Gear Test—Autopilot

JHHG3-1000189

A reliable autopilot comes right after radar on our priority scale. A short handed crew that steers all the time, or even much of the time, is a tired crew, and a tired crew is a dangerous crew.

Robertson AP300X Autopilot

The Good

Reliable

After I fixed some initial teething problems, caused by the installing technician being too stupid and/or too lazy to use the correct sealant on the threads of the hydraulic fittings—yes, I’m bitter, the SOB nearly caused me to have no autopilot halfway to Bermuda, single handed, and all because he could not take five minutes to do it right—the autopilot has been completely reliable for 16 years and some 60,000 miles. The only maintenance we have performed is to replace the hydraulic oil a couple of times.

By the way, this installation was the last time we had someone else install a vital piece of electronic gear for us. My reasoning was that, at the time, I had no experience with high pressure hydraulics and so I thought I should hire a “professional”. But in fact, I would have done a better job myself because I would have read and followed the manual. As it was, I had to do the whole job again anyway.

Flexible Control Location

We only have an APX 300PX control, the one with a wandering lead, and this has worked well since we can move it around to wherever the visibility is best for the watch stander—particularly useful if there is ice around. We do carry a spare control, but have never had to use it.

Powerful Drive

Even though we have cable steering, I’m a big believer in a hydraulic ram directly connected to the rudder shaft for the autopilot drive. Having owned both, I think that properly installed hydraulics are just more reliable, particularly in high load situations, than mechanical linkages or drives. The other advantage of directly driving the rudder shaft is that it gives you an immediate steering backup if you break a steering cable.

At the time we installed our pilot, Robertson did not make a hydraulic ram that looked beefy enough to me. They wanted us to install two smaller rams working together, but that looked like too much complication, and too much drag when hand steering, so in the end I settled on a monster K-4 ram from Hynautic (now part of Teleflex) normally used to steer really big motor vessels, driven by the largest of the Robertson hydraulic pumps.

The Not So Good

Stupid

Let’s just say that this autopilot is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. It was one of the first to have so-called intelligent software that could learn how to steer the boat. Well, not really. Over the years I have learned to tweak the parameters to make it steer fairly well in most conditions, but it still over-steers horribly and hunts far more than it should. Steering did get better when we installed an RFC 35R rate compass some years ago, but it’s still not great.

In fact our ancient analog Neco that made no pretensions to intelligence, with all its knobs and buttons, consistently steered better than the Robertson.

Poor Interface

To change something as simple as the steering gain, you have to go through a pile of poorly designed menus. This seems to be a distressing trend in electronic interface design: removal of knobs and buttons in favour of layers of menus.

Noisy

The RPU 300 hydraulic pump, while incredibly reliable, is noisy, really noisy. In fact it is so bad that one of our guests christened it the “copulating cats”. We have tried everything, including mounting it on rubber. On the bright side, Phyllis and I sleep in the salon at sea, and so can’t hear it—as we tell our guests, who sleep aft, “it’s important that the skipper and mate are well rested”.

Verdict

The pump set and cylinder combination

Highly recommended. You just can’t argue, noise or not, with 60,000 miles of trouble free operation. And this drive set up is powerful enough and fast enough to steer Morgan’s Cloud in gale force winds from aft.

The autopilot brain

Not recommended. Reliable, but stupid by today’s standards, and hard to use.

Replacement

Brain

Since the brain is no longer made and probably not supported, and we would like a smarter one, we will replace it some time in the next year or so.

P_3CI’m not sure sure what the replacement unit will be. As I understand it, Robertson has been bought and sold a bunch of times and is now part of a large group of companies. Not, in my experience, usually conducive to reliability and good customer service. We might look at WH autopilots, which Steve Dashew has long used with great success.

It may look old fashioned, but the WH autopilot control head pictured above makes a lot of sense, at least to me. I find the thought of just reaching out and twiddling a knob marked “rudder gain” a lot more attractive than pressing and holding a button, pressing another button three times, twiddling a dial to select, pressing a third button four times, twiddling the dial to get the gain I want, and finally pressing yet another button, as we do now—what are these designers thinking of?!

Drive

Since the pump is still made and the seal kits are still available for the ram (about the only thing that ever goes wrong with properly sized hydraulic rams) and we have a spare of both, we will leave the drive as it is. After all, I’m going deaf and don’t hear it anyway!

Comments

If you have any first hand experience with under-deck autopilots to help us, and others, with our upcoming replacement decision, please leave a comment. Do keep in mind that we are interested in reliability rather than whiz-bang features. Likewise if you have any questions, please leave a comment.

Further Reading

{ 32 comments… add one }

  • Brett Anderson April 29, 2012, 10:20 pm

    I have a WH P3-C on my Morgan 46, Liberty, and I am very happy with it. I have their 1/2 hp hydraulic pump plumbed directly into my hydraulic steering and it can handle heavy seas no problem. It is a bulletproof, reliable autopilot and their customer service is excellent. The owner of the company answers the phone himself and he says he will answer the phone from 7am – 11pm Seattle time every day. I talked to him when I first bought Liberty and he walked me through troubleshooting a minor power issue. The previous owners of Liberty used the WH in crossing the Atlantic and cruising the Med for several years with no problems.

    Reply
    • John April 30, 2012, 5:12 pm

      Hi Brett,

      Thanks for the first hand information on the WH. There are some real advantages in doing business with a small company aren’t there. Of course the flip side is that one always worries about succession if anything should happen to the owner, or he should decide to retire.

      Reply
  • Alan Teale April 30, 2012, 8:19 am

    Hi John, As with radar, I am with you on prioritisation of an autopilot. We are currently fitting a B&G ACP2 Hercules pilot system operating on the rudder stock through the B&G-badged T3 hydraulic ram. The main thing that is exercising us at the moment is how best to deal with its high amp diet, and I am wondering about Watt & Sea’s cruising hydrogenerator. On paper it is an impressive amp producer The racing version is now quite well proven and becoming standard kit in the offshore shorthanded racing circuit. But even the cruising version is costly. However, if it does what it says it can do it would be worth the outlay. Have you, or has anyone else had experience of the W&S hydrogenerator, or have you heard anything that might be helpful in making a decision on purchase?
    My apologies if this is a little tangential to your subject. My defence is that providing power to a pilot system is a serious consideration. Alan

    Reply
    • John April 30, 2012, 5:09 pm

      Hi Alan,

      No problem at all on going off topic. In fact, as you say, power use with autopilots is a big part of the puzzle. I too am really interested in the Watt & Sea product. Anyone have any first hand experience?

      Reply
      • Michael April 30, 2012, 11:58 pm

        John,

        Thanks for the link to the watt and sea device. I think we will spend the money on it before a wind generator.

        Michael

        Reply
        • Alex May 1, 2012, 9:35 am

          I find on the French forum with the Englisch Sail The Word a discussion
          I conclude after reading it that it is only usefull from 5 knots.
          5 knots= 1-2 Ah
          8 knots= 10 Ah
          10 knots = 15 Ah

          Reply
  • James April 30, 2012, 9:03 am

    We use a Autohelm / Raytheon 7000 series electric autopilot with ram connected directly to the rudder stock quadrant.This unit has performed faultlessly for over 20,000 miles sailing from and to the Arctic or down to Spain. The “Brain ” seems to be able to cope with ALL sea states having once been easily set up to suit our yachts peculiarities.
    I would agree too that the Autopilot ranks next to the Radar, in fact even probably above as the neccessity to attend to the Helm is constant,whilst the Radar is only used in bad visibility or heavy traffic situations.
    To digress AIS is also a fantastically useful tool too.

    Reply
    • Richard April 30, 2012, 1:36 pm

      James, I second Raymarine autopilot. Mine has a gyro and steers very well in all sea conditions that I have encountered. Has been working realibly for 8+ yrs (12,000 nm). In some ways AIS is superior to radar, in other ways not so superior. Having both would be nice. I can do without Radar and AIS, but I wouldn’t want to cruise any distance without my Autopilot.

      Reply
    • John April 30, 2012, 5:17 pm

      Hi James,

      Thanks for the info on Autohelm.

      I think that whether you rank the self steering or the radar first is most dependent on where you sail the most. We would choose radar number one because we spend so much time in what I believe is the foggiest piece of water in the world, but even so, picking between the two is a close run thing.

      Reply
  • Tom Hildebrandt April 30, 2012, 9:47 am

    Consider TMQ, an Australian brand. It is used by all the fishing fleet. The service of this company is excellent, The control head on my last TMQ unit died after 10 years. The guy who answered the phone was the technician, he took care of the sale, and made sure that I had the correct connections to adapt the new to the old unit. They recommended the AP55 as the upgrade model as the older unit was, like yours, no longer being supported. It arrived with all the needed connections, installed easily, and has worked flawlessly for the past 4 years. They even gave me a returning customer discount!

    I have had no problems with the unit (or hydraulic ram mounted to the quadrant) handling any seas, in any conditions. Like all these units, it uses a bit of power, and when the ram is actuated, there is a bit of noise, but the unit does not seem to disturb the sleep of crew in the aft bunks!

    The brain is adjustable, with sensitivity controls for compass and steering, so it can be set for any conditions.

    I spoke to a fellow who knew the owner of the company, and he claimed his company was not making the industry standard in income from repairs, the reason being that the units never failed!

    Cheers

    Tom

    Reply
  • Svein Lamark April 30, 2012, 10:26 am

    Hi John,
    The two best autopilots are probably Robertson/Simrad and Furuno.
    I have had four different Robertson pilots, all of them reliable and good. Robertson had a fantastic service before they were bought by Simrad. I phoned the factory directely and got help by the workers. The diagnose was given immedately and spare parts sendt fast. By returning the old parts I got updates for free and even two pumps fore free. To day the factory is not allowed to answer such phone calls. A salesman will answer and he wants to sell a new pilot, not fix the old one.
    Last year I sailed a big, modern trawler as skipper because the owner wanted some holydays. It had a new Furuno pilot. It worked well under difficult conditions: Two trawls out, lots of current, gale and bad bottom. Also many wrecks and other fishingboats were around. This is the ultimate test of a pilot and the Furuno did it. The manual is not good. I think Furuno has a good service and are reliable ( this experiece is from many years with Furuno radars).
    The sensitivity of the compass is often the key to good autopilot sailing. The Robertson mini-gyro you have is better then a fluxgate, but not as good as a GPS-compass. Again I think Furuno has the best GPS-compass. An advanced gyro is better, but to costly.
    I would upgrade your system with a Furuno brain and a Furuno GPS-compass. My number two choice would be a Robertson/Simrad system. The mini-gyro I would keep as a back-up system if GPS failure.

    Reply
    • John May 1, 2012, 11:23 am

      Hi Svein,

      All good information as always. Good to hear that the GPS compass is as good as Furuno’s advertising claims for it. Now all I have to do is get my head around the $5000 price tag, for just the compass!

      Yes, like you we got great support from Simrad/Robinson when they were independent. Sad to hear that things have slipped since they were bought out. It seems to be always the way.

      Reply
      • Colin May 2, 2012, 12:44 pm

        Hi Svein and John

        We went for Simrad (AP 28) due to the Robertson reputation, and wish we hadn’t. Ours has not been reliable at all (software problems, control head failure, leaking ram, broken UJ mounting for the ram, and now getting spares). Service from Simrad has been very poor – not their Agents in the field, who we’ve been very pleased with, but the Company.

        For what it’s worth, of the main ‘yachting’ type suppliers, Raytheon seem to be the only ones who have a reasonable rep for customer care.

        If I had my time again I’d certainly look closely at the smaller firms that make commercial units.

        Best wishes

        Colin

        Reply
        • John May 2, 2012, 5:24 pm

          Hi Colin,

          What a miserable litany of problems! It’s so frustrating when we boat owners buy expensive top end kit and then have that kind of experience. It really does seem that the purchase of a good marine company by a larger group spells the death of quality and service.

          Thanks for the warning.

          Reply
  • Victor Raymond April 30, 2012, 10:35 am

    John,
    We have the Simrad (Robertson) AP22 on our boat now. We only have 1,000 plus miles experience with it but it seems to work reliably. We will see how it handles the next trip from Panama to Seattle.
    I am always looking ahead and the WH autopilots would be my first stop. They are located on Bainbridge Island where my sister lives so it would be convenient to get installation help from the get go. I am hoping not to have to go that route but nice to know there are good alternatives if needed.

    Reply
  • Jim Ferguson April 30, 2012, 11:03 am

    My vote has got to go with W-H. After reading that Mark Schrader had taken his Valiant 47 Lonestar in the first two BOCs without a wind vane or backup that pretty much sealed the deal for me. That was 1992, I bought virtually the same unit except for the updated “flux gate” compass, and our pilot is still running strong after 20 years and over 60,000 miles. It will turn our very big full skeg rudder lock to lock on our Celestial 48 in 6 secs. The motor is bigger than most boat’s windlasses, and that’s why it doesn’t wear out; it doesn’t overwork and draws very little power unless necessary.

    Over the years we have recommended it to 6 cruisers and I’m happy to say they are still our friends and they are still using the unit.

    In closing, let me say you don’t need an electronic wizard to install this unit. You need someone capable of fortifying the ram -quadrant connection, because that is most critical part. Build it right and it will last forever.

    Reply
  • Giancarlo April 30, 2012, 11:18 am

    Ciao John,
    my first hand experience with Nke gyropilot brain and Lecombe -schmit ram, has been positive, i must say that the Garcia was very easy to stear even dead down wind with the daggerboard up.i really liked the wireless remote control,i could stear the boat from my bunk or when putting a reef and even from the bow keeping an eye for floating debree.the remote controll is a watch style unit simple to use and light to carry.another interesting optional is the MOB remote ,same watch style unit,it will stear the boat to the wind or in circle when the unit is more than 30 meters away from the boat.
    The factory default parameter worked ok for us , we only played the gain depending on sea and wind conditions.,
    The ”not so good,,were the manuals and the problems interfacing with Furuno gps(i do not use the- go to waypoint mode-on the autopilot)

    Reply
  • Deb April 30, 2012, 11:51 am

    John,

    Since we’re on a slightly more limited cruising budget than most we have been having the autopilot / steering vane discussion and in spit of the fact that my corporate pilot husband desperately wants cool electronic gadgets, he has decided to go with the Cape Horn self-steering vane. They are stone cold reliable and use no power so that’s the way we’re going to go.

    Deb
    S/V Kintala
    http://www.theretirementproject.blogspot.com

    Reply
    • John May 1, 2012, 11:25 am

      Hi Deb,

      Yes, vane gears are great. In fact, like many voyagers, we have one as well as an autopilot, although for our boat size a vane gear is a bit of a stretch, so it is really more for backup.

      Reply
  • Dick Stevenson April 30, 2012, 4:32 pm

    John, We have 15 years, 40,000+ miles, on our Alpha 3000 autopilot without a hiccup. It is very robust, quick to react, powerful, very quiet and very miserly with amps. It has steered us in 55 knot winds down wind and gale force upwind. I believe it was designed to steer racing sleds downhill from California to Hawaii so reaction time has to be fast and accurate. It has no bells and whistles, just steers the boat. Our Monitor has been relegated to largely lightening protection. Best, Dick

    Reply
  • Dan May 2, 2012, 6:51 am

    John, I have a B&G HydraPilot on a Bristol 47 that was on the boat when I purchased in 2007. Thus far it has been flawless, and I particularly like its ability to steer off a wind angle setting. I too have been interested in a WH vs. a wind vane for my heavy displacement boat, but primarily as a backup to the B&G. From what I’ve read & learned from chatting with WH’s owner, what it may lack in sophistication/complexity compared to the B&G and other modern pilots, it makes up for in bomb-proof simplicity & robustness in steering to a compass course. I like that it can be deployed as a stand-alone entirely separate from the NMEA system, for example. Ideally, it would be nice to have it installed & ready to go on the opposite side of the quadrant from the primary pilot or, alternatively, as an easy swap-out using the same platform. Any thoughts on this, or are you contemplating it as a wholesale replacement for your Robertson?

    Reply
    • John May 2, 2012, 11:03 am

      Hi Dan,

      As I said in the post, we have no plans to change the drive, only the control unit. And no, I would not add a second autopilot drive to the other side of the quadrant because of the drag when hand steering. “Morgan’s Cloud” is a joy to steer with just enough feel coming back through the steering cables from the rudder. The drag from one ram affects that a little, but two would probably put paid to any feel at all.

      While we do carry extensive spares for our autopilot, we regard our windvane as our ultimate backup since it requires no electricity.

      Reply
      • Dan May 2, 2012, 11:20 am

        Good point about the extra drag — I didn’t think about that. I suppose for a pure backup system, something like the CPT might be the way to go. Otherwise, your comment about the windvane as the ultimate backup is well taken. I’ve often thought about a Hydrovane.

        Thanks so much for all your efforts with creating and contributing to this site. I have been “lurking” on it almost daily for over a year, and it is usually my first stop when I am trying to research some boat issue I know little or nothing about. Your lifestyle & approach to it is also quite an inspiration to those of us still in the wanna-be phase!

        All the best,
        Dan

        Reply
        • John May 2, 2012, 5:20 pm

          Hi Dan,

          Thanks for the kind words. We are really glad that the site has proved useful since that’s the whole idea.

          Reply
  • Elmar July 5, 2013, 11:54 am

    Hi all,
    maybe this is of help for anyone. Video 1/2 English, 1/2 German, but the principle is to see.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z_kCd0GqTI8&list=UUaGmzN7UbLTxRHwASoz6b2w&index=6

    Bests
    Elmar

    Reply
  • Marc Hall June 26, 2014, 3:15 am

    Installed a WH autopilot on Crazy Fish back in 1988.
    Replaced the remote last year for ~$160. When on Autopilot drive the boat from the remote which allows me to drive the boat from anywhere on deck.
    Only issue has been with the fittings I installed on the hydraulic lines leaking. Once that issue was resolved the autopilot has been great.

    Would like to be able to drive the boat by apparent or true wind angle and add a gyro compass but with WH apparently out of business looking to go elsewhere. May just replace all the electronics and keep the reversing hydraulic pump and the hydraulic ram.

    Have replaced the electronics with a B&G Triton NMEA 2000 system so looking at AP systems that are NMEA 200 based.

    Regards
    Marc

    Reply
    • John June 26, 2014, 9:18 am

      Hi Marc,

      I’m very sorry to hear that WH is out of business, although the web site is still up.

      Up until a few years ago, I would have recommended Simrad, but now with the acquisition of the company by a larger group and he stories I’m hearing about problems, I just don’t know.

      Anyone else out there have a recommendation for Marc?

      Reply
      • Colin Speedie June 26, 2014, 12:54 pm

        Hi John

        I’d second your concerns about Simrad, as in my experience their after sales service is not the best.

        Having now had some experience of the combination of an NKE pilot and Lecomble & Schmitt ram combination on a Boreal 44, I’d say that is a pretty bulletproof set-up, albeit not the cheapest! But, when considering such a vital piece of equipment for an offshore boat, should that be the main concern? Reliability, power consumption and after sales support anywhere in the world – those are the things I’d be looking for.

        Best wishes

        Colin

        Reply
    • John June 26, 2014, 2:50 pm

      Hi Dick and Colin,

      Thanks for fielding that.

      Reply
  • Dick Stevenson June 26, 2014, 1:05 pm

    Marc,
    My Alpha 3000 autopilot has taken Alchemy over 40,000 miles and is 17 yo and has done so without a hiccup. It is very powerful (I believe it was designed for the downwind racers going from California to Hawaii so speed of response and robustness were paramount design considerations) and very easygoing on the power usage. Mine has no bells or whistles, but I believe newer models have interface capacities. We find it so good and accurate that our Monitor wind vane has largely been relegated to lightening protection (steering in case we get hit by lightening).
    My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    Reply
  • Fred Wittenberg June 26, 2014, 11:56 pm

    Reading the discussions on auto pilots I picked up that “W-H Auto Pilots” was out of business. I could not find any reason in my mind why a business with such good products would just disappear, so I sent them an email in which I asked: “Are you out of business?” Within hours I received the following email from them:

    From: WilHam
    Sent: Thursday, June 26, 2014 2.54 PM
    To: Fred
    Subject: Re: out of business, NO!!

    Dear Alfred,
    We are not out of business!! Our website was closed for a while because our web host made a big mistake. We just hired a new employee to start a new website also. Model AP-4, P-5’s are in production as well as the new improved model P-3D (It replaces older P-3C). We sold two new auto pilots this morning already and the day is not over yet. (A AP-4 for a new 56′ power boat and a P-3D for a 42ft ketch which is going offshore).

    Call anytime to 206-780-2175 to discus auto pilots with an engineer (from 9.30 AM to 11.30 PM, 7days a week)

    Sincerely, Wil Hamm, pres/ch.eng,

    Reply
    • John June 27, 2014, 8:42 am

      Hi Fred,

      That’s great news! Thanks for following up.

      Reply

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