Why autopilots

Put simply, autopilots are compact and discreet. When it comes to buying a self-steering system, probably the largest single factor counting against windvane gears is their incongruous appearance. They are generally large and bulky - hardly the ideal transom ornament. Not only that, but some are also rather unwieldy and heavy and tend to get in the way when manoeuvring in harbour under engine.

Autopilots, by contrast, are virtually invisible in the cockpit and may even be completely concealed below deck. Once installed they are simple to operate, only requiring mastery of a few buttons. Cockpit autopilots are light and generally inexpensive and they steer a compass course. For some sailors this argument is compelling; autopilots were programmed to succeed.

Over many years the sailing world polarised into two camps. In the 1970s windvane steering systems became a common sight on blue water yachts, where they were indispensable. Only in exceptional cases were they to be seen on holiday and weekend boats (and some of these can almost certainly be put down to wishful thinking!).

There has been heated debate over the last 25 years between advocates of the two different systems. One particular bone of contention was the repeated insistence by some that vessels of several tonnes or more are 'easily' steered with just fractions of an ampere. Views today are more realistic. There is no getting around the laws of physics: every desired 'output' (steering force) requires a certain 'input' (current/energy). Who could forget the 'Conservation of Energy' law so familiar from school physics lessons?

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