Top-notch Wind Indicators

A step above those silly bits of yarn (which work quite well, BTW).

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That fragile plastic wind vane at the masthead looks like a child’s toy to a lubber. Its a nautical curiosity perched at the top of yacht that is also equipped with a comprehensive electronics suite. While we can certainly sail without wind indicators and telltales, judging the strength and direction of the wind by its effect on the sails and the feel on our neck, those little bits of plastic and yarn are darn handy when trimming sail, or balancing the helm.

Information from fixed wind indicators is supplemented by telltales attached to the surface of the sails. These provide vital information about flow around the sails within the boundary layer. In this report, well look solely at the wind vanes.

What We Tested

For this comparison, we looked at a variety of masthead and spar-mounted vanes from Blacksmith, Davis and Schaefer, two of the major players in this field. We also included a do-it-yourself (DIY) variation that we used for a decade. A few of these were new to us, but most we’ve used for decades, giving us a pretty good feel for their long-term durability and function.

How We Tested

First, we mounted all of the vanes on boards, three to four at a time, and observed responsiveness, sensitivity, and accuracy, both level and heeled at 30 degrees. Although there is no absolute reference for wind speed and direction, it was obvious when a single vane was consistently different from the group.

We then mounted vanes on the roof of our car and took them for a drive-first around the neighborhood at moderate speeds, and then for six hours at 50-65 miles per hour, simulating storm conditions.

Finally, we then put them all to work on our test boat. This was a fairly rigorous test that took place over several days (see adjacent article Wind Sensors Face-Off at Sea). Larger vanes were mounted in fishing rod holders along the transom. Although wind turbulence makes the aft vanes useless for windward courses, these worked when reaching, and the location was fine for durability testing and general observation.

Observations

A masthead mounting offers the cleanest air and greatest safety from damage (other than birds). Every sailboat should have one. The larger sizes make sense for larger boats, where visibility from a distance matters, but the smaller sizes seem quite suitable for masts less than 35 feet. Although a masthead indicator often has the cleanest air, it requires staring straight up, can spin crazily in rolly conditions in light air, and can be blocked from view by a Bimini top or sail (if the helm is to one side).

Although a masthead indicator is the norm, a deck-level indicator also offers advantages. Non-sailing crew appreciates them when asked to turn the boat into or away from the wind while hoisting or dousing the sail, for anchoring, or, in reality, any turn at the wheel when a steady course relative to the wind is required. Off the wind, a deck-level indicator is often more steady in rough conditions, less affected by pitching. It also remains in your line-of-sight, as you steer through either lumpy seas at high speed, or crab pots in failing light. The challenge is finding a location where it won’t be destroyed by sheets or sails, or disturbed by airflow.

Single-sail dinghies, such as Lasers or Optimus, can mount them on the mast, just below the sail. Two of the devices that we tested, the Davis Black Max and Schaefer Mini Hawk MK II come with elastic clamps that fit securely around the 1.5-inch aluminum spar.

These devices are quite rugged. During long-term testing, we inadvertently dropped snubber lines and dock lines on all of them, often deflecting them sharply downwards. However, the mounting strap stretched, and they popped right back up, undamaged. One vane was destroyed with a dock line, but that was no fault of the vane.

The bow is also popular on one-sail dinghies; with no headsails or sheets, there is little risk of damage. Beach cats can mount a Telocat just below the bridle. Even with a chute, the sensor is protected by the bowsprit. The straps on the Black Max and Mini Hawk fit -inch stainless railing, if the railing is wrapped with athletic or elastomeric self-bonding tape to reduce slippage (see Atomic Tape, PS December 2005). The occasional trip through a wave didn’t appear to shorten their lives.

A spinnaker complicates things-with sheets flying across the bow with every jibe, there is no sanctuary for a delicate instrument. We had a Davis Windex Sport on the starboard bow rail of our test boat for a while. It was fine with the working jib, the genoa bumped lightly a few times, rotating the mount but doing no harm. A chute, however, destroyed it on the first jibe. After a second vane was destroyed in roughly the same fashion, the solution was the DIY indicator (see adjacent article).

Wind indicators are by definition sensitive instruments, and even the best can be snapped or bent by a large bird. The Davis Windex has a bird spike that dissuades larger birds from sitting on the center support, but smaller birds still roost on the ends of the vane occasionally, spinning slowly. So far (we’ve had one installed for 20 years) they have done no harm, other than bend the indicator arms into a useless sculpture. The plastic indicator arms on the Shaefer wind indicator better resist bending. We presume a big bird could break them, but they survived the summer season test without harm-even after several birds roosted on them. Birds seem to ignore deck-level vanes.

All of the mounting brackets proved sufficiently durable and reasonably easy to fit.

Blacksmith Sport Boat Carbon

In its search for a lighter, more responsive vane, Blacksmith has used carbon fiber and aluminum to build the most responsive vane available. As a masthead fly, it is well balanced and reads the lightest zephyr true, even when heeled.

As a rail-mounted fly it has proven more durable than Windex and Hawk vanes, through we estimate it more fragile than the rugged Black Max/Telo Cat line. So far, it seems too oddly shaped for birds to perch on, and that is the primary mode of failure at the masthead. There is also a very similar Crazy Kids model for dinghies. The Blacksmith comes in both masthead and spar mount versions.

Bottom Line: Best Choice for sport boat masts.

Davis Windex

The most popular masthead wind indicator, these are the gold standard for detecting wind direction finding. Featuring perfect balance and a sapphire bearing, we’ve had these on boats for over 20 years without failure. They wear seemingly forever, the most common-and perhaps only-cause of death being a roosting osprey or eagle, and the bird spike seems to prevent that. The Windex Sport is a smaller version, perfect for smaller boats and some bow installations.

Bottom Line: Sensitivity and proven durability make the Windex our Best Choice for a masthead indicator for cruisers, and the Windex Sport for smaller boats.

Telo Cat

We used one of these very regularly for eight years on a trailered beach catamaran, where it served very reliably, without receiving gentle treatment. Useful for estimating both windward and reaching angles. The bridle location is perfect for the high-speed antics of a beach catamaran, where the helmsmans eyes should not spend too much time peering aloft, distracted from the action and the waves. The Telo Cat is specifically designed to mount to the forestay turnbuckle of beach cats, hanging down below the bridle-the Black Max will be easier to fit to most boats.

Bottom Line: Best Choice for beach catamarans.

Black Max

Sharing the same sturdy vane as the Telo Cat, the Black Max is stable, sturdy, and reliable. Secured by an adjustable elastic strap, the plastic mounting saddle can wrap around spars and poles from -inch to two inches in diameter,

Bottom line: Recommended for single-sail dinghies, gull strikers, and rail mounts.

Spar Fly

Compared to other indicators in the group, the Spar Fly seemed to wander more in bouncy conditions and variable winds, taking longer to respond accurately to the true wind. Some will find the traditional design appealing.

Bottom line: This is a functional choice for the nostalgic sailor, but there are better vanes.

Wind-Tels

This device is little more than toy. Yarn is more durable and responsive, and less susceptible to damage from sheets and sails. The test samples all bent the first day. Additionally, the position near the dodger or cabin resulted in disturbed airflow and erratic readings.

Bottom line: Helpful on some small boats, Wind-Tels won’t be of much use to the cruising sailor.

Schaefer Hawk

Schaefers Hawk is very similar to the Windex, but with plastic indicator arms. The arms can be accurately positioned using a spacer kit and they are not bent when a bird lands on them. They seem nearly unbreakable under normal use, although we did not test for this. Using polyethylene bearings, it is both responsive and sensitive.

Bottom line: Recommended.

Mini-Hawk MKI

Sharing the same vane as the MKII, this is the smallest masthead vane of the group. It is light and very responsive, and is an excellent choice for the masthead of a sailing dinghy. We also tested it on the bow rail, simply attaching the wand with cable ties, and it did very well. If you break the vane, a replacement is $10.

The large tail made the Mini Hawk very responsive, even when wet or in light winds, reacting accurately and instantly to every shift. Although this resulted in a nervous flickering at times, it was always accurate, and its is bright and clearly visibility. The square vane was slightly more vulnerable to hooking a line, although all of the vanes (other than the DIY wand) can be destroyed by heavy contact with a sheet.

Bottom line: Great for dinghy masts and a nice fit for railings.

Mini-Hawk MKII

The spar mounting bracket for the Mini-Hawk II includes adjustability for horizontal or angled mounting on rails, which can be quite useful for bow mounting locations. The elastic mounting band is not adjustable, but it is secure on rails and spars from 1 to 2.5 inches.

Bottom line: This is the Best Choice for a railing or spar-mounted vane.

Conclusions

This was a strong group of products, and properly located, all provide excellent performance. We like the Windex 15 with the bird spike; it seems to help keep birds away from the masthead in general. The responsiveness of the Mini Hawk was impressive, and the durability of the Telo Cat and Black Max recommend them for use where some contact is possible. Our DIY wand remains a favorite where abuse is the rule.

Wind Indicators
Tips & Techniques
Wind Sensors Face Off at Sea

Our on-the-water testing revealed some advantages and vulnerabilities that were not apparent during controlled testing. The benefits of high-visibility colors became readily apparent.

The smaller vanes were mounted across the bow rail on our catamaran test boat for a summer, rotating location from time to time. We smashed through waves and occasionally battered them with sheets and docklines, although we avoided serious abuse for all but the unbreakable do-it-yourself vane.

  1. The DavisWind-Tels bent during a spinnaker gybe, but it was easy enough to straighten out so that it was still useful.
  2. The racey Davis Black Max faces off against the comparatively humble bit of yarn during testing.
  3. Dimensions varied greatly, from left: Schaefer Hawk, Mini-Hawk, and Blacksmith.
  4. The Blacksmith’s high visibility indicator was easy to read against a confused background.
Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.

1 COMMENT

  1. The last three windex vanes I have used have decayed in the sun in less than a few weeks. any slight action like removing them to step the mast on the trailer sailer results in damage . brittle bits just flake off. I am averaging $50 a year AU in wind indicators. have ordered a stainless steel one. a bit big but may be UV stable.

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