Windvane vs. Autopilot
Should I buy a Windvane or an Autopilot?
The windvane and the autopilot are not competitors. They should complement each other. The windvane should be the primary self-steering gear and the autopilot the secondary assistant. The two devices are simply used in different conditions-the same way you use a small jib one time and a large Genoa the next. An autopilot is preferred in a calm when you are motoring. The consumption of electricity is not a problem since the engine is running and batteries are being charged. In these conditions, little rudder action is needed. However, when the wind picks up and the conditions get tougher, the autopilot becomes less efficient and uses more electricity. Many autopilots are not fast enough to handle a sailboat in large seas and are prone to have a "mid-ocean meltdown".
The opposite is true for a good vane gear. With more wind there is a stronger signal to the airvane and faster boat speed. This translates into quicker corrections, more power and better steering. In other words, the windvanes ability to steer improves as the wind and sea conditions worsen. You could say that the windvane rises to the occasion-not a bad crew member to have on board in a storm.
The windvane does not need electricity and is not likely to break down in salt water and humidity. If you have the spare part kit, manual, and normal hand tools, the windvane can usually serviced or repaired on board.
When the autopilot fails, there is a good chance that it must be shipped thousands of miles for repair. It is unlikely to be repairable in the middle of the ocean. The unreliability of the autopilots has been documented many times. Also, the autopilot itself could be in working condition but dead batteries, a faulty generator, lack of fuel, a broken main engine and/or no way to produce or store electricity often makes an otherwise healthy autopilot a useless piece of equipment.
Isn't the Autopilot cheaper?
Small autopilots are cheap to purchase initially, but repair bills and limited life time make them more expensive in the long term. The larger, under deck autopilots are more expensive, especially when you include installation, additional batteries, installation of larger fuel tanks, solar panels, alternators, wind generators, etc. When they malfunction, you need expert help.
Since priority number one is performance, which gear steers better upwind?
An autopilot steering on a magnetic heading completely ignores the wind shifts. If the boat is getting a lift while going to weather, the electric pilot will ignore this advantage. If the boat is being headed, it will luff the boat. To avoid constant luffing, the course has to be set a few degrees away from the course (which could easily be steered under windvane). This results in sailing a longer course and more adjusting.
The windvane will follow wind shifts with precision. It will steer upwind as close to the wind as you desire. It will take advantage of a lift and it will not luff the boat when being headed.
How about downwind?
The most challenging direction for a windvane or autopilot is downwind. The most common complaint about autopilots is that they are not fast enough. If they work in tough downwind conditions, they use a great deal of electricity, requiring a good deal of charging.
Not all windvanes work in these conditions, but a few good ones do. Understanding the gear and its operation is important, but we have many testimonies about superb downwind performances in surfing speeds up to 15- 18 knots in ultralight, fin keel, downwind flyers, which are the most difficult boats to steer downwind. Windvanes also work very well with a lot of slow, heavy, hard-to-steer vessels.
Should there be a major windshift while sailing downwind in the trades and the autopilot is steering a magnetic course, the boat will gybe accidentally, which can be a serious incident. With a windvane steering, the boat will steer downwind and follow the wind, much preferred to an accidental gybe.
Are windvanes safe?
Dependable self-steering is always high on the "Safety at Sea" list for experienced blue water cruisers. The track record of windvanes is far superior to autopilots. Without self-steering a short handed crew may find little time for sleeping, eating, and navigating. Tired, hungry, wet, cold and seasick ? This is the crucial time when poor decisions are made and disaster follows. The windvane works without electricity, and extremely well in bad conditions. It is the one crew member that will not let you down when needed the most.
So how do I decide?
A blue water cruising boat should be equipped with the best windvane money can buy. This is not the place to compromise. If the budget allows, an autopilot should be purchased for use in calm or light wind conditions. A small cockpit mounted autopilot is often sufficient for light conditions. Used smartly, they will last longer.
We estimate that a boat with a good windvane and an autopilot will use the windvane 85% of the time and the autopilot 15%.
"The problem with all these Autohelms and the other electronic pilots is that they are now so complicated that they need expert investigation when they fail and this varies greatly in quality, but never in expense."--Alastair A. Duncan-Tin Lizzie
Doesn't it make sense to use the wind that drives the boat to steer the boat? There are no buttons to press, no blinking lights, and we believe this is part of the charm of sailing. The windvane is a proven piece of equipment that is a direct extension of sailing itself. It might not be modern, but neither is sailing. Where else can you obtain crew that doesn't complain, eat, drink, snore, or get sick and happily takes all the watches. This quiet crew member is the perfect mate.
A Brief Summation of Some Important Points
To use an electric autopilot -
Obviously, you have to make electricity. Most autopilots seem to use more power than quoted by their manufacturers, so you'll need lots of it. To make it, you'll need a high-output alternator or generator, a wind generator, a water-powered generator, solar panels, or a combination of any or all of these systems. You'll also need larger battery storage capacity.
If you use your engine to run your generating system, you'll have to carry extra fuel, and you'll be putting more running time on the engine - carry more oil and spare parts for it, too. Be prepared to put up with the noise of the engine (and a lot more cabin heat in the tropics) even when you're sailing.
Wind- and water-powered generators lose efficiency in light air - a properly set up windvane will keep on working - silently, without using any power.
If your electric autopilot fails, you usually can't fix it at sea - the innards of electronic black boxes are a mystery to most sailors. If a windvane breaks because of an unforeseen occurrence, it can usually be repaired with the hand tools carried on board.
Even if you have backup autopilots, they can all be rendered useless by an electrical system short circuit or a lightning strike.
In short, a windvane selfsteering system is silent, draws no power, and is constantly at the wheel day or night, in any sea conditions. Use your backup autopilot when there's no wind, for motoring. Otherwise, do what you do with a sailboat - sail with the wind.