One of the enduring questions regarding long distance passages is how to keep the boat going in the proper direction without exhausting the crew or exposing them to undue lengths of time at the helm. Race crews solve this with a series of teams of athletic men helming the boat in shifts. Some cruisers use electronic autopilots to steer the boat, with the extra power usage and added complexity and expense that they entail.
And some cruisers go “low tech”, using clever arrangements of lines, gears, vanes, and paddles to steer the boat using a whirlygig-like apparatus called a self-steering system, or wind vane autopilot. These range from the extremely low tech, homebuilt units costing relatively little but often required a significant amount of fine-tuning and time investment to make them work well, all the way up to the legendary wind vanes with names such as “Monitor”, “Cape Horn”, “Aries”, and “Hydrovane”.
Naturally, since I’m trying to reduce my power consumption and seek to harness the power of the wind as much as possible, I am opting for the wind vane autopilot solution.
While each of the major vanes have their pros and cons, and each of them have a fanatical group of hardcore supporters, one setup in particular stood out to me as superior for a few key reasons, which I will discuss in a moment. However, this solution does NOT come inexpensively. But when I weighed the pros and cons of the options, my skill and construction resources, and the time I have available, the value of the system became very clear. So I placed a call to Hydrovane International, and boy let me tell you: these people know how to please their customers.
From the beginning I felt like this was the kind of company I was glad to be supporting with my hard earned money. They didn’t immediately try to sell me the product, but instead I got a sense of comfortable confidence in their own gear - they knew that I had all the data I already needed to make the decision, and they were there to make the process as straightforward as possible. Getting engineering plans and validation, customized assistance with each part, and even individual consideration on whether or not my solar panel arch would be an issue was something they did quickly, happily, and most importantly, accurately. They aren’t sales people who pretend to be engineers, they are engineers who also enjoy ethical sales. So a big shout to John, Will, and Valerie, who each gave valuable and thoughtful consideration to my situation in a cheerful and accurate manner. This is how a company should be run.
Then there was the issue of the product itself. After making it nearly dead simple to order the right parts, I had a lead time commitment - which they honored - and the parts came in excellent packing. All in all, hauling the 5 boxes out to my boat was a simple task. But if I had been pleased with their company to this point, I was still positively surprised when I opened the box and hefted the first components. This is a solid product where no corners were cut, and the quality is evident immediately.
The installation instructions are not only thorough, but they supply a host of anecdotal tips and warnings acquired from a few decades of past installs to help you avoid common pitfalls and ensure a smooth install. And as for the installation - it’s dead simple, once you figure out where you are going to put the thing.
One trick I found very useful was when fabricating the mounting blocks that match the curve of the hull to the straight edge of the cast aluminum bracket. Hydrovane recommended that I tape a sheet of 60 grit sandpaper to the hull and effectively sand the block against the hull to get the right curvature. It works PERFECTLY, and with a little sweat (did I mention it was 105F outside and 80% humidity while I was doing this?) I got some fantastic mounting pads. I’d ordered up some heavy 1/8” stainless steel backing plate stock as well, and the next step was to “machine” those heavy squares into satisfactory backing plates. A few hours with a Dremel cutting wheel (ok, several cutting wheels) and I’d cut the plates into a sort of elongated octagon roughly matching the shape of the mounting brackets. I did this mostly to spread the load out across multiple points, preventing high stress locations along the hull fiberglass. The rounded octagon doesn’t have the sharp square edges to leave a sudden stress riser at the edge of the plate. I borrowed a drill press from a local high-volume home improvement warehouse in order to drill the holes in the backing plates.
The hardest part is planning, measuring, and marking the mounting pad locations. There is no stable “level” reference on a boat - nothing is a straight line! So I had to give it my best guess, factor for a little bit of wind and offset weight causing the boat to lean, jig it up with a friend eyeballing it at a distance, and ultimately just hold my breath and drill the holes. I found their advice to use a PVC pipe very helpful - even if I couldn’t find a 2” O.D. pipe section to clamp in place (2” PVC is the I.D., and 1.5” has slightly less than 2” O.D.). I ended up using some heavy duct tape on the outside of 1.5” pipe to make up the difference. A test fit of the whole “sandwich” validated the alignment, so I called it a day and grabbed a well-deserved beer as the light faded.
The next day I ground away the paint and surface gelcoat inside the stern area. This created a good surface to bed the backing plates against, using epoxy thickened with high density filler to fair the pad against the hull curvature. I also sanded the faded and worn gelcoat off the transom to ensure good epoxy adhesion between the mounting pad and the transom. 3M 4200 served as the adhesive between the aluminum bracket and the outer surface of the pad, and I used Tef-Gel between the aluminum casting and the stainless bolts and washers.
The whole gooey sandwich had to go together pretty fast, even with slow hardener, as it was a scorchingly hot day, so I planned it all out carefully before mixing up the batches. Once I had the top bracket assembled and curing, I quickly assembled the lower bracket, and then fit the actual shaft in place to pull everything into final alignment as it cured.
After the final cure, I re-torqued the shaft bolts and the mounting pad bolts, and assembled the steering gear according to the easy-to-follow instructions. There wasn’t much of a trick to this, except that to help align the unit fore-and-aft I again reached for the 1.5” PVC pipe to extend the tiller arm to get a longer reference line. I did all of this in about an hour on a Monday afternoon after work and popped the vane and the rudder on for a quick functional test.
All that’s left is to find a suitable place to run the course adjustment line, but that can wait for the test sail and some more experimentation!
In brief, the main reasons I chose the Hydrovane were:
1. It doesn’t require lines in the cockpit running back to the wheel or tiller.
2. It’s a completely standalone system that does not depend on the main rudder functioning.
3. It’s a spare rudder as well. This was a big factor for me.
4. It has a stellar reputation and I’ve heard of many users of other vanes moving to the Hydrovane and wondering why they didn’t do it sooner. I haven’t heard a single story of someone that went the other way.
5. It has the most straightforward install for my boat as well, and involved the least amount of holes in the boat.
Generally speaking I’ve heard great wailing, swearing, and gnashing of teeth over most of the other brands, and have heard nothing but praise for the Hydrovane. And having installed mine and seen how it’s constructed, I have to say I can see why. Though nothing short of a test sail and then some nice long passages will put the proof to the question.
Overall, I absolutely recommend both this piece of gear and the company themselves, and will let you know how well the new ‘vane sails the boat before too long!
** [Update] Note that I am not being compensated in any way for reviewing or recommending any product or service. If I do receive sponsorship or special consideration I will mention that fact explicitly. **