Before we installed our self-steering wind vane, the flashiest things on the boat were our brightly colored-coded reefing lines. Now we not only have a contemporary German kinetic sculpture attached to our transom but also a third form of steering – that’s in addition to hand steering and autopilot – and it's quickly become our favorite. Our Windpilot Pacific Plus self-steering system has so far more than proven its value.
When we set the angle on the wind vane (which we’ve named Woodrow; we’d already christened our car with the name Vince), we’re able to leave the helm unattended without worrying about adjusting the sails. Wind powered self-steering differs from electronic autopilot in that it does not steer according to compass course, but by sailing at a desired angle to the wind. So keeping a consistent angle to the wind and maintaining sail trim dictates your course heading; your course heading does not dictate the wind angle. It is also a completely organic form of power steering, drawing nothing from the battery bank. Another added benefit is that we have a backup rudder. Just in case… There are two main types of self-steering wind vanes: ARS and SPS, each of which has several different brands and designs to choose from. After a ton of research we finally decided on the WindPilot Pacific Plus, one of Peter Foerthman’s models. The Pacific Plus is an ARS (auxiliary rudder system) design. A smaller, secondary rudder that hangs off the transom is used to directly steer the boat while the main rudder is locked in position, rendering the wheel or tiller ineffective. (In contrast, SPS, or servo-pendulum system wind vanes use lines to actually pull on the steering mechanism, thereby maneuvering the main rudder directly.)
Installation was the highlight of the long list of winter projects we had to complete while the boat was hauled out, and we saved it for last. Woodrow was built in Germany, and arrived in a big wooden freight box at Logan Airport in the middle of winter. We mounted the lower bracket early in the spring while still on the hard in Rhode Island and the upper one once we got back in the water.
We’d been using the wind vane to steer all summer but it wasn’t until we left Florida en route for Panama that we got a chance to put him to the test in heavy weather. Things were going smoothly with pretty consistent 20+ knot winds through the Bahamas, but from the Windward Passage on until 70nm off the coast of Panama we were dealing with 12+ foot seas and line squall after line squall smacking us with 40-45kt bursts and blinding rain. We were hit with a particularly bad one in the middle of one night when Matt was on watch. We were running downwind with a triple reefed main and had just put away either the storm staysail or sliver of the jib that we’d had out. With just that fraction of the main powering us we were flying at 12 knots as we surfed 15ft seas. Blind past 50m and traveling way too fast, he knew he needed to heave to but the conditions were less than ideal for simply heading up into the wind. Plus it would have meant crawling back to the stern and disengaging the WindPilot – too much maneuvering considering the conditions.
All this time the vane had been working like a dream, and Matt decided to try something a bit unconventional and set the boat’s rudder against the WindPilot’s. He used the wheel to hand steer slightly off course. Because the angle on the WindPilot remained the same, the vane resisted and tried to bring us back on course. Gradually, with the rudders working against each other like this, the boat slowed from 12 knots to three. At that speed Matt could bring the boat head to wind gently without slamming into the walls of water that were coming at us. It was pretty amazing. What’s more, once we were head to wind Tamata sat perfectly hove to with the bow 30 degrees off the wind until the squall passed, at which point Matt returned the wheel to its original position, locked it in place, and sat back as the WindPilot brought the boat around to precisely the right course. We didn’t have to adjust it again until the wind shifted slightly to the east, three days later.
Woodrow. What a hunk. Before we’d taken him offshore we’d been admiring him for his strength and reliability, but now we really have something to brag about. As you can imagine, moving through this little weather system made sailing pretty uncomfortable for a few days – we lived in our foul weather gear, sleep came only intermittently, and cooking had devolved to adding hot water to whatever would absorb it – but we had total trust in the boat and our equipment. The next day as we were trying to eat lunch, Matt looked back at the vane working away and said, “Living like kings,” before chasing a handful of Doritos with a big bite of instant ramen. I had to agree.
Here are a few short videos of the WindPilot in action (in much calmer conditions).