Can Sailboats Steer Themselves? Expert Review on Windvane Self Steering

Since they were first introduced in the early 1960’s, windvane self steering has evolved from being seen as exclusive equipment for record seeking solo sailors to being considered essential gear by a large percentage of boaters for any long distance cruising vessel. And there is a good reason for that – when it comes to reliable self steering equipment, a properly built windvane is hard to beat – especially when the weather gets rough. 

If you walk through a marina anywhere in the world, there is a good chance you can identify the offshore cruising boats by the fact that they have a windvane mounted on their stern. Today, windvane self steering systems are a favorite even among fully crewed vessels that venture into the open ocean. 

The reason for that is easy to understand. Windvanes will keep the boat on course through rain and shine, they don’t get distracted by a passing jet ski or a bikini clad crewmember, and they never get tired of steering the boat. They don’t need food, water, sleep, nor electricity to keep going, and they won’t ever complain or second guess the captain’s orders. 

Offshore cruisers unanimously agree – the best helmsman on any proper ship is the self steering windvane. 

There are other advantages to using a windvane to assist with steering, too. Reliable self steering relieves the monotony of crewmembers having to keep a compass course through the night, and it makes it possible for the person on watch to check the sails and rigging, watch the GPS or radar, keep a proper eye out for ships, and to take a quick break from the helm to go to the head or grab a snack. 

It also means that you can stay safely down below when the weather gets dangerous – popping outside the cabin to check on things but keeping your exposure to the elements to a minimum and the crew safe and dry even when the going gets tough. There is no doubt that a properly working windvane can make the difference between a fun, comfortable passage, and a long, tiring, nightmare of a crossing. 

Many people think that a windvane ruins the pretty lines of a good looking yacht, but as they say – the worse the weather, the better it looks. After 60,000 nautical miles of offshore sailing with and without the assistance of a windvane, I can attest to the accuracy of that statement. 

On some boats, windvane self steering works so well that entire circumnavigations of the Earth have been completed with the crew spending less than an hour at the helm the entire time. 

What is Windvane Self Steering and How Does it Work?

Windvane self steering was invented to solve the problem of solo sailors being unable to keep their boats on course long enough to get proper rest while completing an offshore passage. Early singlehanders like Joshua Slocum and Vito Dumas kept their boats on course by balancing their sails and lashing the helm, which worked well enough for their slow, heavy displacement vessels, but became less and less of an option as solo sailors built lighter and faster boats. 

By the 1950’s and 60’s, solo sailors were racing each other across the Atlantic Ocean in the early versions of the OSTAR races and it was a competitor named Blondie Hastler who found a solution to the self steering problem by designing the first windvane. He tested his design in the 1960 transatlantic race and it was a huge success. In no time, other solo sailors were copying his invention, and modifying it to make it more efficient and better suited to their vessels. 

In the mid 1960’s the first commercially produced windvanes began to appear on the market, and as of today there are more than a dozen different designs for the modern sailor to pick from. 

There are many different models of windvanes that are commercially available today, but almost all of them fit into one of two types – either a servo pendulum or auxiliary rudder style. The primary difference between the two is that servo pendulum windvanes use the boat’s primary steering to move the vessel while auxiliary rudder windvanes incorporate an entirely separate rudder to steer the boat with the primary steering locked in place. 

Both designs steer the boat by harnessing the two forces that are always present on a sailing vessel while underway – the movement of the boat through the water and the force of the wind on the sails.

The windvane is mounted on the transom of the vessel and it has two primary pieces – a part that sticks in the water that resembles a small pear or paddle (the servo pendulum or the auxiliary rudder), and a vertical tube or mast that supports a small sail at the top (the vane part of the windvane). 

Once the boat is sailing on the desired course with the sails balanced, the helmsman adjusts the angle of the sail so that it is feathered into the wind and the wind passes on both sides of the sail. This is done by pulling on lines which are led from the cockpit to the gears on the inside of the vertical tube, turning the vane clockwise or counterclockwise, depending on which direction you need to turn the boat. 

After the vane is feathered into the wind and the boat is sailing on her desired course, the helmsman can engage the windvane, typically by securing a line to a fitting on the wheel or tiller. The windvane is now steering the vessel. 

When the boat happens to veer off course, the wind hits the side of the small sail, pushing it over. This movement pulls lines which are attached to the servo pendulum or trim tab on the auxiliary rudder (the part that is in the water). If the windvane is the servo pendulum type, the movement of the sail causes the servo pendulum in the water to move sideways, generating enough force to push the wheel or tiller over until the vessel is back on course. 

For auxiliary rudder style windvanes, the lines are connected to a small trim tab on the rudder which serves the same purpose, causing the auxiliary rudder to turn the boat back in the desired direction. With this style of windvane, you keep the boat’s primary rudder locked amidship, or set slightly to one side to accommodate for lee helm or current. 

When you wish to adjust the course after the windvane is already engaged, all you need to do is change the direction that the sail is feathered. To sail closer to the wind, you turn the sail towards the bow, and to fall off the wind you rotate it towards the stern. To tack, you turn the sail all the way around so that the wind is hitting the other side. Sometimes the boat will have difficulty moving all the way across the wind, and it’s necessary to disengage the windvane, tack her over and set the windvane again on the other tack. 

It may sound complicated, but it’s actually much easier than it sounds. Most sailors can get the hang of things after practicing for a couple hours in moderate conditions and seeing how your boat responds. Of course, the windvane will have a much easier time keeping the boat on course when the sails are well balanced, and with a strong enough wind to keep the boat moving at a respectable speed. 

Few windvanes do well in light winds, and when the breeze drops down below five to eight knots it’s usually time to switch back over to the electric autopilot or hand steering. The windvane requires enough wind to push the sail over, and enough boat speed so that the trim tab or servo pendulum has the power to steer the boat. 

Can Sailboats Steer Themselves? Balancing the Sails, Sheet to Tiller Steering and Other Windvane Alternatives

A newly built custom windvane can easily set you back eight or ten thousand dollars, and even a used model can rarely be purchased in good condition for under five grand. That’s a lot of money for most sailors. Not everyone has ten thousand dollars just to throw at self steering – so what other options are out there for those who aren’t quite ready yet to invest in a brand new Hydrovane or Monitor?

There are actually a number of alternatives to traditional windvanes when it comes to getting your boat to self steer, although each of them has their downsides. 

Some people choose to hand steer all the time and forget about self steering altogether. Hand steering can work out fine if you plan to keep your passages down to short coastal hops, or if you have enough crew onboard to rotate watches at the helm. But if you plan to sail long distances, hand steering day after day gets old fast – especially if you have few crew members to help out. 

If you are sailing through high latitude regions or an area where gales are frequently encountered, hand steering can become dangerous in certain circumstances, depending on the layout of your vessel and the experience level of the crew. In a bad storm at sea the last thing you want to be doing is having to steer the vessel by hand. In those kinds of conditions it’s best to have the boat moving under windvane or autopilot – or to stop sailing entirely and heave to. 

If you do ever find yourself making a long passage without self steering, it’s helpful to develop a watch schedule that works for everyone. At sea, I usually like to plan watches in four hour segments, so that there is plenty of time for the person off watch to rest and recuperate. 

When the weather picks up, I typically shorten the watches to two hours while hand steering, or even just one hour in extreme conditions. It’s incredible how tiring a few hours at the wheel can be in strong winds or large seas, and it’s important to avoid fatigue in such circumstances. Everyone on board needs to be in top shape to be able to handle anything that the sea may throw at you.

On a nice afternoon sail around the bay, or on watch under sunny skies or star filled nights, there is nothing better than a few hours of hand steering your vessel through the seas. But for longer voyages, it quickly becomes tiring or monotonous. Unless your vessel has a minimum of four crew members, I would recommend using some kind of self steering while underway on longer passages.

For some smaller vessels, a simple, low budget alternative to buying a windvane is to use the sheet to tiller self steering technique. This method doesn’t work well on all boats, but some sailors have successfully used it to cross the oceans, like famous solo sailor Webb Chiles, who sailed three quarters of the way around the world on his 18 foot open yawl Chidiock Tichborne. 

Sheet to tiller steering uses the same force that causes a sailboat to veer off course to bring her back in the desired direction. If the sails are properly set, most sailboats are designed so that the helm is balanced in light winds, but as the force of the wind increases on the sails, the boat naturally alters course without the helmsman adjusting for the weatherhelm. That’s why most boats tend to round up into the wind if the wheel or tiller is left unattended for a longer period of time. Through sheet to tiller steering, the same force that causes the boat to round up into the wind is transferred through the lines to the tiller to bring the boat back on course.  

To experiment with sheet to tiller steering on your boat you need to have some kind of durable yet elastic material – like surgical tubing – a couple small blocks, and a few short length pieces of line. Say the boat is sailing along on a beam reach on the port tack. Using the surgical tubing, tie a line from the tiller to a cleat or other secure point on the port cockpit coaming, the same side that the sails are currently set. 

A second line, this one made from nylon or another material with minimal stretching, is tied from the tiller to the jib sheet via a block attached to the starboard side of the vessel. You will need to adjust the length of both lines until the surgical tubing and the line going to the jib sheet both pull equally on the tiller, which should rest amidships. 

In theory, sheet to tiller steering is a simple thing to do, but in reality it usually takes a lot of experimentation and tweaking to get everything right. Often, right when everything seems to finally be balanced, a wave or gust of wind will throw the boat off course, and the setup must be adjusted again. 

In calm seas, however, if the setup is properly working there should be an incredible feeling that the boat is “on rails”, as it’s called when a boat under self steering keeps a steady course. Unfortunately, unlike when sailing under a windvane or autopilot, the entire setup must be redone every time you tack or the boat gets thrown off course by a wave. That’s why most modern cruisers favor more contemporary self steering techniques for serious passagemaking. 

Some boats that are extremely well balanced can keep a straight course without any adjustments to the helm at all. This is especially true with the wind forward of the beam. 

Many times I have been on a solo sailboat delivery when the autopilot or windvane gave up the ghost. If we were sailing on a beam reach or close haul, I would try tying off the helm and seeing how the boat handled on her own. If she could keep a straight course for ten or twenty minutes, I would leave the helm for a little while longer and make a cup of coffee or check the navigation. Some boats just kept happily sailing on course for hours or for days. I sailed all the way from Australia to New Zealand this way, although I always had to return to the helm while broad reaching or running.

If you’re lucky enough to have an exceptionally well balanced boat, you may even be able to get her to self steer under balanced sails downwind as well. After all, that’s how early sailors like Joshua Slocum made their way alone around the world long before windvanes or autopilots were invented. If you do give downwind self steering a try under balanced sails alone, the best rig setup for this wind angle is running under twin jibs, both set on poles “wing on wing”. 

The most popular alternative to windvanes today is the electric autopilot. Autopilots have the advantage that they are much cheaper than a windvane, they work even in light winds or while motoring, and they can keep a course based on the compass rather than one determined by the wind direction, like a windvane. 

This is great for sailing in a straight line, but it means that as the wind direction changes the skipper must constantly adjust the sails to keep the boat sailing efficiently. Because windvanes are set to steer the boat relative to the wind, you never need to adjust the way the sails are set unless you are going to change course. Most world cruisers keep to routes with a relatively steady prevailing wind direction, so it’s not usually a huge problem for sailors to tolerate small deviations in course to account for fluctuations in the wind direction. Two or three miles doesn’t mean much when the next port is five thousand miles away. 

The greatest problem with electric autopilots for most full time cruisers is the fact that they tend to break. Many cruisers sail for decade after decade with the same windvane, sometimes even transferring the old windvane to a new boat. But few electric autopilots survive more than a year or two of offshore cruising, and they often need to be fixed or replaced after a single passage. That’s why it’s a good idea to bring along a couple extra units if you plan to rely entirely on an electric autopilot for your next ocean crossing or long distance cruise. 

A windvane, on the other hand, usually represents a long term investment that should hold up for many years of cruising if it’s well built and properly maintained. For me, an electric autopilot is an excellent tool for assisting a windvane in light winds or while motoring through a calm spell, but not an ideal replacement. 

Monitor – A Classic American Windvane

One of the most popular models of windvane on the market today is the Monitor, built by Scanmar Marine, which also produces the Auto-Helm and Saye’s Rig windvanes, as well as the Pelagic Autopilot systems. The monitor was one of the first servo-pendulum style windvanes to be mass produced for cruising sailors, and is perhaps the most popular model today for North American based cruisers.

The first Monitor windvane was built in 1975 in a small garage in Southern California. In the years since then, Scanmar marine has made over 50 modifications to the original design to get the optimal performance and reliability that offshore cruising demands. 

According to the Scanmar Marine website, “Today’s generation of Monitor combines stainless steel construction, advanced bearing surfaces, and the principle of a servo-pendulum to ensure top performance and years of reliable service in the widest range of operating conditions; from the lightest of winds to the heaviest. With it’s optional emergency rudder system, the Monitor can also get you home safely should you lose steerage and/or your ship’s rudder.”

The emergency rudder is a nice feature that is not always available for servo pendulum windvanes which don’t use an auxiliary rudder to steer the boat. Monitor’s emergency rudder attaches to the windvane frame and can be steered by a small tiller that connects to the top of the unit. For boaters who don’t plan to use a windvane for steering but are concerned about the possibility of losing their rudder, Scanmar also offers a separate emergency rudder that mounts on brackets that are pre attached to the stern of the boat. 

On my first crossing from California to Hawaii in 2008, I was sailing on a Hunter 450, a design that has been notorious for losing it’s rudder in rough sea conditions. The vessel was equipped with Scanmar’s emergency steering system, and it gave all the crew a lot of peace of mind in case of the worst. I would definitely recommend anyone who sails a vessel whose ruder isn’t protected by the keel or skeg to invest in some kind of similar setup. 

The Monitor windvane steers the boat by way of lines connecting the vane to your wheel or tiller. For boats with wheel steering, there is an adapter that connects to the center of the wheel, similar to an electric autopilot wheel adapter. The downside is the lines take up a lot of space in the cockpit, and can trip up a crew member who is trying to get to the helm too quickly. 

If your vessel is equipped with hydraulic steering, you are better served with an auxiliary style windvane, which doesn’t need to be connected to the primary steering at all. 

One innovation by the builders of the Monitor windvane that should be mentioned here is the “SwingGate” system, which essentially means mounting the windvane like a garden gate on the transom of the vessel, allowing it to be swung out of the way when not in use. This clears the way for swim platforms or a swim ladder without having to remove the windvane entirely. For some boaters who are turned off to windvanes by the fact that they would get in the way during daily life at the marina or anchorage, this innovation could be a dealbreaker. 

I have used monitor windvane on a number of vessels that I delivered and found them to perform perfectly – with one notable exception. The first couple boats I delivered had Monitor windvanes that were relatively new. On those voyages, the windvane worked exactly like it was supposed to, and I had no issues with self steering throughout the trip. 

The most recent boat I delivered (an Islander 36, which I sailed from Cancun to Chiapas, Mexico by way of the Panama Canal) with a Monitor windvane had an older model from the mid 90’s and had been used heavily for a number of years. It had also spent a lot of time sitting unused in between voyages, and had begun to rust in places. Some of the fittings had already been replaced, which was a warning sign that the unit had suffered issued before. 

The Monitor worked great for the first half of the trip, but on the second leg from Panama up the Pacific coast of Central America it began to show signs of wear. The steel frame warped under the stress of heavy seas, and after the paddle slipped out of alignment, the gears that allowed the servo pendulum to work properly no longer lined up correctly. 

Because this flaw was impossible to fix in rough seas, I was forced to complete the passage by balancing the sails and hand steering. In the end, I had to remain at the helm continuously for the last five days of the voyage. Needless to say, it was a long trip. 

After my experience sailing boats with Monitor windvane self steering, I would still use Monitor again as long as I had an extensive collection of tools onboard to make repairs and a complete set of spare parts. Even so, it still wouldn’t be my first choice for my own vessel. The large steel frame isn’t the most beautiful design in the world when compared to some of the competitors designs, and there are too many small places where the design can potentially fail. 

That said, Monitor remains extremely popular for cruisers all over the world, and you can find them in almost every marina in the world. 

Cape Horn – The French Canadian Solution for Rough Waters

Cape Horn produces undoubtedly the most aesthetically pleasing of all the servo pendulum style windvanes I have seen to date. Instead of relying on large steel frame like the Monitor or Aires vanes, Cape Horn windvanes are attached to the boat by a large steel tube that is glassed into the a hole drilled through the transom. The servo pendulum blade swings below the horizontal tube and the vane rises vertically above it. When in port, you can remove the servo pendulum paddle and vertical tube, so that the windvane is barely noticeable at all. 

Cape Horn windvanes avoid the mess of blocks and lines in the cockpit by attaching directly to the steering quadrant inside the lazarette or under the cockpit seats. The downside to this style is that to install a Cape Horn windvane you have to make a number of permanent modifications to your boat – starting with drilling a large hole through the transom to glass in the steel tube. 

For boats that use tiller steering, Cape Horn also offers a more traditional outboard style windvane that connects to the tiller via lines and blocks. 

The origin of the Cape Horn windvane dates back to 1967, when the French Canadaian sailor and filmmaker Yves Gelinas purchased his first sailboat with the goal of eventually sailing around the world by way of the Southern Ocean and the three great capes. 

Before embarking on his world voyage, Yves spent more than a decade sailing various vessels all over the East Coast of Canada and the United States, eventually venturing as far as the Caribbean and Europe. Along the way, he experimented with various self built self steering systems, because he felt that none of the models available commercially at the time worked well enough for the voyage he had in mind, nor could they stand up to the awful conditions that he expected to encounter in the Southern Ocean. 

Up to that point, most of the solo sailors who ventured into the roaring forties had problems with their self steering systems, and most of them eventually broke, leaving the sailors to spend much of their time trying to balance the vessel under sail or steer by hand. In one notable example, Chay Blyth, who became the first person to sail nonstop around the world against the prevailing winds and currents, had to hand steer almost the entire distance from the Cape of Good Hope back to England, after his self built windvane had broke early on in the voyage.

Yves didn’t want to have to deal with these same problems, so he set out to design a windvane that would hold up through an entire circumnavigation. The prototype that he built worked so well on his voyage that after he returned home to Quebec, Yves set up shop building windvanes full time. By the late 1980’s Cape Horn had joined Aries and Monitor as one of the primary manufacturers of windvanes for cruising sailors, and there are now more than 1500 Cape Horn windvanes in use today – from the Virgin Islands to Tierra del Fuego. 

Yves is so confident in the robust construction of the Cape Horn windvane that each one is guaranteed to hold up for 28,000 nautical miles or one circumnavigation, whichever comes first. After all, he did name his design after the notorious Cape Horn – the stormiest place in the world!

Aries – A Trusted Classic 

Aries windvanes were one of the earliest models to hit the market and have been a classic piece of equipment for sailing circumnavigators ever since. While many newer designs claim to be vastly superior to early models like the Aires, there are some very experienced sailors who will accept no substitute.

One example is the record breaking Australian sailor Jon Sanders, who set the record for the longest nonstop sailing voyage in history when he sailed around the world three times nonstop without once setting foot on land. You read that right – three times around the world without stopping! Along the way, he sailed twice around the world through the roaring forties and then turned around and sailed his third lap the wrong way a la Chay Blyth, against the prevailing winds and currents because he was bored of sailing the normal route. 

On his triple circumnavigation, Sanders needed a windvane that could tolerate the extreme more than two years of southern ocean storm conditions without breaking. His choice of windvane – an Aires. 

When he pulled back into Fremantle, Australia after three laps around the world, the Aries windvane was still right there, mounted on the stern and steering the boat back towards the harbor. 

Sanders later loaned the same windvane to teenager David Dicks when he became the youngest person to sail around the world in 1996. When was done with it, Sanders moved the Aires back to his own boat, and last I heard it had completed ten voyages around the world and was still going strong. Talk about a durable product!

According to the manufacturer’s website, “The origins of the Aries vane gear date back to 1964. Englishman Nick Franklin wanted to create a wind-generated autopilot, suitable for a large variety of sailboats, with different transoms and rudder layouts, operated by both rudders and tillers…The servo pendulum system was a winning formula. The boat is steered by its own rudder, which is the most efficient way to steer a boat. The force needed to steer is generated by the speed in the water and is more than sufficient to get even the heaviest cruising sailboats back on course…since the 60’s the Aires has been available in multiple models. Now we’re back to one model, like the Aires was intended by Nick Franklin.”

The Aries windvane uses the same servo pendulum technology as the Monitor and Cape Horn vanes, but the frame has its own distinct circular shape. To change course, the Aires vane uses a small gear, which can alter your course by ten degrees at a time. For smaller adjustments to your course, you have to disengage the windvane and use the ship’s primary steering, but I never found that necessary while testing the unit. 

My Aries gear sea trial was a 62 day trans-pacific passage I made a few years back from Panama to the South Pacific. At the time, I had an interest in trialing various windvane designs in offshore sailing conditions, so I was delighted to get hired to deliver a boat with an Aries for this delivery. The voyage was to be made nonstop, and I was sailing solo the entire time. There was no functional autopilot on this vessel, so I had to rely on the windvane to keep us going the right direction the entire time. 

I christened the Aires gear Wilson after Tom Hanks companion in the movie Cast Away. Wilson was my only companion on the crossing, and he quickly became the most trusted helmsman onboard the boat. Along the way I had many deep conversations with Wilson during night watch or while becalmed in the doldrums, and by the end of the trip he had developed a distinct personality. Wilson had a great appreciation for Greek philosophy and Japanese poetry, and a distinct hatred for modern pop or hip hop. He was an old fashioned kind of guy – which should have been no great surprise considering he was built in the mid sixties. 

You may call me crazy, but naming your windvane and engaging in conversation with him is more normal than you would think among offshore sailors. I have yet to come across a liveaboard cruising crew that failed to name their trusted steering companion. 

For the first few weeks of the voyage, I wasn’t too impressed with Wilson’s performance. We are crossing through the doldrums, so the wind was very light – if there was any at all. Most of the time the sails flapped like crazy and the boat rolled in the swells with very little forward momentum. 

Once we got past the Galapagos Islands the wind picked up and we started sailing 80 to 100 miles per day or more. With winds usually ten to twenty five knots, Wilson was in his stride. He took care of the steering for the next four weeks, leaving me to focus on navigation and taking care of the boat. 

By the end of the voyage, I was totally sold on the reliability and effectiveness of the Aries windvane design. There were definitely times early on in the voyage while I was dealing with light winds that I would have liked to have an electric autopilot onboard, but once the trade winds kicked in west of the Galapagos Islands, the Aries windvane took care of the helm without fail for the next three thousand miles. I was surprised to find that the much cheaper and older model ended up working better for me than Monitor windvanes had on previous voyages, despite the reputation as an outdated design. I can see why Jon Sanders keeps using the same Aries windavne for one circumnvaigation after the last. 

Hydrovane – The Best Auxiliary Rudder Windvane on the Market?

My favorite model among the auxiliary style windvanes is the Hydrovane, which is a strong, reliable windvane that incorporates a few unique features into the design. 

First, Hydrovane claims that their windvane can be mounted to the side of the boat’s centerline, allowing for their customers to account for swim steps or make space for an outboard motor. This is completely opposite of most other windvane manufacturers, who make note of the importance of mounting the windvane exactly in the center of the transom in order for it to work properly on both tacks. 

Hydrovane demonstrates the effectiveness of side mounted windvanes on their website by providing examples of how it has worked on some vessels, but I would be careful not to mount it too far to one side on my boat. If the boat is excessively heeled and the windvane is on the windward side of the boat, there is risk that the auxiliary rudder comes clear of the water entirely, rendering it useless.

The other feature that I find especially attractive about the Hydrovane is how well it can work as an emergency rudder. Various other windvanes such as Monitor or Cape Horn offer emergency steering adaptations to their windvanes, but none of them come close to the Hydrovane with regards to size and strength. Some of the emergency rudders offered by other windvane manufacturers look far too small to handle the boat in any kind of rough conditions, but the Hydrovane proves it’s emergency steering abilities by the fact it is already independently steering the boat with it’s auxiliary rudder whenever it is in use. 

Most importantly, with a Hydrovane you can continue to use the self steering capabilities after you lose your primary steering, whereas with many of the other emergency steering options, you have to hand steer until the primary rudder is fixed. 

Of course the auxiliary rudder system has it’s negatives as well. Servo pendulum style windvanes can be raised out of the water while not in use, but the Hydrovane cannot be raised out of the water without removing it entirely. This means that it can potentially cause issues when backing in and out of a slip in a marina or while maneuvering around a tight harbor. The other potential issue is it could be seriously damaged if it ever hits debris, while the servo pendulum style system would simply kick up like a beachable rudder and drop back down after the debris floats past. 

According to the organizers of the Global Solo Challenge, a round the world yacht race that partners with Hydrovane to provide self steering systems for competitors: “Hydrovane is a self-steering windvane system that is a completely independent mechanical system  (ie. non electrical) and steers the boat on a wind based course. It is an auxiliary rudder type of windvane, meaning it has it’s semi balanced rudder that is independent of the boat’s main steering system.”

“Once engaged, the large vane becomes a wind direction sensor, and also provides the power to drive the Hydrovane rudder via a sophisticated linkage. You lock off the boat’s main rudder while the Hydrovane is steering, which allows you to trim out any weather helm or lee helm and dampen the boat’s yaw immensely. Compared to the servo pendulum style of windvane, the hydrovane is easier to use, more robust, and can be fitted to a greater variety of boats.”

“What makes Hydrovane even more popular for long distance sailing is that it doubles as an emergency rudder/steering system. It is the most robust emergency steering system available today. Always in place, nothing to set up, takes the fear out of losing your rudder or breaking your vessel’s steering mid passage or close to shore.”

The Best Windvane for Your Yacht

In the end, the best choice of windvane for each boater depends entirely on what type of boat you have, your budget and where you plan to sail. Your size of boat and type of steering are also very important factors when choosing the right self steering system for your boat. Another consideration that must be taken into account is the shape of the transom, and how the windvane will be attached to the stern of your boat. 

Thankfully, the vast number of windvanes that are in use means that chances are someone has found a way to mount one on a boat similar to yours. Most windvane manufacturers websites feature images of their windvanes on a variety of vessels, so you can look at other installations for inspiration to figure out the best way it can work on your boat. 

My wife and I currently live aboard a Truant 33 sloop which we sail full time around the Pacific Northwest and North Pacific Ocean. For years, we relied entirely on our autopilot for self steering, but when we decided to refit the boat for a three year circumnavigation we decided it was time for an upgrade. 

For a long time, my first choice had been the Cape Horn windvane due to its strength, simplicity and pleasant appearance, but I had to look elsewhere when we discovered the issues with connecting it to our hydraulic steering system. I then seriously considered buying a South Atlantic hybrid style windvane before settling on a Hydrovane. The selling points for me was the fact that I didn’t need to connect it to my primary steering system, and the fact that it would double as emergency steering. I love the fact that even if we lose our primary rudder, the Hydrovane can continue to steer the boat just like normal until we safely arrive at our next port. 

So far, I have been very happy with our hydrovane self steering system, which we named Friday. Friday has only been aboard the boat for three months, but he has already become our favorite helmsman of all time. He has no problem steering the boat in all kinds of weather conditions, and he has yet to fall asleep on the job. With self steering taken care of, we don’t have to worry about taking along extra crew members nor figuring out where to stow all the extra provisions to keep them fed. 

Outfitting your vessel for world cruising is a massive undertaking that requires a thorough understanding about every part of your vessel from the top of the mast to the bottom of the keel. is the best place to find all the information you need and more. If you dream about becoming a better boater but don’t know where to begin – we’ve got you covered. answers all your questions about boating so you can enjoy more time on the water. The best way to keep up to date is to subscribe to our newsletter – so don’t forget to sign up today and you’ll never miss any of our boating news and content!

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