Over 250 transatlantic skippers from the most recent ARC fleet report back on the efficacy and reliability of their self-steering and self-sufficiency equipment
Few cruising skippers would argue with ocean sailing guru and founder of the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) Jimmy Cornell when he says some form of self-steering is ‘essential for any boat that is going to be sailing offshore for any length of time’. Yet there is no requirement from World Cruising Club (WCC) for yachts participating in any of their ocean rallies to have any system at all installed.
Either way – essential or not – anyone who has endured a long enforced watch at the wheel of a yacht will testify that while steering a course can be a pleasure, being unable to leave the helm can also be a nightmare at sea.
More than 250 vessels took part in the most recent series of WCC rallies across the Atlantic – 142 entered the 2,700-mile ARC from Gran Canaria to St Lucia; 92 entered ARC Plus from to Grenada via the Cape Verdes Islands, and 30 entered ARC January, which is the same route as the November ARC.
The questions we asked each of these crews focussed on self-steering and we also asked for each skipper’s three top self-sufficiency tips. We wanted to know which was the most popular self-steering method, how the equipment performed, what went wrong and what the top tips are for successful self-steering at sea.
Autopilot vs windvane
Of the 230 complete responses to the questionnaire (out of a total of 251 yachts that finished one of the three separate events) there were five yachts that sailed without any form of self-steering. Other than them, every yacht had an electronic autopilot fitted – no-one that we know of sailed with windvane only, although 33 yachts had windvane systems fitted as well as autopilots, and some windvanes were in fact used as the primary system. Monohulls make up the majority of yachts fitted with windvane self-steering, but there were two catamarans using them (out of 65 multihulls overall) as well.
Electronic autopilots are obviously now the dominant technology in self-steering and the most modern refinements, such as the 9-axis sensor, sailing specific algorithms and the powerful remote controls, have improved usability over the last decade.
The average boat in the fleet is around 15 years old, while the average electronic autopilot installation is half that age. While there’s no denying that there’s still a place for vintage kit – some were using pilots from Raytheon dating back 30 years – it’s worth mentioning that the questionnaire results do indicate that the older the boat, the lower the rating given to the self-steering gear (even though not all older boats carry old autopilots!).
Even the smallest vessel in the fleet, the 9.75m long catamaran Ciel Bleu, used a tiller pilot while the smallest monohull, Canadian flagged Venturi I, relied solely on a Raymarine pilot.
The next biggest yacht, 1980 Hallberg-Rassy 352 Petoya Too, had both a windvane and an autopilot fitted. Petoya Too’s German skipper Thomas Klemens recorded using his boat’s 10-year-old Raymarine ST1001 wheelpilot for one hour a day and the two-year-old Hydrovane windvane for 23 hours per day.
There are now three main suppliers for autopilot equipment in the ARC fleet: Raymarine, B&G and Garmin. Just under 55% of respondents used Raymarine control units and a further 34% used B&G. Furthermore the split between Raymarine and B&G was almost identical for the choice of course computers. Garmin was the third most popular option with 6% or 15 boats using their products.
The pumps/drives were evenly split: one third hydraulic; one third linear and the remaining third split between wheel, rotary and tiller drives (in that order).
Sixty-seven skippers rated their autopilot control unit/head/display 5 out of 5, while 112 rated theirs 4 out of 5. That’s 80% of autopilot respondents. And in a related finding from the survey: 156 (63%) rated their yachts’ course/drive computer at 4 out of 5 or 5 out of 5. This can only be interpreted as a huge vote of confidence in autopilot technology.
Seventy-five boats reported problems with their autopilots, 56 of which were encountered on the ocean crossing (rather than the ‘shakedown’ sail to Las Palmas from mainland Europe). Digging into the details of those problems reveals that skippers demand perfection but will still cede control to the unit even if performance levels drop significantly.
Drive unit problems made up 45% of the issues encountered – that’s 25 drive units across the fleet that were deemed unsatisfactory by over 250 transatlantic skippers. Just over 20% of problems were traced back to the course computer or the control unit, which leaves 30% (approximately) of problems in the ‘don’t know category’.
Problems and solutions
Many skippers gave their self-steering equipment quite high ratings and then went on to raise multiple issues with the overall performance or installation or reliability of their set-ups. It makes for an interesting read, and leads us to conclude that for most skippers even a poorly functioning self-steering system is better than nothing.
We discovered multiple references to autopilots as people, or crewmembers with foibles and idiosyncrasies: The skipper of Amandla Kulu advises feeding the autopilot coffee and biscuits, while the German skipper of Petoya Too described his Hydrovane as: ‘a full crew who needs no food – happy with it all the time.’
Not all windvane systems were quite so highly rated. The skipper of Malouine made a positive report on the yacht’s self-steering: ‘She is doing a good job, but takes a lot of energy, so we prefer using the Windpilot’ – which is typical praise of ‘free’ self-steering windvane systems over previous ARCs. They averaged eight hours per day on autopilot, stating: ‘we turned off the autopilot in squalls/strong winds so that it lasts for longer and has less wear and tear.’
They relied instead on a 30+ year old Windpilot for up to 10 hours per day, but even that wasn’t smooth sailing all the time: ‘Working unless the wind is coming directly from behind, then she zigzags and too big waves make her steer off course.’
The 2011 UK-flagged Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 45DS Optimistic was another of the belt-and-braces boats with autopilot and windvane on board. The boat’s hydraulic drive unit, computers and sensors worked perfectly for 22 hours per day on the crossing (via Cape Verdes), but the skipper reported problems with the Hydrovane instead: ‘The Hydrovane rudder broke on day two of leg one. It was repaired in Cape Verde then snapped in half on day two of leg two.’
His verdict: ‘Hydrovane did everything in their power to help me out in this situation. Their support and customer service has been very good,’ yet he concluded: the Hydrovane ‘cannot cope with big waves’. His top three tips for self-sufficiency: ‘1. conservative sail plan at night 2. good preparation 3. good tools and spares.’
Usually, windvanes take over the steering when/if autopilots fail. However there was another UK-flagged large monohull for which the opposite was true. Paul Cook, skipper of Esti, a 1996 Moody 44, was very impressed with his recently installed Raymarine ACU-400 with hydraulic ram. ‘It saved us and performed perfectly. We found the “wind vane” mode to be perfect for optimising wind shifts,’ he said. So although he didn’t need to rely on the failed windvane rudder, he pointed out that without it he’d lost his main emergency steering system.
Autopilots aren’t without their share of faults though. South African skipper Darrol Martin took part in the ARC Plus aboard his 1988 Amel Mango. He and his crew took apart their Raymarine rotary drive unit multiple times en route to Las Palmas as well as once during the ocean passage. Despite a professional installation less than four months before the start of the event, Martin reported that the drive gears were ‘mismatched’ and the screws were too small and ‘not strong enough to hold’.
On passage to Mindelo, they made repairs using spare ring gears and planetary gears bought in Las Palmas and reported: ‘After 4th repair, it worked perfectly for 2nd half of the crossing.’ This was followed up by some further advice: ‘Get a windvane as backup. Autopilot is not robust.’
Article continues below…
Pip Hare explains how setting your autopilot to suit conditions will be faster, more comfortable and more efficient
A couple of decades ago I’d have recommended anyone planning an ocean crossing without a big crew to fit wind…
Thirty boats crossed the startline for the ARC January, including skipper Paolo Santagiuliana aboard his virtually brand new Neel 51 trimaran Chica 3. The boat was fitted with the Zeus 3 chartplotter/multifunction display, which he rated 4 out of 5, but Santagiuliana found that the sensors feeding the data to his B&G drive unit via a H5000 CPU resulted in ‘very frequent ROUTE OFF’ messages. He rated the pilot’s performance as ‘very poor’ in the second half of the crossing and lamented not bringing spare sensors, but he had made provisions for such a failure by fitting a second autopilot.
‘We arrived thanks to the second one. The limit of the second one is that it cannot be fully interfaced with the B&G Zeus so you can’t automatically follow the wind, you have to manually modify the route.’ The H5000 has now been recalibrated: ‘narrowing the value of rudder gain, auto trim and counter rudder that were too large, generating a wide variation of route when the wave was more than 2-3m. I have to say that the software is much less easy for a normal sailor used to other brands.’
Skipper Edgar Sesemann aboard 1998 Van Dam Nordia 55 Saphir af Stockholm gave middling ratings to his six-year-old Raymarine linear drive autopilot, but his secret weapon for ‘excellent’ autopilot performance?
‘I have two autopilot systems: One is the Raymarine with two mechanic linear drives that work together directly on the rudder quadrant (one pull, one push) and it makes it very strong. They both get the information from the same course computer.
‘The second autopilot is the Mamba drive that was the original autopilot on Saphir and it works by the wires to the rudder quadrant. It’s totally separated from the Raymarine system and has only compass heading. It has also been upgraded with a new separate course computer.’
Sesemann describes the value of a backup system, particularly for a double-handed yacht on long passages. ‘We got the experience in bad weather on the North Sea crossing from Inverness to Denmark. My wife was seasick and I had to hand steer for 20 hours in 5-6m waves. After that, the second autopilot was installed.’
This year’s final question could be an article all of its own: ‘What are your three tips for keeping your yacht reliable and being self-reliant at sea?’
Klas Gunnar Johansen, skipper of 2001 Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 52.2 Blue Sunshine reported ‘two downwind sails ripped in the squalls and acceleration zones off Cape Verdes, plus the autopilot failed, as did the radar.’ The autopilot was an Autohelm ST6000 fitted in 2001 and he wrote: ‘Made a service on the unit prior to passage but it failed us on passage and we had to hand steer from day 2-12’. His top tips? ‘1. A thorough inspection before the passage 2. Three walk-arounds a day 3. A creative mindset.’
Dutch skipper Willem Henry Spek was one of several to carry both autopilot and windvane self-steering and he was glad to have the redundancy aboard.
His venerable autopilot set-up on board his 2008 Bavaria Vision 44 included the ST6002 from Raymarine, now discontinued, which he discovered being ‘very greedy with DC power’ from the batteries due most likely to the system ‘hunting’ or over-correcting. He had to adjust rudder damping and response to reduce the power and smooth out the course when under autopilot. He also had to replace some nuts and bolts with Nyloc nuts.
The redundant unit was, it turns out, the windpilot, which he decided to dismantle because of concerns over its installation. Additional problems included the freezer not staying cold and some tears in the sails. His 3 tips for self-sufficiency: ‘1. Redundancy. 2. Know your kit so you can repair. 3. Spares and tools.’
The fleet’s smallest yacht was a British-flagged 1988 Fountaine-Pajot Maldives 32, which was driven 24 hours a day by a Raymarine ST2000 tiller pilot. Skipper Jonathan Walmsley carried two complete spare autopilots but didn’t need to use them, even when his primary pilot started behaving erratically. His top tip for tiller pilot owners is to fit a waterproof cover (including on the ram).
He also suffered starter motor failure, hence his top three tips for self-sufficiency across the Atlantic were: ‘1. Two methods of engine start 2. Complete spare autohelm 3. Know and understand all your boat’s systems’.
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