Emergency Steering



With a Hydrovane your boat will have two complete steering systems. The term ‘Emergency Steering’ implies some sort of back-up or temporary steering but the HYDROVANE is much more than that. It is a full time, ‘in place’ rudder and steering system.

It is impossible to over-estimate the value of back-up steering on a long passage. 

Second only to keeping the boat afloat, is keeping her pointed in the right direction.

We know your lockers are brimming with spares and you probably even have some back-ups for back-ups!

All offshore sailors are prepared for breakages and certainly for the scenario of a hole in the boat, but what about steering failure? It’s worth thinking long and hard about too…


 The inability to steer a boat can have major ramifications. We’re not talking about autopilot failure (that’s a separate topic), but about damage that can happen to the boat itself.

 Consider these potential scenarios:

  • Rudder failure: do you know what’s on the inside of your boat’s rudder? Typical construction is a foam core with stainless strapping, covered in fiberglass. It’s difficult to inspect and if there is any corrosion, you won’t know about it until the worst time.
  • Rudder post fissure: crevice corrosion in the steel shaft is often to blame for rudder posts that shear in half. In this scenario the boat is left rudderless.
  • Steering quadrant failure: most boats have a back-up tiller, but when was the last time you tried to use it? Sometimes it’s in a difficult position (such as in an aft cabin, for a center cockpit boat) and would be impossible to use in bad conditions.
  • Cable steering breakage: do you have spare cables and do you know how to install them?
  • Hydraulic steering malfunction

 In planning for these scenarios, ask yourself these questions: How long would it take you and crew to get back to port? If you are sailing shorthanded, would you be able to avoid fatigue as you deal with the situation? Without a proper emergency system in place, would you be able outrun or steer well enough in bad conditions? What if you loose steering close to shore?


Hydrovane is not only self-steering (aka, your best crew member – tirelessly steering in all conditions without drawing any power), it also doubles as an emergency rudder/steering system that is ready to be used. 

We hear stories all the time and here are just a few of them (also found in the Email Testimonials section of our site):


SV Mary T, Cheoy Lee Offshore Rhodes 41

“In the Queen’s Birthday storm (6 yacht lost) the Hydrovane saved us days of exhausting steering and allowed us to pump, prepare food, rest, and make needed repairs.

While in the big following seas, averaging over 10 knots under bare poles, the Hydrovane steered, most of the time, while a crewmember simply sat behind the wheel, ‘riding shotgun’. Under such circumstances fatigue is a serious and insidious problem, leading to passivity and impaired judgement and potentially deadly mistakes.

When we attempted deploy a sea-anchor we fell backward off a wave and busted our main rudder’s steering system, but the Hydrovane carried on. I don’t know of any other unit that could stand up to that kind of punishment. With the boat’s main rudder inoperable the Hydrovane, alone, steered us 500 miles to Fiji.”

Mary T, Cheoy Lee Offshore Rhodes 41



SV Madhatter, Roberts 44 Ketch

“At 0900hrs this morning the main steering quadrant failed – it sheared in two places and is need of a good welder.

 We rigged up the emergency tiller which we centred, and are steering using the Hydrovane.  This works very well considering we are using the manual bilge pump handle as a tiller and we’re steering from the ‘hen bench’. It’s much the same as steering a small outboard motor in a dinghy. Before the incident, we were having a fine sail straight downwind before a 25 kt following breeze, but have reverted to motoring for ease of handling.

So we are now proceeding directly to Atuona for repairs, and expect to arrive tomorrow in the late afternoon. Fatu Hiva will have to wait for another time.

There are a numerous things that are on our side. Firstly, the Hydrovane makes steering much more manageable, instead of trying to steer from the bowels of the vessel. Secondly, we are only 145nm from a safe harbour, and most probably a good welder/mechanic. Thirdly, and most importantly, the failure occurred well away from land where we could sort things out in an orderly fashion, trying different steering techniques until we found the best combination. And lastly, after a wicked night of strong squalls, the skies cleared this morning in fine tradewind fashion. Landfall tomorrow morning.”

Pat steering using a bilge pump handle as a tiller extension

Pat steering using a bilge pump handle as a tiller extension



SY Modus Vivendi, Motiva 49

“…the Hydrovane did a great job and without it we might have ended up on the shores of Senegal, or before that destroyed by colliding with bigger ships in the ship lane between Cap Verdes and Africa; that was my main worry. 

[After the main rudder was lost], we steered as you probably know using the vane, a drogue and close reefed sails. In my personal point of view we would be in severe trouble not having the vane. We needed more gear to steer the boat, that is true, but I think that has to do with the following fact; a heavy boat like mine with semi-long keel but WITHOUT a main rudder will always tend to go up against the wind because the lateral plane (the sideways force….) is destroyed – the main rudder being a very important part. Our mainsail was stuck too so we could not use that either. The whole balance of the boat was gone, making it almost impossible to steer… BUT we made it to Cape Verdes and are proud of that fact.

A heavy boat with everything in place steers with the vane, surely! Before the incident happened the Hydrovane steered beautifully and everybody onboard was amazed by its easy operation and the fact that it seemed to steer better than our old autopilot.

Anyway, I think it is a good story thanks to the Hydrovane.”

Story in Yachting World, February 2013

Story in Yachting World, February 2013




SV Outrider, C&C 39

“I have a C&C 39 with a semi-balanced spade rudder. My intent was to go off-shore sailing with my family. To ensure that I did not have to worry about the rudder, I had [an engineer] design me a new, updated rudder. I then had [a boatyard] build the new rudder. And to really be sure, I put a Hydrovane on the back of the boat.

Myself and my two young boys (10 and 12) were entering between the two rock breakwaters of the Nuevo Vallarta channel down here in Mexico. Well, the channel into the marina was running quite a bit of a swell, with breaking waves along the rocks. My youngest son was at the wheel, so I told him to speed up so we could try to keep ahead of the waves and not broach going in. 

As we entered between the two rock breakwaters he started yelling that he could not steer. I grabbed the wheel and nothing. We were veering off towards the rocks of the breakwater at close to 5 knots. Thinking the steering cable broke I hit the autopilot. I could see it turning the shaft and still nothing. People started waving us off and passing pangas started yelling at us to get away from the rocks. I put the boat hard in reverse and then the waves started hitting us. According to the depth sounder we should have hit bottom, and I thought we are either going to be smashed against the rocks or we were going to get knocked down. From backing hard into the waves the cockpit started to get flooded.

Then I remembered the Hydrovane right behind me. I pulled the pin and pushed it over hard, and before you knew it we are back in the channel, and at the slip. Looking at the boat from the side we saw that the rudder was completely gone. We later found it drifting in the channel. The shaft had sheared off, perhaps from corrosion from some as yet undetermined source.

This was the day before yesterday and just wanted to say ‘thanks…’”



Emergency Rudder – AND Emergency Steering System (not tied into boat’s main steering system)

The black handle is the tiller handle

The black handle is the tiller handle




With the vane disengaged (ratio control in the right hand setting) the Hydrovane rudder can be steered directly with its own tiller. The Hydrovane’s rudder and tiller is just like that on any dinghy sailing boat. Some single-handers connect a dinghy type of tiller to Hydrovane’s small tiller to make an extension that can comfortably be used some distance away in the cockpit. This kind of set-up is practical if you want to use the Hydrovane to hand steer in close quarters or wherever. This technique is only for some. When entering a harbour or marina most owners simply lock-off the Hydrovane rudder or even remove it by popping out the locking pin with a boat hook and shipping the rudder aboard with its always attached tether.

Tiller is designed to be retrofit to extensions or to tiller style auto-pilots. Here a piece of PVC pipe of 1.5 inch (40mm) ID is used as a tiller extension – neatly fits over the tiller. IMPROVED STEERING IN TIGHT MARINAS – If maneouvering in marinas is difficult and you have an extra pair of hands on board you might want to have a crew member manning the Hydrovane tiller to operate it in sync with the main rudder – two rudders are better than one – especially with the Hydrovane rudder in that levered position further aft. Some report this technique has dramatically improved steering in tight quarters.

  • Operates just like the tiller and rudder on a sailing dinghy

  • In tight marinas maneouverability improved by using Hydrovane – two rudders are better than one


The Hydrovane is designed to be connected to a tiller style autopilot for use when motoring or when sailing in very light winds with sloppy seas. Because the Hydrovane rudder is relatively small and it is ‘balanced’ it needs only the smallest of the tiller pilots.

Tiller style Auto-pilot retro-fit


The installation requires a minor retrofit. A 3/4 in. (2 cm.) wooden dowel can be used to extend the tiller and readily adapted to whichever connection is required by the tiller pilot manufacturer. Although wood is the easiest to work with the extensions have been made from many materials: PVC, plumbing copper, stainless steel etc. The tiller pilot manufacturers typically require an 18 in. (45 cm.) radius which means the extension need be 12 in. (30 cm.) or so. The extension is held in place with the rudder locking pin. The autopilot itself needs to be fitted nearby – either on the deck or rail or attached to the stern pushpit. HYDROVANE owners have installed such tiller-pilots report strong preference for them over their expensive below deck autopilots: less noise, not under a bunk, small electrical draw, saves the larger unit for a ‘rainy day’ – and a cheap way to have yet another back-up.

  • Tiller style autopilot retrofit is highly recommended – for motoring and sailing in the very light winds with sloppy seas

  • Needs only the least powerful units as the rudder is balanced and relatively small

  • In its levered position further aft it is efficient and quiet

  • Other self steering systems have variations on such a retro-fit. Only Hydrovane comes complete with a tiller in place that directly steers its own rudder – makes for the easiest to retro-fit … and most effective .

Complete steering redundancy is achieved when both steering systems, the main rudder and the HYDROVANE each have separate autopilots.