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Is Our Small Autopilot Up To The Task?

By The Ithaka - Published December 12, 2005 - Viewed 1280 times

Is Our Small Autopilot Up To The Task?

Leonard M. wrote to ask us about our autopilot. "Your boat seems big for an Autohelm 4000," he commented. "Shouldn't you have a larger unit?"

From Bernadette: Probably. But that's the unit Ithaka came with. Raytheon does recommend a larger unit for a boat as heavy as ours (15,000 pounds), but we've had great results with the simple and sturdy wheel-mounted 4000. It works beautifully in light-to-moderate conditions, under sail and power. Beyond that, and for passage-making, we use our Monitor wind vane. These two pieces of equipment make a great balance for us.

NOTE: Since this response was written in 2001, we've modified our autopilot to connect to our Monitor. See our Log Of Ithaka number 104 on the www.BoatUS.com website for details and photos, but here's the gist from that article in 2002…

From Douglas: Down-wind and Light-Air Modifications To Our Self-Steering
The beauty of self-steering vanes is that they use the power of the water and the wind to steer the boat with much less effort than a person uses when muscling a weather-helm tiller or a wheel; and unlike powerful electric autopilot systems, which are extremely amp-hungry, self-steering systems consume none at all. Simply put, our Monitor is the best driver we have on this boat! The drawback, though, is that in light airs and when running dead downwind, steering vanes are harder to tweak and control because not as much oomph (wind power) is being exerted against the vane and therefore not as much push is being applied to the in-water rudder. Many cruisers get around this inconvenience by taking down the airvane in those conditions (or when steering a magnetic course) and installing a relatively inexpensive and lightweight electric tiller-pilot that is designed for much smaller sailboats. The tiller-pilot does what the wind would does: exert modest pressure to turn the paddle and steer the boat.

The combination of small tiller-pilot and self-steering system is enormously powerful. We've met several people who used this same system in boats much larger than ours to steer themselves across oceans. (Another advantage is that the continuous power draw is a miniscule .5 amps!) In the little harbor of Providencia, Colombia, where in three weeks we saw maybe eight boats total, some version of this combination of tools was installed on Monitor, Aries and Sailomat windvanes, on cruising boats ranging in size from 36 to 52 feet, and they all loved it! I can see why. On our run from Providencia to San Andres, in a sea full of funky rollers and a following wind, we sailed with only a genoa, and for 11 hours the tiller-pilot and the Monitor held hands without so much as a tweak from us. Neither Bernadette nor I could have done half so well.

The other change we've made recently regarding self-steering is to use a short (36 inches) aluminum, stub-tiller that fits into a slot at the top of our external rudder. This reduced the resistance in the Monitor's steering lines because they go through two fewer blocks than when we attached them to the wheel-mounted system. In some ways it's the best of both worlds: the relative comfort of a wheel for driving and the convenience of an easily detachable tiller for self-steering. We find that setting and adjusting the Monitor is infinitely easier now-and naturally we wish we had done this two years ago when friends first suggested it to us.

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