Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Pelagic Autopilot

When we go racing, we usually have a full crew. But I spend a lot of time by myself either cruising, delivering the boat to/from a race or occasionally racing a single handed race. That is why I really like an autopilot on my boats. Recently on a sailing forum a discussions was started where a guy was installing a autopilot on his new boat. Many commenters said "how can you ever let go of such a beautiful tiller and let an autopilot steer?". The truth is that if you spend a lot of time on a boat alone, you really have to get away from the helm at times. On my last eight hour delivery that started early in the morning in the dark with a driving rain, I would have to go down below for food, dry clothing and to check the AIS for traffic. I kept my time away from the helm short and tried to keep a good lookout. When I sailed alone to the Queen Charlotte Islands, the overnight passages were too long to stay awake the whole time. I would take short catnaps while the autopilot steered a course. Yes, there was always a danger of hitting debris in the water, but I did the best I could.

My boat is outfitted with a Raymarine autopilot system. This consists of a computer, compass, control unit in the cockpit and a actuator (motor) to drive the tiller. This is the second autopilot system, but the original actuator that was installed when I bought this boat. The Raymarine actuator has been showing its age. It makes ominous sounds. The mounting pin broke off and I jury rigged a repair. I had been thinking about sending it back to Raymarine to be rebuilt.

But on the sailing forum, the guy installing the autopilot had bought a system I was not familiar with. It was called a Pelagic Autopilot. I searched their website ( ). This is a small business. Brian the owner sells actuators that are a direct replacement for my Raymarine actuators. And the price is less than half of what his actuators cost. His actuators are commercial linear actuators that he fits adapters to use on a boat. They are built of corrosion resistant materials and repair parts can also be purchased. The actuators will work with many autopilot electronic packages. Brian also has developed a autopilot electronics package that is compact and rugged. Many boats racing shorthanded or singlehanded to Hawaii this summer are using either his complete autopilot package or just the actuator.

Today I built a new bracket to connect the actuator to the tiller. This needed to be done anyway. The old bracket was too low and both the old and new actuators tipped down. I installed the bracket and took the boat out for seatrials. Everything went well: the helm would center and the actuator stayed level.

After sailing for thousands of miles alone with an autopilot, I now have a new one to test.

 This is the mew Pelagic Autopilot actuator. It arrived from San Francisco in three days and I had it operating the day after it arrived.

This is my Raymarine autopilot actuator. It has some plastic parts, and I think everyone has broken at some time. It has steered the boat for thousands of miles.
This is the tiller bracket I built today. It is all stainless steel and really tough to shape. I went crazy and built a retainer to hold the actuator shaft onto the pin.

The tiller bracket installed with the actuator shaft connected.

The actuator installed between the cockpit edge and the tiller. It is steering the boat.

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