The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

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.
  • Vendors 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.
  • 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.
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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.

Max Shaw


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,


Marc Dacey

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:

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

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.


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.


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


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


I have a Furuno NavPilot, the same used by most of the fishing boats, driving a hydraulic RAM from Hydrive (Australia). The helm is also hydraulic (Hydrive) and there is a bypass in the circuit so that the feedback is transmitted to the helm. Feedback mode can be applied or not by a small lever that control it. When in feedback mode you have to keep the steering tight because otherwise it will turn. Agree it is not precise like a cable steering but hey its a 17 tons sailboat anyway. The Furuno does a nice job in quartering wave with its auto-learning program and it also has a “wind mode” where it can keep the boat trimmed to a specific wind angle. The autopilot is precise enough that while motoring, in a small river inlet with 2-3 knots of current and 15 knots of wind and waiting for a bridge to open, the boat can stay at the same place for an hour if the engine is adjusted for the boat not to go faster/slower than the current. I call that the iron heave-to. This autopilot is so simple and usefull that i spent 99% of the time on autopilot. One should never forget that a steering system well made and *balanced* correctly is essential for any pilot or windvane to work correctly. I have dual spade rudders with the right amount of forward area (thanks Dave Gerr) and when on emergency tiller, the boat is very easy to command with the tiller on top of a rudder. I intended to install a windvane on the boat but i can’t see the reason anymore. When one day i’ll go far enough, i’ll carry spares.

Denis Foster

Hello John,
Convinced that autopilot is a vital equipment on a shorthanded sail boat, I am in the process of chosing a backup on our Hallberg Rassy 46. (20 metric Tons in long range cruising mode)
Our exsisting system is a Raymarine Autohelm 7000 that works quite well.
The boat is factory equiped with a Withlock Lewmar Mamba mechanical steering that looks sturdy. I was thinking of installing the Lewmar Mamba electric drive directly on the bevel as it designed for this. Then having the brain and sensors driving this in a complete independent redundancy with a switch at the helm choosing which system.
What is your opinion on this set up?
Reliability even in strong following seas, low electrical consumption and good after sales support would have our priority.
Thank you
Hibernia II


Hi John,

I’m on the task checking my Mamba system. I did find some play in bevelheads and gearbox that was easy to adjust by removing some shims.

I would be interested to know what part of the steering system had faulty bearings?

Denis Foster

Hello John and Roland, fellow cruisers.

The whithlock lewmar articulated shaft
/ rod drives on HR boats are very protected from salt water. The only part that is a little exposed is the wheel at the helm. There is some mechanical loads on each articulation / gimbals but it looks very sturdy.
Maybe the problems are in the converter from rotation to linear motion near the rudder.
The seal of the rudder shaft are with a gravity oil tank.

Roland who has changed the rudder bearings must know this much better.

I will be at the boat this week end and have a look to evaluate if there is any loose play on the Mamba drive system.

If you have suggestions they are more than welcome.


Thanks John,

That makes more sense! I checked my bearings and they are all good after about
30.000 Nm. But yes, they are located inside the a dry boat.

I also read the Lewmar instruction. Bevelheads and gearbox “should not be immersed or sprayed regularly with saltwater”

I think the most sensitive bearing is the one at the base of the pedestal. If there is leaks around compass or other equipment it could develop to a problem over time.

Back to autopilots!

Try to find unbiased about performance of autopilots. It is very difficult!

Very seldom there is a discussion about course computers and steering algorithm. If the course computer do not have a good software made for sailboats, you can marginally improve performance with better sensors, drive units etc. I’m also convinced that if the steering algorithm is not good and the autopilot is struggling, this can cause damages to both drive units and steering components.



At the end of summer I perform routine maintenance.
I checcked the Lewmar Whithlock Mamba steering system.
At the base of pedestal I found a grease nipple for the steering so I greased it. To access this you have to either remove the visit trap of the pedestal under the folding table in front. Or the Yanmar control instrument panel.
Maybe the lack of grease contributes to the failures John reported.

Hope this helps.




I have a robust autopilot (Simrad AP24 with big Marol ram) on my 20-ton 45′ motorsailer with hydraulic wheel steering. I want to have a backup. Alas, I don’t have windvane steering (as I had on my previous boat) and may not be able to install such a system (that’s for another post perhaps). Can you suggest an alternative? I was hoping that I could find some kind of tiller-pilot system to attach to an emergency-type tiller added to the rudder stock (rather than to the existing tiller simply because that tiller is very short and wouldn’t give a tiller-pilot leverage). I have not found a tiller-type system, least of all something I could install below deck, for a boat the size of mine.

I guess the question is: what can one do for emergency/backup steering if one cannot install a windvane system (apart from drafting in more crew, of course)? I’m looking for as simple a “solution” as possible — but maybe that just doesn’t exist.

Marc Dacey

Hm, you’re the only other guy with a Marol ram I know of! I have yet to install an AP, but I’m looking at an Octopus setup with either a SIMRAD or ComNav head. I don’t need integration: I sail on bearings, not to waypoints. A tiller setup is harder to devise without seeing the space you have, but we have a bypass valve on the Marol and an Voyager Windvane: on goes the tiller on the tillerhead of the transom-hung rudder and it’s a simple job to rig it up…or unrig it and remove the tiller. Have you considered the Cape Horn windvane? It might work for you if you can run the lines below decks.


Now that’s interesting. I don’t know for sure, but I think the Marol drives are more commonly used on commercial boats. My boat is constructed like a commercial fishing boat in many respects (thankfully).

I have the “R” type (rotating, not linear) Marol drive. The actual autopilot is Simrad.

Of course I’d love to have backups for everything, but I don’t see myself getting them. That would cost huge money (poor excuse, I know): it would effectively mean buying a new version of the entire autopilot and hydraulic steering system. Yikes. (Me being me, I’d fail to get the one component that dies mid-ocean.)

I’m still looking for an alternative/backup steering solution. Nothing I now about is right for my boat for a number of reasons.


Ah, so much to decide! I guess this is the perennial autopilot backup question — whether to bolster the existing system or have a completely separate system. In addition to the hydraulic drive/ram (by Marol), the existing system on my boat has the hydraulic lines plus drive actuator, a/p computer, a/p control head, rudder-position sensor and electronic compass. I’m probably forgetting some bits, and of course all that stuff is wired up, and the hydraulics are connected to the wheel steering. Now, if the autopilot were to stop working, I’m not quite sure how I’d be able to troubleshoot it adequately — whether I’m really able to decide which component to replace. It wouldn’t be easy at sea if the problem were more than a simple power failure. I could swap out components, one by one, but that’d take some days at sea. I’d have one man down (me, probably) doing this work, so that’d put extra pressure on the rest of the crew to sail by hand. (I must be in a gloomy mood today….)

As for the autopilot DRIVE itself, I could be really foolish about this, but I am inclined to think that it is the least likely component to fail. I say that because the Marol drive is beefy — not the biggest they make, but almost certainly bigger than necessary for my boat. I don’t know quite what goes inside a ram, but, apart from being under high pressure, I think it’s as close to fail-safe as one can get (provide the fluid is all clean). (As I write this I feel that I may be jinxing myself.) The electronics are what worry me.

I still wish someone would build a strong “tiller pilot” type electric autopilot that could be bolted on to a short internal tiller (as on most wheel-steering systems). Maybe that’s asking too much from an electrical device. And of course if such a thing existing, everyone would stop buying the more complicated systems!

The windvane option has an obvious attraction: it’s a silent alternative that doesn’t need any electricity. But you are so right about the cost. And for my boat it’s a real pain in the backside to install and use a windvane. I would need to use an above-deck “emergency” tiller. That creates a host of problems in itself (long story). There’s a theme here, which is what I have learned about boat work: fixing one problem almost always engenders others.


I forgot to answer your question about the Cape Horn gear. I’d love to have something like that. (I had a similar windvane on my previous boat.) But the problem with most of these systems is that they require a mount low down on the transom. I cannot install such a mount due my boat’s construction. They also require cockpit steering. I don’t have that (steering is in the pilothouse). I might get past this latter problem with the type of windvane that uses its own rudder. But such a system is even more dependent on mounting hardware low down on the transom, so it’s no option (unless I can find an aluminum welder who can weld fittings onto the hull without catching the spray foam on fire!)

Marc Dacey

Yes, Marol is basically “fishing boat grade” and it’s why I like it. We have a pilothouse helm and a “sailing helm” on the aft deck, plus the aforementioned bypass/windvane option. I’d be curious to see your boat setup. If you have a boat blog, feel free to email me with the URL at moc.liamg@ymehclavs. I may have some suggestions.


I don’t have a “sail cockpit” on my boat. My boat is a motorsailer. By that I mean that I sail downwind and motor (or motorsail) upwind. The sail is up a lot to increase comfort — which I did even more often, ironically, sailing my previous SAIL-boat (that thing would knock your head off from the roll when motoring without the sail up). This is important for the discussion because what I need to backup my autopilot (including potentially the drive) is a system that works well downwind (mostly).

Alas, I don’t have a sail blog. I want to start one, but I’m either too busy actually sailing or busy working to get money to throw into the bottomless pit known as my boat. (Half joking, but sadly only half.)

Larry Avins

For a Hallberg-Rassy 48 with Whitlock steering: we have 2 independent AP’s, one a RM SPX30 driving a RM Type 2 linear drive on a tiller arm, and one Simrad AC42 driving a Lewmar mamba drive in the engine room, close to the helm. When back-driven from the tiller arm, the helm accelerates-decelerates to a far greater degree then when driven by the mamba drive. My intuition tells me that the mamba drive is easier on the whitlock system. What do you think?


Hello fellow AAC’ers.

To continue the Q&A on the AP, I am interested in your input on the issue. We are soon starting construction on a 43 ft one-off. It is essentially a somewhat beefier version of the Adventure 40 (a project which I had been following with great interest). The design is by Dick Koopmans Jr, approx. 13,5 tons (cruising displ).

She will be tiller steered. Self-steering will be with both a windvane and an autopilot. For the windvane self-steering, we went with the CapeHorn, an integrated model connected directly to a small quadrant on the rudder stock.The choice of the autopilot is not yet definitive. This is where your expertise would be most welcome. I am searching for a reliable, strong, energy efficient (!) autopilot.

My preference currently is a Jefa DD2 electric drive (energy efficiency is one of their main claims). The AP could be Furuno (my primary choice for the other electronics). However, Jefa does not recommend the use of a Furuno autopilot in combination with their drives. They ‘strongly advise to use a brand made for sailboats, and not for motorboats – and that – I would be very disappointed about its steering capabilities’. Their recommendation being B&G > Garmin > Raymarine. I think it would be unwise to go against the recommendations of the manufacturer. But given my preference for Furuno, it poses a problem.

Any ideas please?




I would surely not go against the recommendations of a manufacturer. Thus, if we go with Jefa, we would not choose the Furuno. NKE is actually listed on their website as an option, but because it is not widely marketed, just like you mention, considered an outsider.



Hello Philippe, on my sailboat i have a complete Furuno instrumentation including 2 Navnet, 1 PC running MaxSea, 3 GPS, depthsounder, a digital radar, weatherfax, Furuno gyrocompass, Furuno wind instruments interconnected to Furuno Autopilot and hydraulic pump.

The Furuno autopilot has everything required to satisfy sailboat offshore navigation. It has wind mode to follow the wind, route mode to follow a route and it can interface with MaxSea to use the weather routing feature. Navigating in heavy weather, i don’t find the consumption to be that much because i have a windvane and solar panel so energy is abundant… I have no windvane for the moment but i heard great praise about the Capehorn.

I am an IT guy by trade and the last thing i want on my boat is “integration problem” between different equipment. I have NMEA0183, NMEA2000 and Ethernet on the boat with more IP adresses than a small enterprise use to have 20 years ago, i don’t want *any* risk of having a mechanical, electrical, networking, compatibility problem at sea. Thus my choice of going with 1 company.

Fair winds to you


John i just saw your comment and i would like to know from the point of view of the autopilot … from the signals it receives from the boat being tossed in the wind and waves, what is the difference between a sailboat and a motorboat 🙂


Hi John, Andre

Thank you for your feedback.
Andre, your positive experience with the Furuno AP, confirms that an autopilot set-up not specifically made for a sailboat may well do the job. I would think that many cruisers have a similar set-up, or maybe a set-up specifically for sailboats but predating the latest evolutions in autopilots and algorythms.

What I am trying to figure out is if these latest evolutions are only important at the level of racing or very fast boats, or if they bring also a true benefit to the cruiser?
Since we are starting from scratch, all options are open. If there is also true benefit for the offshore cruiser in a medium displacement boat in using technology specifically oriented to sailboats, than it would be rather foolish to invest in something different. If not than, why bother.


Just a comment to remind that the Furuno autopilot requires a 1/10 sec refresh rate GPS and also a specific performance gyrocompass (forgot the spec). All of this through NMEA 2000 and the internet of the DRS radar. The same GPS and gyro being used when you overlay the radar on the map – very practical for coastal approaches. That overlay being also available on the Maxsea computer – abracadabra a 17 inch color radar with map overlay. So if you go with another gyro-autopilot combination you need to think of the functionnality you want to have globally also and the integration is yours. You can have 2 gyro on the boat though… Navnet permit to choose which one you want to use.


Hello John thanks for your (always) informed comments. I’m sure the people coding the algorithms for sailing have indeed a different use case with Open 40, Open 60 or Trimarans all surfing faster than the wave system (and even foiling !!!) than a metal sailboat cruising at 7.5 knots and being catched up by the wave system all the time. The dynamics are so different as soon as you get over 10 knots. My sailboat in many (cruising not life threatning) wave systems is in this regard almost the same as a cruiser running at the same speed, the difference being weather helm of course and also wind change but as anybody know at 1 metric ton per cube meter, the water is the most acting force on a boat. The weather helm is nothing compared to that quarter wave that wants to turn the boat every 15 seconds. I use my autopilot 99% of the time and i learned to play with all the primary and secondary parameters. Since it is already better than me at understanding the cycling wave passing under the boat and anticiping the yaw to predict the position of the boat after each wave (even in the dark which i have difficulty to do) and thus limiting pump efforts, i don’t know what it could do more ? My last autopilot experience being pushed to the west coast of Newfoundland by a 25 knots north west wind that has been blowing for 24 hours (i was crossing from St-Pierre Miquelon to Natasquan QC at night), the waves were 2-3 meters short period and the boat was running 7-8 knots under 40 % rolled main and 50 % rolled jib and after watching the autopilot (in wind mode) for 2 hours… i decided that i couldn’t do better and went for sleep with the radar alarm on until we reached the east point of Anticosti. I still wonder today how the autopilot could have been better … and what criteria i could use to qualifying a better autopilot. Still thinking…


Hi John,
The issue of the choice of (sailboat specific) autopilot being clearer, there remains the issue of the drive.
Thank you for reminding me of the Boreal set-up.
Most boats with an autopilot are, I guess, fitted with a hydraulic drive. While they are strong and reliable, they also indicate that the autopilot is an important battery gobbler. One of the things Jefa brings up is how an electro-mechanical drive is more suitable for a sailboat than a hydraulic drive. This because of less drag while not in use, much higher energy efficiency and much better speed control.

So this is also one of the questions I would like to get feedback.
Is an electro-mechanical drive indeed more energy-efficient than a hydraulic drive?
And, is an electro-mechanical drive as reliable as a hydraulic drive? Anyone having experience with these units?



Hi John.
I am keeping all options open for the moment, keeping in mind that a sailboat optimized autopilot is a pre-requisite. Regarding the drive, there is ample space, and possibilities for strong support, to go for any kind of installation.
Thank you for these comments. Real life feedback which helps to go beyond the ‘brochures’ and sales information is surely always welcome.

Craig Harmon

I realize this thread is old and might not be monitored. I’m preparing to replace the ram in my Valiant 50. Existing unit is a older B&G T2, which is a unit with integrated pump. Scanning comments here, it looks like folks with boats even a bit smaller/lighter are using bigger rams with separate pumps. I’m not knowledgeable on this and may be misreading (but just hand-steered from Newport to Urbanna, VA lat week and am not keen to repeat that). Would you definitely go bigger than the T2? B&G’s chart puts my boat toward, but not at, the top end of the T2’s capability.


Craig Harmon

Thank you. The LS rams look like serious machinery. I like that I’ll use that as a starting point and do some reading/asking.


Adam Slanina

Hello friends,

I am in a process of refitting a boat for next season. the boat came with no Autopilot control unit, but there is an existing Autohelm 5000 rotatory drive unit on the boat. I´ve checked it, and the DC motor seems to be done. The Gears, and the clutch seem to be working.

My Question is, if anyone has experience with these drives – if the linear drive motors:

work with the rotatory drive units, and if the old Autohelm 5000 drive units work with new control systems like raymarine Ev-200 and similar.

My question also is, if it makes sense to try to repair the unit, or just rather stick to a new drive unit.

Thank you very much,


Adam Slanina

Thank you very much John,

It’s probably the right choice, so i think i am gonna end up buying a new drive.

Thanks for the response