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Old 05-05-2010, 16:02   #1
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Hand Steering

On a recent weekend sail, I was chatting it up with a (much more experienced) friend and lamenting the costs of properly equipping our boat for an extended south pacific cruise. As I was boring him with our yet to be acquired list 'o crap, he stopped me when I mentioned a windvane.

"You've got an autopilot, right?"

(We've got two actually - an ST6000 on the wheel and an unused ST4000 as a backup.)

"And you're young..."

(The missus and I are both in our early 30's)

"So the hell with it then - if the auto goes out, AND the spare goes out just steer by hand - you'll make it."

I had to stop and think about that one.

We're pretty green, so we're doing the responsible thing of reading as much as we can and asking as many questions as we can. In the course of so doing, I've come to the conclusion that a windvane is mandatory gear for any self respecting offshore cruiser. Since forming that opinion, it's never really occurred to me that this piece of gear might fall in the nice to have column. We're also on a tight budget, so letting go of any expense sounds pretty attractive.

So, my question is this:

Let's say we experience a lightning strike or some other unlikely but quite possible occurrence that really DOES put us in a position where we have to spend some number of days or weeks steering by hand... does anyone have any first hand experience on how big an ordeal this is?

Any war stories people might have about extended hand steering and the toll it took would be great to hear.

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Old 05-05-2010, 17:07   #2
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For me, hand steering becomes an ordeal after about 2 hours. I'm sure I could do it longer if my life depended on it, but it wouldn't be much fun and not good for my mental health. I'd get a wind vane.

On the other hand, I know someone who sailed from San Francisco to Hawaii with one crew, hand steering all the way. So if you're inclined to masochism, it can be done.

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Old 05-05-2010, 17:22   #3
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There is another option- sheet to tiller. Cost about 40 bucks to set up (less if you have spare blocks, line). Much nicer to steer with IMHO.
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Old 05-05-2010, 17:28   #4
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I agree with your friend. If both A/Ps die, which is unlikely on the same passage leg, you'll have to hand steer, but that's just aggravating, not deadly. If it wears out the both of you, just heave to for a while. It's cruising, not racing.
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Old 05-05-2010, 17:40   #5
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Of course, you could consider the elimination of a big load on your batteries with a vane relative to an autopilot. Likewise w/ sheet to tiller, if you can make it work.
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Old 05-05-2010, 18:03   #6
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We hand-steered across:

- Pacific,
- Indian,
- S Atlantic,
- N. Atlantic.

No issue. Quite tiring though.

Next time we go, I will sure get a GOOD windvane.

But you will hear different stories from bigger boats, esp. if they are not as directionally stable as ours.

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Old 05-05-2010, 18:08   #7
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Done long sails with and without APs. For me there is no doubt that it is a LOT more fun with the AP. No not a killer without but you do get a lot more tired and more likely to screw up. Screw up navigation in the wrong spot and it could ruin your whole day.
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Old 05-05-2010, 20:04   #8
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May I pose a question?

I thought the point of having a windvane was to help mannage the power consumption on a sail boat. I've been told that the power consumption can be rather sizeable.

Might I suggest an alternative. Remove and sell the ST4000, and use the cash generated to buy a windvane.
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Old 05-05-2010, 20:15   #9
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Originally Posted by barnakiel View Post
We hand-steered across:

- Pacific,
- Indian,
- S Atlantic,
- N. Atlantic.

To the original poster, I dislike hand steering even in harbors but I know it's necassary. Funny enough as much as I love sailing and consider myself a good helmsman, I can't stand being on the helm unless it's needed (tacking, etc).
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Old 05-05-2010, 21:35   #10
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In Puget Sound, an autopilot is the best, because even when the wind shifts, the land doesn't move. Windvanes are better in the open ocean, because they steer relative to the wind, not the compass, which means a heck of a lot less sail changes and trimming.

One interesting thing is that if you have a wind vane and a tillerpilot, you can hook them up together to have an ultra-low current drag autopilot powered by the wind.

I would want both if I were going on a long trip. That being said I have put in 10 hours at the tiller. It's kind of mind-numbing.
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Old 05-05-2010, 22:29   #11
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If the autopilot goes down and you can't fix it, you have to just get on with it.

My longest period on the helm non-stop is 36 hrs (day night day)

Not the most fun I've had on a boat, but not as grueling as you might think. Tuck down the sail plan and balance out the boat and it's OK.

If there are 2 of you on the boat I think the biggest problem is going to be boredom.
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Old 05-05-2010, 22:32   #12
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I suggest one auto pilot, sell the spare and fit windvane as suggested. Use windvane as first choice or conditions allow. Forget hand steering young or old it just becomes boring hard work very quickly. (hours)
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Old 05-05-2010, 22:34   #13
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I've got a windvane (Monitor) and a below-deck autopilot, and really appreciate them both. But if the lack of a windvane is the only thing keeping you from going sailing, and you've already got an autopilot and working backup, I would just go sailing.

That is assuming that your energy budget can really handle the 24/7 power drain of the autopilot.

During our Hawaii races we've almost always hand-steered, but that was with a crew of four, or more recently, a crew of six. With four, it gets really fatiguing after a week and a half. Some doublehanded racers I know hand-steered for the full 12-day race -- these guys were real animals -- but most use autopilots at least occasionally. I doubt that I could have done it. Of course this is steering with spinnakers.

For you, hand-steering is a backup to your backup, and it won't kill you. The autopilots do burn some amps, but it that isn't an issue I wouldn't worry about not having the windvane. Since you're not trying to win a race you can be more relaxed about your sail trim, and adjust for balance and stability rather than speed, making it easier to steer and perhaps letting you experiment with some of the sheet/tiller/wheel/bungee methods.

Do be realistic about your power budget though.
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Old 05-05-2010, 23:45   #14
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We had a Monitor windvane and no AP on the old boat, worked great. Now, when refitting the "new" boat to cross the Atlantic a windvane (Autohelm) was the first thing we bought (to make sure we could afford it ) and actually one of the few things that the Admiral really wanted. Most other expenses were adjusted after that. With import taxes etc we ended up spending $5000 on it. The single most expensive piece of equipment on the boat, 3 times as expensive as the SSB with Pactor and all and 30% more expensive than the new standing rigging.

The Autohelm wouldn't have been my first choice if I could have chosen freely, I'd have gone for another Monitor. Unfortunately, a servo pendulum wouldn't work on our boat.

We also have an Autohelm 6000 for motoring. The AP is not an option while sailing, never has been.

On the way back to Sweden.
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Old 06-05-2010, 03:58   #15
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Hand steering is not only good fun but teaches you about sailing and your boat.

if you are a bit green I coulnt give you a better thoguht that to throw the wind vane overboard, leave the auto pilot at home and go sailing for a few days each week.

When you are then comfortable with just hands on helms the you can load the autopilot on board again.

A boat I know with 3 on board hand steered for a week out of the Marquesas. The wife did it for 2 days and then went below and 'relaxed'. The 2 guys did the 5 days fine.

I asked how was it: "Don't ask!" was the response. But they were alive and well, they made good time and were able to sit and drink beer without a shaking hand and were well humoured.

So you can do it too

I definitly think the wind vane is suitable only for artifical reef making.

If a modern autopilot breaks down it is extreemly rare. Then just hand steer and injoy the vagaries of sailing.

Our auto pilot has done 25,000 miles without a hiccup. Touch wood it keeps going well. But what a waste of money it would have been to buy a second auto pilot and a windvane those years ago. What a waste.


Notes on a Circumnavigation.

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