated in 2020 that most of the users are just using factory settings without configuring them to theire yacht and sea states. Should we ask how many cruisers really trim them sails…So…

Otherwise for a cruiser my point of view is that it is essential and good seamanship to rig a boom preventer. I might not have understood correctlly your point on that one.. so if it’s the case dont bother about it.

It has been fun to exchange again with you on that topic.

Best wishes,

Matt

It is not quite as bad as might be feared. I priced out a B&G H5000 system for a 40-45′ fast cruiser and the complete set of parts came to £6487 or US$8490. A more typical, less costly unit, a Raymarine EV-400 with an M8113x drive, is about US$5000.

To that box of parts, you need to add several days of installation and tuning labour, and undoubtedly some custom bracket-making for the ram and rudder sensor.

And, as John pointed out in the article, if the boat’s electrical system needs to be upgraded to provide the juice to run such a machine, $5000 to $8500 of autopilot plus $3000 of installation labour and custom parts plus $5000 of battery and charging upgrades starts looking like at least fifteen or twenty grand, and that’s with zero redundancy and zero spares.

By comparison, a complete Hydrovane (reportedly one of the more expensive windvanes) costs about US$7500 including all its brackets, and installation takes about four hours. A complete Aries is €5747 incl. VAT (US$6272) while a Monitor is a bargain at $4500 to $6200. Adding light-air and motoring-in-calms capability with an electric tillerpilot linked to the vane adds about $900.

And Andre, I absolutely agree that if you’re going to install electronics, it’s wise to pick commercial-grade stuff like Furuno that’s expected to be long-lived and supported.

Matt

Well, damn, you’re right…. I ought to read the manual more closely. Sneaky marketing there, hiding all the headline features behind a four-figure sum in the options list!

William Koppe

Hi John,
Please see below comments for a full NKE package including spares, for a total of $US 15785

Ernest E Vogelsinger

Now if this is not a major plug for a wind vane, nothing is 😉

William Koppe

Attached is 1 of 2 NKE packages for 2017

Quote NKE 1.jpg
William Koppe

NKE package part 2

Quote NKE 2.jpg
Star Tracker

Since so much of the A40 project is a blank slate, what about a windvane specific to the boat? I mention it because I am quite amazed with my windvane, while the construction costs for a one off would be prohibitive, a run of them would be quite economical. As a bonus I have fewer moving parts than most, no set screws on brackets adjusted to the boat to lose and everything that could need service is reachable in comfort from the deck. It also acts as a second rudder, with a nice tiller handle that installs in seconds stored on the radar arch vertically. It sips power running a cheap tiller pilot. I haven’t seen one like it before in person, I’ve tried to figure out who made it with no success I have found some close but none exactly the same. Things like massive solid stainless pins for it to pivot on, and I don’t see any signs of wear but it is purported to have been installed when the boat was new back in the mid-80s. Previous owner used it regularly he says, and other than an occasional squirt of lubricant never serviced it.

Terence Thatcher

On my Morgan 382, we use a Monitor vane self-steering device. For very light winds or powering, we use a cockpit-mounted CPT auto-pilot. I cannot say enough good about the CPT. It is simple, quiet, strong, and unfailingly reliable. I have carried a spare for 20 years but after thousands of miles, I never had to use it. They cost about $2,000 now.

Sonita Sadio

Hi Terence,

Would you mind commenting a bit more on the CPT?

We head something about the belt being a hassle and gear getting caught in it. Is that your experience?

Everyone at the boat yard is trying to get us to go with the Raymarine but I can’t look away from the glowing reviews I read from CPT owners.

Richard Phillips

I have 40ft steel yacht – bought second hand Monitor vane in near perfect condition and a Pelagic tiller pilot new. Total cost around £2,200 – and I think a fairly decent level of redundancy.

I fitted both myself so this was pretty much the total cost, though I had recently upgraded to LifePo4 which gives more range using the Pelagic.

Of course this is not comparable to the situation of ‘from new’ cost for the Adventure… but I think worth pointing out that vanes can be good second and a diy approach can save a great deal.

As an aside, if you have never looked at the Pelagic I think it is worth a look, the build quiality of the ram leaves the plastic nonsense you usually see on smaller boats standing.