Halcyon, my Bristol 29.9, is small enough and handy enough for single-handing. I took her out sailing dozens of times last summer, and I had company for exactly two of those voyages – one of those being a couple of hours’ sailing with my 90-year-old Dear Auntie, who could do nothing but sit and watch (and who damn-near had to be swayed on board and back to the dock in a cargo net!) Halcyon is simply equipped, sloop-rigged (no inner stay for a storm sail), rugged but not sophisticated. That rugged simplicity is suitable for my current needs and goals.
But I have the classic problem of the single-handed sailor; I cannot contrive to be two places at once, for example keeping Halcyon straight on course while I go up to the mast and take in the mainsail. Or going below for something, such as my lunch. I can lock down the helm for a minute or so, but I’m spending 99% of my time right there at the wheel. This isn’t much of a problem for a day trip, or a regular Bay gunkholing cruise from harbor to harbor; but before I can point Halcyon’s bow beyond the horizon, I’m going to have to deal with it.
So I’m very interested in fitting Halcyon with a self-steering system; a device to keep her pointed in the right direction, while I do whatever I might need to do to “take care of the boat.”
I could install an electronic autopilot, like the one I have on my trailer-sailor, Bossa Nova. But “Otto” doesn’t hold a course very well, it uses a lot of electricity – and the “zzzt – zzzt – zzt – zzzzzzzt – zzzt …” noise of its drive, turning the wheel for every little quirk of wind or wave, is obnoxious enough that I use it only when I must. Halcyon actually came with an older autopilot system, but (dammit!) it didn’t work when I tried it out on my first sailing excursions … and the manufacturer went out of business years ago. I haven’t found anyone who will work on it. So it’s in the basement, on its way to the recycling bin.
There is an alternative, usually called a “wind vane.” This is an apparatus that keeps the boat on the heading you set, with respect to the wind; and that is actually more valuable in a sailboat than an autopilot’s ability to keep the boat on a set compass course. It also doesn’t use any electricity, so I don’t have to worry about it running down my batteries. But it is about three times the price of “Otto” on Bossa Nova, and installing it is major surgery.
An autopilot will try to keep the boat on the same “compass course,” with no regard to the wind. A “wind vane” system follows the wind, and if the wind changes direction, so will the boat – but it will sail efficiently with respect to the wind, and it’s the captain’s responsibility to adjust the wind-vane AND the sails for any course correction. (The autopilot will “try to maintain course” regardless of the winds. This is not a good thing, in a sailboat.)
I only know of four wind-vane-steering-system manufacturers at this time. The one whose product looks best to me, right now, is Cape Horn; its owner sailed a 30-foot boat around the world, by way of the Cape of Good Hope (Africa) and Cape Horn (South America), with the prototype of his gear. That is very close to the size of my boat, and he guarantees his rig for “one circumnavigation or 28,000 miles” – whichever comes first. I have sent him a request for information about my particular make-and-model boat, and I may be installing a Cape Horn rig on my boat later this season.