Golden Globe Race winner, see “Kirsten Neuschafer wins the Golden Globe” in the Short Tacks section of this issue.
Solo sailboat racing and mass-produced self-steering systems rose together in the 1960s. These so-called windvanes made such races possible. For retro events like the Golden Globe Race, in which racers sail similar yachts and equipment to what was available to Sir Robin Knox Johnston, the winner of the first race in 1969, they are required gear. But problems have plagued these systems from the start, and are still doing so. Self-steering failures in both the 2018 and 2022-23 Golden Globe Race led to significant numbers of contestants dropping out. Others experienced problems but continued on.
The ability to keep a boat on course is critical to winning. It is also crucial to safety. With over a third of solo non-stop circumnavigation days spent in the Southern Ocean, the GGR is brutal on windvanes. In an attempt to control what’s used, the race’s equipment regulations approve only Hydrovane, Aries, Windpilot, and Monitor windvanes, and require entrants wanting to use another brand to convince the race committee of its merits. A sealed emergency autopilot is allowed but opening it disqualifies a sailor from winning.
Last October with the fleet already experiencing problems before entering the Southern Ocean, Don McIntyre, race organizer, announced that windvanes would hence forward be considered significant safety equipment and all GGR windvane incidents would be investigated.
Self-steering problems fall into categories that may or may not be manufacturer issues. One is a matter of bolts and parts falling out, sometimes because the operator has failed to secure them properly. On a calm day this would not be a problem, but in a full gale a single hander can’t stop to fit a new bolt. Breakage also occurs, of both parts labeled breakaway and those that shouldn’t but do so under stress. Then there are catastrophic failures caused by storms subjecting the vane to huge forces.
Owner changes have also caused failure, and new race rules for 2026 require windvane mounting to be approved and no entrant modifications made without review by the manufacturer and the committee.
A working windvane is like having an extra crew member. The GGR is won by the sailor who perseveres to the end, with a boat and equipment and people that hold together.