Electronic vs Wind Autopilot

Electronic autopilot has certainly taken over the marketplace, but is it truly superior to wind powered autopilots? Well, it depends on what kind of sailor you are and what you want from your self steering system.

Electronic autopilot certainly is the easiest to set and turn on. All you do is push a button and it will hold that course for you. To change course, you can hit another button to change course port or starboard by 1, 5, or 10 degree increments.

This makes electronic autopilot systems seem very user friendly. Any new crew can quickly learn how to hit a button and stand back as the machine steers the yacht. The downside to these systems is that they consume a lot of power and seem to struggle when conditions deteriorate.

The other type of self steering available uses no electricity, instead depending on the same wind that powers your sails to steer the yacht. These systems require excellent sail balance, and a lot of knobs, strings, and other hidden concepts to operate. Changing course is not as intuitive as pushing a button for a set change, instead you can guide-lessly pull on a string and wait to see if you turned enough.

That being said, sailing is all about trim and pulling sheets, so why not pull some more strings and use a wind steering system?

The truth is, for those who motor, electronic autopilot systems are superior. The engine is providing drive and electricity, and with no regard for the wind, it will go any direction you want.

For those that sail, wind steering is superior. As the wind shifts, so will your course, keeping your sails from luffing or jibing by accident. The system takes some practice to setup and use, but once you have it figured out, you will use it all the time.

We have both systems on Wisdom and have only used the electronic autopilot once for a few hours. On the flip side, we use the wind steering system that we have almost every time we sail. We are currently making a passage through the Bahamas from Staniel Cay to Bimini, nearly 200 miles and through some rather tight passes at times, and the wind steering had had the helm the entire time! We have used it to steer through jibes, sail changes, squalls, and calms. All we need to do is adjust the control line to change course from time to time. It does everything else! We are currently a crew of three, and all we have to do is trade off "who is babysitting the windvane" instead of actually having to helm the yacht through the islands.

Now, there was a significant learning curve for our current crew member to learn how to use it, but he is smart and picks things up quickly. After a few minutes with it, he had a basic understanding of how to adjust course. That being said, previous crew we have had was unable to ever comprehend how to use it and never was able to steer or adjust course with the windvane.

So, which autopilot you choose is up to you, but in general those that motor their sailboat everywhere are happiest with an electronic system while those that sail their sailboat everywhere are happy with a wind powered system.