Q&A: Which Autopilot Drive?

Question: I am planning a long trip in June (Sardinia to Canaries) and then the ARC in November. A working autopilot would be nice. I’m looking at Simrad autopilots. What drive would you recommend for a Swan 44 (displaces about 30,000lbs)?

Answer: Your Swan is a big powerful boat and you are planning a downwind trip in big trade wind seas that will challenge your autopilot. (Autopilots are much more heavily stressed downwind than going to windward.) So I would recommend putting some time, effort and money into a really bomb proof installation of the new drive.

Here are some thoughts to keep in mind when selecting a drive:

  • I think that, in general, hydraulic drives are more reliable than electrical (that is, an electric hydraulic pump driving an hydraulic cylinder).
  • When selecting the pump/cylinder set, go big. I think autopilot companies often underestimate the loads on a voyaging sailboat.
  • Simrad sometimes specifies two rams to get the power they need on bigger boats. Except for the largest boats, I don’t like this approach since it adds another level of complexity and more seals and hoses to leak and blow. If Simrad’s ram is not big enough for your boat, have a look at those from Hynautic, used with a Simrad pump. This is what we use and it has worked well.
  • Make sure that you, or whoever is installing the drive, uses the correct sealants properly applied on all hydraulic joints. It is amazing to me how many experienced technicians that should know better will use ordinary pipe dope on the joints. This is the reason that many users of hydraulic autopilot drives complain of leaks.
  • The mounting points for the ram must be truly massive to take the load and there must be NO play or slackness anywhere. Here is a test: After installation, engage the autopilot and then have someone try to turn the wheel back and forth against the ram using the same amount of force as you would steering in big seas broad reaching. While they are doing that, look at the complete installation. If there is ANY play, flexing, or other movement, it is not strong enough. By the way, if the boat’s steering can’t stand this test, it should be beefed up too.You may wish to have a look at autopilots from W-H. We have a Simrad and are very happy with it but I have heard good things about W-H.

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Meet the Author


John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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12 comments … add one
  • Eva Jun 28, 2012, 8:40 am

    Have you ever considered the electric direct drive units from the Danish manufacturer Jefa as a replacement for hydraulic drives? The advantages are its frugality as it uses electricity only when moving the rudder and the low level of friction it adds to the steering system when steering manually.

    I recently installed the Jefa direct drive type 1 unit on my Able 34 cutter, but I have only used it for a couple of overnight sails yet.

    This far I’m happy, it does what it’s supposed to do with no complaints and you only hear it when it corrects the course. I compensated the friction the direct drive unit added to my steering system by increasing the diameter of the steering wheel by an inch or so.



    • John Jun 28, 2012, 3:23 pm

      Hi Eva,

      Thanks for the comment and suggestion. No I have not considered the Jefa drives, but I have heard good things. I would certainly look at them if we were considering changing our drive. However, our present drive has worked flawlessly for some 40,000 miles, all the parts are still made, and we have 100% backups. So, if its not broken, don’t fix it, will apply here.

      Just to clarify, our hydraulic drive only uses electricity or makes noise when it is actually makes a steering adjustment. There are hydraulic drives that have motors that run continuously, but they are rare on sailboats.

  • Max Shaw Jun 20, 2013, 9:01 pm


    We are looking for a replacement autopilot system for our Stevens 47 (32000 lbs, modified fin keel, skeg rudder, etc) for a pacific crossing next year. With two adults and three children (aged 0 to 10 by then) onboard autopilot reliability and performance are rather important.

    For the Hynautics and Simrad system you have now, I assume the steering is still mechanical with the autopilot disengaged i.e. your normal steering is not hydraulic ?

    Trying to determine if worthwhile to have the added complexity of a Simrad hydraulic pump and a third party drive as you have done or if to go the simpler route of a Simrad hydraulic linear drive such as the HLD2000L that would fit easily where my old Robertson drive was.

    Looking at a Simrad system to match the Simrad instruments already there and will keep the 1982 Robertson AP200 that is there now as a backup.

    Enjoying the new format of your e-books. Also, are you doing any Yacht Club presentations in Nova Scotia this summer ? We will be back in NS for part of the summer.

    Much thanks,


    • John Jun 21, 2013, 8:02 am

      Hi Max,

      Yes, we have standard cable steering when the autopilot is not engaged.

      Our autopilot is now some 15 years so I’m not sure what to advise you about autopilots these days since I have not looked at the options lately. The pump and ram that we use are still available, so that might be a good option. However, sadly I am hearing that Simrad’s support, which used to be great, has deteriorated a lot since they were taken over by a larger company.

      You can read more about our autopilot in this post as well as a lot of good information in the comments.

  • Marc Dacey Jun 21, 2013, 12:52 am

    Getting the benefit (and it is not always a benefit) of the choices of the previous owner(s) can sometimes be an eye-opener. My steel pilothouse cutter, with dual (pilothouse and aft deck) helms seems to have been equipped as if it was a commercial fishing trawler and not a sailboat. One example is in the hydraulic ram steering. It’s about a 25 cu. in. unit by a Japanese firm called Marol.

    My gear is here: http://www.marolmarine.com/products_1.html#b

    Like Jefa, of whom I have heard very good things, they seem primarily commercially oriented, but so do the makers of the AP I’m buying: ComNav. They make quite simple and quite robust gear that is used in boats that spend hundreds of days each year at sea.

    My point is that there is “mission-appropriate” gear out there for the adventuresome sailor that will never be seen at West Marine. The further I get into understanding what really works, the fewer reasons I have to shop at places like that, unless it’s for a discounted VHF or something. I find instead that I “follow the fleet” and browse catalogues from Vetus, Centek, Fisheries Supply, Maretron, Mermaid Marine, Stright-Mackay and Pacific Fasteners and so on: frankly industrial or semi-industrial places that don’t exactly hire greeters.

    I have increasingly found these ranges of products (and services) more relevant to our voyaging needs. This is not to say that Furuno, Raymarine, Garmin, etc. do not make great gear, just that great or greater gear is made by firms that do not have the marketing budgets or the goals of appealing to the recreational boater.

  • Svein Lamark Jun 22, 2013, 4:15 am

    Hi John,
    I have some information on autopilots that could be useful. A small Danish company called Timco has for a long time produced good autopilots mainly to the Danish fishing fleet. Many Danish fishermen prefer Timco pilots. Timco pilots are known to work well and the price is about half of the competitors. Timco has a good reputation on service. I have sailed several times a Danish gillnetter in The North Sea with an old Timco and was surprised of the good steering. A friend of mine has a new one in a 60 ft sail cutter and he is very happy about the pilot. The only negative arguments I have heard on Timco is that the night light on the new panel AP120 is too strong. The first generations of fluxgate compass was difficult to adjust, but the new FLAC2 works good.

    • John Jun 22, 2013, 7:21 am

      Hi Svein,

      Sounds good. I think that often products from small companies are better than those from large ones. Another example, so I hear is autopilots from WH in the US.

  • Chris Jan 25, 2014, 2:43 pm

    Hi John,
    Could I ask you for clarification on your autopilot setup? Do I understand correctly that your autopilot drive is hydraulic (hydraulic pump, cylinder and ram mounted on the top of the ruder shaft) AND your steering to the steering wheel is cable ? I have been thinking about the same set up but could not find a reference. Usual people seem to go all hydraulic or use mechanical autopilot drive that moves cables. I am refiting a heavy displacement (13 t) long keel ketch. I opted for Raymarin new autopilot Evolution product which is said to have a very clever brain and planing to combine this if Jafa pump and cylinder. I sail by my own hance autopilot and wind steering is TOP PRIORITY. Many thanks & greetings from Poland.

    • John Jan 26, 2014, 1:20 pm

      Hi Chris,

      That’s right, cable steering a electric hydraulic pump driving a hydraulic cylinder attached to the rudder shaft.

      All hydraulic systems really don’t work very well on sailboats because they don’t transmit any feel back to the wheel and also because it’s difficult to tell where the rudder is, at least without a rudder indicator.

      You can learn more about our system here.

  • Julian Jul 8, 2014, 10:08 am

    Hi John,
    I have just purchased a 110 foot long (170 tonnes) wooden sailing ketch.
    Both autopilots are unserviceable and I would like to replace with the very best available before setting sail (and motor) from Tasmania (south of Australia) to the Mediterranean. A long voyage with only 4 crew so a robust and reliable autopilot is essential.
    Any help, guidance and direction to suitable manufacturers would be greatly appreciated

    • John Jul 8, 2014, 11:06 am

      Hi Julian,

      Sorry, I just have no clue about autopilots for a boat that big. Might be worth talking to Will Ham at WH autopilots and see what he says.

  • Julian Jul 8, 2014, 11:12 am

    Thanks John,
    I will certainly contact WH. Appreciate the help!

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