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Old 30-06-2009, 00:25   #1
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Right Autopilot? Technology vs Reliability

I know this topic has been discussed, debated and even statistically analyzed, but I'm not sure I have come away with the answers I was hoping to find, just a few more questions. I was hoping someone here would indulge me. How smart does your autopilot need to be and whether there is a sacrifice in durability with the increased technology. Is a proven, yet outdated technologically, system better than smarter yet somewhat less reliable system? Regardless, I was also wondering whether anyone has changed from a below deck linear drive Raymarine system to a Simrad product or vise versa and why? Again, I feel like am always siphoning from this site. One day, I hope to return the favors.

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Old 30-06-2009, 01:15   #2
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Personally I'd go with reliability and simplicity. If that means an old one so be it. Autopilots are the sort of thing that if they go bad at the wrong time means it cold get very ugly. I'm also a fan of simple. Just seems to be a lot of 'features' getting put into things we just don't use. And the more there is the more chance one will start playing up.

Don't know enough about Raymarine V's Simrad drives to be of any use sorry.

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Old 30-06-2009, 03:38   #3
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I disagree.

The addition of the rate gyros in the newest systems makes an enormous difference in bad weather. The best systems have had significant proving in long distance solo races (e.g. B&Q).

However, spares are obviously an essential store. It is also an area where buying the cheapest is not a sensible option. Go to the local repairman and see which systems have a better reliability record, and check out ARC and global comments
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Old 30-06-2009, 05:50   #4
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Personally, I would start with a hydraulic pilot and just skip the wheel pilots unless you want to have 3 on board for spares. Good pilots are a big job to install and for the do it yourself types if you don't have a lot of experience with installing gear this is not something you just walk into. Proper installation is about the most important factor. The mountings are critical and they can take a fair load of power in heavy weather. Installing the RAM takes a bit of skill as the loads on the mounting are extreme. There is not a significant difference in any one unit being easier to install. They all require your best electrical skills plus mounting the RAM in a tight place on most all sail boats.

An auto pilot has to steer reliably when you can't. It's the only reason to want one. I've had to do long legs in 4 to 6 ft Chesapeake chop. A wheel pilot mostly won't do that at all. I'll agree with Talbot on the new rate gyro's. They integrate with the Fluxgate compass easily. I've been looking at the Raymarine rate gyro and I can plug it in directly with my old system. The embedded technology in a rate gyro automatically adds ability to compensate better than software ever could. It suddenly makes the difference in software moot. Taken to the highest level such as with the ring laser gyros you can replace the fluxgate compass with one of those. The problem they have is they cost more than many boats. The new rate gyro's they are using are not that expensive. I've seen standalone's for under $400 US. The fluxgate compass is not that complicated either and costs about the same. When installed properly they last a long time. Both my current and last boat still have a working original fluxgate compass now close to 20 years old each.

For a pro install you can expect about of week of labor to wire and install one. Many aspects of the installation are custom on each boat. You can try one location and then have to move it. There is a fair bit of signal wires and some larger amp load wires for the RAM. It means wires go to several places.

I'm ready to replace my ST7000 computer. The old design has a two parts system where the wiring connects to the main unit via a module that has all the wire connections and a DB 25 connector. The two parts just bolt together. The DB 25 connectors are just ordinary not like the aircraft gas tight connectors use on commercial aircraft. The internals of the connectors are now failing. The new designs don't do that any more.

I've had a local guy re-solder the board connections on both halves but the pins are going bad and can not be replaced. It started with dropped rudder feed back data and now gets the false alarm for low power. Losing the rudder feedback means your pilot is DOA. The good news is all I have to do is buy a new core computer and it will plug into the 1990 components and is compatible with the old control head as well. The bad news is they cost about $1200. It's still a wiring problem to extend all the wires so you can work on the thing without working inside a small compartment. They didn't leave enough extra wire in the last install yet the rest was all done very pro.

You really can't replace all that much in an autopilot easily. The parts that can go bad are not always so easy to carry or install - even if you know what you are doing. You sure won't do it in any thing but calm weather at an anchorage or dock.

Just so you know Raymarine will not re-solder a board - ever. All discontinued products are discontinued for parts and service. I know a guy that will and he can fix a fair number of things at the electronics level. You need to understand that all this is moving to a replacement only service approach. You as a rule can't fix any of this stuff any more.
Paul Blais
s/v Bright Eyes Gozzard 36
37 15.7 N 76 28.9 W
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Old 30-06-2009, 06:00   #5
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Forget wheel pilots. Forget linear drives, chain drives, belt drives, and such. Go hydraulic.

W-H Autopilot P3C. Wouldn't think of anything else. FWIW -- love mine and know lots of very happy folks who have 'em :-) Great tech support, too.

Here are the component parts: New W-H P-3C Autopilot

Here's where to get 'em: WH Autopilots

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Old 30-06-2009, 06:23   #6
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Second that, great ap's! They are not expensive marketing hype, they are very robust ap's.

Ours is self installed, figure a full weekend if you are handy. If handy is not a personal trait hire it out.

Originally Posted by btrayfors View Post
Forget wheel pilots. Forget linear drives, chain drives, belt drives, and such. Go hydraulic.

W-H Autopilot P3C. Wouldn't think of anything else. FWIW -- love mine and know lots of very happy folks who have 'em :-) Great tech support, too.

Here are the component parts: New W-H P-3C Autopilot

Here's where to get 'em: WH Autopilots

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Old 30-06-2009, 07:13   #7
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My suggestion is DO not drive the pilot from GPS. YOU take the steering info and YOU enter it into pilot. This keeps YOU involved in the steering of the boat and another level of checking.

I have only experience with two pilots one for thousands of hours and the other for hundreds in offshore passages.

My preference is the Alpha which I have on my boat and has worked reliably for 2 decades. The install is a bit complicated in finding a strong location to mount the ram drive (electrically driven) and for clearance of the "rudder link arm) 2 sizes are available. Longer one offer more leverage and requires more travel of the ram and more electricity consumed. BUT once a course is set the corrections are typically small, except in seas from the stern quarter where a fair amount of helm correction is required to steer a straight course. Even so in large seas the Alpha will S about and cannot do as well as helmsmen. But this is for heavy conditions over 25 knots.

The pilot has a control head which a large rotary know to dial in courses. it is like a mini helm - turn to starboard, vessel steers to starboard. Very intuitive. Need to tack? Rotate about 100-120 degrees depending on wind speed and sea state. Simple. You want to steer North... turn the dial to north (0)

There are controls for seas state (yaw) and amount of "correction" you want which means also more (or less) power consumption.

The pilot is "on duty" when a pin is engaged by a teleflex cable you pull. If it is not engaged there is no friction or drag on the helm whatsoever and you don't loose and sensitivity in manual helming. But you will want to electrically turn the pilot off because even when NOT engaged the ram will still continue to operate as if it were. It's best to turn the pilot off and then disengage it at center helm.

Here is a pic of the control head located in a recessed GRP housing in the cockpit coaming.

The other pilot I worked with was a autohelm now raymarine which was located in my opinion too far aft in the cockpit (next to the helm) and quite low and you had to punch in +1, +10 and -1 and -10 to arrive at the course change. How lame is that? Then when it would occassionally go off and the boat would simply have no helm control and round up and the thing would inaudibly beep. I say in audible because when this happens, it's usually in wild noisey sea and flogging head sails. How lame is that alarm? When it worked it was fine at holding its course, but the control aspect was bizarre to say the least. I did not see how the pilot actually drove the rudder post.

Alpha 3000 thumbs up, Autohelm 5000 (I think that was the model) thumbs down.
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Old 30-06-2009, 07:23   #8
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I will second the Alpha system. Its non integratable, but very robust. I have one and its lovely. Not a cheap piece of kit, but one of the best. Installation is a @3$%.
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Old 30-06-2009, 07:46   #9
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I will also second the Alpha 3000...I have one on my Tartan 41, and it handles her with ease...I also have the remote helm which gives you helm control up to 25' away..

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Old 30-06-2009, 08:25   #10
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The most important thing is to balance the sail plan and reef appropriately so that the pilot has to do minimal work; then almost anything will do the job!

My ST7000+ has taken me thro' two F8 gales and a F9 gale without problems, but then I have 4 reef points in my main.
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Old 30-06-2009, 10:29   #11
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Thumbs down on Alpha. The brain was dumber than a fencepost compared to modern autopilots, and we fishtailed 13,000 miles across the Pacific even when it worked. We had to slow the boat down to let the autopilot drive. The rudder position feedback unit failed after 6,000 miles, and we had to have a whole new linear drive delivered to Tahiti.

Partial thumbs up on Simrad. We have had two Simrad units, and AP100 and an AP11. The AP100 came with the boat, and the brain was a vast improvement on the Alpha--it would adapt to the seas to keep a good course, and even control the boat under surfing conditions downwind. However, the mechanical linear drive had plastic gears which failed and Simrad would not provide replacements. We did a reinforced epoxy repair on the gears and the autopilot made it another 6,000 miles to Australia.

We replaced the AP100 with the AP-11 and a hydraulic linear drive in 1998, which now has about 50,000 miles on it. It has a rate compass, and handles the boat well even under gale conditons, but not quite as well as the AP100. Reliability has been pretty good, but the rudder feedback unit has failed once and the drive motor has failed twice. The most troubling development is two years ago after the drive failed I sent it back to Simrad/Navico to be refurbished. The cost was 60% of a new drive, and they installed a smaller motor on it. The brushes in that motor wore out after only a year and 7,000 miles. It now appears that Simrad may be cutting corners in reliability and performance. However, I would give Simrad high marks for engineering features which improve reliability and maintainence--if your drive motor fails, or you short out your solenoid, you get clear error messages from the display rather than puffs of smoke.

Partial thumbs down on Raymarine. While I have never had one in my own boat, I have tried to coax half a dozen Raymarine installations back to life in remote places. Raymarine has good features and a good brain, but they are not engineered for reliability or maintainability. Their troubleshooting advice is to be 'take it to your nearest dealer, who will swap out boards at your expense until it works again'. There were a number of reports of the Raymarine autopilots quitting when the going got rough, or suddenly going off course even when conditions were smooth.
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Old 30-06-2009, 15:11   #12
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I have 21,000 miles on my hydraulic ram run by an oversized pump controlled by a controller/computer with a Raytheon +6000 control head which is told the heading by a fluxgate compass mounted amidships. All parts are installed in locations protected from wind driven seawater. All power wires running from the battery to the controller/computer and then to the pump are one size larger than what is required.
I have been in gales off of Nova Scotia, Hurricane Ivan off of Grand Cayman and some of the nastiest seas just north of Columbia where that low likes to hang about.
Never had a problem except once with a wire between the control head and the computer. In true cruiser fashion I spliced in a section of outdoor extension wire that was handy at the time. I have thought of replacing this jury rigged wire with the genuine article. I decided not to when I noticed the skimpy little wires in the original wire were not tinned. A small nick in the protective sheath had let in some salt.
Our boat has always tracked well except once in heavy following seas during a gale in the Gulf Stream. The ram was working furiously and continuously to keep our heading. After a few hours of that I felt sorry for it. We let out a small drogue over the stern quarter. We slowed down to 6-8 knots with bare poles and neutral helm.

The point I am trying to make is go with an oversized hydraulic pump, wires and any components which have to handle high continuous electric currents. The rest is knowing how to balance the sails, drogues, etc. to minimise how much it needs to work.
Know where all the components and wires are so in the event of a failure you can track the problem down quickly and expediently. The only way to be able to do this is do the installation yourself. If unfamiliar with wiring learn how with the guidance of someone familiar with wiring, etc.
The loads on the ram are enormous, in the order of thousands of pounds when the rudder is being bashed by following seas. Attention has to be paid to the structural integrity of the mounting structure. If you are uncomfortable get help.

There’s nothing worse than listening to someone calling for help for hours on end in a gale who believe that they have lost their steering and have not one clue what to do about it.
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Old 30-06-2009, 15:22   #13
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The Alpha will last forever and not drip hydraulic fluid. It's over engineered for your 37 footer and will do great. My buddies has been on his 44 footer and been to OZ and back and still working over 20 years... I've had two and never had an issue. The first one was 15 years old when I got it! Having said that, the robust type of hydraulics like the W-H above should be great also. (is that who took over the Wood Freeman units?) Personally I dont want my AP tied to my GPS. I think there needs to be a human interface monitoring how the boat is doing to the predicted course etc... and asking why!.... Also, less to go wrong "software wise".
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Old 30-06-2009, 16:32   #14
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We have discussed this before and my conclusions are not in this thread yet so here it goes:

Don't even look at wheel, belt or anything other than hydraulic below decks equipment if you intend to sail beyond the marina's at home (there's consensus on this part I think)

An AP has several parts. You have to look at each part. I have yet to see a system from 1 manufacturer that is perfect. If you really want all from 1 brand you must go with WH pilots. But the only reason is their hydraulics. When you have one of these, look at the hydraulics: nothing is manufactured by WH. Mine has Hynautics reservalve and ram and industrial type motor+pump. This is what makes the WH so robust.

But yu can buy that elsewhere or even from WH without the other components (I think). If you have hydraulic steering you already have most of this stuff and only need a good motor+pump combo.

My preferred AP is the Simrad Robertson AP25. I have the 40A module. All of the components of this system are good... except the hydraulics. You can connect it to the WH hydraulics or about every other hydraulics system on the market.

What I really like is the ability to point the bow where I want to go, like into an entrence channel, and press a button to instruct the AP to go there in a straight line OVER GROUND. AP corrects for wind, waves & current. When you are short handed this is a winner and WH doesn't have it.

Don't mistake this for other Simrad pilots, you want the Robertson. Don't mistake this for other or older Robertson pilots, it's the AP 25 or newer versions of that same system.

WH? mine is old. The newer ones will be better, but I wonder if they can steer on wind angle (using existing masthead sensor) or the straight line over ground without waypoints like I described above. NMEA used to be a no-no with WH.
But my old WH unit will still bring me where I want without breaking down. That's why it's still ready to steer (fully wired & operational) as backup to my AP25.

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Old 30-06-2009, 16:51   #15
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Yea, I'm pretty sure the Alpha maxes out at a little under 50 feet.....

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