The importance of sailboat self steering systems

A typical discussion about my sailing voyages:

“You’re not by yourself, right?”
“Yeah, actually most of the time I am.”
“So what do you do when you want to rest?”
“I just keep sailing.”

Then I get that look, you know, the one where they’re waiting for the punchline.

Sailing solo

The Cape Horn steering system is so clean with only one vertical tube and small support struts. I can’t say the same for the rest of my cockpit…

Fatigue is a Sailor’s Enemy

People make bad decisions when they’re tired.  I know I have!  Or maybe tiredness has nothing to do with it…

Anyways, tending to the steering on long passages is fatiguing, especially if you’re solo.  Not only is it fatiguing, but it glues you to the steering, unable to do other tasks.  Your solutions to this are:

  • Have an efficient watch schedule for your crew
  • Electronic autopilot
  • Wind vane self steering

I was kind of forced into my choice to research wind vane steering systems.  My crew is one and electricity is scarce.  A mechanical means was the only option.

How do Sailboat Wind Vanes Work?

Cape Horn self steering

Cape Horn self steering wind vane. From

Wind vane steering involves some complex physics, which I stopped caring about after college.  I’ll do my best to simplify this.  There will be a quiz at the end.

Wind vanes always want to point into the wind, right?  So you rotate the thingy on top of the rig so it points into the wind on the point of sail that you want to be on.

If the wind changes or the boat drifts off course, more wind will hit one side of the vane than the other.  This will cause it to bow in the other direction.  It’s mechanically connected to an oar in the water, and this oar rotates when the wind vane tilts.

Because the boat is moving forward through the water, the force of the water hitting the side of the oar (instead of the front edge) will cause it to swing left or right.  Rods and gears connect the oar to your steering system.  As the boat comes back on course, the wind vane becomes more upright, the oar rotates less, and input to your steering is reduced until the wind vane is back upright and steering is centered.

Simple, right?

Choosing a Wind Vane Steering System

There are a few different sailboat wind vane steering systems available and I researched all of them.

What I didn’t like about most of them was that when installed, they looked like an “oil rig” on the back of the boat – that’s the affectionate term sailors use to describe these systems.  Stainless steel tubes create a spiderweb of trusses on the transom to deal with the loads involved.  Yuck.

Then I came across Yves Gélinas and his Cape Horn system.  Yves designed this system himself and used it on a 28,000 mile solo circumnavigation completed in 1983, never steering by hand once.  He had been tinkering with sailboat wind vanes for fifteen years and finally came up with a prototype that is the current version of Cape Horn wind vanes.

This system is integrated into the boat – it will never just “rip off” in extreme circumstances.  It is one with the boat.

I don’t have experience with other systems, and Yves admits he doesn’t either, but testimonials from sailors who have used multiple systems all indicate that the Cape Horn wind vane will keep a straighter course in all conditions, from light breezes to gales.

(Psst…it’s also cheaper than other systems…because it’s simpler and has less parts…and it works better).

Murphy’s Law: if it can rip off in extreme circumstances, it probably will.  I seem to be a magnet for these things.


The Cape Horn Wind Vane

Cape Horn wind vane

When my Jean-du-Sud Cape Horn wind vane arrived in the mail. Happy day!

Yves has provided excellent service throughout.  The company consists of himself, his neighbor, and his nephew.  When I wanted to install a Cape Horn on my Pacific Seacraft Orion 27, Yves had all the measurements for this boat already on file.

When I had problems learning how to use the system, Yves personally responded to my emails within hours.  That’s service!  He also knew exactly what I was doing wrong and how to fix it.

Each wind vane system is custom built to your boat when you order it, another difference from other models.  I was super happy when my Jean-du-Sud model arrived but not looking forward to the installation, mostly because of this:

Transom hole

Yeah that just happened. There’s a hole in my transom. Thankfully it was intentional.

Yeah I had to drill a gigantic hole in my transom, and it had to be right on the first attempt.  But that’s what makes this system so strong!  The Cape Horn system comes with very detailed instructions to make this experience less traumatic.

Installing Cape Horn wind vane steering

The guys at the boatyard did a great job making sure my waterline was level, so I used a plumb line to mark drill holes on both the inside and outside of the transom.  I repeated the measurements again.  And again.  Satisfied, I drilled a 1/8″ hole on the inside and outside, ran a steel rod through it, and checked to make sure it was level.  Then I went on to drill the 2 1/2″ hole.  I had to use a long guide drill with the hole saw due to the rake in my transom.

The mounting tube is fed through this hole and measured for proper placement.  The support struts are marked and drilled next.  These need to be ready for installation once the mounting tube is epoxied to the hull.

Cape Horn mounting tube

Grinding the mounting tube for better epoxy adhesion.

To epoxy the tube, the metal of the mounting tube is ground down for better adhesion.  Once in place with epoxy, the support struts are installed using the holes you previously drilled to hold it in place while it cures.

Now that it’s epoxied through my hull it’s one of my sailboat’s integral systems rather than just an accessory!

Cape Horn mounting tube

Checking to make sure the mounting tube fits and preparing for epoxy. Looks good to me!

The rest of the installation is fairly uneventful and follows the guide very well.  Yves provides a lot of helpful hints in the installation guide.

Sailing with Cape Horn Wind Vane Steering

Sails trimmed…and the wind vane doing all the hard work as I prepare dinner between Bequia and Dominica

Once Saoirse was back in the water I took her out for a shakedown with the new self steering system.  I missed something in the manual for operation (didn’t install a pin in the wind vane turret) but this was quickly fixed when Yves asked if I had done this.

One year and four thousand miles later, this system is still my best friend

I hardly steer by hand at all.  I even set it to the relative wind and keep a course while I get my ground tackle ready when motoring into an anchorage.

The system helped me become a better sailor.  Yes, not touching the steering made me a better sailor.  It really made me pay attention to the balance of my sails.  When bored on long passages I make games out of it, adjusting the sails and see how long the boat sails without the wind vane system moving the tiller at all.  It will work just fine if the sails aren’t balanced, but you should strive for perfection!

The Cape Horn system comes with two wind vanes; a light vane made of spinnaker cloth and a heavier aluminum vane.  I use the light vane in winds up to about 20 knots, then I found the wind overwhelmed this vane too much and I easily & quickly swap it out for the aluminum vane.

Sailboat in Haiti

The Cape Horn wind vane on the transom of Saoirse after delivering me to Haiti.

It makes a world of difference.  A morale booster.

I can just lay out in my cockpit with a book, take a nap, or stare at the stars while the wind vane steering does all the work.  Or I can go below and watch a movie when the weather turns foul and keep moving towards my destination.  All at the cost of zero amps from my battery bank.

Self Steering Systems are Only Half a Crew

It sure is nice having this system to steer for you.  You can hide from the weather and you don’t have to stand in the cockpit all day.

But a wind vane steering system cannot keep watch

Don’t get drawn into a false sense of security thinking you can go rack out for eight hours while the system sails your boat for you.  I was overly conscious of encountering other problems on passage – winds picking up, cargo ships, reefs, other sailboats, etc.

Here are some things I do to make sure I keep my responsibilities of the watch

  • I never nap for more than one hour.  An alarm wakes me up on the hour.  I scan for traffic, check my course, and go back to sleep.  Yeah, you can do it once you get in the rhythm of it.  If situations warrant I’ll nap for shorter amounts or not at all.
  • I set my radar to come on every thirty minutes to scan for traffic, with a proximity alarm for anything inside of 12 miles.  Got rid of the radar to simplify my systems.
  • I set my anemometer to sound an alarm if the winds pick up to a certain speed based on how much sail I have out.
  • I set my depth sounder to alarm me if I enter shallow waters.
  • AIS receivers are great for picking up other traffic that have transponders, but transponders are not required for pleasure boats.
  • I don’t have a console GPS but you can set an alarm on those units if the winds shift, carrying you off course.  I now have a console GPS and set a myriad of alarms on it.

Check out Yves and his Cape Horn wind vane system at

This review was unsolicited and I don’t get a dime for it.

I’d love to hear from you if you have any experience with this or other self steering wind vane systems!

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