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Autopilots Buyers Guide


For shorthanded or ocean going vessels, an autopilot is a major fatigue saver. An Autopilot does not absolve any mariner of the requirement to keep a lookout at all times (see COLREGS rule 5), but it will relieve you of the steering duties while you attend to other matters of piloting. The relief is particularly appreciated by any skipper without a navigation team. It allows an ocean cruiser to to keep an eye on the radar and engine systems while also planning landfall navigation, all the while the autopilot is lending an extra hand steadying the course for the next mark. Autopilots often yield better CMG (Course Made Good) tracks over open horizon navigating saving time and fuel.

When selecting an autopilot, begin by identifying the type of steering system on the boat. It may require getting inside the lazarette or opening some hatches, or simply contacting the boat manufacturer. You will need to match the appropriate autopilot drive unit to your steering type. Next select a corresponding core unit, also called core pack. This contains course computers with rate gyro sensors and the steering technology. Lastly, the autopilot needs the control head, a user interface to control your course and heading. There is a wide variety of control heads, many now integrating monitoring of other shipboard instruments from the same screen.

-Michael Reardon

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