I once asked a sailing friend what he considered to be the most important piece of equipment on his boat. Without missing a beat he said, "The corkscrew." Sensing that he wasn't joking, I suggested he seek help.
To the same question, my wife, Diana, responded, "That's easy, our wind vane." I had to concur, remembering the time just south of Madagascar when a semi-submerged log ripped my homemade wind vane right off the rudder of our old boat. For the next ten days we had to hand steer around the clock in extremely rough conditions. It was more than just exhausting; it was dangerous. As we slumped into a deepening fatigue our decision-making became clearly compromised, for with fatigue comes hesitation and lethargy.
"Should I reduce down to the number three? Naw, she'll be right." Actually, no she wasn't.
The day after we arrived in South Africa I bought a 25-year old, beat-to-hell Aries wind vane. Once installed and engaged it allowed me to duck below for a cupper, to check the charts, talk on the radio, or conduct a slow and methodical deck tour on every watch. I could do singled-handed sail changes, reef, or deploy a spinnaker confident that the vessel would stay on course and that I wouldn't be ambushed by an entangling cloud of nylon. It allowed the person off watch to mostly stay off watch and put precious sleep in the bank. That clunky old contraption followed us from our old boat, the Zenie P.II to our steel cutter, Roger Henry, and will probably follow me to my watery grave, for the simple reason that it works.
This is not meant to be an endorsement of a particular brand, for there are many others that work as well. But it is to encourage anyone planning a blue-water voyage and trying to prioritize equipment with a finite budget, to pass up the flat screen TV for the kids and the Bose speakers and buy a high quality mechanical self-steering system. I say mechanical because anything electronic can and will break down in a salt environment Although I use an Autohelm ST4000 as a back up to my Aires, and it is perfect for no-wind motoring situations where amp consumption is of no importance, I still want my bottom line to be something that will continue to work after the battery box has been flooded.
The servo-rudder system is simple and powerful using the boat's speed through the water as its energy source. On tiller boats it is particularly effective if you find the sweet spot to fasten the control lines that balances the leverage ratio with the distance of pull required to steer the boat. Wind vanes can be fitted to a central hub of a wheel helm, but due to line stretch become less effective the greater the distance away from the helm, as in center-cockpit vessels. However, any set-up will work better if you take the time to finely balance the boat before engaging the vane.
One clever amalgamation of ideas is to fasten an electronic tiller arm to the activating tab of the servo rudder, thus the electronic push rod does not need the power to actually turn the boat, only to twist the servo rudder. This takes the brutal wear and tear out of what are typically less than robust mechanisms of electrical autopilots. There are two other advantages to this. The variable sensitivity settings of the fluxgate compass can reduce "hunting", that is an over-steering of the vessels course. And, when near shore, the fluxgate responds only to the magnetic course set, not wind shifts, so you won't find yourself suddenly veering towards the rocks.
Due to the new trend of "walk-through" transoms the mechanical vane is disappearing from the modern boating scene. This need not be for I have seen them effectively mounted off-center on the sugar-scoop, and have even seen clever hinging systems that allow them to be mounted in a central position, but swung away when not in use.
I know when I offer this kind of advice that I run the risk of sounding old fashioned and out of touch. But for all our new pods, pads, texts and tweets, out there on the Mother Ocean nothing has changed since time immemorial. We travel slowly over great distances under harsh conditions. Ultimately it is an endurance contest and we need all the reliable help we can get. And what speaks to reliability better than the upcoming fiftieth birthday of my Aries wind vane? I plan to celebrate it with a bottle of New Zealand's finest wine; that is if I can find that second most important piece of equipment onboard.
- Boating NZ
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