Gone Floatabout

Sailing, Photography, Wilderness

All Blue Water Boats Should Steer Themselves


So says Yves Gélinas, the incredibly accomplished and innovative sailor who invented the Cape Horn wind vane, and I couldn’t agree more.Strong SE wind

Twelve years ago, Seth and I and two friends set off on our circumnavigation aboard Heretic with no self-steering gear at all. No electronic autopilot and no mechanical wind vane. We both came from racing (round-the-buoys) backgrounds and were used to hand-steering boats to get the best out of them. With four people taking turns at the helm, it was possible to make ocean passages like that, but it wasn’t much fun. Nor was our fatigue helped by the fact that we were sailing Heretic like we were in a race….

Cold sailing

Hand-steering Heretic in a gale off Rhode Island in November 2006. Me on the left, one of our friends – John – at the helm.

Upon reaching the Bahamas after our first week-long passage, we started to look for a wind vane to buy. Fortuitously, we met a sailor at a beach potluck who had just completed his circumnavigation and wanted to sell his wind vane. We installed it aboard Heretic soon thereafter, and by the time we reached Panama – where our friends left the boat – we’d gotten the hang of using it. After that, Seth and I could sail alone together quite comfortably. We like to joke (semi-seriously) that we didn’t sail around the world, our wind vane did!

Nice sailing

Wind Vane steering Heretic

It’s hard to emphasize enough just how important some form of self-steering is aboard a short-handed vessel. Solo watches are quite difficult without some way to leave the helm for at least some amount of time. Self-steering gear frees you to take care of all the other demands of sailing the boat (like navigating) as well as anything you might like to do for yourself or for the watch below (like cooking).

plotting the course to Cabo

Without self-steering, all this becomes more difficult and much of it requires another person to help, which means both crew members get significantly less sleep. It’s also very tiring to hand-steer a sailboat in ocean swells and wind-waves, especially in rough weather, so that a longer passage would be exhausting. It’s obviously possible – one of our friends did it from Honolulu to Tahiti – but it’s taxing. So when we were looking for another boat after selling Heretic, there was no doubt in our minds that a wind vane was an absolutely essential piece of equipment. Most fortuitously, Celeste had a Joshua model Cape Horn wind vane already!

Chukchi Sea

Cape Horn wind vane steering Celeste in the Chukchi Sea, north of the Arctic Circle


Since we’re classic boat nuts who don’t appreciate clunky stuff cluttering up the clean lines of a beautiful boat, we were immediately taken with the low profile and streamlined appearance of the Cape Horn.

Celeste among growlers

Cape Horn wind vane looking not at all like an oil derrick on Celeste‘s stern! Polar ice edge, Alaskan Arctic.


And as we started using it, we were very happy with how it worked and how well it steered. Remounting it was simple, as the deck mounts and the leads for the control lines were already in place. We spent our first few passages (north outside Vancouver Island and then onward to Haida Gwaii and Ketchikan, Alaska) learning to use it. The principles involved were, of course, familiar to us after some 30,000 miles of sailing with a wind vane on Heretic, but every boat handles differently, so we had to learn how best to balance Celeste for the Cape Horn to work to most advantage on each point of sail.

Wind vane

Cape Horn steering Celeste on passage between Haida Gwaii , British Columbia and Ketchikan, Alaska. July 2014.

Very basically, servo-pendulum wind vanes work like this: You position the vane into the apparent wind on the course you wish to steer and then hook up the control lines to your wheel or tiller. Whenever the boat starts to move off course, the wind will push the vane one direction or the other. The vane is connected to a rudder in the water, so that the movement of the vane translates to movement of the rudder. This external rudder has enough power to move the control lines running to the boat’s tiller. These lines will push or pull the tiller (which obviously controls the boat’s rudder) to correct the boat’s course.

You can see how this works in this video (minute 1:05 – 1:27):

I’ve found servo-pendulum wind vanes to be very reliable and simple to use. There is another type of wind vane (auxiliary rudder) that uses its own rudder to steer the boat rather than control lines to the boat’s steering. I know many sailors are very happy with these; I personally have never had the chance to try one, but the principle sounds good. Neither type uses any electricity, something that is incredibly important on a small sailboat with only a few solar panels to generate power.

Our Cape Horn wind vane has steered us about 10,000 miles so far and we’re not sure exactly how many miles it steered with Celeste‘s previous owner, perhaps another 10,000. With the rather rougher conditions in the Arctic, we’re planning to do a bit of maintenance on our vane before our next passage, and then we hope to have this marvelous piece of engineering – and crucial bit of kit, as the English magazines put it – steer us many more thousands of miles!  Fast sailing


27 thoughts on “All Blue Water Boats Should Steer Themselves

  1. Hi Ellen,
    I’ve steered my Alberg 35 with a Cape Horn for nearly 30 years and love it! I am trying to reach Eric to get some replacement bushings but cannot access their website. Do you know a current way to reach them? TIA.

    • Hi Chris,
      Fun to hear how much good use you’ve gotten out of your Cape Horn! The phone number for the company is +1 450 479-6314, or to speak directly with Yves, you can call +1 514 442 0213. Email is mail@capehorn.com. If that doesn’t work, just let me know – I think I may have a direct email for Eric somewhere.
      Hope you get your bushings!
      All the best,

  2. Well fist off I’d like to thank you for helping me fill my swear jar. You guys circumnavigated with no windvane??? WTF that sounds like the making of a good horror film. 🙂

    • Haha – no, of course not! We did the first 2000-odd miles without a wind vane before we wised up that we weren’t racing! We started our circumnavigation in Maine and we got the wind vane in the Bahamas. (Well, Turks and Caicos, actually, but close enough – we met the guy who sold us the wind vane in the Exumas.) We did the next 30,000 miles of the circumnavigation with the vane! And all our sailing since then has been with a wind vane too 🙂

      • Haha I commented after reading the first bit. I was feeling like the worse sailor in the world, hence the swear jar 🙂

        • No worries! Though I think we would have been the stupidest sailors in the world if we hadn’t gotten a wind vane… 🙂

        • The Hiscocks did on their first navigation but they were quite salty 🙂

        • I think a lot of sailors did back in those pre- and post-war decades, but they all seemed to have some kind of ingenious rig for making the boat steer herself – lines run from twin headsails, etc. (I know that’s what the Smeetons did, anyway, and I think Slocum, too, if I remember correctly.) Kind of nice to have wind vanes now, though, that work on all points of sail!

        • I totally agree, mine is in pieces all over the floor of my boathouse. I’m thinking about replacing it with a Cape Horn.

        • Bummer! For what it’s worth – if those pieces are too tired out to go back together effectively! – we really like our Cape Horn. Besides being a great vane, it doesn’t look so big and clunky on the stern, which is kind of a nice feature when you have a lovely classic like yours!

  3. I ALMOST bought a cape horn (like you I really liked the aesthetics of it), but the emergency rudder add-on looked slightly too tricky for me to solo-wrestle on if I needed it, so I ended up buying a second hand Fleming (aux rudder model) instead.

    It looks great on Celeste, really suits the boat.

    • Thanks, Matt! We love how it looks, too, and of course how it handles. The Fleming sounds like a great wind vane, too – how are you liking it so far?

      • Haven’t actually installed it yet – it’s sat on Orcas Island at my friends house. Seems to be a mix of servo pendulum with an auxilary rudder so hopefully should have the best bits of both systems – bad side is that it deinfately isn’t as sleek as the cape horn.

  4. Wow. that’s impressive. Thanks for sharing how you came to using them. I can see how crucial they are. I guess some sailor put his thoughts to use while spending long hours at the tiller.

  5. Could not do without our autopilot, we consider it the most important piece of gear on board! Can’t use a wind vane on a cat, but using a tiller pilot.

    • Tiller pilots are great too! Since Celeste has a tiller and tiller autopilots are relatively inexpensive and easy to install, we put one in to use when we’re motoring and it’s been great for that! You’ve obviously done tons of incredible sailing with yours! 🙂

    • Actually, you can install a Hydrovane on a catamaran, it is not required to be centre line to steer the vessel.

      • Hi guys – the problem with a windvane for us is that the apparent wind increases much more quickly on a cat than on a monohull which changes your heading. Our cat is very light – 4.5 tons – Our tiller pilot only draws between 1 and 1.5 amp when it pulses so power is not a problem for us.

  6. Ellen,

    You probably know this already, but not all windvanes have lines that lead to the wheel/tiller and control the boat by adjusting the main rudder.

    Using our Hydrovane you lock off thr wheel and the large rudder of the windvane moves to steer the boat. No lines, no clutter and nothing to chafe.

    I’ve always said it was the best thing we put on Kate when we bought her 10 years ago. If I had a penny for every story about faulty auto pilots… Heather

    • Hi Heather,
      Great to hear you’ve had such success with your Hydrovane! I am aware of auxiliary rudder vanes, but haven’t had a chance to try one out myself. Hence why I wrote pretty much exclusively about servo-pendulum vanes like the Cape Horn, with which I have personal experience.

      The Cape Horn vane can also be installed without any external lines, while remaining a servo-pendulum vane using the boat’s rudder for steerage. Here is the page that describes the Integrated Model, which leads control lines internally to the boat’s steering quadrant rather than externally to the boat’s tiller: http://caphorn.com/en/integrated-models/

      We just happen to have the Outboard Model, with lines led to the tiller. As a side note, we haven’t had much problem with chafe or clutter of the lines – if you lead them cleanly enough (as you should for the vane to work properly), this shouldn’t be an issue! 🙂

      I do believe you can fit an auxiliary rudder to the Cape Horn if you need to, though it is designed to be a servo-pendulum. Having only used servo vanes, I can’t speak to the on-going dockside debate among sailors everywhere as to which is “better” – I’m not sure one is better than the other in any case! Obviously both types work really well and there are advantages to both. The aux-rudder types provide you with an already-installed emergency steering system, while the servo-pendulum types are arguably better fitted for extreme weather because the boat’s rudder is steering (the boat’s rudder being the size and position intended by the boat’s designer). But of course what works best for one boat is not always what works best for another! I don’t think I’ve met a sailor yet who doesn’t think their wind vane – of either type – is the best piece of kit on board!

      It’s always good to hear how happy sailors are with their wind vanes – may yours carry you on several more decades of ocean passages!

      Thanks for writing, all the best,

  7. Very nice blog!

    Heretic and Celeste are what model of boat?

    Many thanks in advance,

    JSS ________________________________

    • Glad you like the blog! Thanks!

      Heretic was (still is!) a copy of Finisterre, the Sparkman & Stephens keel-centerboard yawl that won 3 Bermuda Races in the 1950s. She was built in Florida in 1968 and is a cutter-rigged sloop instead of a yawl.

      Celeste is a custom-built cold-molded wood cutter, designed by Francis Kinney and built by Bent Jespersen in Sidney, BC, Canada in 1985. She was commissioned by a man in BC who wanted a classic design but with a fin keel. She’s 40ft LOA but only 28ft LWL.

      Older classics are a lot of work to maintain (obviously we only have Celeste – we bought her after we sold Heretic), but we think it’s worth it!

  8. Those pictures are awesome! Steering on small boats is something I haven’t thought about before. Then again, I live near a small lake with lots of speedboats so I haven’t seen something like this before. The waves out there look huge as well.

    • Thanks, Jess! Glad you enjoyed reading my post and thanks for commenting! Yes, self-steering a boat isn’t really something you’d have to think about if you’re out on the water for just a day, but it becomes pretty important when you’re sailing nonstop day and night for weeks! It’s a never ending conversation topic among ocean sailors! 🙂