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