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Old 07-09-2016, 09:41   #1
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Old sailor, Newbie question....

Stopped sailing about 20 years ago and am returning to it next year. Recently purchased an old Hunter 27 and, as I work in the boat and yacht repair industry overseas, I was gifted a Raymarine SPX5 Autopilot for wheel steering and some other nice electronic toys by my current employer in lieu of my semi-annual bonus.

I have installed and commissioned autopilots in the past on power boats and yachts and fully understand how they work at the technical level. However, on a pocket cruiser such as mine which will be doing coastal cruising (Chesapeake Bay for the first few months regaining confidence in my sailing abilities), my question is: what are the advantage/disadvantages of having an autopilot on a smaller sailboat such as mine?

I'll be honest here, I don't see how an autopilot on a small sailboat can be very effective in coastal cruising due to ever changing winds and short wave periods except to give one time to constantly trim sails while the AP maintains a course. Without an AP I could just used the wheel brake to lock the wheel and then adjust sail trim accordingly, or I could just alter course to maintain sail trim (which admittedly may or may not add time to any transit).

In Blue Water cruising I think I can understand/visualize the advantages as wave periods are usually much longer (and I may wrong on this too). Please feel free to educate me using foul language as I'm retired USN and I may understand your replies easier

Feeling like I am missing something here and don't really know what. Trying to gain some enlightenment from those that have gone before.
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Old 07-09-2016, 10:34   #2
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Re: Old sailor, Newbie question....

I see no disadvantages. I think you will appreciate the autopilot once you've used it the first couple times. I would give him/her a name and you'll soon find it to be your most valuable crew member.

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Old 07-09-2016, 10:52   #3
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Re: Old sailor, Newbie question....

I agree with Blackadder, it won't be long before your autopilot is your best friend, especially if you single hand. Whenever you go to the mast and raise your sails the locked in wheel will go off wherever it wants to, where the compass in the autopilot will keep you heading in to the wind better. You'll really appreciate it when you have to motor a long distance.

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Old 07-09-2016, 11:21   #4
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Re: Old sailor, Newbie question....

goat, your points are well taken, Thank You! I fully understand and agree with the part about motoring with the AP. I can also understand about the wheel lock doing its own thing at the worst possible time.

I guess what I am missing is the relationship between sails, wind changes, sea state, and the AP all coming together to make having an AP an advantage on a smaller sailboat. In power boats on AP, well, they just power through using their engines to move forward. Sails are different and I am having difficulty grasping the advantage of an AP on smaller sailboats and am trying to understand how it all works while under sail (i.e. the theory of it all and practical application).
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Old 07-09-2016, 11:34   #5
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Re: Old sailor, Newbie question....

We have windvane and AP on our little cruiser. I'm not a good enough sailor to rely on the sheet to tiller deal.

Windvane "Bruce" for good sailing conditions. AP "Chatty Kathy" for light winds / motoring.

IMHO, you have to be pretty masochistic to not have an AP with a shorthanded crew. Even better, get a remote for the AP so you can steer from the bow or down below.
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Old 07-09-2016, 11:47   #6
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Re: Old sailor, Newbie question....

laika, Thank you for that bit of input....makes much more sense to me now (i.e. light winds and motoring). And, LOL, I guess I am a bit masochistic as I have always single-handed my last two sailboats (O-Day 21 and Columbia 27) without an AP. 20 years in the US Navy and I guess this old seadog is gonna have to learn some new tricks!
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Old 07-09-2016, 12:06   #7
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Re: Old sailor, Newbie question....

You bet. FWIW, if ever a new AP down the road take a look at Pelagic APs. Cheaper, better built and more reliable than the raymarine stuff IME. Brian, the owner, is top notch.

If ever a windvane, Norvane out of cali is a great choice for smaller boats. Half the cost of a monitor or hydrovane. Quality and reliable.
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Old 07-09-2016, 12:27   #8
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Re: Old sailor, Newbie question....

Here's a West Advisor article on APs that explains in more detail than I ever could...

http://www.westmarine.com/WestAdviso...g-an-Autopilot

I guess to further clarify your question about how it works in relation to sea state:

Yes, waves will throw your bow about but the AP can handle that and there is a response level that you can adjust if need be that helps regulate the "sensitivity" of the directional control. These units have great brains now, as the article points out, that use gyros and GPS to keep you on track but without over responding to every wave that knocks you about. It's a pretty fluid motion. However, having said that, if it's a situatio where you would be throwing your whole body into the wheel to steer then the AP will struggle too.

As for wind, APs often have two modes. 1 where you set the course and it maintains the heading, and the other where it tries to maintain a certain angle to the wind. Both modes have their merit. However, again the AP is not a miracle worker and will not get out and adjust your sails for you. You adjust those yourself and if the wind shifts considerably the AP will have trouble maintaining course and will most likely beep a lot to tell you as much.

Lastly, the AP does not adjust throttle. It only steers the boat so if you're motoring, you still control speed.

Hopefully, that clarifies things a bit.

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Old 07-09-2016, 12:48   #9
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Re: Old sailor, Newbie question....

Thanks for that BlackAdder. Your reply pretty much answered most of my questions both directly and indirectly. Will go ahead and install the AP and go play. However, I am still 8-months away from repatriating to the States and then have to outfit my little boat as a live aboard. Thanks again!
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Old 07-09-2016, 13:09   #10
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Re: Old sailor, Newbie question....

Great. This community is a wonderful resource and I'm just starting to give back from what I've learned owning my own Beneteau 423 for the past year and a half and now cruising full time for the past couple months.

Good luck to you. There's lots of advice on the forums for outfitting. Don't repeat others mistakes. Here's a good search tip:

Fire up a regular browser window in your internet browser of choice.
Go to Google or if using Chrome then right in the address bar type in your search terms. Examples, "outfitting sailboat", "outfit boat"
You might try a few different terms to get good results.
Now the trick, before or after your search terms type:

site:www.cruisersforum.com

This way google searches only CF forum and not the whole web! You'll get better results this way then with the CF search function.

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Old 07-09-2016, 13:28   #11
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Re: Old sailor, Newbie question....

Especially if you're singlehanding, there will be moments when you find the autopilot to be extremely useful. Also, comes the time you want to go afield, out of the crowds of coastal sailing, the windvane for self steering is a real blessing: it needs no electricity, and although not as exact on a compass setting as an autopilot, its average course will see you to your destination over many long ocean miles. [Jim made a wind steering system for our first Insatiable, and it steered all our ocean miles from 1985 or 6 through selling her in 2003.]

Modern autopilots can be set up to wind-steer, but may be extremely power hungry, depending on the type of drive you have.

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Old 08-09-2016, 02:24   #12
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Re: Old sailor, Newbie question....

Thanks for that Ann, and also thanks to everyone else for the information as well. Much appreciated. As I already have the Raymarine SPX5 AP, and it was a freebie from my employer, can't see any real reason not to install it and play. Just have to finish my current project first (boat restoration in the Egypt) and then get the heck out of this country! Thanks again everyone!
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Old 08-09-2016, 03:19   #13
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Re: Old sailor, Newbie question....

My mileage and hours on our Austral 20 more than doubled when I fitted a simple tiller pilot. Suddenly the act of making a cup of tea, trimming a sail or just consulting a chart became easy. I did, however, take heed of an article I read in Cruising Helmsman recommending that I not overuse the tiller pilot as it becomes easy to lose the feel for the boat you are sailing. On average I would say the tiller pilot was used for less than half an hour at a single stretch but the break and freedom it offered was priceless. The regular 8 to 10 hour trip across to Port Vincent was a heck of a lot more fun once I had the tiller pilot.


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Old 08-09-2016, 09:14   #14
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Re: Old sailor, Newbie question....

If you are sailing in a place with lots of variation in wind speed and direction, it really, really helpful if you have wind instruments, and your autopilot is connected to them. We often tell our autopilot to steer to a particular wind angle, and enjoy the ability to leave the helm for extended periods.

This is mostly useful for beating and for downwind runs. On a reach, we end up tweaking the autopilot settings way too often.
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Old 08-09-2016, 09:39   #15
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Re: Old sailor, Newbie question....

Quote:
Originally Posted by Teknishn View Post
Stopped sailing about 20 years ago and am returning to it next year. Recently purchased an old Hunter 27 and, as I work in the boat and yacht repair industry overseas, I was gifted a Raymarine SPX5 Autopilot for wheel steering and some other nice electronic toys by my current employer in lieu of my semi-annual bonus.

I have installed and commissioned autopilots in the past on power boats and yachts and fully understand how they work at the technical level. However, on a pocket cruiser such as mine which will be doing coastal cruising (Chesapeake Bay for the first few months regaining confidence in my sailing abilities), my question is: what are the advantage/disadvantages of having an autopilot on a smaller sailboat such as mine?

I'll be honest here, I don't see how an autopilot on a small sailboat can be very effective in coastal cruising due to ever changing winds and short wave periods except to give one time to constantly trim sails while the AP maintains a course. Without an AP I could just used the wheel brake to lock the wheel and then adjust sail trim accordingly, or I could just alter course to maintain sail trim (which admittedly may or may not add time to any transit).

In Blue Water cruising I think I can understand/visualize the advantages as wave periods are usually much longer (and I may wrong on this too). Please feel free to educate me using foul language as I'm retired USN and I may understand your replies easier

Feeling like I am missing something here and don't really know what. Trying to gain some enlightenment from those that have gone before.
An autopilot is a great tool for the singlehander.

1. Hold nose to wind during sail raising / dousing.
2. Auto-tack, so you can attend to the sheets and traveller.
3. Hold a course to a bearing (adjust sails to wind).
4. Hold a course to AW (if you don't care where your are heading).

How does one know if our AP is on? If the motor is running. If I have to listen to the infernal combustion engine, the least that is going to happen is I will not be chained to the wheel.

In my experience, locking the wheel really only works well when close-hauled and balanced well (or better yet with foresail oversheeted and main undersheeted).
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