A reliable autopilot comes right after radar on our priority scale. A shorthanded crew that steers all the time, or even much of the time, is a tired crew, and a tired crew is a dangerous crew. Here is our report on how the Robertson AP300X autopilot—now somewhat updated and sold as the B&G NAC-3—on Morgan’s Cloud handled our 10,000-mile, eight-month Arctic voyage:
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 was completely reliable for 25 years and some 100,000 miles. The only maintenance we performed was 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.
More about that experience, and what I learned from here.
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
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.
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.
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”.
The pump set and cylinder combination
Highly recommended. You just can’t argue, noise or not, with 100,000 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. While reliable, there are smarter options that will sail the boat better while using less electricity available today.
What autopilot do you have and how has it worked out for you? Please leave a comment.
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.
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.
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
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?
Thanks for the link to the watt and sea device. I think we will spend the money on it before a wind generator.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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,
Thanks for the kind words. We are really glad that the site has proved useful since that’s the whole idea.
maybe this is of help for anyone. Video 1/2 English, 1/2 German, but the principle is to see.
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.
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?
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.
Hi Dick and Colin,
Thanks for fielding that.
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
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:
Sent: Thursday, June 26, 2014 2.54 PM
Subject: Re: out of business, NO!!
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,
That’s great news! Thanks for following up.
Very recently, I’ve purchased a Whitby 42 that still has the Robertson AP330X installed; the previous owner stated that it had never worked for him, but he never further investigated to find the source of the issue (mechanical/electronic/operator?). This is one of the tasks to be tacked in the spring (2016); but for my own info, what did you end-up doing for an autopilot?
We are still using the old AP300X autopilot. However, at the end of this season it started steering erratically. I have not yet had a chance to dig into the problem, but I’m guessing the rate compass has bit the big one. That will probably force me into a complete replacement of the brain and compass, although we will, as detailed in the post, almost certainly keep the pump and ram, since they they work well and spares are still available.
So, not sure what we will do, but I will be researching the options this winter and will report on what we settle on.
Thanks, John; I’ll look forward to your report (a couple of typo’s in my submission; I have the Robertson 300X, not the 330,if there is such a thing).
We carry a Monitor wind vane on the stern, but find that our below decks autopilot is so simple, reliable and parsimonious with amps that it is relegated to lightning protection. It is an Alpha model 3000 (http://www.alphamarinesystems.com/). Ours is almost 20 yo and has had barely a hiccup in the 40-50,000 miles that it has been the primary helmperson. In anticipation of returning to N America in a couple of seasons, I am thinking of replacing the 3000 with another 3000 and putting the old away as back-up (there have been improvements in the ensuing decades that would be nice to have). I looked around at other auto-pilots, but could find none that I was confident would be an improvement.
Be advised, I am a person who is loyal to equipment that works for me. I am sure there are other good autopilots out there. Also note that the Alpha 3000 is a no (or few) bells and whistles autopilot. It will not interface with the tea kettle.
Let us know where your researches take you.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy
Dick, I appreciate the comment regarding the auto helm-to-kettle interface; NOTHING is permitted to interfere with a good cup of tea! I’m not too concerned with interfacing with other electronics, as the JRC 1800 plotter/radar is NEAMA 0813, which is ‘old school’; however, much like you, it works, so no need to replace
I shall keep you abreast of my quest
When I fitted our Raymarine type 1 hydraulic pump 18 years ago I didn’t think for a minute that such a tiny frail looking thing would still be running today, I can’t imagine how many hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of on off cycles in both directions it has performed. I can’t say our hydraulic steering has been completely faultless but it is definitely one of the most reliable systems on the boat. The secret is to carry a spare, then you’ll never need it!
So true, I too marvel at how reliable these little hydraulic pumps are but like you we carry a spare.
WH Autopilots “?” i am really close to purchasing a system from WH. This is based on my ‘recommendation’ research (slim pickings, you mention WH as does Practical Sailor but there are lots of advertisement-type articles & little critical thinking).
has there been an ‘word’ (scuttlebutt) on WH in the last 6 months for year? They have let the website stay down for some time now.
i’m wondering about service/advice a few years down the road.
I too looked at WH a few months ago and concluded that since they were not even updating their web site that I would not risk buying an autopilot from them.
That’s a pity since they had a great reputation for good solid gear and no foo-foo features.
I also note that our friend Steve Dashew, who used to use WH exclusively, has stopped doing so.
It’s a sad situation since it leaves us in North America with few really commercial strength options.
Would the Pelagic (https://pelagicautopilot.com) be a decent option?
Wa are giving it a VERY close look for the 34ft catamaran we are building (helps that it has been successfully installed by other builders of our design).
Curious how you will view their product.
This is the first I have heard of this autopilot, so I really don’t have an opinion, other to say that the web site seems convincing and that it’s great to see a company committed to putting together a decent tiller drive autopilot. For some years that option has been sorely lacking.
And, nicely enough, it is not only confined to a tiller but can be used to run stronger quadrant actuators as well, e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cx0XmDfBJUk
It seems if you have an existing ram you might be able to use only the controller.
What was the solution for Morgan’s Cloud? Since getting the Swan 59, we’re going to need something nice and beefy to replace an aging unit in the next year or two. Curious to know your updated research.
Our solution is still “if it’s not broken don’t fix it”. We are still using our Simrad that has given no trouble in over 20 years.
That said, I think we may replace the brain soon and, although it pains me, I think it will be B&G since their NAC-3 is essentially the same Simrad brain but with updated software. Our reasoning is that our hydraulic drive is still in great shape, we have a complete spare, and Simrad is still making the same hydraulic motor, so a complete replacement just does not make sense.
If I was starting from scratch I would look carefully at the NKE autopilots that Boreal use, see Colin’s comments here: https://www.morganscloud.com/2016/05/29/maiden-voyage-of-the-boreal-55-what-worked-and-what-didnt/
The other option I would look at would be a Jefa mechanical drive instead of hydraulic to get a big boost in efficiency.
Do note though that I have not done any real due diligence on any of this.
Has anyone experience with the Garmin range of autopilots? I’m keen for feedback on their GHP Reactor. Their so called “one size fits (nearly) all” hydraulic pump should make really good sense both as a business model and for support and reliability. We have a hydraulicly steered 45′ Dutch steel motor sailor, (more motor than sail so tends to wallow around in light airs and a swell) so for us it’s worth the expense of a unit that is capable of responding accordingly. I would like to follow up the WH option but am wondering why Dashew has dropped them, plus can’t find a web presence.
I’m sorry I don’t have any knowledge at all on the Garmin pilots. On WH, the company was always very much a one man band and I believe he has aged out of the business without a viable successor. Steve did tell me some years ago that he was afraid this would happen and so I think that’s why he stopped using WH after “Wind Horse”.
John, what autopilot did you end up with? I am thinking about the NAC-3.
Here’s the current situation: https://www.morganscloud.com/2012/04/27/gear-test-autopilot/comment-page-1/#comment-279317
Looks like we will end up with the same unit. Let us know how yours works out.
from your latest article on networks I learned that you installed. B&G NAC-3. On Express Crusader we have a Raymarine SPX 30 coupled to a Raymarine type 2L electric drive, installed, working flawless by the way. We upgraded our instruments and radar/plotter this winter to B&G Zeus12, 4G radar and Triton instruments. I am considering a NAC-3 but was informed on some rather bad experiences with that model and the B&G technical service. Can you let us know your experience with this autopilot, would you recommend?
We are currently debating whether to get a hydraulic drive autopilot.
Does one notice significant drag on the helm when steering by hand?
And aside from the noise are there any other negatives for hydraulic drives?
Are hydraulic drives more reliable and durable than basic electronic drive units?
Thanks for helping us make the decision.
We have an Octopus 2000 autopilot drive mated to a Marol MRB-75A unit and steered by a NAC-3 unit and a B&G Vulcan 9 MFD. After about two years of fairly heavy use, we have been generally pleased with it, although we find that a occasional recalibration procedure is helpful and we have to make sure the rudder angle sensor made by B&G keeps its rather skimpy control rod in place. We have two helm stations, one on deck and the other in the pilothouse. In neither do I notice drag on the helms. When properly filled with hydraulic fluid, the “chock to chock” revolutions of the helm are between seven and eight revolutions, if that is of help.
When fed the correct heading information, the steering is very accurate when motoring in up to moderate seas. I generally tend to hand-steer over 25 knots of wind, however, as that’s when I get better at anticipating waves than the AP, and I use fewer amps.
We have more trouble with a slightly leaky swage on one of our return lines, which we shall fix this winter, than with any aspect of the steering system. Hydraulic steering, when set up properly, is a boon on a heavy displacement boat such as ours, but we can bypass it easily when we want to steer with the windvane and the tiller. Hand steering with the tiller is not something I generally want to do, but it is certainly an option.
Yes, hydraulic drives impart some friction when steering without.
I used to think hydraulics were more reliable, and they probably were, and maybe are, at least on larger boats. It’s worth noting that LeComble and Schmitt, trusted by many of the best French offshore racing boats, only make hydraulic drives.
That said, if selecting a drive today I would at least think about a mechanical linear drive from Jefa, primarily because it’s much more efficient: https://www.pyiinc.com/jefa-autopilot/directdrives.html I also think the Jefa may be quieter and put less drag on the wheel when not engaged. Will the Jefa be as reliable as the L&S? That I don’t know.