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Old 14-07-2008, 04:33   #1
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HydroVane or Hydraulic Autopilot?

I have a 6 ton, 34' catamaran. She's a cruising cat, obviously, from those figures.

We are trying to prepare for an eventual trans-Atlantic and a quite possible Caribbean run in the near future.


Ideally, I would like the boat to be handled by my wife and I 24/7 without a lot of difficulty or fatigue. Having to take the helm creates a lot of fatigue, especially as compared to sitting in the salon while on watch.

Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages, as I see them:

HydroVane - takes no power to run, isn't likely to break, acts as 2nd (3rd?) rudder in an emergency, can be placed off-center to still leave room for working with davits

Hydraulic Autopilot - push a button and you're on course, integrates with nav software, works well in small areas, requires significant power, provides "single point of failure" for hydraulic steering system, works when there is no wind and you are motoring

I'm having some issues sorting out which would be best. I like the "keep it simple" aspects of the HydroVane, but am worried about how it will work when there is little wind.

Any input?

PS: I had asked about "cheap" autopilots before, but we are trying to prep for Maine to the Carribean, then an ARC Europe (if all goes according to plan). I need to have something reliable.
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Old 14-07-2008, 04:59   #2
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I'm having some issues sorting out which would be best.
I think you are having trouble because the advantages you see in both are true as are the disadvantages. The which is best question is not possible to solve. Neither is better at what the other can do best. we have an Autohelm ST7000 and it has a lot of mileage since it was installed. We also have a Monitor vane as well and it was used by the previous owner a great deal as well. Having both is a good idea.

Using both (not at the same time) seems to be a good decision. Long passages tend to have steady winds. You then set the point of sail and let it do what it does best as the wind shifts. In close to shore situations you are attempting to set a magnetic course with more precision than a point of sail and you may be under power and thus have the electrical power to spare. This where the other approach works best.

Hydraulic auto pilots are the most reliable of the powered variety. There are powered wheel driven auto pilots and it seems the best approach with these is to buy two of them because failure is so common. They are cheaper but less reliable. The below deck hydraulic auto pilots have the ability to handle heavier weather using a hydraulic ram. They require more power but they do more work when they need to. In less than heavy sea states they don't use that much power but of course still use power. The lighter wheel based auto pilots will not work well in heavy weather and is a cause of mechanical failure when attempting to make them serve in that capacity.
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Old 14-07-2008, 05:04   #3
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Thank you, Paul.

I neglected to add that I have hydraulic steering already (with a ram). Adding a hydraulic autopilot would be a matter of putting the pump in the steering line. I guess that's why I view it as a single point of failure - if the hydraulic steering goes, there is no backup.

Unfortunately, at $4000-$5000, I can only purchase one autopilot... so I must decide between the two. Ideally, your setup sounds fantastic!

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Originally Posted by Pblais View Post
I think you are having trouble because the advantages you see in both are true as are the disadvantages. The which is best question is not possible to solve. Neither is better at what the other can do best. we have an Autohelm ST7000 and it has a lot of mileage since it was installed. We also have a Monitor vane as well and it was used by the previous owner a great deal as well. Having both is a good idea.

Using both (not at the same time) seems to be a good decision. Long passages tend to have steady winds. You then set the point of sail and let it do what it does best as the wind shifts. In close to shore situations you are attempting to set a magnetic course with more precision than a point of sail and you may be under power and thus have the electrical power to spare. This where the other approach works best.

Hydraulic auto pilots are the most reliable of the powered variety. There are powered wheel driven auto pilots and it seems the best approach with these is to buy two of them because failure is so common. They are cheaper but less reliable. The below deck hydraulic auto pilots have the ability to handle heavier weather using a hydraulic ram. They require more power but they do more work when they need to. In less than heavy sea states they don't use that much power but of course still use power. The lighter wheel based auto pilots will not work well in heavy weather and is a cause of mechanical failure when attempting to make them serve in that capacity.
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Old 14-07-2008, 07:26   #4
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Unfortunately, at $4000-$5000, I can only purchase one autopilot...
Paying for all this is a reality and so is the whole picture. You can't actually afford everything that total redundancy can bring. You will have single points of failure in many places and it can't be avoided. Trading off one thing for something totally different is difficult. In terms of the narrow set of either this or that I think you already have the important issues identified. The better Autopilot is not a clear choice.

Personally, I don't find anything on a boat to be simple. All too often it is a code word used for too expensive or the sailor is uninformed and/or does not understand. Everything is complex since you have a limited amount of tonnage, space, and money. Trade offs and compromises happen all over the boat. Many things interact with many other things. Dependencies are plentiful and not easy to understand completely.

The answer to your question may be that you need the extra money for something more important. Often the decision about details comes from the bigger picture. The nature of your trip and the requirements of your passages.

It would be nice if it really were a choice like bilge pump or a bucket since both items times 2 would be the correct and clear answer. Buckets being so cheap as to not matter. Pumps not being expensive and important.
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Old 14-07-2008, 14:08   #5
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I would go with the hydraulic or an electric on the wheel.. It's just much easier, especially if you are not sailing around the world. Let's face it, the Carribean is mostly over nighters or day sails. You will be wanting a quick and handy form of autopilot to use whenever you want. With the windvane, you will be leaning over adjusting it constantly and will find, other than in the most steady winds, that it is too much work and trouble. Unless you wish to bash your way through the islands on the outside, the winds will be very variable (10 knots behind the island and 35 knots in between!) I rarely steered my boat even on short passages throughout the carribean. Maybe go with a wheel drive electric to save money. If you want back up steering, fit a fold up rudder on pintles and gudgeons. I doubt the little wind vane would steer the boat much anyway.
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Old 15-07-2008, 04:06   #6
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Thanks for the replies, guys.

Paul: I agree. It's a very complex decision with a fairly large financial "mistake" factor. When faced with these types of decisions, I find it's a good idea to throw it up here for debate. But yes... it's probably more of a "what's right for you and your boat" type of question.

Cheechako: Thank you. I have been leaning in the direction you suggest because I feel I might get more overall use from the hydraulic autopilot (integrated with my hydraulic steering) than I would from a windvane.

Only 2 questions, since 2 items from your posts don't follow my understanding of the windvanes:

1) If the HydroVane steers the boat via its rudder when you are underway anyway, how could this same rudder not steer the boat when you lose main steering?

2) I would be going from Maine to the Caribbean and would not likely take the Thorny Path since it's supposedly not a lot of fun. This probably means offshore to Bermuda, then a far-east course down to the St Kitts / Antigua area. This is a significant offshore passage, as would be the ARC Europe to the Med later on. These passages are my primary thinking leaning toward the Hydrovane, even though I'm really thinking hydraulic is the way to go.
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Old 15-07-2008, 09:35   #7
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The thorny path....

I have not done the offshore route so cant speak for that... but frankly, to miss the outer Bahamas, Dominican Republic etc would be missing some of the best of the trip in my mind. Especially with a cat in the Bahamas. Of all the Carribean the cleanest most remote etc to me was the Bahamas. To each his own though! Motor sailing is often the best option (probably especially so in a cat going to windward) and the vane will not work well with that either.
I dont have experience with the Hydrovane, but have had 3 boats with The Monitor and one with an old...Atom? They will steer the boat and are especially convenient on long passages with steady winds. All my boats had some form of other autopilot though... and the reality is that the autopilot got used 95% of the time. If I had to choose one or the other (rather than have both) it would be hands down the autopilot. If you have refrigeration you will be probably charging the batt's once a day anyway.....
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Old 15-07-2008, 10:00   #8
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If you have $5000 to spend, I think that you could get both an autopilot and a windvane. Find a vane for less than 4k, and then buy a Simrad TP32 tiller pilot, and use that to control the vane. Don't do this without researching first, but it seems to be an option that some have chosen.

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Old 15-07-2008, 11:25   #9
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For the US coast and Bahamas and Caribe, the hydraulic AP is the far superior solution. For crossing an ocean, the vane is perhaps best. On balance the hydraulic option will allow you to do both provided you have a way to keep the batts topped up on your crossing. I would opt for the solution that is best for all but a month of your plans and adequate for that month.
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Old 15-07-2008, 11:51   #10
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I have had both autopilots and wind vanes on my past two boats. I could live without an autopilot (not happily) but the wind vane is essential. The vane is silent, uses no power, and is much simpler to repair.

My monitor vane steered my last boat (NorSea 27) across oceans and never gave me a lick of trouble. On the new boat I installed a cap horn because I wanted to be able to have davits and the monitor stuck out too far (which also caused problems with stern anchor rodes). Also, paying for a couple extra feet of slip to accommodate the monitor was an annoying idea.

The cape horn vane connects directly to the quadrant and is much simpler in design than the monitor. I have to carry virtually no spare parts for the cape horn but had a bag of several hundred spare parts for the monitor (if you count all the bearings) forthe monitor. Also the cape horn has a bungee loaded safety release if the oar hits something. The monitor has a ss tube that is supposed to break.

I have never used the hydrovane but people are happy with them. I think most of the vanes on the market work fine.

I have two steering systems on my current boat (Tayana 37 pilot house). The hydraulic steering is for the inside steering station and is engaged by throwing a bypass valve near the wheel. When the hydraulic steering is engaged the hydraulic autopilot can be used. When the hydraulic steering is disengaged the cable steering in the cockpit can be used and the windvane can be used.

The hydraulic ram is a problem as it impacts the light air performance of the wind vane. If I disconnect the ram from the quadrant the vane can steer in very light wind. If the ram is connected it takes 10 knots or more for the vane to perform well. I might be able to fix this by using a longer oar on the vane.

If you have hydraulic steering on your boat I think you would be very well advised to have a vane with an axillary rudder, like the hydrovane, so the resistance of the hydraulic system would not be a problem when using the vane.

Using a cheap tiller pilot on the vane works OK but not great. Under some circumstances it can exceed its limits and lock up. The cape horn vane actually comes with a lever intended for the connection of a tiller pilot. Adding some limit switches to the system my help but I am thinking that I could use the electronics of my autopilot to operate a small electric motor to steer the boat using the vane.

some vane manufacturers say it voids your warranty to use the vane under power. Monitor initially told me that but then changed their tune later, perhaps as a response to competitive pressures.

The primary advantage of using a tiller pilot on your vane is in the initial cost. The power consumption is not an issue when the motor is running anyway.
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Old 19-07-2008, 18:57   #11
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My 2 cents: In preparing for a Pacific crossing I finally decided to bolt a big ugly windvane onto the transom, just because I was pretty sure there wouldn't be enough amps available to use the (existing) Robertson autopilot with the linear hydraulic drive, and still power the refrigeration. BTW, I guess that's what you mean by hydraulic autopilot? Anyway, after much study I opted for the Hydrovane, mostly because there was one for sale cheap, and I liked the emergency tiller option.
Long story short, neither one was worth a s**t longterm, and we ended up hand steering across the Pacific. It wasn't that bad- after awhile, we got pretty good at it.

Cheers,

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Old 19-07-2008, 19:33   #12
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On days when there's no wind, and you're motoring, the wind vane is going to be no use to you. Personally I hate having to hand steer when motoring. A good autopilot will still work for you both when there is no wind, and when there is wind around and you can sail. It might involve running an engine for a couple of hours every day or so to keep the batteries up.

I understand your concern about losing hydraulics, and thus losing both the AP and your only method of steering, though. Is there a way to attach an emergency tiller to the top of the rudder shaft on your boat? (That's my plan for backup steering at the moment.) If not, then as was suggested before, maybe you could mount a couple of pintles for an emergency rudder?
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Old 19-07-2008, 19:34   #13
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I have the Monitor wind vane. I also have two tiller pilots. One is set up to attach to the tiller the other is set up to attach to the wind vane. There are instructions with the Monitor to attach it to the counterweight. Section 4.6 in the Monitor manual.

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Old 19-07-2008, 20:54   #14
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My autopilot is the most highly regarded piece of equipment on my boat when I am underweigh. I push a button then I can go to the tramps with a book and enjoy the cruise. Embarrassing thing is that it steers better than me. It keeps a better course, it doesn't get tired and doesn't have to use the head. I would not be without it. I thought I lost a course computer once, end up being a corroded power lead to the ram. That lost is why I swear by them now. The overall utility and usability is hard to beat. Get the autopilot and a couple of solar panels to keep it happy! One of the things that didn't come through when I was research AP on cats is that they consume less power! Cats don't heal and consequently don't need as much correction and the corrections require less energy (No weather helm issues!) So, the average power utilization figure you see are far less for the cat.
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Old 19-07-2008, 23:02   #15
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Will a wind vane work consistently on a Cat?

Might be a reason why one never sees wind vanes mounted on Cats except on the wind vane manufacturers web sites.
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