Autopilot vs Windvane Self-Steering (Which Is Better)

Sailing by yourself can be a strenuous task. There are plenty of things that can go wrong and you will need to fix some of those immediately. Who is going to steer the boat when you need to fix something? Thankfully, we have multiple options these days when it comes to the boat steering itself.

This article will discuss Windvane self-steering and autopilot options for your sailboat. We will discuss how they work, the average cost, how to operate them, and which one we would recommend, so keep reading to find out more!

What Is A Self-Steering Windvane? (How it Works)

A Self-Steering Windvane is used on sailboats to maintain a chosen course of sail without constant human action on the wheel or tiller. The wind vane is locked in position after the boat has been put on course and the sails are trimmed correctly.

The self-steering windvane is a great invention that has helped sailors all over the world. It has allowed sailors to allow the boat to steer itself without any electronics needed. This is strictly a mechanical self-steering setup. There are two types of windvanes to be discussed, Servo-Pendulum and Auxillary Rudder.


The servo-pendulum setup involves using the boat’s current rudder. An enhancement if you will, of the servo-trim tab principle invented by Blondie Hasler, the servo-pendulum uses the speed of the boat going through the water to push against the servo-paddle, creating a substantial force, which is then transferred to the boat’s wheel by the control lines.

The servo paddle is not steering the boat exactly, it is controlling the boat’s wheel or tiller which then turns the main rudder. The main rudder was designed to steer the boat in all conditions and should be utilized whenever possible.

When it comes to selecting the best windvane there are a lot of options out there. One of the more popular options is the CapeHorn.

A great reason to select CapeHorn is because of its custom fittings. They can fit any sailboat out there and will custom design it to fit yours perfectly. Check out this video of a CapeHorn install by Sailing Uma! Subscribe to their channel as well, they make amazing videos.

This video showed a great install of the CapeHorn. They are quite handy and even accomplished this while floating out in the bay. They seem to make everything look easy. This is not the only option for windvanes though. Keep reading to find out about the Auxillary Rudder setup.

Auxillary Rudder

The auxiliary rudder is another very popular type of windvane system for sailboats. It does differ slightly from the servo-pendulum option in a few ways. The main difference between these two is that the auxiliary rudder setup actually steers the boat from the windvane, not like the servo that just turns the wheel. This option also has a secondary rudder or auxiliary rudder at the back of the boat attached to the windvane itself.

This is nice to have in case something were to happen to your main rudder rendering it inoperable. You could always use this as your backup. It even has an attachment so you can steer it by hand. One other great thing about this model is the off-center mounting option. Most people will have a swim ladder in the center of the transom, if that were the case, NO WORRIES, this can be mounted to the side of your transom. I think that is one of the coolest features of this setup. Check out the video below to see this Hydrovane in action.

As you can see from the video above this is a great windvane setup. It will depend on your actual situation and the boat you have to decide between a CapeHorn or a Hydrovane. Just remember to do your research. There are a lot more options out there. I just find these two to be the best.

Now that we have talked about a couple of different types of windvanes, the non-electric autopilots, let’s discuss an actual electric autopilot and see if they compare.

How Does Autopilot Work On A Sailboat?

Autopilots work with 4 components, a compass/sensor, an ACU (autopilot control unit), a control head, and a drive unit. When the control head is set to a specific heading, the drive unit will move the rudder according to the sensor, and keep the boat on the selected course.

There is a lot more detail and components to autopilot but the above description gets the point across. . There are other options that can steer the wheel or even a tiller, but the most common option is the one connected to the rudder.

Make sure to get the correct size autopilot for your specific sailboat

Yes, autopilots come in different sizes. Boats vary in size and so do autopilots. When you are out sailing and the sea starts to get rough, your autopilot motor will have to work harder to maintain the course, putting more strain on the motor. If the strain becomes too much it could fail and lose its course. You would then have to climb out of the cabin in the bad weather and take the helm. It is recommended to purchase an autopilot that is rated for 20% more than your boat’s total displacement. Remember 20% more, minimum.

This is why you need to check the manufactures rating and make sure it is sized for your vessel. I personally recommend getting one that’s a little bigger than needed to help compensate for those rough seas. If you are going to be lake sailing only, I wouldn’t worry so much about size, but for open oceans, then definitely make sure it will handle crazy waves and winds.

There are a couple of different types of autopilots, above deck and below deck. It’s pretty obvious what they mean but let me elaborate just a touch. Below deck autopilots will have the drive motor that moves the rudder accordingly. They are mounted in the hull of the boat near the steering mechanism. With this setup, you will need an autopilot controller mounted somewhere in the cockpit for setting your autopilot on the correct heading.

If you go with an above-deck type of autopilot it will be much easier to access and probably have the controller built into it. One example of this is the tiller autopilot. The tiller is mounted near the tiller and then attached to the tiller with the autopilot rod. The autopilot has the controller built in to set the course. There are also wheel autopilots that can be mounted above the deck as well.

Autopilots are great when they work. I have read a ton of articles and seen plenty of youtube videos about autopilots and it seems like they work half the time. You have to understand these are electrical devices with a motor and many different items can break. Most of the YouTubers that I follow have both a windvane and an autopilot for this very reason. I do know some people that haven’t had any problems with their autopilot so take everything I say with a grain of salt. I just prefer windvanes since they require no electricity, and are usually very easy to repair.

If you would like to watch a video about a marine autopilot and how it works check out the video below.

The video above gives a great description of how autopilot works and how to compare it to a human at the helm, which I thought was a great comparison.

If you have read this far you may be thinking which one should I get, a windvane or an autopilot. Keep reading to find out.

Is A Windvane Better Than An Autopilot? I Say Yes!

The windvane will keep your boat on the correct heading without electricity. There are no electric motors or wiring needed to operate a windvane. If the windvane were to fail, it would be much easier to diagnose the problem and fix it quickly at sea.

When it comes to deciding which option is better, I personally think windvanes are better. I like that they don’t require any electricity. This makes it great for those cloudy days at sea when you can’t charge your batteries.

They do great in rough seas and high winds. The autopilot will use more electricity when the seas are rough draining your batteries even more. If the winds get too much for the CapeHorn, they actually provide you with a stainless steel windvane to swap out. This windvane can handle those high winds with no problem.

Another thing to look at is the price!

You can expect to spend around $5000+ dollars for a winvane by CapeHorn or Hydrovane. This is definitely a lot of money to spend, but from what I have found, they can last a lifetime.

Autopilots tend to be a little cheaper. I found the Raymarine Evolution EV-200 Sailing Vessel Linear Autopilot Pack for $3699 dollars. This model is designed for a mid-size sailboat. The autopilot is definitely cheaper but if it breaks, how much will it cost to fix it?

I am not going to give you a huge list of the different types and prices because there are just too many factors that affect these two things. Just remember to do your research and shop around for the best price.

In Conclusion

This article discussed windvanes and autopilots and how they compare. Windvanes come in a couple of different options, servo-pendulum, and auxiliary rudder. The servo controls the wheel of the boat and the auxiliary controls the boat by becoming a second rudder. Both are good options, it will just depend on what you are looking for. The autopilots are usually a little cheaper but can break down more often. The price will depend on so many factors it is hard to say exactly. I recommend the windvane approach but that is my personal opinion. Do what is best for your situation always! Cheers!


Boatlifehq owner and author/editor of this article.

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