Windvane Self Steering: Your Perfect Crew Member

It’s not surprising that sailors name their self-steering windvane, and then start talking to it! Why not? It is their most comforting crew member – steers tirelessly, eats nothing, never sleeps … and best of all, is a very attentive listener at sea.

‘Ernest II’ has effortlessly steered our Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 43, Kaiquest, thousands of miles so far, with many more to come.

I’ll never forget rounding Cape Flattery, the rugged northwest tip of WA, in August 2017. The summer day quickly transformed itself as the ocean swell picked us up, the wind filled in vigorously, and a dark, dense fog descended around us. With continuous power demands from running the radar and AIS to avoid fishing boats, we were so happy not to rely on an autopilot.

“Hey, Ernest! How’s it going? Brace yourself!” I yelped from the cockpit as I furled in more jib and mainsail.

But I knew full well that I was talking to comfort myself more than Ernest. He was doing what he does best: happily steering us through the night without missing a beat. Steadfast and hardworking, he is a crew member I can always trust with the all-important job of steering.

Sunset at Sea off the WA coast

Mechanical Self-Steering Windvanes

A windvane is a non-electric system mounted on the boat’s transom. First you must feather the vane into the wind by pulling on a line from the cockpit. This sets your course. The vane should be standing tall on the course (the angle to the wind) you want the windvane to steer. Once the windvane has been engaged and the boat falls off this apparent wind-based course, the system mechanically brings your boat back on course by various mechanisms, depending on the type.

The Hydrovane windvane is simple: the power of the wind pushing the vane is amplified via a sophisticated linkage to turn the system’s own rudder.  So as the boat falls off course, the windvane is pushed over by the wind, and this in turn moves the Hydrovane’s rudder to bring you back on course. Your main rudder should be locked in the sweet spot where the boat is tracking nicely, making the ride more comfortable and delivering the windvane with a well balanced boat to steer.

Self-steering windvanes are quiet, draw no power, and being completely mechanical, they are extremely reliable. As you sail along in ever fluctuating winds, your boat stays perfectly trimmed. Whether your conditions are light airs downwind, a gale with heavy seas, or pointing upwind, a robust windvane system can steer your boat with gratifying ease for days or weeks on end.

Windvane in action

Emergency Rudder/Steering System

Rudder failure is relatively uncommon, but the stories do circulate. After crossing the Pacific Ocean in an older boat with a spade rudder, I understand the value of having confidence in redundant systems onboard, including steering.

The Hydrovane, with its own rudder, is ready-to-go in an emergency situation. It is inherently a complete, independent, second steering system for your boat.

The Hydrovane rudder is usually about a 3:1 ratio to your boat’s main rudder. With its efficient foil shape and positioning far aft, it has the necessary power and leverage to be used for windvane steering in all conditions and, if ever needed, as emergency steering.

While rudder, quadrant, or cable failure will hopefully not be part of your cruising story repertoire, it’s comforting to be prepared for all the ‘what if’s’.

Rudder Compare 2

Installation: Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 43

After we bought our Jeanneau in Nanaimo, BC, Canada, we enjoyed our first celebratory sun-downers sitting on the swim step with our feet in the (albeit, cold!) water. We love that swim step.

With an auxiliary rudder windvane system that is not connected to the boat’s main steering in any way, a centerline installation is not required, so the swim step can remain functional for sun-downers, and more.

The positioning that made sense for our SO 43 was 26” off center to starboard as we have a radar mast to port. For those models with a drop down transom, positioning of the windvane to one side or the other is fine. We positioned the upper ‘A’ Bracket arms so that the inboard arm can be used as a handhold for getting on and off the boat. The installation took us a day and a half with the most time consumed in shaping a pad for the lower ‘H’ Bracket to pick up the contour at our mounting point on the transom.

Once the Hydrovane was installed, our electronic autopilot went on holiday.


Quiet Company

Whether loosing myself in a book, cuddling with Salty (our dog), or taking time to let my mind wander, I love the peaceful time I find out at sea. A certain serenity is generated by the consistent sound of wind and waves, a silent windvane on the helm, and nothing else disturbing this natural harmony.

I must admit – the other beauty of having an unassuming windvane as crew: if you don’t want to chat, you don’t have to!

Salty Sailors

For more information on the Hydrovane windvane system, click here. And wherever the wind may take you, enjoy your sail!

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