Ruminations on Self Steering Gear

Pippin’s Hydrovane, aka ‘Hercule’

My Sadler 290, A-Jay, had a custom made servo pendulum self steering gear.   Pippin, my Francis 34 Pilothouse, has an off the shelf Hydrovane auxiliary rudder self steering gear.  This came with the boat and has proved so fantastic, that it is worth a few words in the archive…..

Hydrovane Self Steering Gear

Hydrovane at Rest in Plymouth


Hydrovane in Action in Biscay

It works on a very different basis to the servo pendulum self steering gear in that it has its own rudder, hung aft of the boat’s own rudder.  Once the boat is set up – the red vane in the photo feathered into the wind and the sails balanced for the conditions – deflections of the vane turn the rudder through a set of enormously robust gears, thus bringing the boat back on course independently of the boat’s main rudder.  A servo pendulum type relies on deflections of the wind vane using the force of passing water to push the under water blade to one side or the other, thus pulling the control line connected to the wheel/tiller.

Like all such gears, the Hydrovane steers with the wind so will turn the boat as the wind direction changes and demands some skill as it requires the boat to properly balanced.   This is most useful as it encourages you to sail the boat better and tells you more clearly when you need to reef – something I’m keen on in older age, where comfort rather than speed is my priority.  Key differences between the Hydrovane and my previous servo pendulum type are that a.  it provides the boat with an alternative rudder and b. it requires no control lines, blocks etc.  In essence there is less to wear out or go wrong.   As I write this, a Hydrovane is on the back of the leading boat in the 2018 Golden Globe Solo Round the World Race having performed faultlessly.

I have found it totally reliable and very simple to operate.   One unexpected bonus has been the Hydrovane’s ability to steer when motor sailing, so long as the sails are filled and drawing, even if only just so.   This is just as well, for the electronic autopilot on Pippin does not like heavy weather and is prone to take the occasional unauthorised holiday.   The Hydrovane also managed to steer very nearly directly downwind in Biscay.  Finally, you can also adjust it from the cabin entrance by means of a control line, whilst drinking your morning espresso.

One minor irritation is the faff involved in fitting the rudder – taking it off is fine.  It also makes in-marina manoeuvres a little more challenging as the blade cannot be hinged out of the water once fitted.  However, Pippin has a bow thruster, so this disadvantage is largely negated.

All in all, I find that the combination of Hydrovane and wheelhouse has reduced the strain on the skipper by an enormous amount – perhaps as much as 50% – when on long passages.

A-Jay’s Self Steering Gear

Electronic tiller mounted autopilots  were too puny to handle A-Jay in F6 or above.   An introduction to Nigel Lellor, round the World yachtsman, boat builder, self steering gear fabricator and all round ‘good egg’, led quickly to the construction of an unique steering gear for A -Jay.  Nigel literally designed it with a pencil and piece of cardboard and it worked first time out, even with me at the controls.  It is a servo pendulum type, but unusually connects directly to the tiller by mechanical link – no control wires.  Being an untried prototype, it suffered a broken hinge up off the north of Scotland, which was a little irritating but that was soon fixed on my return.

As far as I know, she still sails the seas with her self steering gear, enjoyed by her new owner.

These pictures give you the idea…..


2014-08-02 13.19.23

‘Smiley;, the Self Steering Gear at Speed

Self steering Gear Connected to Tiller

Self steering Gear Connected to Tiller


‘Smiley’ at Rest in Jersey






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