For shorthanded sailing a reliable selfsteering gear is a must. S/Y Dolphin Dance has been sailing with a Windpilot Pacific -windvane for two seasons now. I was very lucky to find a used one on sale just a few kilometres from the harbour where s/y Dolphin Dance is laid up for winter. The windvane is quite an expensive piece of equipment so looking for one on the second-hand markets is in general a good idea. The windvane was installed for the season 2010 and it was put on its first test during my summer cruise to Gotland, which was singlehanded sailing all the way. During the two and a half days beating towards Visby, it was steering most of the time.
I think that a windvane is particularly useful in a boat like HR 29, which has a deep hull, a long fin-keel and a large, unbalanced rudder. These kinds of boats have often good directional stability but they can be heavy on helm especially when running in following seas. Thus, using the autopilot in these conditions is inefficient and results in high power consumption. The electrical autopilot is responsible for a large portion of the energy usage during the offshore sailing. When the autopilot can be replaced by a totally electricity-free self-steering gear, it is good news for the boat's energy balance.
There are many good publications on the technical operation of the windvanes, so I do not try to go into the details in this matter. However, it is important to point out that the Windpilot Pacific uses a servo-pendulum system, which in other words means that the boat's main rudder is used for steering the boat. Thus the steering force is created by the flowing water and it is led from the pendulum rudder to the tiller via steering lines. This means that the load on transom is low compared to the models, which have an auxiliary rudder for steering. More info for example on Peter Förthmann's book available on windpilot.com.
Animated picture from windpilot.com
In general, I have been very pleased with the performance of the Windpilot Pacific. However, there are some limitations with this system. First of all, it is an equipment for offshore sailing; in Finland we are mostly sailing in the archipelago, where wind is always too gusty or shifty. Thus, there is not much to do with the windvane. On offshore, there are some points of sail which are more difficult for the windvane to handle. This depends very much on the sail balance, trim and the boat's overall characteristics. I have found with HR 29, that the beam reach and broad reach are the most difficult points of sail for the windvane. For example, when beam reaching, the windvane often tends to turn the boat too much into the wind. On the other hand, sailing close-hauled is the best angle for the windvane. Interestingly, windvane copes also well when running (i.e. sailing dead downwind) which is the most difficult direction to steer by hand in following seas due to the risk of gybe.
However, usually when the windvane has difficulties in keeping the course, the fault lies in the sail trim. For example, I have sometimes struggled adjusting the angle of the windvane, only to learn, that the mainsail was sheeted too tight. It is also important to reef early to reduce the weather helm.
I think that the Windpilot Pacific is definitely one of the most valuable pieces of equipment that we have on board. It does not replace the autopilot, but these two systems complement each other. Autopilot is at its best when motoring or sailing in light airs and shifty conditions, whereas windvane is mainly for offshore sailing. In general, the windvane performs the better, the stronger the wind is. The opposite is true for the autopilot.
Here you can see our Windpilot Pacific in action: