When Choosing Pilots, Err on Side of Caution

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heading sensor for sailboat

In a nutshell, autopilots have one main function: to assume control of a vessels steering and control its heading, be it a specific course or on a selected route or to a waypoint. As with any crucial piece of gear (anchors being a great example), cost should not be the primary consideration in the selection process. Its crucial to select a unit that has both the power and ability to steer your boat effectively in all sea conditions youre likely to encounter.

Autopilot manufacturers provide guidelines for product selection, but always be conservative and go up in size when in doubt, particularly if extenuating circumstances apply (heavy displacement, full keel, greater spread of canvas, etc). Heading into rough weather with a seasick crew is not the time to find out your choice of autopilots is lacking.

Remote Wireless Controls

Many autopilot manufacturers offer wireless remote controls as an optional accessory. These can be anything from simply left/right controls to various modes that allow you to do anything from choose steering patterns (from zig-zags to clover leafs) to entering a command to dodge an obstacle and resume course afterward.

Our previous system included a Raymarine S100 wireless controller, and we were able to incorporate it into the new EV-1 installation, although it required the use of a SeaTalk NG networking adaptor/converter. Our testers found it a great benefit (particularly while single handing) while raising sails, picking up a mooring ball, or during visual navigation while in the Bahamas.

Installation Tips

Thoroughly plan out the entire installation (from drive integration to mounting the display) before picking up that first tool.

Avoid installing fluxgate compasses near large pieces of metal or placing magnetically charged items (like handheld electronics and speakers) near the unit.

All power-supply wiring needs to be conservatively sized. Refer to a voltage-drop table to estimate the amount of drop from the battery to the drive unit, which is the most power-hungry element in the system.

If youre not comfortable installing the system yourself, at a minimum watch the technician install it. Its not rocket science, and everything you learn will help to troubleshoot and hopefully repair the unit should it fail.

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.

3 COMMENTS

  1. That’s the article on Autopilots that’s it?… Some platitudes and $.10 of advice what a waste of a subscription.

  2. Peter I agree with your comment. A good autopilot is one of the most important pieces of gear for shorthanded sailing. I am disappointed that this all the PS has to say on this topic.

    Thank heavens for YOUtube

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