Before we started preparing for the trip, the only self-steering on Avalon was an Autohelm 3000. This was probably about four years old and had served us extremely well, although it couldn't cope in large following seas, and used a fair bit of power. We both agreed that for an ocean crossing, windvane steering gear was a requirement. Thank God we did.. When we were in mid-Atlantic, in gales, with the batteries low and the engine seized, we blessed our Aries.
A good deal of time, research, thought and effort went into choosing and obtaining the self-steering. After talking to many people, including manufactures and people who'd used the things, I had decided that it had to be a servo pendulum gear rather than the auxiliary rudder variety. Buying new, the Monitor would be an excellent choice but is very expensive - probably about 3,000 pounds by now. The Auto-Steer, made in Cornwall, is a good deal cheaper and looks to be a good product. The Aries, of course, has one of the best track records of all, so I was delighted when, after about two years searching, I was a ble to pick one up for 700 pounds, including some spare parts.
There seems to be tremendous demand for second hand Aries, and I had to be quick off the mark to get it. No sooner had the yachting magazine plopped onto my doormat than I had scanned the ads, seen the Aries, and phoned up the seller. I arranged to see it, dashed to the bank for some money, jumped in the car and drove the hundred odd miles to where it was being sold. After agreeing to buy it, I had a real job getting it to fit in my car. Once home, it sat over the bannisters in my upstairs hall for several months until we were ready to fit it. A full range of spares for the Aries is still available, and we had to order a wheel drum, as the gear had previously been on a tiller-steered boat. This was expensive, but a beautifully engineered piece of kit.
I understand that the Aries, or a replica of it, is now back in production in Denmark or somewhere. The drawback of the basic design is the use of dissimilar metals, aluminium alloy and stainless steel which, if not kept lubricated, will corrode and seize together over a period of time. Thus, if buying new, I might give preference to the all-stainless Monitor, even if it doesn't have the same carved-from-granite robustness as the Aries.
The Aries came with mounting legs already fitted; it had previously been mounted on a Hallberg-Rassy 36. These seemed firmly seized in place, so it was extremely fortunate that with a little packing, they proved ideal for mounting on Avalon. The mounting was a tricky procedure. With the mounting legs firmly in place, and no mounting template, the whole thing had to be positioned on the transom and it is HEAVY. We lashed the two spinnaker poles over he stern and hoisted the Aries up with blocks and tackle. With the gear in position, we could test-fit the clamps and mark the holes for the mounting bolts.
Avalon's hull is very thick, probably close to an inch at the transom, but we still used wooden backing plates inside, bonded to the hull with Sikaflex. We couldn't find long enough bolts, so used lengths of stainless steel studding - with plenty of loctite for the nuts, and locking nuts on top. It was very satisfying to seen the Aries firmly in place on Avalon's stern.
We didn't actually hook the Aries up to the wheel until we were in Falmouth, getting ready to set off across Biscay. There me met a New Zealand couple who had an Aries on their boat, and they recommended that we use thin (5mm or so) Kevlar line for the Aries control ropes. We followed their advice, but it turned out to be a bad mistake. The main problem was the lines jamming solid at the bottom of the Aries leg, between the block and the sheave. This happened on several occasions and was exceedingly difficult (sometimes impossible) to sort out at sea. The other problems was with the lines breaking - also very difficult to resolve while sailing. We had many tribulations before we admiited defeat and finally fitted thicker lines (probably about 10mm prestretched polyester) which have worked perfectly.
It was also in Falmouth that our Aries got her name, Molly. She was named after the lady harbourmaster, Molly Minter (without the latter's knowledge). There is no good reason for this - no physical resemblance or other similarity of characteristics, but the name has stuck anyway.
Once we had fitted the lines we took Avalon out for a sail to Helford to get a feel for how the Aries worked. It worked fine, but we soon learned that balancing the boat, and tweaking the wheel drum and vane, are necessary before the gear will steer a consistent course. In Avalon's case, balancing usually involves reefing the main well before the genoa, and slackening sheets when the wind is abaft the beam. It comes with practice, and once the knack has been developed, Molly will steer the boat in virtually all conditions, with the exception of very light winds (below about F3) when, battery permitting, the Autohelm will be in its element.
We also carrry on board a small Autohelm 800 tiller pilot which came from Sarah's boat, Mai-Ling. We have rigged this to drive the stump of an Aries vane, so that it will steer the boat using the Aries for servo-assistance. It work fine and uses very little power. On the other hand, there's usually plenty of wind in the Caribbean, so it hasn't been used much.
In contrast, most of the people we met with auxiliary rudder windvane gears, where a separate steering rudder is driven by the force of wind on the vane, were disappointed. Many of them claimed that it would only steer on certain points of sailing, and that the boat had to be VERY carefully balanced for it to work at all. This is because it is obviously less powerful, driving a relatively small rudder through a fairly small angle.
Some friends of ours, Chris and Liz, bought a Windhunter self-steering gear for their Rival 38, Rival Spirit. They were due to set off across the Atlantic the year after us. Chris likes gadgets, and he found the concept of the Windhunter interesting (see www.windhunter.com). The thing was an impressive and elegant piece of engineering, although its appearance did provoke a certain amount of ridicule in the yard (Why did you mount the tea urn on the stern rail, Chris?). Fitting the hydraulic ram to drive the rudder quadrant was definitely a non-trivial task - fitting the Aries was easy in comparison.
We saw Chris and Liz after they got back from their trip. On their boat (which is rather slow) the Windhunter had proved a disappointment. Most of the time, they had used the Windhunter's towed generator to provide power to drive an Autohelm (they got through 2 or 3 of those in the year). Apparently in many conditions (in large following seas, perhaps) the turbine would not be travelling at a sufficiently high speed relative to the sea, and as a result there was not sufficient hydraulic power to put the helm over straight away. Eventually the boat would accelerate down the next wave, the power would come back and the thing would correct, but by then they had veered some way off course. Anyway, they did not consider it a success. I have read other reports which have been highly favourable; I would guess that it would work better on a faster boat. Maybe they weren't using it correctly, or they had the boat trimmed wrongly. It's certainly an interesting concept - maybe you could fit some sort of hydraulic power accumulator?
Personally, though, I'd go for simplicity every time. With the Aries, you can see what it's doing and why. There are no hidden parts. There are no seals, hoses or electrics. If it's not working you can see why and can generally fix it there and then. In my opinion, that's what you need.
Perhaps the most elegant vane gear is the Cape Horn. I talked to the people at the boat show and liked it. Anyone ever used one?
We were surprised how many boats set off without windvane steering of any sort. We were not surprised by how often their electric autopilots failed them. We only knew of one boat which set off with no windvane OR electrical self-steering. They were a couple of crazy Vikings, and even they finally bought an Autohelm along the way.