Adding this self-steering system makes doing chores easier and manageable for the solo small boat sailor.
I often sail alone, so ordinary chores — food preparation, sail changes, chart work — often require me to leave the tiller momentarily unattended. Although my boat has a long keel and tracks well, it became clear that having a self-steering system would be a great asset.
There are two basic types of electronic self-steering systems: One for wheel-steered boats, the other for tiller-steered boats like mine. There are numerous choices from numerous manufacturers, so your search will be narrowed by what works with your boat. Turning a wheel or pushing a tiller requires a certain amount of energy in the form of thrust, and the larger the boat, the greater the required thrust will be.
Raymarine ST1000 Plus Tiller Pilot
Because I have Raymarine electronics on my boat, I chose Raymarine’s ST1000 Plus tiller pilot, which is compatible with my existing electronics. It has a maximum push/pull torque of 125 pounds, which is more than enough for my modest 26-footer. The ST1000 Plus is a self-contained tiller pilot. For a larger boat, you’ll need a larger pilot. Before the advent of integrated circuits and NMEA protocols, automatic pilots were not able to share information with other equipment. My ST1000 both sends and receives information and can steer to a course set on a connected chartplotter, a useful feature for a single-hander like me.
Installing a tiller pilot varies from boat to boat, but this one was typical enough to give you a good idea of what’s involved and whether this project is for you. It’s essential that you read, fully understand, and follow the instructions that come with your tiller pilot. Here’s how I installed mine.
1. Choose a position for the tiller pilot, paying special attention to the unit’s installation instructions. With the ST1000, the pivot point on the tiller where the pilot’s drive arm is attached must be 18 inches from the centerline of the rudder pintles. Note that when the tiller is steering dead ahead, the drive arm is at a 90-degree angle to the centerline of the boat.
The drive arm also needs to be level athwartships. This was initially a problem on my boat because the tiller was too high relative to the side deck. I solved the problem by adding an extension to the pedestal socket.
2. Following the installation instructions, mark the positions of the pedestal mounting base and the pivot pin. On my boat, the pedestal is on the side deck, adjacent to the cockpit coaming, and the pivot pin is on top of the tiller. I like to use masking tape for marking positions; pencil shows up well on it, and you can double-check before drilling the holes. Using a sharp drill bit, bore holes to the size specified in the instructions. I drilled ¼-inch holes for the stainless-steel mounting bolts. Do a trial dry fit (without sealant) first to make sure everything.
3. Then bed the pedestal with a generous bead of sealant. I used brown BoatLIFE Life-Calk, a polysulfide product; it keeps water out but the seal can be broken if necessary. Don’t be tempted to use 3M 5200. It’s a great product, but you won’t be able to get the pedestal up again if you need to.
4. The pedestal can now be bolted into position. I had to cut a small access hatch (I glued it back in later) so I could access the underside of the deck to tighten the nuts.
5. Now it’s time to make the electrical connections. I made up a wiring loom from the socket and cut the wires long enough to snake through bulkheads and other obstacles. Follow the wiring color codes that come with the pilot. I used three wires for the power and NMEA interface.
6. Small setscrews hold the wires into the back of the socket. Work neatly; even a small whisker of loose wire could cause a short circuit. Once the socket is in place, it may difficult to service.
7. Mount the socket in a convenient and dry location; then run the wires back to the electrical panel and make the connections. Note that a fuse of the correct size should be installed to protect the tiller pilot. Note, too, that the tiller pilot does not get power from the SeaTalk bus and must be connected to its own power supply.
8. When all the wires are connected, it’s time for sea trials and calibration. The red tape covers the cutout, and this has since been repaired and repainted.
What You'll Need
- Stainless-steel nuts and bolts
- 16-AWG wire
- Plastic wire ties
- Tiller pilot
- Tape measure
- Wire strippers
About 6 hours, depending on skill level