How Does A Sailboat Wind Vane Work?

How Does A Sailboat Wind Vane Work

Have you been sailing boats long enough that you wish someone could take over and do it for you? Steering your sailboat is a fun activity especially if you are a new sailor. However, if you have been doing it for a long time, it can be tiring and may not be as fun as your first few sailing journeys.

The good news is there’s a device that can steer your sailboat if you want to take a rest or join in the fun with your family and friends. This device is called wind vanes. If this is the first time you’ve heard of it, you’re in luck because we’ll be discussing what wind vanes are and how they work.

How Does Sailboats Wind Vane work

It works by steering the boat with the use of water and wind’s force. This device can be used alone or with an autopilot that will allow steering on its own. A wind vane has a vertical tube to support it with the vane’s edge facing the wind. In case the boat moves in a different direction, the vane will topple over. When this happens, that force signals the rotating steering and moves the tiller.

The wind vane is also connected to the water that flows over it, the forces of water and wind work together to steer the sailboat. As the wind blows harder, the sailboat moves faster as well. This system makes it different from other steering devices, wherein the water or wind’s pressure is used to sway it than using both their forces to steer the sailboat.

Why Consider Using a Wind Vane Self Steering Gear?

Why Consider Using a Wind Vane Self Steering Gear

Deciding whether or not you need wind vanes for your sailboat or not is something that you need to think of carefully, especially when considering the safety of yourself, your loved ones, and your boat.

No Electricity Needed

This self-steering gear is not powered with electricity or gas so it doesn’t consume any power from your boat. It is powered by the force of wind and water, so you don’t have to worry about going on long trips and worrying that you’ve used up your gas or power because of the wind vane. That’s one benefit of using an apparent wind-based course device.

It Can Work Independently or With an Autopilot

The good thing about wind vanes is that you can start with them first and see how they can help you. If you feel that you still need more steering control and additional safety measures, you can easily pair it with an autopilot.

Perfect for Open Water Adventures

Sailboats allow you to travel for longer periods and longer distances. If you are an experienced sailor, you would sometimes wish that there is someone to steer the boat from time to time so you can enjoy a peaceful meal. As long as you have set your wind vane properly, you will be surprised that you’ll hardly need to hand steer.

Allows You to Enjoy Your Sailing More

With less hand steering, you can finally enjoy yourself more during your trips. You can take a nap, relax, and enjoy the company of your family and friends without worrying. You don’t have to miss all the fun each time you go out sailing.

How to Setup a Sailboat Wind Vane

How to Setup a Sailboat Wind Vane

Your wind vane self-steering gear will only work properly if you install and set it up correctly. Now, there are certain things you need to do to your sailboat to get the best out of your wind vane. Same with other self-steering gear, you may need to make some adjustments to your boat.

Trimming Your Sails

Sailing at high speed can be fun. However, from time to time, isn’t it nice to take it a bit slow and just enjoy the scenery and stare blankly at the vastness of the sea? Why am I saying this? Because one of the things you need to compromise when using a wind vane is your sails. Yes, this may mean you need to slow down a bit. But there’s really nothing wrong with that right? Especially, if you have a lot of time in your hands and you’re not in a hurry.

Anyway, you need to reduce your sails because it will allow your wind vane to control the wind easily, particularly during strong conditions. Trimming your sails may not be that easy, so, you have to be patient. You may need to do some trial and error before you find the correct sail trim for your boat. But don’t worry; once you have your sail trimmed correctly, it will be worth it.

A properly trimmed sail may even help you achieve a better speed even with the changes in waves and wind. It will also allow you to enjoy your trip more with less steering effort for you. You can also take a nap or sleep better without worrying that your boat will capsize or lose control in case the wind gets stronger all of a sudden.

Keep in mind that you are the only one that can properly trim your sail. Your wind vane self-steering gear won’t be able to do that for you. If you want to make sure your sail is properly trimmed, use your fingertips to steer the boat. If you find it hard to steer, then you can be sure your wind vane won’t be able to steer your boat properly. You may need to adjust your sails again until it becomes possible for you to steer it with your fingertips. You will be glad that you have trimmed your sails correctly as your windvane can utilize your sails to provide you better speed compared to other steering mechanisms on sails.

Balancing your Boat

Once you have trimmed your sails properly, you need to make sure your boat is well-balanced. Only after you have balanced your boat perfectly can you set your wind vane steering control lines. Check and make sure your boat does not list in one direction. If this happens, you can correct it by putting tension against it. Just remember not to adjust it too much as it may cause your boat not to operate properly.

Different Windvane Self-Steering Systems

Different Windvane Self-Steering Systems

While there are a number of mechanical self-steering gear, they all have the same goal. Their main purpose is to allow the sailboat to maintain its course towards the apparent wind, allowing sailors to sail without steering manually. Wind vanes can be used on almost all kinds of sailboats, even those running under engines, small or big sized, and on short and long-distance travels.

Servo Pendulum Rudder

The servo pendulum system makes use of the ship’s rudder through control lines guided to the ship’s tiller or wheel. When the boat goes in a different direction, the angle of the wind changes which causes the vane to be pushed over.

The paddle or in-water servo oar rotates as the vane moves. The vane’s movement will cause the water to push the servo oar with force to one side. To bring the sailboat back to its original course, the tiller or wheel is turned by pulling a connecting line to move the main rudder.

The servo pendulum self-steering system is the most common form of self-steering. All servo pendulum rudder systems use the principle of turning the rudder by the boat speed as the water intensifies the small force from the windvane. When the servo blade is turned in its vertical axis, the flow of the water goes sideways on the blade area, and this movement is utilized to move the rudder.

The windvane is positioned on a horizontal axis carrier that rotates around its vertical axis. A small weight under the pivot keeps the wind vane balanced. However, when the sailboat turns and causes the board to be out of place to the wind, the windvane will recede to the other side and will reveal an extra surface. This motion is passed on by a string of linkages to an oar in the water; this allows the oar or blade to turn around its vertical axis as the windvane turns from its neutral place.

The servo oar’s steering force is conveyed to the main rudder and directs the steering ropes to the steering wheel. Today, a lot of modern servo pendulum wind vane self-steering devices are optimized with low friction and transmission mechanics that are typically used for cruising. Back then, the servo pendulum was commonly used only for long-distance travel.

Trim Tab Servo System

In this self-steering system, the servo blade rotates on its vertical axis and is executed by a trim tab servo tab. This movement requires more force since the trim tab is pushed in the opposite direction to spin the servo blade.

The vertical axis vane self-steering mechanism also uses a trim tab to control the direction or course of a sailboat. This type of self-steering vane has a weaker steering force output in contrast to a servo pendulum system. The way this works is by allowing the vane to turn at right angles and lock the trim tab in your preferred course. When the sailboat goes in a different direction, the wind will turn the vane and trim tab. This action will cause the rudder to go in the other direction and corrects the sailboat’s course.

This kind of mechanical self steering with a trim tab may only be utilized on sailboats with transom rudders. This is because the trim tab should be placed directly to the back of the rudder.

Auxiliary Rudder Systems

A rudder bar is a heavy steel bar that is in the form of a rod inside a tube. It is positioned vertically on the boat transom. The rod has bearings on the top and bottommost part and can turn around without constraint inside the tube. At the bottommost part of the rod, there is a rudder with a size of around 50% of the sailboat’s main rudder. A gearbox can be found on top of the bar over the outside tube. Its main role is to turn the motion of the vane into the action of the rudder.

When using an auxiliary rudder, your boat’s main rudder should be locked off to make it steady and still. Place your hands on the wheel to observe the tiller while setting up. Look for a nice spot so that the boat is treading nicely. Most of the time boat sails, wind conditions, and water can affect the positioning of the main rudder. When you find the right position, lock the main rudder. Doing this will make it a huge trim tab to your auxiliary rudder. Once you have engaged the system, you can now sail hand-free since the auxiliary rudder will steer the sailboat for you.

Auxiliary Rudder with Servo Pendulum

There are also systems wherein servo pendulum and auxiliary rudder are used. This method works by having the servo pendulum rudder directed to an auxiliary rudder and not the sailboat’s main rudder. The self-steering gear maneuvers around the desired course depending on the movement of the apparent wind. There are different sizes of vanes; it will depend mostly on weather conditions. A small vane is typically used for heavy weather, while bigger vanes for light air.

Pros and Cons of Windvane Self-Steering Gear

Pros and Cons of Windvane Self-Steering Gear

While self-steering gear can be very useful, they still have limitations. It is important that you weigh its advantages and disadvantages before setting up one in your sailboat. So, let’s discuss its pros and cons and find out if self-steering systems will work to your advantage.


  • They only use water and wind power while self-steering gears come in different designs and systems. Most of them only rely on wind and power and do not need to be powered by electricity.
  • Windvane self-steering system is reliable and very durable. They are significantly more reliable than tiller pilots or add-on wheel pilots. You may also find a built-in electronic autopilot to be reliable. However, you need to make sure that you have more than enough supply of electrical power and your boat’s primary steering is functional. Once the batteries have run out of charge, they may not function as they are intended to be.
  • In case your boat’s main steering gear fails, an auxiliary rudder may be included. Most of the time, an auxiliary rudder is already in place but it is also very easy to install in case it’s not included yet in your windvane self-steering system. The emergency rudder has saved a lot of boats that had experienced steering gear failure.
  • Compared to an autopilot, they provide better miles. This is because a windvane self-steering system steers the sailboat for optimal sail trims. However, an autopilot steers a course and it doesn’t change with the wind speed.
  • Windvane self-steering is obviously best used for ocean passages, particularly for sailboats that are smaller than 60 feet. They are also even better than those with hydraulic steering.


  • Windvane self-steering may not always steer in a straight line, especially when treading the water for a long time. In some cases, steering a precise straight line is needed when sailing through the narrow and long channels. Though this may still be possible when the sea is extremely flat and the wind direction is steady and stable.
  • As the wind shifts, your sailboat’s course will also change.
  • You might need a remote course adjuster line if you have a center cockpit sailboat since wind conditions can change and you need to change course as well. When steering failure happens, you need to have easy access to the boat transom.
  • It may be very challenging to tread the water during very light airs when running downwind. Your self-steering wind vane gear may need more than the apparent wind to fend off the vane when it goes somewhat off course.
  • It may be challenging to install because of the uncommon design of a boat’s transom.
  • A self-steering device can be very powerful when the strength of the wind and the boat’s speed increase. This may be a good thing, however, your transom may not withstand it. Due to this, you may need to add doublers at the back of the mountings.
  • Self-steering wind vane gear can be very expensive. In addition to that, in case of accidents and your transom was hit, repairing the damage can also be costly. It is also possible that the model that you have may already be phased out.

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

How does a wind indicator work on a sailboat?

A device is mounted on a sailboat’s transom has a vane or blade that is pushed and gets a signal from the wind. This will tell where the wind is coming from and steer the boat based on the wind’s course or direction. A wind sensor can measure wind speed and direction.

How do you set up a wind vane?

Setting up a wind vane is fairly easy as long as you have the right tools and the right wind vane for your boat. Manufacturers often include an instructional manual when you purchase one. Setting up will also depend on the model that you have. But basically, you need to attach it to the boat’s transom.

How does a hydro vane work?

Hydro vane works by steering the boat on a wind-based course. It does not use any electricity and works independently.

What is a sailboat Windvane?

A sailboat windvane is a self-steering gear that is powered by wind. It can work on its own and allows sailors to sail hands-free from time to time. It has different designs system such as a servo pendulum and auxiliary rudder.

What is the difference between true wind direction and apparent wind direction?

They differ in direction and speed. Apparent wind is what we experience and feel while we are moving, while the true wind is experienced when we are motionless or in a stationary position.

Apart from wind vanes, what other devices should a boat have when traveling long distances?

Other goods to have equipment for your boat are GPS, magnetic compass, and radar. These devices will help ensure a safe journey.

How do I correct weather helm?

You can correct your weather helm by increasing the weight to windward, then easing the Genoa sheets and mainsheets. Next, you need to slide the mainsheet car to leeward. After that, you have to slide the block aft to move the Genoa sheets. Lastly, you need to reduce the sail area.


So, what’s your take on self-steering systems? There is no doubt that these mechanical self-steering units can be very helpful to cruising sailors. They can even be much better than most conventional electronic autopilot such as a tiller pilot. The good thing about windvane self-steering devices is that they run in different methods or systems that are suitable for most boats. You can use it independently or as an additional wheel steering aid. Self-steering systems are a must-have for every sailor who wants to travel long distances and get a chance to rest and enjoy the trip without worrying even if the boat veers off course.

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Lisa Hayden-Matthews

An avid Skier, bike rider, triathlon enthusiast, amateurish beach volleyball player and nature lover who has never lost a dare! I manage the overall Editorial section for the magazine here and occasionally chip in with my own nature photographs, when required.
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