IF YOU TAKE CARE OF YOUR AUTOPILOT, YOUR AUTOPILOT WILL TAKE CARE OF YOU
Our autopilot steered Exit Only 99.9% of the
way around the world. The only time we didn't use it was for maneuvering in
close quarters, and when we wanted to protect the autopilot in rough seas.
In over 33,000 miles of sailing, we probably hand-steered the yacht less
than 100 hours. The autopilot holds a course better than any human
helmsman, it never got tired, and never complained. It essentially
functioned as another member of our crew. All we had to do was feed it
The Autohelm 7000 was reliable and tough. In eleven years of sailing around
the world, we experienced only two autopilot failures. The first happened
in French Polynesia where salt water intrusion destroyed a motor bearing.
The second problem happened sailing up the Great Barrier Reef. In this
instance, we stripped the epicyclic gears when the autopilot made a maximum
course correction, and the correction wasn't enough, so it kept applying
pressure to the gears until they stripped. Those nylon gears had already
sailed half way around the world, and when they stripped, we replaced them
with metal ones. The gears never stripped again after we installed the
When we sail offshore, we go to great lengths to protect our autopilot. If
the seas are extremely rough, we adjust our course and speed so that the
autopilot doesn't take a beating. A well-balanced sail plan makes the
autopilot's task easy, and poorly balanced sails are an invitation to
disaster. Smart sailors don't stress out their autopilots unless there is a
Take a look at Captain Dave at the helm in the Red Sea with 45 knots of wind
and quartering seas. We had just passed through the Bab Al Mandeb at the
southern end of the Red Sea and needed to sail about twenty miles to tuck in
behind a headland to escape the short steep seas and high winds.
For three hours, I stood at the helm steering by hand, and in the process,
the salt spray turned my clothes into a pillar of salt. At the end of the
day, my clothes contained so much salt that they looked as if they were
starched; they could almost stand up without me in them.
The reason I stood at the helm for those three hours was because I wanted to
protect the autopilot. We had 1500 miles of remote Red Sea cruising ahead
of us, and it made sense to not risk the autopilot when we had all those
miles ahead. Hence, I steered by hand.
The autopilot probably would have handled the large quartering seas without
a problem. Nevertheless, three soaking wet hours at the helm is a small
price to pay to guarantee a functioning autopilot during the rest of our Red
If instead of taking shelter, we had continued to sail directly down wind
and on through the night, I would have reduced sail, slowed the boat down,
and let the autopilot steer.
Protecting the autopilot is easy to do. If you balance your sails so
that you have a relatively neutral helm, you will put a smile on your
autopilot's face. When large unruly seas start pushing your boat
around and your speed accelerates to dangerous levels, simply slow your boat
down by reducing sail or towing warps or a drogue.
One of the easiest and best ways to protect your autopilot in rough seas is
to tow warps or use a drogue. Drogues and warps do two things to make
the autopilot's job easier. They slow the boat down and impart greater
directional stability to the vessel. Instead of your stern slewing
around in quartering or following seas, the drag devices tend to hold your
vessel on a steady heading. You don't get knocked around as much, and
your autopilot doesn't have to do as much work.
When we ran before steep following seas sailing from
Gibraltar to the Canaries, our drogues slowed our speed down to four and a
half knots, and kept us pointing directly downwind. The autopilot
didn't have a problem with the following seas because of our high
directional stability. When I am towing a drogue or warps, the boat
behaves as if it's much longer than its designed waterline length.
Instead of acting like a 39 foot catamaran, it behaves like the warp or
drogue are a part of the boat - which in fact they are.
Protecting the autopilot is mostly common sense. If you make it easy
for your autopilot to survive and to steer, it will keep you safely on
course all the way around the world.
Real mariners know the sea, know their boat, and know their autopilot. They
treat their autopilot with respect; it sticks by their side though thick and
thin and perseveres when the rest of the crew have nothing left to give.
Every sailor on board Exit Only knows that if they take care of the
autopilot, the autopilot will take care of them.