Sometimes, doesn’t it seem like it would be wonderful to have two more hands to help steer your boat? Autopilots are self-steering devices for both power and sailboats. All pilots work by holding your vessel on a pre-set compass course. The more sophisticated pilots that are capable of connecting to GPS receivers can also gather data from your boat’s instruments and can handle a substantially number of advanced tasks.
What They Do
When it comes to holding a steady course in light to moderate conditions, autopilots do a great job, and with minimal helm movements. They don’t get tired like their human counterparts and have an infinite and unwavering attention span. They will open up opportunities to use your boat that you would otherwise miss, due to insufficient crew, lack of interest or lack of time. And because they steer so accurately, they will save fuel and get you to your destination faster, especially when you interface them with a GPS.
How They Work
Every autopilot includes three main components: a heading sensor that is usually a fluxgate compass, a central processing unit (a course computer) that is the “brain” of the autopilot, and a drive unit, a motor or hydraulic pump that applies force to your boat’s rudder.
More complicated pilots connect to additional sensors; data sources that may include a masthead wind vane, a rudder reference that tells the pilot’s processor where your rudder is pointed, a rate gyro that keeps track of momentary yaw and pitch movements, a GPS receiver or a speedometer. The drive mechanisms, matched with your boat’s type of steering, are how autopilots vary the most from one another.
Operation is simple: you put the vessel on the desired heading, hold the course for a few seconds, press AUTO, and release the helm. The autopilot will lock the course in memory, and will respond with helm corrections to keep your boat on this course. Modern autopilots have various methods of maintaining a more accurate course than their predecessors: auto-trim, auto sea-state, and integration with GPS.
The latest developments include SmartSteer software algorithms, which use a rate gyro to more accurately detect off-course deviations, and an algorithm that learns your boat’s handling characteristics to improve steering over time.