Aug 102013

If one considers all the truly great and useful inventions and innovations in the history of the world, self-steering for your sailboat has to be right up there with the best of them.

There’s nothing much worse than being invisibly shackled to the tiller, watch after watch, day after day, manually steering a course that starts out ok but soon degenerates into an erratic and jagged course across the ocean as boredom and exhaustion set in.

Even on sheltered inland waters, especially when sailing short- or single-handed, the ability to leave the boat to herself while tending the sheets or nipping down below to raid the cooler, is a luxury that, once experienced, will always be high on the wishlist. One might even argue … a necessity even!

There are basically two types – electronic auto-pilots and mechanical wind-vane systems. Both have their place on an ocean-going sailboat.

In confined waterways the wind-vane system will have limited application since any wind shift would quickly put you on a collision course with something. In these situations, the electronic pilots have the upper hand. But they obviously require battery power, which means you need to keep the batteries charged, which means running the motor or installing enough solar or…..and so it snowballs. Anyhow, the average boat would likely have most of the required battery and charging facilities for other needs as well, so it’s likely that a small, low power pilot would be on board.

The biggest problem with the electronic autopilot at sea may well be the sea itself. Electronics and salt water don’t mix and, no matter how well sealed the system, sooner or later it will fail and need repairs. Or the batteries will fail. Or the charging system will host a gremlin or two.

So, for offshore sailing, nothing beats the simplicity and reliability of a mechanical system. There is enough documented experience of wind-vane systems tending the helm for thousands of miles and in all wind strengths. These systems are robust, reliable and long-lived. It’s not unusual to hear of sailors using the same system for 25 years and hundreds of thousands of nautical miles of sailing.

They don’t come cheap however. Delving into this world you start coming up against trim-tab systems, servo-pendulum systems and all the associated theory and speculation as to which system is best and why. It’s fascinating reading a little of the history of how these systems evolved.

There’s plenty of superb gear to be had off the shelf but considering the vast number of different boat shapes and configurations out there, any system will require a fair amount of DIY for installation and set-up. So, it’s not so much of a stretch to move from thoughts of “BUY + DIY” to purely “DIY + DIY”. Here’s a really interesting design concept by Jan Alkema: Self steering for outboard rudders RHM-USD which then lead me to this website which has a wealth of reading material.

Some might consider it strange, all this thought of wind-vane self-steering for a Vaal-based Miura. Others will just understand and believe…! It’s just a matter of time [I hope] and so here is the new and evolving self-steering research page.

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