Tips on sailing with a wind vane

The development of self-steering wind vanes arose from the single-handed races of the 1960s. The designs evolved rapidly, and by the 1970s, the basic form of the servo-pendulum gear was established. Nick Franklin on the Isle of Wight designed the Aries, an elegant and robust piece of equipment, which is still made in Denmark. I installed mine on Fiona, a Westsail 42, in 1984, and since then, the boat has sailed nearly 150,000 nm, many of them under control of the Aries, which we refer to onboard as “Victor — the Vane.”

The great advantage of the servo-pendulum gear is that the wind-sensing vane controls only the angle of the servo blade dangling in the sea; motion of the water past the blade provides the force to move the wheel or tiller. At any speed over a couple of knots, this force is considerable and can provide the helm to steer the boat easily; however, the total amount of travel is limited. On Fiona, the full range is about half a revolution of the wheel. Setting the Aries to hold a course is somewhat of an art, and I have found some crewmembers never quite get the hang of it. I once had a Russian onboard for nearly 10 months, from New York to Tahiti with a diversion to Brazil, who resolutely refused to fiddle with Victor and always stood his watches at the wheel. I hope the comments below will dispel some of the mystery.

Before even attempting to set up Victor, steer the desired heading by hand and get the sails balanced to minimize helm. The heading of the boat depends on both the effect of the rudder and the forces exerted by the sails. Unless the master spoke is within one-eighth of a turn from the top, the self-steerer will be too sensitive to changes in wind speed caused by weather or lee helm. If necessary, adjust the sheets or even reef.

When the boat is nicely balanced, unlock the vane-mounting bracket and get the vane upright with the correct edge facing the wind. When the boat is going into wind, the vane lies over on the same side as the course-adjusting line that must be pulled to erect it, vice versa going downwind. When the vane is up and wagging back and forth, engage the steering lines with the wheel or tiller. Keep whatever helm was needed to hold the course steady in place as the engagement is made. This will ensure the servo blade has the maximum adjustment available on either side of the optimum wheel or tiller position.

If it is necessary to adjust the heading, pull the appropriate port or starboard lines to the ratchets on the vane carriage. Pull slowly and deliberately, and wait for the click. I recommend making only three or four clicks at one time; wait a minute between clicks to allow the system to react. If the heading is still not satisfactory, disengage Victor, manually steer for a minute, and re-erect the vane before engaging. If you find the boat is sailing with the vane continuously pressed to one side, the servo effect is no longer working. Again, manually steer briefly and re-erect the vane.

It may be necessary to retrim the sails, as a permanent list to one side on the part of the vane indicates the servo blade no longer has the adjustment range to overcome the steering moment of the sails. Be patient; inevitably the heading will wander. Accept the average; you are not flying a 747. Resist the temptation to make adjustments frequently; you will wind up like a dog chasing its own tail. When sailing close on the wind, take care that a click to windward does not pinch the boat, this may even cause an unintentional tack as the boat is sailing on the cusp of rapidly varying forces.

Sailing downwind in light airs can be a problem. The vane is slow to react due to the low relative wind speed. Swell can also cause the vane to swing from side to side. The boat can yaw 20° to either side of the heading, and of course, the potential for a gybe becomes acute. This may be a situation in which a small tiller autopilot connected in place of the vane comes into its own. The greatest short-term maintenance problem with wind-vane self-steering is chafe of the steering lines. The worst points are the attachments to the servo-pendulum arm and the sheaves on the main chassis. I have taken to fitting much longer lines than necessary and shortening them to get the proper tension by using sheepshank knots or a series of half-hitches on a bight. When the lines chafe badly, just pull out another few feet of unused rope. Of course, there must be room between two adjacent guidance sheaves to contain the knots — one advantage of a center cockpit. On the other hand, it is not so expensive to junk the shorter lines of an aft-cockpit installation when the rope becomes worn.

On my Aries model, the mounting clamp for the plywood vane is quite narrow, and it was not uncommon for the vane to break at the clamp in heavy winds or seas. I eradicated this problem by bolting small pieces of aluminum angle to the plywood next to the clamp. When making spare vanes from quarter-inch-thick plywood, it is important to make sure they are not top heavy. In still air, the vane must always return to the vertical under the action of the counterweight. Franklin suggested the use of ball-and-socket mounts when I was installing the Aries on my Westsail 42. This certainly helped the alignment problem of fitting the frame to the complex curved double-ended stern, but I have found the ball pins tend to wear on long voyages. I have vivid memories of finding the whole frame loose from the boat as we surfed down big swells on the way from Deception Island to South Georgia in Antarctica. The two upper pins had detached from the mating sockets. Big C-clamps temporarily fixed that. When planning a long cruise, carry a couple of spare ball pins if the Aries is mounted that way. I have recently changed the upper ball-and-socket mounts for bolted plates capable of alignment in two planes. We will see how well they last.

Spare parts can be obtained from Franklin’s daughter Helen in the U.K. (tel. 44-1326-377467) for all models. In the United States, the dealer is Guy Carlson (tel. 650-591-3791) for models made after 1992. From what I can tell, the Aries underwent continuous modification from Franklin’s time up to the present Danish manufacturer, so specify the spares you need very carefully, and do not give just a generic description.

Eric Forsyth, a recipient of the Cruising Club of America’s Blue Water Award, is on his second circumnavigation aboard Fiona.

By Ocean Navigator